Visioning backwards

On Wednesday 16th October Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the founders of the Chickenshed Theatre, were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. They were invited onto the programme to celebrate the forthcoming 40th anniversary of a theatre which was set up to involve young people in theatre, irrespective of their abilities. Both founders had a shared belief that they could produce excellent theatre with young people if they could encourage everyone to accept what young people bring, rather than what they don’t bring. They argued, for example, that young people are often much less judgemental about other young people with disabilities than adults are: they simply accept the disability as a given and proceed from there, without fuss. They argued that discrimination is a learned, social behaviour. That commitment, and the continuous improvisational ability to involve other people in the undertaking, has created an institution which has lasted 40 years although it has never received Arts Council funding.

‘What was your vision for Chickenshed?’ Jenni Murray asked. ‘We didn’t have a vision as such, we didn’t sit down and say “this is our vision”’, Mary Ward answered arguing that they had both felt impelled to include as many young people as possible, ‘but we just did it, and as we did it we became more and more committed to this idea that everyone can contribute to the production, the final end.’

I was struck by the formulation that she used (and amused that if you now visit the Chickenshed site you will find a Vision and Mission, although expressed in very simple terms) because I think it comes very close to what pragmatist philosophy is trying to get at, that it is in the doing that we discover ourselves and what we mean. It’s not that we have values, but that our values have us, and they make us who we are in realising them. This is not a linear process, but a recursive one. This was no account of sequential progress towards a pre-reflected goal, but a determined feeling forwards.

In John Dewey’s terms Ward and Collins’ account is a very good description of values understood as voluntary compulsion. They both became so convinced that things could be other than they were that they felt obliged to act. They couldn’t help themselves, and they found themselves in the activity of starting something. When they set out they had no idea where this would lead, that it would still be running 40 years later, or how one thing would lead to another, but they were compelled to start something and to knit together a coalition of other people similarly compelled. She describes how in the practice there develops a greater commitment to the practice. In both of their stories (listen to the full interview here), there is no mention of feeling passionate, having a vision, wanting to transform, empowering or any other of the appurtenances of the contemporary change discourse. Rather it is a detailed narrative account of how going to have tea with Lady Rayne led to being driven to visit her deserted chicken shed in her BMW, the first home of Chickenshed theatre.

Second, there is no distinction between thought and action, rather thinking becomes a form of action. I think Ward’s language conveys this instinctively well when she immediately reacts against Murray’s suggestion and represents the idea of having a vision as sitting down, being sedentary. This was clearly far from her experience at the time. It seems to me that she reacts instinctively against the notion that everything needs to be thought out in advance rather than advancing the thinking in the doing. In this sense it is only possible to have a vision, the one which now appears on the company website, retrospectively. Her reaction does not support the axiomatic notion that we have to have a clear plan, a destination, all worked out before we can do anything (‘if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you ever get there’?).

Thirdly I think Ward speaks eloquently to the inseparability of means and ends and the importance of improvisation: commitment informs action which in turn informs commitment. This seems like a fractal activity: the ends are present in the means at every step. And she gives a strong impression in her account of what it is like to proceed experimentally, and perhaps also experientially. An encounter with the practical world with the intention to get something started leads to further endeavours in the world informed by experience. Because this sort of enterprise was rare, there was no recipe about how to go on, but they had to proceed making it up as they went along. It sounds like a tale of both founders throwing themselves whole-heartedly into the next thing that presented itself as a consequence of the last.

Of course this is not an injunction against planning: no doubt the theatre would not have succeeded in their later application to the local borough council for premises if they had not had a plan. But it is an interesting provocation to think about how innovatory practice happens and to what extent this can be planned. Like many similar stories it turns conventional contemporary management prescriptions on their head. We cannot know how one thing will lead to another, ‘vision’ makes more sense backwards than forwards and we can only realise what we are committing to in the act of committing. We act in the present informed by the past and in anticipation of the future.

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