Co-creation at the Birajdar Basti

I run a community theatre company in Nottingham called Excavate. Over the past twenty years we’ve been working with communities to tell their stories using theatre. And these stories have often been based on moments of history, because the communities that we work with are geographical ones, they are communities of place, and an exploration of a shared history of place can often be both illuminating and provocative for those who live within it.

Creating shows about place demand that you work in partnership with the communities in which you are situated. For it is only by being immersed in the locality that you begin to truly understand all of the ways in which meaning is communicated. Places have their own languages and customs and rituals. It is the shared knowledge of these that shapes those who live within them into communities. And it is their shared presentation that helps people to understand and perhaps celebrate their collectivity. If the outsider who has been invited in to work with that community gets something wrong (a nickname, a time at which a certain ritual begins) then a division is immediately created between those who know these things (the people in the place) and those who don’t (the theatre company from outside of that place). When the community and the theatre company (in this case Swatantra) work closely together to make sure that everything is right then that is when place can be truly evoked. And in this evocation there is always an element of celebration.

It’s not always an easy process. I’m working on a project in a housing estate in Nottingham at the moment and it is very difficult to find ways to engage people in dialogue and to draw them into the project, largely because there are so few public spaces and because it is very difficult to communicate in a place where people don’t know who their neighbours are. So in many ways I am expecting the work that we are currently a part of in Pune to be easier, because this is a community where people spend a lot more time out on the streets, mixing with their neighbours.

An improvised shelter at the Basti

It seems that India has a rich tradition of various forms of community theatre, and street plays are something that everyone seems familiar with. But they are mainly, I think, plays in which messages are being conveyed to the audience. The theatre is a form of transmission from outside the place to inside the place. And this project is very different to that.

I’m hoping that we can find ways (and we’re all working hard on this) to develop ideas of co-creation and co-ownership that should always sit at the heart of any community theatre project; and I have a hunch that we’ll manage it. During our last visit to the Basti we began to talk a little about the project to the people we met (it was during the day when most of the men are at work and so we mainly chatted to women and children) and people seemed to be interested. ‘And you can be in it’ did not seem to particularly worry anyone.

It is clear that the people who live in the Basti are, and have had to be, very resourceful. I am convinced that if they are allowed to take ownership of large chunks of the work that we do as we start to put the play together that they will create things that will be wonderful. And that all of us who have had the good fortune to be working with this community will remember this project for a very, very long time.

This will be a show that is about the people and the community of the Birajdar Basti, made with the people and the community of the Birajdar Basti. And the work starts now.


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