Dialogue Festival Documentation

Dialogue Festival

Talking/Making/Taking Part is the most ambitious project Dialogue have created to date: a two-day festival of conversation, participatory theatre, argument and play. Across a drizzly weekend in November 2014, we filled the main theatre, studio spaces and cafe of Ovalhouse in London with 23 artists and speakers, and a lively, quizzical audience of almost 100 people each day. We’ve already published, in our news section, a description of who was programmed and why, as well as a piece by Maddy that discusses some of the thinking behind the event. Maddy was also grateful for the opportunity to write a blog for the Guardian about the festival, and some of the ideas around participation in theatre that it hoped to explore.

In a nutshell, the festival was interested in what it means for a person who attends the theatre to shift from seeing themselves as someone sitting in the dark passively watching, to perceiving that attention as active, to yet more actively contributing in one-on-one or participatory work; and, following on from that, how that person might feel changed by these encounters, how theatre might change the way this person thinks about the world around them, might change they way they interact with their local community or wider society. This is, effectively, the same journey through theatre Maddy has undertaken over the past 20 years, becoming more confident as an audience member, and more politicised as a human being. We wanted to think about who feels intimidated by the idea of participating (as Maddy used to, and often still does); who feels involved in conversations about theatre and who doesn’t; and how theatre can contribute to developing new approaches to democracy, diversity and social organisation.

In programming the festival, that word diversity became key. We wanted to ensure that artists of many different backgrounds were in the building, so that if people who feel marginalised in society came along (often, they are the same people who feel little to no connection with theatre), they might feel more welcome. We also worked with community and engagement specialist Lily Einhorn to ensure that an invitation to marginalised people reached them directly, and that those who came along had someone to greet them, guide them around the work and be attentive to their responses. Plus, we aimed at diversity within the shaping of the event itself, programming formal discussions in the main theatre but also informal discussions in the cafe, big group debates and quieter conversations for smaller groups, work that was gentle and work that was a bit more confrontational, work that asked participants to be very active and work that made it OK to sit quietly and think.

Although Jake has experience of programming and producing a festival (Incoming, with A Younger Theatre), Maddy doesn’t – and neither of us has experience of addressing diversity directly, or of dedicated outreach work. So the Dialogue festival was an immense learning experience for both of us. For instance, on the Sunday afternoon, one audience member – a local resident, whom Maddy knows through work with the nearby Young Vic theatre – sat down with Maddy and went through every piece of copy related to the festival, including the blog posts linked to above, highlighting words and phrases that she felt were unclear, or based in assumption, or promised something that wasn’t fulfilled. It was one of the most helpful conversations Maddy had through the entire weekend. Other attendees argued that the questions with which the festival began were indicative of “white middle-class preoccupations”, and that not enough was done to explain what was actually happening in the building. Rather than give lots of information in advance, Maddy had hoped that people at the festival – artists and audience – would talk to each other and share what was happening that way. In retrospect, the decision not to ask the artists to describe their own work in publicity for the event feels like a failure to trust them or their language – which is particularly weird, given that so many of them were chosen specifically because they talk in a different way about theatre and what they would like relationships with audiences to be.

If there were problems with how the festival unfolded, there were also a lot of positives that made it feel like a beyond-wildest-dreams success. A lot of that was to do with a sense of temporary community: the way people who had argued during the morning discussions sat together over lunch and searched for common ground; the way a group of strangers gathered over a questionnaire by Brian Lobel, laughing and sharing; the way people listened attentively to each other at Rajni Shah’s table, despite the growing hubbub in the room around them; the way people emerged from Vijay Patel’s installation, an interaction with the UK citizenship test, and instantly began discussing ideas around Britishness and immigration. People had fun, but also had big conversations. That felt like a real achievement.

We can’t give a blow-by-blow account of the festival because it would take a weekend to read; what follows is a selection of videos, photographs, reflections and responses. Very roughly, you can find:

- An overview of the Long Table discussions with films of the Long Table discussions that took place each morning, photographs of the stuff written on the tablecloths during those discussions, and some brilliant feedback and generous advice given by some of the people who participated in them;

- Ephemera from the lunch-time slot, showing the cafe in action and different work that people could encounter there;

- Notes from the Afternoon Ideas sessions, including the text of the speech delivered by Tanuja Amarasuriya and (when they’re ready!) links to our collaboration with Something Other;

- Notes on the Main House shows;

- Links to reviews.

Plus a whole bunch of tweets and snippets of feedback shared during the weekend and the days that followed.

We’d like to thank everyone who came to the festival and contributed to making it so eventful, challenging and enjoyable. We’d like to thank all the artists who talked, shared and tried something new with us, many of whom travelled long distances to be there. And we’d like to thank you for reading this now. If you’d like to find out more about Dialogue or the festival, or to join our mailing list so we can tell you about future events, please email us:

Maddy[at]welcometodialogue[dot]com

Jake[at]welcometodialogue[dot]com

Thank you!

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