Placemaking and Participation in Performing Arts

Freya Smeaton, a student from University of Sheffield's Transforming and Activating Places programme, writes about her experience working with us in summer 2021.

Despite what the title suggests, I had little to no experience of placemaking or the performing arts until this summer. I found both by joining the Transforming and Activating Places programme in my final year at the University of Sheffield. TAP is a knowledge exchange programme which offers students from underrepresented backgrounds internships with local partners to engage in placemaking projects. After a placemaking crash course led by the TAP team and university academics, I was lucky enough to be partnered with local, long-established theatre company Forced Entertainment. My role has been to help run and develop a new participatory performance project called ‘Subject to Change’. The project aims to deliver workshops within Sheffield communities where engagement with art is low. Here are just some initial thoughts on how Forced Entertainment are practicing placemaking through Subject to Change.

Placemaking is not a phrase you hear every day and not one I’d come across before TAP. However, it really just labels the natural desire we all have to belong somewhere. The term has eluded precise definition. Most likely because placemaking can take many different forms depending on the people involved and the spaces they target, both of which range massively from place to place. From my research into placemaking so far, I define it roughly as the following. The unique Potential of the community meets the unique potential of the space around it to build a unique, positive sense of place. Sense of place being the way in which we perceive a certain place and the personal meaning we ascribe to it [1]. I find it helpful to think of space as 2D and place as 3D, bringing the space to life.

What unites all successful attempts at placemaking is the process of community collaboration. Often, the most effective placemaking happens, not when a behind-the-scenes project is conjured up by developers for the perceived good of the community, but when the community actively collaborate to form sustainable and strong relationships both with each other and the space they share [2]. This means whatever the end product, something has been achieved along the way. This process also unites placemaking with Forced Entertainment’s work, which first highlighted to me their great potential as placemakers. Forced Entertainment take an experimental approach to making theatre by exploring what feels right in the room and prioritise authentic collaboration between all involved. This process was clearly carried over into the Subject to Change workshops as each day was, rather aptly, subject to change. During and after the sessions we reacted to our own feedback and that of the participants, moulding our plans around their interests and preferences. This approach led to unique experiences with each group we visited and so I will discuss each individually, covering a different side of placemaking as I go.

ACCT- Super-powerful Spaces
My first experience of Subject to Change was a three-day taster with ACCT: Asperger’s children and Carers Together. ACCT support autistic children and their families in Sheffield. Forced Entertainment recruited most of their participants from ACCT’s teenage club based at St Mary’s church and community centre.

We packed a whole host of activities into the three days but the activity which I think best sums up the experience was ‘superpowers’, in which everyone finishes the sentence ‘My superpower is’. Our superpowers ranged from the everyday habits we think nothing of, traits that are stereotypically negative and unproductive, to actual superhuman abilities. Examples include extreme procrastination, a complete lack of grammar and punctuation, sleeping for unnecessary periods, an insatiable appetite for potatoes, ability to control our dreams or reanimate the dead. The activity began as an icebreaker but soon became a ritual at the beginning of each session. Dr Anni Raw, one of the evaluators working with FE on Subject to Change discusses this practice. She notes that art practitioners often use ritual in this way to activate a separate project ‘space’ away from everyday space with its own properties [3]. Expressing our traits as superpowers created a shared understanding that in the project space our idiosyncrasies, whatever they are, are valued, embraced and empower us. This in turn developed a collective sense of place within this new project space. This could be seen to develop as we collected more and more superpowers with more and more confidence. We laughed at those we all related to, offering similar or opposite abilities until on the last morning we were able to capture seven minutes of superpowers in an audio recording. We ended the three-days by giving a superpower to someone else in the group, which really showed how we had grown to understand each other. When it was time to leave the project space, I felt like I was leaving a special place and group, like a superhero returning to normality.

It was clear that we were building on the pre-existing space created by ACCT and the young people they support. In fact, the young people were also experts at immersing us in alternate places with their extraordinary storytelling skills. They particularly enjoyed creating narratives to guide us through ‘werewolves’, one of their favourite murder mystery games. I think Forced Entertainment’s sessions in particular highlighted these unique abilities. They showed that creating art and performing can be a valuable expression of our individuality as opposed to something reserved for those with certain skillsets. The latter is often implied in school and in the mainstream media and a preconception I had growing up.

