How (not) to run a participatory writing project
by Maddy Costa
In November 2020 Battersea Arts Centre hosted a big conversation about criticism and participatory work, which raised lots of questions about how theatre made in and by communities might be documented or reviewed, and who could be writing about it – established journalists, or the communities themselves? I was one of the panellists and, in rambunctious mood that day, challenged BAC to not just talk about change but make it. Why not actually invite local people to do the kind of writing felt to be missing?
A few months later, Christie Hill, a producer at BAC, contacted me with a challenge of her own. She wanted me to set up exactly the kind of project I’d been suggesting: a supported process for people to write about performances in their communities. Rent Party, the first show being toured by the Moving Roots network, was being co-created by people who live in Cardiff, Medway, Peterborough and Wigan; I would work with people in each place, all with different relationships to writing, encouraging them as they watched rehearsals, talked to the cast, and considered the kind of changes Rent Party could bring into being.
It turned out I had a lot to learn about shaping such a project! Not least, I learned that inviting people to ‘think differently’ can be intimidating, whereas by giving clear exercises and writing prompts, each person could find their way to writing about Rent Party in a way that mattered to them. As we got underway, there were other setbacks, too: one of the writers had to leave the project because of scheduling issues, and another became busy with A Levels and university applications just as Rent Party arrived in her town.
Even so, a lot of writing was produced: postcards from each place (some real, some fake!), interviews, reflections and more. And yet, the writing represents only a fraction of the work: the dialogue, the thinking together, the ways in which all of us learned and grew, remains invisible, but was crucial. In this piece I try to capture some of that learning and dialogue – but this, too, is only a snapshot.
The Moving Roots Writing Project is an invitation to people who don’t usually write about theatre to reflect on Rent Party, and what it means to them, especially as a participatory work being performed by people who don’t usually make theatre, in places that might not have a lot of theatre happening. In my imagination this was a simple and fun invitation: we can make up our own rules! We can be as creative as we want! We might be writing about theatre, but that doesn’t mean we have to write ‘theatre criticism’! What I quickly discovered is that, even if you’re trying to avoid it, ‘theatre criticism’ is quite a powerful idea, and it brings up a lot of anxiety for writers — including me.
‘Even though I’ve been told that I can write whatever I wish,’ says Aaliyah Ogunlana, the writer with the Old Courts in Wigan, ‘I can’t shake off the feeling that other people will be offended by it, won’t like or won’t understand it.’ I really relate to this feeling: if I’m writing about someone else’s work, and potentially take a critical stance in relation to it, I share Aaliyah’s worry about ‘not producing something good enough’ — because if you can apply critical standards to others, why shouldn’t they apply them to you?
‘I don’t want to hurt a performer’s feelings’
There’s a deeper point in what Aaliyah is saying, picked up by Antonia Baker, the writer with Lyrici in Medway, when she says that it’s hard to be ‘completely honest about the production and my thoughts around it and its impact’. There are different kinds of honesty: kind and caring, sharp and cruel — and in criticism, the glinting knife tends to be more entertaining for a reader. But what about the people being written about? I’ve learned the hardest way — by writing very harsh criticism and facing the consequences when I cause upset — that I don’t want to hurt a performer’s feelings. This is even more important with Rent Party, because it’s performed by people local to each place, whose voices are rarely heard on a stage. As Iqra Saeed, the writer with Jumped Up Peterborough, says: ‘I worry that I may invalidate someone’s story or experience, as a lot of what they are talking about is very personal.’ The impulse then is to be supportive — even if that means hiding your real thoughts.
Antonia also works as Lyrici’s social media manager, so her usual position is one of upbeat positivity: she’s trying to sell tickets! But the theatres partnering on Moving Roots are asking for something different from this group: for insight into where and how they can better connect with their local audiences. Again, that sounds really inviting, but the writers are in a complicated position: ‘Watching rehearsals and seeing the show has given me an insight into how much work goes into something like this,’ says Iqra. ‘Therefore, I do feel uncomfortable expressing anything that questions what did not go into it and why.’ But are we being critical about Rent Party the show, or about the structure surrounding it? We’ve realised we need to focus on the latter.
‘I want to involve the community’
One tactic I suggested to avoid these worries was to keep the writing private to start with: or rather, because all writing needs a reader, I suggested the group write only for me. This quickly brought up a huge problem, as everyone was writing for someone who looks and sounds white and middle-class. But white middle-class people already dominate the theatre criticism landscape: the whole point of this project is to think about who else could be included! ‘I want to genuinely involve the community in my writing,’ says Antonia. This creates another worry: that she might be ‘writing in a way that isn’t accessible. If the community feel it’s too artsy, how accessible is it?’ Through this conversation, we completely changed the approach to thinking about our audience: instead, each writer was invited to choose someone to write for, or write to — a family member, a friend — to avoid that white middle-class centre ground.
