The Act Itself is not Enough

Louise White  |  Louise White is a Dublin based theatre-maker and student on the MA Socially Engaged Art (Further, Adult & Community Education) 2013–15

Many Socially Engaged Artists reflect on the importance of time as a necessary resource to facilitating their approach. Time is important in order to meaningfully engage with our subject matter. It is important to develop a sense of regard and respect for the work and for our collaborators. Time is also important to consider the potential ethical and political issues of any process, and to understand what a project’s message might be. I wish to reflect on the difficulties that arose when time was entirely lacking in an instance of collaborative practice I was recently engaged in. The project was a commission from a Non-Governmental Organisation, and was a collaboration between the organisation, a theatre-maker and a group of young female performers. It culminated in a one-off performance in an arts and community resource centre in Dublin. I will examine a shift in approach, for future and potential projects; where the resource of time is neither possible nor perhaps desired.

This work was a commission by an established, well-resourced organisation. They engaged a theatre-maker to develop and devise an event that would both celebrate International Day of the Girl and mark UN International Day to Eradicate Poverty. The project received some nominal funding from the Department of Social Protection and this largely went towards the production and promotion of the event. The theatre-maker (and all other creatives) worked on this project and its development without a fee. The community art venue where it took place offered rehearsal space as well as promotional support. For my own part, I worked in an organisational capacity and undertook the tasks of a theatre producer, also without a fee. There were several different parties who presented a significant interest in the presentation of this work. I would like to consider how this interest was evidenced in terms of intent and support.

Because of the very limited financial resources for this project, the core timeframe that was set for the performer-participants and the theatre-maker to develop the piece was limited. As all the members of the artistic team were working on a voluntary basis, it was not reasonable to ask for a more extensive time commitment than one month. So where the financial resources were strained, this would also have implications on the approach to time.

This was particularly problematic when it came to sourcing the group of performers for the piece. One month in advance of the scheduled event, the organisation and the artist were in a precarious position; the venue was booked and the promotional material was circulating, but the group was yet to be finalised. The project was advertised as containing themes of ‘gender, inequality and poverty’ and that it would feature ‘a diverse group of young women living in and around Dublin.’ It was essential then, to gather participants who had some fundamental experience of these issues and represented such a group. This was a very difficult task to undertake in such a short amount of time and, I would suggest, stretched the theatre-maker unduly. Although the final group of performers had some experience of the issues and an unquestionable investment in the themes of the work, they may not have been comparable with that of the core message evidenced in the promotional material.

While we might instinctively reflect on the necessity for more time on this process, it might prove more useful to go back to the moment that ought to occur before time, and question the intentions of the organisation when commissioning the work. Artist Ailbhe Murphy notes that she has learned to evaluate the initial invitation of a process of engagement as something perhaps more valuable than the length of time designed for it, she writes

[T]he intentionality of the initial invitations, which are exchanged between artists, arts organizations, commissioning bodies and ‘communities of place’ at the outset of any long-term engagement is very important. The premise of such invitations, emerging as they do from a range of institutional and/or individual sources, are highly influential factors in determining the shape and future mediation of the collaborative work. (2013)

So while the issue of time needs to be prioritised, it might be even more important to question the priorities and aims of the organisation in their initial negotiations with the theatre-maker. We must consider, as Murphy suggests, their ‘intentionality’ and examine how they proposed all elements of the project would function.

Working in such a restrictive timeframe, the organisation must acknowledge that there are particular hierarchies and power structures at play, that they are a constant presence in terms of the possibility of support, budgetary control and facilitation of process among other things. The organisation has the potential to be a powerful force in shaping the experience of the artists; but what level of awareness of this influence did they display? This project is led by them and presented as their event, so we must question their responsibility in terms of their practice and ethics. How might they have engaged in self-reflection prior to and during this engagement in order to clarify their own intentionality? In her programme note the theatre-maker asked:

What happens when you put young women – girls – centre stage to make  piece about the experience of poverty that does not stagnate but offers a way forward? (Murphy, 2014)

If we are to really try to imagine a way forward, if this kind of collaboration – between artist, group and organisation – is to be neither a charity offering nor a tokenistic PR event, then intention and invitation (as well as time) needs to be examined by the organisation as a means to understand and change how they approach this kind of work in the future.

Louise White is a Dublin based theatre-maker and student on the MA Socially Engaged Art 2013-15


Murphy, Ailbhe (2013); Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Temporal Economies in Socially Engaged Arts Practice, Fugitive Papers, Winter 2013.

Murphy, Oonagh (2014); Director’s Note: Made From Scratch, [Programme] Axis Ballymun, Dublin, October 2014.