Get involved, get critical, get creative: shared learnings from the Moving Roots Writing Project
by Maddy Costa
The first year of the Moving Roots Writing Project, led by me on the invitation of BAC, could not be described as a total success. As I wrote in the reflection essay How (Not) To Run a Participatory Writing Project, I was learning on the go, and took several weeks to give the four participating writers the structure and guidance they needed to respond with confidence to the community work happening local to them. The second part of the project – working with a new group of writers, one each in Cardiff, Peterborough, Stoke and Wigan – learned a lot from the first year’s mistakes. This new reflection essay documents the changes that were made and some of the new things that were learned, along with further mistakes (fail again, fail better!), and reasons why projects like this should be happening All. The. Time.
The changes can be summarised in three basic points:
Change one: we stopped meeting as a group
There were clear benefits in the first year to the four writers meeting as a group: anxieties could be shared and discussed, with the writers – none of whom had a background in theatre criticism or responding to performance – often reassured to learn that their fears were in fact mutual. But it was also an administrative nightmare to coordinate people not only across a wide geography (even in this age of Zoom!), but to discuss productions happening across a spread of time. Not meeting as a group enabled the second set of writers to focus on what interested them in the productions they were writing about – even if they did lose out on social connection.
Change two: we defined the structure from the outset
In the first year, I took quite a fluid approach, inviting the writers to experiment with writing postcards, and in response to prompts, rather than immediately writing ‘about’ Rent Party. This was a playful approach – but also very messy! So when it came to the second production for Moving Roots, Kid Carpet’s Epic Fail, producer Sarah Blowers worked with me to define a brief which invited the four writers to interview participants (all school children), plus their parents and teachers, on the subject of failure, and then write about failure in response to what they heard, not just the show. This guidance was appreciated – and also not! The balance of freedom and restriction is a delicate one: the structure had to be firm enough to enable focus, but also flexible enough to enable individual thinking to emerge. I think the writers found that balance, but in the final year of Moving Roots, when the partner organisations chose different productions from each other for their towns, it was clear that a single brief wasn’t going to work. The structure settled to something both open and direct: write in response to the work, however you feel called to do it – but the writers needed the confidence of having a first project completed for this looseness not to be alarming.
Change three: we discussed publication and audience more clearly
In the first year I was very protective of the writers, not wanting them to feel they had to meet anyone’s agenda, or fulfil any asks from the partner organisations (for instance, requests for materials that might be used to promote the performances). But there were a number of negatives to this, from the writers assuming a white middle-class audience, to disheartened feelings of pointlessness that no one was reading. For the second part of the project, I asked each writer: who would you like to write for? Two were happy to write for their community, with the partner organisation’s website (and the BAC website) as the site of publication. But two were interested in journalism as freelance work – and this created new tensions, as we discovered just how uninterested local press were in their voices or their work.
This was a disillusioning but important discovery for me. I had assumed local papers would be only too delighted to receive thoughtful articles from local people about exciting art happening in their community. Wrong! I also learned that my knowledge around the average length of a newspaper arts feature is out-of-date: articles have become much shorter since I left journalism seven years ago. Most agonisingly, I discovered that some local publications actually charge writers now to publish their work. The landscape couldn’t be more dispiriting.
New space for different voices
The lack of success with placing the texts in ‘official’ media made me think again about the priorities of the Moving Roots Writing Project. Yes, I wanted to support each writer to achieve whatever goal they set for themselves. However, was the project actually designed to produce more writing like the arts journalism that already exists? Actually, no. I wanted each writer to have space to develop their own voice – not squash it into the mould of an established publication. Above all, I wanted to open new spaces in which different voices could be heard.
But who would be in those new spaces, listening to their voices? To me, there are multiple potential answers to this question – all of which I find exciting. Working as a community producer is really hard: the hours are long, the resources are small, and as the cost-of-living crisis deepens, the participants they work with experience ever more difficulty. So this writing might remind community producers to keep going, remind them of all the ways in which their work is vital.
This writing is also for the participants themselves, a record of what they took part in, and why it mattered. And it’s for the community in the future: for people not yet participating in art, who might want to one day; or for people not yet working in theatre or community arts, who might want to learn something of what it’s possible to do when you collaborate with local people.