All of these questions — about being honest, critical or judgemental; about criticising the structure, not the work; about who we are writing for — are faced constantly by people who write about theatre, or any kind of art. (Some of the best thinking about them is done by the White Pube: this piece What Do Critics Do is particularly brilliant.) It was helpful that they came to the surface in the first weeks of the Moving Roots Writing Project, so that we could discuss together ways to combat the fear that might otherwise block everyone’s writing.
Maddy Costa: Although I’ve led writing workshops before, this was my first attempt at a longer-term project, and what a learning curve it has been. The project began with some uncertainty: I didn’t want to get everyone writing newspaper-style ‘theatre criticism’, but how to describe the writing we might be doing instead? If we don’t live in a culture that encourages discussion of art and performance, what would people need to encourage them to take part? It took me a long time to work through these questions – four months in, I thought: I know how to start now! And if I were starting again, here are three lessons I’d want to keep handy:
Lesson one: be clear that process matters as much as product. When I say process, I mean making space for the group of writers to talk, experiment, think, and grow. This is slow work, and didn’t result in product that could be shared immediately with audiences – which was frustrating for the theatres, but also for the writers when they couldn’t see who their work was reaching. There was also a lack of clarity as to whether the interest in this project was writing or dialogue – that needed to be more defined from the beginning.
Lesson two: openness needs structure. The writers needed a clear set of tasks to progress through, writing prompts to respond to, and ideas to experiment with, and although all of these things were provided at different points, I needed a more structured approach to enable them to feel like they were moving from the shallow to the deep end, and not the other way around.
Lesson three: work with the umbrella structure, not against it. This is very particular to Rent Party, which toured four venues across nine months, making it incredibly difficult to work with writers across those four places: one writer’s Rent Party was long finished before another’s had even gone into rehearsal. Although the writers really appreciated group conversations in which they could share their worries, this might have worked better as a more individually tailored project.
It feels important to share these lessons, because projects like these shouldn’t be one-offs: as Rhiannon and Chantal at Common Wealth, one of the partners in Moving Roots, have said, even people who work in theatre don’t necessarily feel confident writing about it. I hope projects like this might contribute to removing the ingrained snobbery and politics around theatre and encourage as many people as possible to get involved, whether as writers or gossips, critics or chatters.
Antonia Baker (Medway): The project has made me much more aware of my writing voice but in a really good way. I’ve only ever really written for school and university, and academic writing is very alienating. I like that I was encouraged in this project to consider my audience outside of a critical professor, and it made a difference in how I wrote.
More structure to the project would be useful. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, and in those moments, I was unsure where my writing was going. But I’m also appreciative of how open it’s been, how there’s not necessarily any targets and how we are able to have as much creative licence as we want. At the start this was hard for me, and so the direction we were given such as questions/prompts and deadlines was great, and helped me make something I’m proud of.
Iqra Saeed (Peterborough): This project has been very different to anything I have done previously and it has truly been an enjoyable experience. The insight it has given me into theatre has been really eye-opening, especially in regards to casting and rehearsals.
Like Antonia I was also accustomed to academic writing and the shift to critical writing was challenging to begin with. Academic writing is very fact-based whereas this was asking for my honest opinion. You are conditioned into thinking that what you think bears no relevance. So it was quite nice knowing that my opinion was of value.
I have liked that the theatres have let us get on with it. They have checked in with us and Maddy separately but they have not been overbearing. Which has really assisted in truly having an honest opinion and not having extra pressure. My perspective ticked lots of different boxes (sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly) and I feel like my writing has been well-received and has opened a new perspective for the theatre I wrote for. This also encouraged me to open up my language when holding the show to account.
I also think this project needed more organisation and structure. I noticed how the Rent Party show was played in Peterborough months before it was played in Wigan, which meant I was able to write a review of the show but the writer from Wigan had to wait. Then I also became conscious that I didn’t want my review to influence her opinion before she had seen the show. I think the show being played at the locations in a more consistent fashion would have been more helpful to us as a group of writers.
But working with the group has been great! It was such a comfort to work with other people who also understood how new this challenge was – especially when we all shared that we didn’t want to come across as being harsh towards the cast.