Vernacular Theatre and the Great Feast

by Catherine Love

in National Conference

Post image for Vernacular Theatre and the Great Feast

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

Increasingly, works of contemporary art and theatre are being made with audiences as well as for them, recruiting participants to actively shape the final artistic material. Here the process is just as important as the product – indeed, for those who take part, it might be more important than what they eventually produce. 

London Bubble’s From Docks to Desktops, which I followed throughout some of its development, is one such example. It was collaboratively created by its participants, who gathered experiences of working life from their local communities in South East London over a number of months. London Bubble’s home in Rotherhithe is at the heart of an area of the city that has seen some of the most dramatic changes to both its landscape and its structures of employment in the last few decades; where once thrived docks and factories is now the home of lucrative property developments and shopping centers.  The show that the company stitched together from the collected material reflected the socio-economic shifts in this specific area of London and its impact on the people living there.

Crucially, the process of From Docks to Desktops was inscribed in its performance. It was performed by the same participants who helped to gather the material that formed the piece and it was framed by the act of interviewing. This offered audiences a route into the stories being told, while at the same time allowing an appreciation of the work simultaneously on the levels of process and product. It also built space for the encounter with its audiences – many of whom, of course, were from the area it is concerned with, and some of whom contributed their stories to its creation.

Director Jonathan Petherbridge has a particular language for discussing London Bubble’s intergenerational work and it’s a helpful one to adopt. In explaining the process of collecting and curating stories from the local community, he uses the vocabulary of food: ingredients are foraged through a long process of interviews and the findings are prepped by workshop groups before being passed over to professional artists to create a recipe, which will then in turn be tasted and tweaked by everyone involved. It all ends, of course, in a great feast. While this is neat as an analogy, it’s also particularly apt. Preparing and eating a meal together involves an unspoken act of community, one that is also heavily present in this kind of work.

Through the journey it takes on its way to the stage, London Bubble’s intergenerational work forms a community that crosses barriers of age and artistic practice, at the same time as embedding itself firmly within an often neglected sense of place. Petherbridge has coined the term “vernacular theatre” to describe this work; like vernacular architecture, it is “hewn from local material and shaped by local knowledge.” It serves a specific use for a specific community, and its very material is drawn from within that community. It is, essentially, a community discovering and telling its own stories.

Catherine Love is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic, writing for titles including Exeunt, The Guardian and The Stage. She is also currently completing a Masters degree in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London, and from September she will begin a funded doctoral project at Royal Holloway, University of London, investigating the status of the text in contemporary British theatre.