I’d argue that the writing produced by Sophie Lindsey in Cardiff, Jennifer Ramm in Peterborough, Alliyah Dawud in Stoke and Chandan Shergill in Wigan has a scope that extends further still. All four have used the performances they’ve seen as inspiration to address huge questions about how people live and treat each other. They’ve shared thoughts on how necessary failure is, how widespread unconscious bias is, on the universal experience of vulnerability and the importance of human connection, on care for older people, and why everyone, no matter their age, needs spaces for joy, silliness and celebration. To read their work is to engage with ideas: which, to my mind, is what all the best writing about performance can and should do.
Where do we go from here?
There is so much that I hoped this second part of the Moving Roots Writing Project might do that didn’t happen. It’s rare that participants in community work have space to reflect on their experience in the months that follow: I hoped the project might have that kind of scope, but the funding period was too short for that to be possible. There were degrees of opportunity to document rehearsal processes, but also a number of limitations to this: sometimes those rehearsal processes were very brief; sometimes the artists involved were reluctant to have the work written about before the performance; attendance equals time, and I wanted the writers to be careful not to exceed their contracted number of days.
I also hoped the project might steer clear of ‘reviewing’ the work: in one sense, it didn’t, because all of the writing is ‘about’ the shows to some extent. And at the same time, these are not reviews in the form made familiar by newspaper criticism or even writing in arts journals: they are more personal to the writers, and to the communities. They find their own modes of storytelling. To me, this is how they create a new space.
I would love for that new space to grow and thrive. I would love for the partner organisations in Moving Roots to continue putting budget behind not only marketing to traditional press, but to people in their communities writing about the work, with confidence-building support from established writers in those same communities. I would love to see other theatres taking inspiration from this Writing Project and trying out similar experiments. As a regular host of post-show discussions, I’d also love to see more space for conversation about community performances: dialogues that pick up the ideas and themes of the work and continue to develop them, and develop critical thinking at the same time. (This is something the PappyShow did following performances of What Do You See? in Wigan and Stoke, and should be an industry standard.)
My approach to running the Moving Roots Writing Project has been quite formal, essentially that of mentor: I also wonder what other, less formal approaches there might be, that invite people to send postcards to their friends about a show, for instance, or to take part in a tea party conversation a month after the show finishes.
There is so much scope here for a cultural shift around what writing about theatre looks and feels like. Projects like this shouldn’t be an exception, an occasional experiment. They should be an open, ongoing invitation: to more and more people to get involved, get critical, get creative – and make the story of their community, and their theatre, their own.
Why? The best people to answer that are the writers themselves.
What follows is a series of extracts from their own reflections:
Alliyah Dawud: I learnt lessons from this experience. I’ve learnt that fear controls our progress in life, and good friends will push you out of your comfort zone further than you would go yourself. That accepting assistance from others is completely normal and you do not need to be able to do everything yourself in order to get your message out there. That we need more people making theatre work accessible to all by talking about it and showing how it actually resonates with society on a more average-person level. But the biggest lesson I take away from this episode of my life? You will never truly know how powerful you are until you take your inner power and apply it to whatever you feel deeply passionate about.
Sophie Lindsey: Having the opportunity to get to know Common Wealth Theatre, the team and their work, in a way that is often only seen by those actively participating in projects, has been incredible. I felt immediately connected to the staff and shared their ideas of what meaningful social projects should look like. I was told early on, in an initial meeting with Rhiannon, that I could be as critical as I wanted and felt encouraged and free to explore and question the projects, rather than fitting into other people’s ideas of what they wanted the writing to be. I was uncertain how this would be received by the other partners, but was reassured that they were all invested in me getting what I wanted out of this opportunity.
Jennifer Ramm: I went into this project with very little background experience; I hadn’t even started my journalism degree, yet here I was, a budding writer taking on commissions. Working with a network of writers and creators has given me more knowledge and understanding than I could have wished for. It’s not just writing – it’s finding that belief in yourself to let your words carry meaning. Journalism has felt meaningful because I have been a part of something bigger than myself.
Chandan Shergill: Being part of this project has forced me to consider my own voice and style of writing, and work on it – which is something I’ve always been interested in but a little scared of! I feel much more confident and would definitely look out for opportunities like this again, and would also encourage others to do this kind of thing. I don’t have a writing background and this has felt like a really positive experience!