Participation normally works in one way in theatre.
A group of artists (normally middle class white people) make a show. It goes on in a theatre and people pay quite a lot of money to come and see it.
A group of other middle class white people - often called the Education Department, or Creative Learning, or whatever, then filter that show down to a group of other people who don't really go to the theatre. They are probably not middle class or, often, white. These people are the 'participants'.
The participants are asked to 'respond' to the show. They watch it, or do a workshop, or make a new piece of work that’s inspired by it.
In general, very few people experience that response. That includes the people who commissioned, produced and made the original show. They’re probably too busy making their next show.
The idea seems to be that the people who participate have something to learn from the people who made the show. Not the other way around.
But what if we did something very simple?
Instead of filtering the show down to the participants, what if we filtered the show through them?
What if participation was the first thing we did, rather than the last?
Each creative team would be given extra time to do some of their research and development through participatory projects. They'd still probably end up making a play with professional actors etc, but they'd start their research by working with normal people.
Participation would suddenly become important to the making of the play, rather than an annoying afterthought.
Artists would get extra time to develop their work, maybe months in advance of their rehearsals, and they'd be thinking about a diverse audience from the very start of their process.
The quality of the participatory work would rise. We'd invest more in it and it'd be led by the very best artists (maybe supported by facilitators who are brilliant at working in participatory ways).
Participants would feel inspired because they were contributing to something big and exciting. They’d feel their voices were being heard within something that would be seen by thousands of people. They'd be part of the team.
They’d really want to come and see the piece that they’d helped develop. And they’d bring their friends along too.
Most importantly, maybe the artists making the plays would find new ideas that emerged from their contact with people that they would never otherwise have spoken to. Maybe they'd start to think about those people as their audience and change their play because of it.
Of course there would still be a load of problems, particularly because it would still be the same people 'making' and the same people 'participating'. But it would be a start, if nothing else. And in time, it might help create a space in which the participants become the mainstream makers.