An Empowering Practice?: Urban Theatre Projects' Recent Work in Residence, Community Cultural Development and International Arts Festivals

Article excerpt

In 2006, Urban Theatre Projects (UTP), formerly known as Death Defying Theatre (DDT), celebrated twenty-five years of existence. UTP is currently located in Bankstown, western Sydney. It has a long history of involvement in making social and political performance in Australia and is one of very few companies still operational today from what was once widely dubbed the 'community theatre movement'. This movement emerged as part of a subfield of theatre and what is now called in Australia 'community cultural development' (CCD), in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Practitioners focused on working collaboratively with members of a given community to devise original performances. Perhaps one of the reasons for UTP's longevity is its capacity to blend the process - access to the arts and engagement with people labelled as 'disadvantaged' or 'marginal' - with the product excellence in the arts. This success has led to the recent inclusion of its work in international arts festivals. This development raises some questions. Might this international spotlight be a compromise to the social and political efficacy of UTP's very localised work? In this context, can the company still claim to be doing work that is socially and politically relevant to the groups of people with whom CCD or community theatre practitioners aspire to collaborate? What chances does this kind of work have of 'speaking' to regular festival-goers without risking being another distant and homogenising representation of otherness?

To address these questions, I examine the ways in which UTP's work is made local; the implications of having these performed in a globalising context and the ways in which some of its productions might be considered socially and politically efficacious. I should briefly state that these claims of efficacy are part of a set of discourses in the Australian field of CCD that have been circulating since its inception in the mid-1970s, thus revealing an adhesion to a particular set of ideologies. They also reveal an adhesion to particular types of practices that draw on processes emphasising problemsolving, dialogue and participation with so-called 'marginalised' groups. Actual efficacy is thus perceived as implementing processes of engagement and dealing with local issues, and challenging those issues in order to tease out some solutions. To illustrate this discussion I focus on two of UTP's recent community collaboration works, The Longest Night and Back Home, which were both performed at international arts festivals - respectively the 2002 Adelaide Festival and the 2006 Sydney Festival. While relating to distinctive environments, both deal with issues of time (the past, present and future), space (a non-fixed territory of imagined boundaries around a person or a group that varies according to their circumstances) and place (a fixed territory or location often associated with 'home' or land).

Initially, both productions raised issues of agency and social change. Yet, after reflecting on the ways in which those issues were dealt with and the processes used in devising, rehearsing and performing, I have come to see my initial interest as hinging on questions of territory in general and on questions of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation in particular. By using the terms 'deterritorialisation' and 'reterritorialisation' I am referring to discourses of globalisation, notions of hybridity and 'unplaced human interaction'.1 I use them somewhat loosely in relation to authors such as Deleuze and Guattari,2 Lull3 and Appadurai. I understand deterritorialisation primarily not so much as a challenge to the notion of territory, but rather as a term rooted in the space, place and time of fixed territory. This concept of territory assumes that geography is still very important rather than something that has lost meaning with the increase of movement of people characteristic of this historical period. Territorialisation is linked to essential notions of belonging and identity; it relates to issues of ownership and attempts to create and impose meaning on land. …


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