Communities of practice have been identified by contemporary social learning theorists as a vital element for the evolution of any type of professional practice, as well as, for the continuing development of professional practitioners (Wegner, 1998). In theatre making, communities of practice are not only important, they are necessary to the practice itself because theatre is an essentially collaborative endeavor. In order to make theatre we must communicate, share ideas, and interact with each other. The action of making theatre for young audiences, by nature, also involves the maker in genuine considerations about how to nurture the future of their society through their interactions with young audiences and the adults that accompany them. Thus the role of theatre makers in the TYA context bears a significant social responsibility to act as inspirers of young imaginations, storytellers, educators, and explorers of ideas and issues. For these reasons, communities of practice, such as the Asian TYA Network, are essential resources for the development of TYA practices and practitioners. According to Wenger (1998), communities of practice support the continued development of a practice by creating opportunities for practitioners to share knowledge and experiences in the interest of enriching their own practice, as well as, growing the practice itself. “Wenger pointed out the importance of the ways in which an individual develops an identity as a practitioner through participating in such communities of practice. A community of practice also needs to develop as a community in which the members are willing and able to support each other in their practice, be they novices or experienced practitioners. The community of practice is a vitally important means of giving meaning to what individuals do as practitioners,” (Loftus, 2012).
In my career as a theatre maker I have rarely experienced such a tremendously positive feeling of inclusion in a community of practice as I did within the recent Asian TYA Network meeting at the Ricca Ricca Festival in Okinawa. As practitioners and facilitators invited to the event, we were offered a rare and valuable opportunity to gather together to develop ourselves as a supportive network, to learn from each other, to see a diverse selection of quality performances from all over the world together, to discuss our perspectives and perceptions, and to share our own works, inspirations, and concerns for the future. Throughout our time in Okinawa, each day of our schedule was filled with stimulating activities, interesting presentations, intercultural interactions, and thoughtful dialogues. The integration of the Asian TYA Network meeting into the Ricca Ricca Festival generated a fertile environment for artistic exchange. The festival provided rich creative input in the form of diverse types of performances that inspired continuous discussions among all of us within the Asian TYA Network group. In addition to the formally arranged public discussions that were scheduled in our program, we found ourselves always engaged in informal conversations with each other that were inspired by the festival and related back to our own works in our home regions. Both our formal and informal discussions brought forth exciting ideas and evoked important critical questions about making theatre for young audiences within dramatically diverse cultural contexts. Within our group we had practitioners of different techniques, various levels of experience, and different generations. Without power structures or hierarchy, we were able to bond together and value each other’s input. Engaging in the Asian TYA Network meeting brought me face to face with many new colleagues from neighboring countries, most of whom I probably would never have met otherwise, and during our intensive time spent together at the Ricca Ricca Festival we became good friends and sources of strength and support for each other. The experience dissolved a sense of loneliness and isolation that often arises in me as a Southeast Asian TYA theatre maker, because this is a field that, in my experience, receives little support from institutions and is often misunderstood or simply not recognized as a professional artistic activity that is highly valuable for the social development of children, young people, and whole communities. Reflecting back on being invited as a facilitator to the Asian TYA Network meeting at the Ricca Ricca Festival, I remember that I was not sure what to expect, but from the first moment that we gathered as a group we were invited into a friendly environment to bond with each other as artists through group activities and icebreaking games that were designed and facilitated by Nao Miyauchi and her wonderful production team (Sonoko, Xanthe, and Jeanette) who were truly essential members of the Asian TYA group. In one of the activities we shared our fondest childhood games or foods. I felt that this was absolutely transformative for us all; we laughed and played like children which created a joyful intimacy among us that made us remember our perceptions of the world at a young age. Theatre practice at it’s best is an immersive and transformative communal experience that includes its makers, performers and audience. This initial activity was just the beginning of an amazing group immersion experience that has affected me in a profound manner. I have gained many new understandings and a sense of belonging to something meaningful and helpful to my artistic spirit. Gathering together for this intensive experience I feel that we were able to become very open with each other. We were able to explore a broad range of work and contexts, share our practices and personal experiences, and discuss our individual sense of purpose as TYA practitioners in a contemporary Asian cultural context. We explored our commonalities and our diversity as a group, we discovered surprising similarities, and, unexpected differences, and we found that we share mutual concerns for the future of TYA in Asia, including financial support for TYA programming, advanced artistic training for practitioners, level of artistic quality in TYA performances, audience building, and how to continue our network as an active community of practice and as a resource for other Asian TYA practitioners seeking to engage in developing TYA throughout our region.
