Sylvan Baker. I am an academic and practitioner, I’m a lecturer in Applied Theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and I’ve been a socially engaged practitioner for about 30 years now.

I think it’s easy with, um, at least historical views of what applied theatre, participatory work, community theatre – call it what you will – how they were put together was that it was systematic. It was there to do a piece of work a job of work, ‘we’re gonna teach children about this’, ‘we’re gonna empower women’, ‘we’re gonna empower communities’, ‘we’re gonna give somebody a voice’ – yes that’s possible, and I have no qualms with the fact that there’s an instrumental element to working in a participatory way with (…) whoever you’re working with. But I think what’s important is that it’s an artistic practice – and it’s that aesthetic dynamic which makes it different, which gives the space for people to interpret it differently, gives the space for the people that are doing it to think differently about it or be different while they’re doing it or afterwards.

If there was a feeling about it, it was always as a practitioner a kind of knowledge that it could work, and had worked in the past. And so that… would allow a certain… confidence that if you met with groups and you, um, behaved in a certain way with them, and used a certain set of ethics with them, then useful and productive things would happen. Not necessarily what you would predict, but useful and productive.

When participatory work is less… successful… is when it is a myth of choice. When the artists/facilitators have already made the decisions and… are basically husbanding the participants through those gates of choice, to a point, which they’d already kind of predicted they wanted.

Participatory arts works best when so called ‘participants’ and so called ‘facilitators’ are working alongside each other, and there really is a genuine, um, dialogue in that. It’s co-… co-intentional work, co-produced work. What you bring to the table is a degree of artistic experience. However they bring a world of other kinds of experience, as well as… whatever artistic experience they have. So, you can work and negotiate and collaborate as equals – and there’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I think it’s really important that that’s where you start. If it’s a creative endeavour that’s taking place, then whatever everyone brings to that endeavour are ideas, and there’s no monopoly on ideas just because you’re older.

There are certain areas where the power dynamics are there and you have to be very transparent about them. You’re a workshop ‘leader’… and in certain participatory groups they might be compelled to be there. So, some of their windows of choice have already been closed. However, within that, once you get to a point where you’re at the ‘well what do you wanna do?’ stage – transparent, dialogic conversation and collaboration works. 
I think my favourite, um, outcome from a performance is when we as artists are given a group of participants who’ve got a label. The number of times I’ve been into a school and worked with a group, and a teacher’s pulled me aside and gone, ‘see that boy there, he’s trouble that boy there’ And so I’ve noted it, and maybe in a different context for different reasons, completely his own, ‘that boy’ could be trouble. But with us, he’s not. And what is most beneficial for me, one of the things I gain the most from, is when ‘that boy’ is amazing, and shows their amazingness in front of the teacher who’s labelled them ‘trouble’. And I can see on the face… and y’know I’m not blaming the teacher, I can see on the face of teacher that… reflection of like, ‘goodness I didn’t know that ‘that boy’ had it in him’ whatever it is he’s got. That is a dialogue for me, not that I often see it but I’m really curious about what happens next time… the next time that teacher and ‘that boy’ interact with each other. Is that boy gonna be trouble? Or, is that boy gonna be aware that the teacher saw them in a different light, and therefore suddenly has the space to be a different boy? And I think that, in it’s minutia, is at the centre of what participatory arts can do. It can… there’s a Russian psychologist called ‘Lev Vygotsky’ and he talks about art being the space to rehearse for a new life, and I think that’s relevant in that little story. That boy was having the opportunity to rehearse being a different kind of boy. And when he performed that ‘different kind of boy-ness’, the teacher was able to see a different kind of boy – and a new life opens up in front of both of them. And I think… participatory arts is particularly good at that. It’s not the only thing that can do it but I think it’s particularly good at that because of its malleability.

I think Spare Tyre is… an exemplar at… relationships. I think… though I said in the past, and I still agree, that there is an instrumental dynamic to socially engaged practice – it does stuff. You can do stuff with it. That’s… not… aspirationally what it’s about… it’s about making contact, and about what is gleaned from the making of that contact. And I think Spare Tyre are fantastic at that, they’re fantastic at creating relationships. It’s interesting that one of the ways in which they talk about themselves is as a family – cos a family is linked, whatever way it is whether it’s; blended, operational, biological – it’s linked. (…) Probably Spare Tyre is all of those things; it can be family, it can be biological, it can be operational, it can be blended. Because… the practitioners who work for it hold the participants, who are the stakeholders, in it in mutual esteem with each other. And, that allows for a level of connection and a length, longevity of connection, which can be the platform for all sorts of things. To begin to evolve into rich and deeply complex narratives that are saying things in society in ways that need to be said, from voices that need to be heard, that don’t often get other pathways to do so.

An organisation with this amount of longevity has developed a practice, and a way of working in that practice, which is hugely inspiring and, err, well-rooted in its communities. They are… major exponents in the field of socially-engaged practice, and it would be a catastrophic loss for them not to be there.

If choice is part of the reasons why participants come back, it’s because they… that’s a very clear piece of feedback that they are getting something out of what Spare Tyre are offering.

An interview with Dr Sylvan Baker as part of the ST40 Oral Histories project.

Dr Sylvan Baker is an academic and practitioner. He has worked in socially engaged practice for over 30 years.