How can creative theatre techniques be used to grow confidence in congregations and extend relationships between churches and their local communities? ‘This is our Story’, developed by Revd Eva McIntyre and Green Blade Theatre, aimed to explore further. Over three years, Eva worked with three different rural communities in three C of E dioceses:
- Teme Valley North Parish (consisting of 5 Churches) – Diocese of Worcester
- Tenbury Wells Team – Diocese of Hereford
- Wrockwardine Deanery Team (and particularly the parish of Upton Magna) – Diocese of Lichfield
The project had three stages: first, a Lent or Advent storytelling programme to explore well-known Bible stories through a different approach, and to grow confidence in theatre skills; second an exploration of a live community issue through ‘forum theatre’ techniques; and third, a community theatre project. For the latter, two parishes developed ‘Experience Narnia’, a participative retelling of CS Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
Parishes/communities wanting to develop their own ‘Experience Narnia’ initiative can find more ideas and information here.
Reflecting on the project, Revd Eva McIntyre writes:
‘The similarities and differences were equally striking and some interesting, if unintentional discoveries about the nature of dioceses and how they affect the responses on the ground, were made during the process. There is scope for further work on this evidence and its implications.
Part 1 of this process – the Story Telling Programme – was universally well received and drew good attendances and commitment. Church goers are used to committing to a course at Lent and Advent and in all three cases, this worked well. My hypothesis that Storytelling could be used to encourage the group members to address long held perceptions and to embrace an alternative view on these issues was born out by the experience of these groups and the continual and subsequent evidence capture. Listening to a story is a positive experience, the context was safe (that of a small group of friends from Church) and therefore, it was a smaller step to take to embrace change as a positive and corporate experience. The feedback from all three groups on this stage of the project was very positive.
Part 2 of the process – Forum Theatre – was the least satisfactory of the three parts of the project. In Teme Valley North, we struggled to achieve a critical mass but when we did, a good dilemma (and a true story) was found to use in the participatory performance which was on a Sunday morning with a good attendance. The congregation participated well and with enthusiasm. However, this was the Forum Theatre section of the project at its best, it transpired.
In Tenbury Wells, we failed to get a critical mass, with the excellent Lent Course attendance dropping away to just two people. I imported members from Teme Valley to make up numbers and we found an excellent story, only to discover that the team was not going to be able to accommodate us for a performance during a Sunday service. The forum and the idea of a large piece of community theatre was abandoned by the team at this point.
In Wrockwardine, I changed the Forum Theatre format to a one-day (Saturday) workshop with a performance on the following Sunday morning. This was well attended but only one person was from the original Advent Course group. The story they found was excellent and well devised and improvised. However, the congregation didn’t like the story at all and only 2 people took part in the forum. There was a tangible sense of dislike and disapproval for the process.
There is an added issue with providing a resource for other groups to use this section of the project; Forum Theatre needs to be led by a professionally trained actor/director who is an outsider and so is not suitable for an online resource, unlike the other two parts of this project.
Part Three – Community Theatre Project
It’s important to say that the success of this part of the project lies within the trust and relationships built up with the Churchgoers through the process of part one – the Storytelling Course. In both Teme Valley North and Wrockwardine, I was unlocking existing potential in some and discovering it in others for use in this context. I had earned respect and trust during this process and this meant that people were prepared to take the risks and put in the work necessary to produce ‘Visit Narnia’ in the two Churches. In both settings, the cast, crew and those working on the fringes were a good mix of regular Churchgoers and those who do not identify as Church members. A mixture of people from all age ranges – young children to people in their 80s – joined in and worked together. The intended aim, that of increased community cohesion, was successful in both settings and has led to further projects and intended projects.
In Tenbury Wells, we took a different approach and I was asked to run a theatre summer club in the parish. This replaced an existing club that was established but had only run for half a day and for three days. Our club was for three full days and was with children from 5 – 12 years old. There were challenges; they didn’t know how many children were attending until the first morning and who would be there for all three days. However, we overcame this; I tore up my initial plans and adapted the process to fit the daily circumstances. The story we worked on was underpinned by craft and cooking activities and a session of wildlife exploration. At the end of the process, we had a short piece of theatre in which all the children took part, and parents/grandparents/guardians were invited to watch. At the end of the process, the team felt that the process had contributed to community cohesion and been a worthwhile venture’.
With the project now completed, work is in progress on online resources which can be accessed by other communities wishing to use elements of this project. The web resource will carry videos of the stories used in the Lent/Advent Courses. The first part of these resources – instructions and tips for producing ‘Visit Narnia’ as a community theatre project – are available here.