Thoughts on co-creation, and what Rent Party might mean for Medway

by Antonia Baker

to do:

February 2021

  • we want you
  • To tell a story
  • To share your talent
  • To be part of something exciting
  • To be part of a performance
  • And it’s all digital
  • Plus, it’s paid!
  • It’s happening right here in Medway
  • And we’re passionate about highlighting underrepresented voices

Medway, let’s celebrate all talents and all people. Let’s build a show and tell a story. Let’s bring together a community that has been so isolated by the pandemic. Let’s make impactful social change through true stories, true talent, true diversity amidst adversity. An open table discussion that incorporates all of the arts. Where everyone’s voice is heard and where there is no top-down. A cohesive bunch of people – full of ideas, inspiration and innovation.

When we think of a theatre production, we often think of hierarchy. The director, the producer, and the lead roles running the show, with no input from smaller roles, or the crew that ensures the production can run seamlessly. It’s these unique perspectives, from the crew and cast that know the show inside out, who at many times are part of a performance purely for the love of theatre, that are regularly stifled due to these hierarchies.

Co-creation challenges these hierarchies. A wide range of voices are welcomed into the process of the project, casts are able to tell their own stories, and be part of the change they want to see in their hometown. Communities help shape the project, and are given the resources to share their own, honest stories, in a way that feels right for them.

‘A theatre that cares about its community’s stories’

Co-creation is by no means a new concept in theatre, but it is an important one, especially in communities such as Medway. When art is presented to you, in a top-down structure, it’s hard to feel engaged with the performance, let alone care. But when you are welcomed into the process of creating art, of seeing members of your own community share their stories, perhaps even a face you recognise, it’s far more empowering.

Medway is a under-resourced borough, a place where food bank usage rose by 50% in the past 18 months, a place where there is a six-year reduction in life expectancy and where the average wage is 10% lower than the national average. Consuming art and theatre is hard enough when there are these many factors to contend with, let alone if you are systemically cut out of the process entirely.

For me, co-creation isn’t necessarily about the success of the theatre production itself, but rather the impact it has on the wider community. An organisation building a strong relationship with its community, letting them know it cares about their stories, wants to pay them fairly for their artistic talents and doesn’t require a formal theatre education. A production for Medway’s people, by Medway’s people. A production that is accessible financially, as well as physically.

‘Making theatre more democratic’

Rent Party Medway is about sharing real, honest stories. They may not follow a traditional theatre structure, but they reflect true resilience in the face of great hardship. By engaging with our community, we shift the status quo, making the theatre process more democratic. We know that tradition usually hinders growth, and limits the voices that can help us transition to bigger, better and more inclusive things. By taking the community along for the full journey, being transparent about our ambitions for the project, and having an open forum for discussion, our community has a genuine stake in the project. It allows for a fundamental shift away from how things are usually done, and allows us to transition to what works better for Medway.

No one knows your community better than those living in it, and by listening to them, we are able to create a production for them. Creating alongside the community encourages feelings of support, and productions feel more relevant. Especially, as we make our way through the pandemic, these feelings of relevancy, support and togetherness are more important than ever.

‘Communities fighting back’

We know collaboration works, and we know that without it, you cannot create a production full of expression and life. The very history of rent parties in the 1920s celebrate this notion of collaboration. Communities fighting back against hardships, creating culture, music and relationships that we continue to revere today. Despite the challenges faced, a black community in New York was built, one that was empowering and full of creativity. It wouldn’t be right to celebrate these stories of co-creation in action, yet not uphold the very values that underpinned them.

Successful co-creation is a journey, full of peaks and troughs. A journey with communication, what if’s, trying out things that will succeed and others that will not. Crucially, it’s important to carry out co-creation responsibly – does our community have what they need right now? What can we realistically do to change this? How can we make this accessible? What changes need to be made? Are we respecting one another? Listening to one another? Learning from one another?

Co-creation should be transformative, highlighting local talent and voices, and genuinely caring about their unique expertise and outlook. Co-creation should take the community on a journey, planting a seed of inspiration for them to think about what’s coming next. Co-creation should be about communication, genuine connections and compassion. Co-creation should be about Medway.