What is Community Engagement? It depends on who’s asking. Community can mean different things to different people. Generally, a community is a group of people that share some kind of commonality. These could include:
- Location, such as those who live in a specific neighbourhood
- Common interest
- Common values
- Cultural, ethnic, or religious affiliation
- Gender or sexual identity
- Political views
- and many, many others.
Community engagement is the process of working with a specific group of people to ensure inclusion by identifying and addressing issues affecting their well-being.
Theatre at its essence is communal. It (traditionally) brings people together around a commonality – seeing a show. Most artists create with intentions that are beyond self-interest – whether that be in response to a world event, spreading awareness about an issue, bringing joy through entertainment, sharing a message with the world. We all want our work to be as impactful as possible. Can the same intention be applied to your community engagement efforts? It may be helpful to identify what that intention is to you and carry it forward with you as you create your engagement plan.
It is important to note that there is a difference between community engagement and marketing. Community engagement involves taking an interest in a community with the goal of knowing them better and forming a relationship that can be transformative for both parties. Marketing is taking an interest in a community in order to sell to them. It is important to be honest with yourself in this regard when evaluating the driving motivation behind your engagement efforts.
Authentic community engagement involves a journey of discovering the reciprocal needs between artists and their community.
According to former AD of Shakespeare in the Ruff, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, the company's community engagement came about through understanding reciprocal need. Most institutions look at the audiences and community as consumers to help make our box office goals. Audiences come and they go. There aren't lasting relationship between the human beings of the artists and the audiences because there aren't reciprocal needs being met. Brendan believes that these reciprocal needs exist on a HUMAN level, not on a transactional level.
The community you want to engage is likely to have some connection to you, your company, or your project. For example, if you’re presenting Angels in America, you may look to engage with the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. However, these connections aren’t always so apparent. Who is going to benefit from having contact with your show or company? Is it a different group than you would at first expect? For example, people with disabilities cross all economic, social and cultural groups. Are there multiple communities that you can connect with? How does this apply to your work?
To effectively create an engagement plan, you’ll need to get to know your community. Here are some questions you can ask prior to engaging with your community:
- Where do they gather?
- What do they care about?
- How do they engage already?
- Next, think about what resources you have available to you. Who do you know who can help you connect? Who do you know who is already doing the kind of work you hope to do?
- How much time and energy are you able to commit to your engagement efforts?
- What financial resources do you have to support your engagement plan?
- Are there any barriers to engagement? What factors could stop someone from being able to participate in your show or event? Possible barriers could include language, socio-economic status, ability, physical barriers, just to name a few. These barriers may be real or perceived. Although you may think that your show is accessible to everyone, if someone has never been to the theatre before or who has traditional views about what that means, they may not feel comfortable attending. How can you work around these barriers and accommodate your community so your activities are as accessible as possible?
- Finally, create some face time with community partners you wish to engage with to feel out if they will be a good fit. A great partnership is one where both sides benefit from the engagement.
Planning your engagement activities
If community engagement is something you’re passionate about and want to be as part of your work, it’s important for it to be present at all stages of the creation, planning, and presentation of your work. From creating your budget, to choosing who is involved in your creative and administrative teams, to the creation of your work, how can you be considering your communities in each step of the process?
Examples of community engagement activities are:
- Shakespeare-in-the-Ruff has involved members of the community in Withrow Park to serve as their choir for a production of Macbeth
- The AMY Project runs a free program where women and non-binary youth in the GTA are mentored by established artists as they create a full-length play based on their own stories
- FIXT POINT’s project, The Tale of a Town, travels to different Canadian cities, conducts interviews with the residents there, and creates a show in each place – all in a matter of days
- Toronto Dance Community Love-In hosts "heartTOheart" community conversations - free informal gatherings for artists to discuss work and training, promote creative activities and build the collective capacity to advocate for Toronto's dance and performance artists.
- Young Ruffians - Shakespeare in the Ruff
- Crossing Gibraltar - Cahoots Theatre
- Buddies in Bad Times' Youth/Elders Podcast (based off their 2016 production The Youth/Elders Project) aims to foster intergenerational connection inside our queer communities.
Community engagement activities can also include:
- Youth Engagement Programs
- Talk-Backs, Q&As; they are a great way to encourage audience-artist relationships. They can happen before (pre-show) or after (post-show)
- An Accessibility Advisory Committee representing people with different disabilities (ex. perhaps holding an accessible performance)
Don't forget to evaluate within your team and seek feedback from the community. You don’t have to wait for the end of your show or event to do this. Take a look at what’s going on while you still have time to change it. Check out on page on feedback forms for info on different formats, processing data, and what to do with the information once you've got it!
This Community Arts Toolkit by Creative NZ includes tipsheets, tools and examples of successful projects and events to get you inspired, as well as videos of New Zealanders sharing their experiences and what they've learned.