Arts for Social Change

Pedro de Senna

On Thursday September 30th, 2021, I participated in an event called ‘Arts for Social Change Showcase’. This online event was held by Collective Encounters, a “professional arts organisation specialising in theatre for social change through collaborative practice”. The event was attended by 50 people, mostly applied theatre practitioners and academics, and I offered a brief presentation about our project.

It is clear from the description of Collective Encounters that their aims are aligned in many ways with what we are trying to achieve here in the FUTURES project. The toolkits we are designing aim precisely at empowering young people to use the future to make choices in the present – to become Futures-literate. In advance of the event, one of the questions posed to presenters by the organisers was “Why is this project important now, in 2021?”. One could list a number of reasons why, at any point in history, empowering young people can have a transformational effect on society. But today this seems more important than ever: Covid, Brexit, climate catastrophe, mass extinction, and structural inequalities highlighted by movements such as Black Lives Matter and #Metoo – to name but a few factors – make futures literacy, including foresight, planning and anticipation for emergence a fundamental capability for young people to develop.

The second question posed to us was “How does this project address social change?” Given all of the above, it seems clear to me that we, as a society, need images of the future that will empower us to act differently – and theatre is pretty good at doing that: creating images and acting. FUTURES addresses social change not only by fostering it through the personal and professional development of participants; it simultaneously addresses social change by preparing participants for it, in whatever shape this change may come (anticipation for emergence).

The idea of using theatre as a vector for social change through individual and collective empowerment is of course not unique to us, and during the event another nine presenters spoke passionately about their various projects. From @DrLindsayKeith’s immersive experiences where marginalised young people role-play being scientists (website); to @TonyCealy’s work curating 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance, “a radical reclaiming of heritage – to imagine, experiment and create new futures in Brixton”; and @KatyRubinTO’s work on Legislative Theatre, democratically writing policy for tackling climate change in Glasgow and homelessness in Manchester; the evening was full of inspiring presentations by amazing artists and facilitators doing important work. And even though they did not necessarily state it as such, all projects were future-oriented, even when excavating and examining the past. There is a lot being done to, as one audience member put it, “change the world, one play at a time”.

The conversations and debates that followed with audiences and presenters were illuminating and informative. They touched upon a variety of questions, but one thing stood out, which gives me opportunity to reflect, in relation to our FUTURES project. This was the idea that in any project, workshop, intervention, “the most important day is the day after”. We must ask ourselves: what will we be doing to ensure that our workshops and tools ‘stay’ with the participants after we leave? What if for participants, our activities are interesting (if we’re lucky) but have no lasting impact? And how can we measure that? The longevity and sustainability of what we do is important, and perhaps we ought to build mechanisms to monitor the use of our toolkits, so that they can continually be developed with the support of end users.

Related to that, is the idea of ‘training the trainers’, including a call for facilitation training to be built into any applied theatre project, so that after the artists leave, communities can carry on with the work. This should be done while at the same time ‘decentring’ the facilitator, so that they don’t take space in workshops, but rather hold the space for participants. Good facilitators must decentre themselves to allow for participants, and the work itself, to be the focus of their own attention. Indeed the complexities of facilitating are something I touched upon in ‘The Facilitator Conundrum’, posted here a few months ago. If we are designing a toolkit, who will have the capability to deploy the tools? The conversation, no doubt, continues into the future.

Crowd protesting against climate policy