Written by Dave Carey.
My journey to China began three years ago when on behalf of Chickenshed I attended a conference on EU-China Civil Society Dialogue on the Art of Social Entrepreneurship in Ningbo. This conference bought together European and Chinese NGO’s who were working within the civil society.
Chickenshed is an organisation that uses theatre as a tool to bring marginalised communities into the mainstream. In the UK that can be as disparate as disabled children and young offenders. But central to our belief is the message that creativity when shared has the result of inspiring change in the individual and society in the wider context. As a practitioner of “inclusive “ theatre I tend to stick out in a room of organisations with a more obvious social benefit. But during the many business dinners and facilitated conversations I began to talk to Pan Yu, from Hunan Aimier, a service aimed at helping disabled children and their families. What surprised me, bought up on a diet of Western viewpoints of the East was the desire to embrace and learn from my and Chickenshed’s methodology and experiences. This was not in any way a glib “yes, very nice” response. These were genuine, articulate, intelligent and searching responses to approaches on using theatre for social benefit that we often find lacking in discussion with assumingly knowledgeable practitioners in Europe. Over the chasm that separated us through language and culture came bridges that united us very quickly.
In practical terms we have now had a partnership spanning over two years. From the four exchanges so far executed (soon to be five) we have undertaken training and learning across a range of our experiences from the actual nuts and bolts of theatre practice with diverse groups of young people to the development of funding and income streams, building of partnerships and public awareness through creative marketing.
During my early visits in 2012 and the early part of 2013 I had moments of feeling that maybe this conference had been a solitary oasis of change and that out in the real China I was swimming against a tide that was ultimately too strong. I felt that every suggestion was met with “that can not happen here” and “no, that is impossible”. A community organisation I worked with in Shanghai seemed intransient in their stance. However, individuals like Pan Yu that I was working with in both Changsha and Shanghai inspired me to keep to the task.
Pan Yu’s visit to London in 2013 was a turning point in the relationship. I think that myself as a lone soldier was unable to convey the full reach, output and impact of Chickenshed. The week spent here allowed her to entrench herself in our approaches, see at first hand the outcomes and understand how she could perhaps apply similar approaches in China but in a way that worked within her community. To my colleagues and myself the importance of adapting approaches to suit the participants is key. This is the same if we are working five miles down the road or six thousand miles away on a different continent. The important thing is that the participants drive the work. In this way each project is unique and the end user feels a sense of ownership. This energy created by the sense of ownership and pride is what the audience pick up on and love. In this sense our work is naturally adaptable to any environment provided there is an openness to explore. As we discovered in Changsha this exists in abundance.
My visit in 2014 was a revelation. Suddenly within both the traditional state structures (Shanghai Theatre Academy, Hunan State Theatre) and the commercial world (Hunan TV) there was genuine interest in what Chickenshed were doing. Why was this sudden explosion (it felt like an explosion but maybe should be seen as a ripple) of interest in what we do? I believe that far from it being that Chickenshed’s message was being heard it was a case of Chickenshed beginning to understand how to put this message out. It was I think the result of time spent meeting people, Skyping people and keeping communication going however difficult at times. Patience was the key. Looking back now, the frustrations I felt in the early encounters seem trivial and irrelevant and in the context of the long-term projects we envisage they were just a minor delay.
As a theatre practitioner working with young people you become aware that young people the world over, disadvantaged or not, have a natural desire to create and to share. It is we, the adults that bring the negative baggage – emotional, political, educational and personal. In that respect China and the UK are no different so the opportunity to share this practise with interested and committed individuals is huge.
“What does Chickenshed get out of it?” I am often asked. Well the truth is that in deconstructing what we as a company and NGO do in order to accurately and succinctly describe it and share it with an organisation in China we have learnt more about what we do, how we do it and the outcomes. Why? Because we believe that as an organisation we must continue to grow (ethically and philosophically) and push the boundaries and reach of our work. It is only by engaging with people such as Pan Yu and Hunan Aimier that we can continue our journey. Thanks must be given to Andreas Fulda who encouraged me to keep going when I was venting my frustration and the Robert Bosch foundation who through Stiftung Asienhaus have financially supported the NGO twinning initiative from which this project has benefited.
About the author
Dave Carey is creative director and co-writer of many shows of the Chickenshed theatre. He was educated in London and the US and toured extensively as a musician. Working around the world, he brings Chickenshed’s inclusive approach to theatre to a wider audience.
 EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme 2012, The Art of Social Entepreneurship, Conference documentation. Available online: http://www.eu-china.net/web/cms/upload/pdf/materialien/2012_07-Documentation-EU-ChinaCSD-5.pdf. Accessed 9 May 2014.