The audience arrive for the performance and discover that they are also creating the performance : their actions and decisions determine the nature, the shape, and the outcomes of the performance. The audience arrive for the exhibition and discover that they are also creating the exhibition : their actions and decisions determine the nature, the variety, and the make-up of the works and exhibition created .
These are events where the producers take to and share the stage with the audience. These are events where the producers create frames which remain empty until the audience attends and fills them. These participatory events are founded on a commitment to the democratisation of the arts - ‘Power To The People’ and ‘We Are All In This Together’.
However, participation, and all the different varieties of participation, are featured throughout this website, on Young People, Games, Dance, and on other pages. Indeed there are virtually no pages where participation does not also feature as an element.
When The Black-E was founded, most mainstream arts organisations had very little to say about participation. Now, 40 years later, most mainstream arts organizations proclaim their commitment to participation - and realise this commitment through outreach programmes, youth groups, workshops, and classes. Generally speaking, the purpose of this participation is audience development. Participation is an add-on to the main programme with the aim of increasing appreciation and support for this programme.
For The Black-E, participation is at the heart of its purpose. An early description of The Black-E was as a ‘sports centre of the arts’ - somewhere to go to experience the performances of professionals, to work and train alongside these professionals, and to come along and do your own thing. Another early text described the artists at The Black-E as both ‘taking to the stage and sharing the stage’ in the performing arts, and ‘making frames for others to fill’ in the making arts. The impulse behind this approach was the belief - a belief shared with such artists as William Morris, Joan Littlewood, and Joseph Beuys - that human rights include the rights to the exercise of (or the rediscovery and reclamation of) creative expression.
Age is generally a factor when it comes to participation. Children and young people are surprised and frustrated if they don’t participate actively in the youth arts or playscheme programme. Adults, in comparison, are often surprised (and sometimes at first anxious) when offered opportunities to participate actively in events and activities.
There has always been a broad spectrum of participation at The Black-E. At the heart of The Black-E’s programme there are creative and co-operative games, across a range of artforms, where all the players are participants. In the ground-breaking Model Theatre productions, addressing social issues, it is the audience who become players and determine the outcome of the drama. In the participatory exhibitions, visitors who come along to view an exhibition find that they are making an exhibition. Audiences for an event or a seminar may discover that in no small measure they determine the shape of the event or seminar. Audiences may find that performers perform only when requested to do so, and sit down to talk with the requester after the performance. And overall, virtually all events and performances take place with opportunities for participation through associated workshops and classes.
Participation is always part of a process, and in the arts there is always a balance to be achieved between process and product, between ‘doing’ and ‘viewing’. Process and product are the yin and yang of the arts - interconnected, inter dependent, and equally important. The wisdom of Chinese Traditional Medicine includes the maxim that if yin predominates absolutely over yang, or yang predominates absolutely over yin, then death is imminent. And so it is with the arts - where, in this case, death equals decadence. The Black-E aims to balance process with product - ‘doing’ with ‘viewing’ - for the good health of the arts themselves and for everyone involved or drawn into the arts.
Finally, and as something of a footnote, participation at The Black-E is not limited to the cultural programme, Visitors may find themselves with opportunities to pick up a mop or broom, arrange seating, count money, assist technicians for a show, or to join in a staff meeting discussion. Participation is written throughout The Black-E as Blackpool is written throughout rock. As one of our early texts puts it, ‘For participation to succeed, it requires the same daily practice and commitment as ballet’.