In conclusion, the new seeds of knowledge and perspectives that I gained from my fellow Asian TYA members have expanded my vision of TYA practice and my sense of TYA community. Overall, the experience in Okinawa was one of overwhelming inspiration, total inclusion, friendship, camaraderie, and overall goodwill. I have taken from the experience a renewed enthusiasm for theatre making and for exploring collaborations with neighboring Asian colleagues. I have also gained a deeper comprehension of the value of inclusion and participation in communities of practice, particularly in terms of the relationship between a practitioner’s sense of identity and being able to identify with a community of practice. Wenger (1998) discusses the ways in which communities of practice are an integral factor in the development of the identity of a practitioner, because they offer the practitioner a social learning environment that is aligned to support their practice. I would venture to add that communities of practice specifically developed by and for practitioners within a similar and close cultural region can offer the practitioners a space of empowerment and can counterbalance the effects of marginalization. The Asian TYA Network meeting has been the first time I felt truly comfortable and completely part of a community of practice. I recognized this when we were sharing our childhood games and foods, because playing together flooded me with the memory and sensation of playing with my cousins in our street in Bangkok. Being with my Asian TYA colleagues felt like being with childhood friends and family members. I realized that most of the opportunities I have had to engage in a TYA community of practice at an international level have been offered via an exchange with Western cultures in a Western cultural setting with mainly American and European participants. I also realized that my relationship to a primarily Asian cultural group felt more relaxed and intimate and that often times in the past when I was asked to engage in childhood memory oriented sharing activities with groups of predominantly Western practitioners, I was not as open and did not recall such genuine childhood sensations. I felt more guarded and as if I stood on the outside of the group even when the group was very friendly. I attribute this to very different cultural experiences, social mechanisms, and behaviors. My experiences in predominantly Western international communities of practice have been incredibly valuable as cross cultural exchanges, however I believe there is an equally important place for Asian led TYA communities of practice.
Almost every Asian country has had historical encounters with Western colonial empires, and regardless of whether or not we have experienced full colonization, these encounters have reshaped our cultures through various actions that have included for us, experiences of forced servitude, economic exploitation, political pressure, military interference, violent subjugation, social prejudice, philosophical reeducation and cultural marginalization. Presently, it is unfortunate, but still true, in some areas and aspects of our Asian societies that the Western cultural standards, structures and perspectives are treated as superior to our own, which is often a grave mistake in my opinion when our environments, histories, and subsequent predispositions are quite different. As Asians from neighboring countries I feel that we share many unspoken behaviors and understandings, and the tones in which we communicate are similar. During the Asian TYA Network Meeting, I simply felt that we had more space to communicate freely about ourselves because we were among a predominantly Asian cultural group and setting with colleagues who share some common base of cultural experience. I felt that this decreased the impact of the usual dominance of the Western cultural perspective that I have often experienced when participating in international communities of practice. We were able to cover subject matter and share understandings that are relevant to our region more fluidly in our private group discussions. This was notably different in the public discussions where we included Western participants. In these discussions more detailed contextual explanations were required due to cultural unfamiliarity. I am not devaluing the intercultural interactions with our Western colleagues in Okinawa which certainly were of equal importance to those which we held privately among the Asian TYA members. I simply mean to infer that both types of settings and dialogues are needed, however, I would point out that at present one is more prevalent than the other. Networks and communities of practice proliferate in Western society, bringing practitioners from all over Europe and America together to discuss theatre in the frame of Western “international” culture. Yet there are few opportunities to engage in these types of networks specifically within Asia and especially in Southeast Asia. There are numerous unique and remarkable local TYA practitioners and groups throughout the ASEAN region, yet we seldom have opportunity to connect and collaborate. Although much of the challenge for us lies in the realm of economic resources, some of the challenge also arises in our own mentality. In many places our local cultures may be strong, but our sense of belonging to a greater Asian region is perhaps weak, and yet we share the same environments and many mythologies, and we face similar issues. Our governments and corporations collude and cooperate, but at a grassroots level as people we are often cut off from each other even while we sit beside each other. In this era of rapid globalization in which digital interactions are replacing human contact more and more on an every day level and because we are faced with a predominance of Western cultural media and corporate propaganda, it becomes more crucial that we develop the kinds of meaningful face to face social and cultural interactions for Asian young people that TYA supports. It is also essential that we engage in communities of practice to support exchange and collaboration between Asian TYA practitioners. In Western cultures, the notion of theatre as a full-time profession is possible to consider although perhaps economically difficult. However in many Asian countries, although we are dedicated practitioners, it is entirely unrealistic for us to believe that TYA can be our full time profession and we are lacking resources to support strong local critical dialogue about developing TYA. This should change. This is the reason that the Asian TYA Network is vital for us and deserves our continued participation and efforts to gather together regularly at inspiring events such as the Ricca Ricca Festival. I sincerely hope we will find ways to develop our community of practice together.
Loftus, S., Higgs, J., & Trede, F. (2012). Researching living practices. In Creative Spaces for Qualitative Researching: Living Research. Springer.