One of the biggest goals and challenges at the heart of placemaking is creating inclusive places, often with limited spatial resources. Many of the young people participating had negative experiences in mainstream educational and social settings. Therefore, the skill art practitioners have for creating these comfortable and inclusive places from next to nothing is an invaluable tool for placemaking. Moreover, the ACCT workshops demonstrated the joy of creating and being in these places. Many of the participants couldn’t believe we were there to do work and not just there to play games and have fun.

Shipshape- Transforming Place and Perceptions
My second experience of Subject to Change was an impromptu but nevertheless brilliant few hours spent with a group at Shipshape health and wellbeing community centre. Shipshape is located in the old stable block of Mount Pleasant, the beautiful but dilapidated seventeenth century mansion on Sharrow Lane. The setting certainly took me by surprise. This pragmatic and bold use of space is testament to the great placemaking taking place in this community. As Raw discusses, dramatic transformation of physical space can send a powerful message and ‘transform perspectives on what is possible within a community’ [4]. This message of creative transformation was echoed by the activity we focused on in our sessions, which was inspired by forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare project. In this project a single narrator retells a work of Shakespeare using household objects as characters on a table top stage.

We borrowed items from the centre’s food bank to use as characters, casting ourselves to begin with and then creating full scenes. The activity was met with polite speculation on day one as everyone, myself included, got the hang of the idea. Come day two, however, everyone unleashed their imagination, transforming toiletries and tinned soup into their family, friends and foes to perform captivating scenes. In our final reflections, the older participants in particular expressed their surprise at how much they enjoyed and took to the table top work. One young person told us that they didn’t see themselves as creative coming into the workshop but now they do. In just a few hours, we began to change the participant’s perceptions of what they are capable of by making art from what is in front of us. Inspiring communities to be creative with what they have is a fundamental part of placemaking.

Element- Exploring journeys of place
My final and longest workshop with Subject to Change was with Element society, a youth-led charity in the heart of Sheffield city centre. During the five days we introduced some activities based on place. We explored the room as if it were a world map, sharing experiences of the places we’d been and the people in them, imagining what new places would be like and why we’d like to go. The participants photographed their favourite spots around Sheffield and described them to us before sharing what they captured. I think these exercises were an important opportunity for us all to reflect on our personal encounters with place by beginning to shape our own narrative. Especially since a lot of the young people participating had complex relationships with place. As discussed in a recent literature review of participatory performing arts, ‘being offered increasing input into the narrative of the work increases both one’s sense of ‘authority’ and one’s ability to define oneself and one’s place in the world’ [5].

It would be great to develop these narratives further in the autumn workshops, as creating and sharing art can be a great way to represent otherwise unheard perspectives[6]. In terms of placemaking this can influence how others perceive a place and its culture and bring communities closer together. Despite arriving at the same place, we all had very different journeys to Sheffield and to the workshops. Sharing those journeys helped us connect as a group. I emerged from the sessions with a renewed appreciation for Sheffield, particularly its kindness and diversity.

Finding my Place
At the start I expressed how new and exciting these experiences above were to me. As a student in an unfamiliar city it is common to have a one-dimensional experience of place. You do the typical ‘student’ things in student social bubbles for weeks at a time. As wonderful as student life can be, it can also be strange and isolating and I personally began to crave more from my relationship with Sheffield. The TAP programme makes perfect sense as a way of involving students in the wider community to enrich their sense of place and wellbeing whilst they do the same for others. Spending the last few months with Forced Entertainment as part of TAP has really deepened my connection to Sheffield, making it much harder to leave but giving me much more to take away.

Freya Smeaton, September 2021.

[1] Jennifer Adams et al Sense of Place (2016)
[2] Project for Public Spaces, Equity and inclusion: Getting Down to the Heart of Placemaking (2016)
[3] Anni Raw, A model and theory of community-based arts and health practice (Durham University, 2013), 224.
[4] Anni Raw, A model and theory of community-based arts and health practice (Durham University, 2013), 214
[5] Chrissie Tiller, et al PARTICIPATORY PERFORMING ARTS: A Literature Review (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 2014), 20
[6] Doreen Mattingly, Place, teenagers and representations: Lessons from a community theatre project, (Social & Cultural Geography, 2001) 2:4,