Blog Connection and Empowerment: The Arts in Today’s Society To some of us, the importance of art and creativity might seem obvious. But how and why arts experiences enrich our lives can sometimes be less clear. What actually is it about the creative space that is so needed in society today? This is one of the questions I’ve been asking since I first worked with the Geraldine Connor Foundation in 2017. In my university dissertation, I explored the role that creativity plays in our culture that often prioritises economic growth above meaningful human experiences. I looked specifically at the theory of alienation and used Geraldine Connor’s production of Carnival Messiah as a case study. After months of research and several interviews with some of the participants of Carnival Messiah, I am confident that the arts can be a powerful instrument of connection and empowerment. I’d love to share some of what I learnt: The Context: Alienation in 21st Century Britain Alienation is the experience of being disconnected – from other people, from the world around you, or sometimes even from your own self. It can make you feel isolated, powerless and lost. This experience is common in today’s society and can be linked to various mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. The feeling was described by one interviewee who said that many people in our society are “sort of floating between, without having a sense of who am I, what am I worth, what is important to me”. The concept was introduced by Karl Marx in the 19th century, during the industrial revolution. He argued that capitalism was leading to a society in which profit and ‘things’ were valued more than people themselves. Our culture has developed since then, but many sociologists argue that it remains alienating. For example, many people work long hours in tedious jobs that feel unrelated to what is important to them. In more interesting jobs, high pressure environments tend to strip the enjoyment of the work and lead to burnout. There is an overwhelming pressure to do more, have more and be more in all aspects of our lives. We feel like we must constantly run faster but with little sense of where we are moving to, making everyday life feel chaotic and meaningless. This feeling is heightened by social media and other technologies that in some ways connect us, but can also be overwhelming and take away from genuine relationships and experiences. Similarly, our society’s obsession with material ‘things’ as a route to happiness and indication of ‘success’ often leaves us feeling more disconnected than ever. Our relationships are also damaged by the individualistic culture that emphasises personal gain over collective wellbeing - leading to high levels of segregation, inequality, and social isolation. It’s not surprising that in a culture that encourages us to constantly speed up, compete and consume, communities are breaking down and mental health issues are rising. This is not to say all people are alienated, of course not, the world remains full of wonderful opportunities for connection. But these opportunities are often not prioritised. In the next section, I discuss how creative experiences can offer us respite and help counter the alienating effects of mainstream society. The Arts in the Face of Alienation Creative spaces allow us to reflect, interact more openly, and test the ‘what ifs’. They are positioned against alienation because they engage, connect and empower people. In my dissertation I focused on community theatre and used Carnival Messiah as a case study. For those of you that don’t know, Carnival Messiah was a theatrical production created and directed by Geraldine Connor. Using traditions from around the world, and particularly from the Caribbean, Geraldine adapted Handel’s Messiah into a carnivalesque interpretation of slavery and liberation. One participant described Carnival Messiah as ‘mind-blowing’, explaining that ‘there are very few things that get me at a soul level, in your heart, you know, deep inside your actual being. It did that”. Another spoke of the show as a “metaphor” for “the ability to bring people together, the ability to rise above suffering”. I’d highly recommend watching the trailer to the film-documentary to find out more and get a taste of the performance. There is so much that could be said about Carnival Messiah as it affected so many people in so many different ways, but for the sake of my dissertation I have summarised my findings in three categories of de-alienation: Building social bonds Isolation and segregation are tackled in community theatre by providing a setting for people to meet, learn about others, and work towards a common goal. Prejudice is broken down and empathy is built between individuals and social groups. Because creativity is universal, a sense of togetherness is possible even for those who speak different languages or have conflicting beliefs and values. Carnival Messiah brought together “all types of people”. Along with the educational workshops that explored art forms and traditions from around the world, this “opened your eyes up to so many cultures, so many different ways of life”. One interviewee said that by getting together creatively, conversations were had between people who would normally not mix: “if we’re gonna break down these barriers and come together as communities and not be segregated, these conversations need to happen more”. Participants felt unified, despite being different: “everyone was on a par, it wasn’t like anyone was better than anyone else”. Even though Geraldine was “the guiding light”, it was very much a collective project where all participants were valued. One person spoke of “the idea of having almost like an army”, clarifying that they didn’t mean it in a negative way, but “more like a unifying force – it was pretty powerful”. Another person described “a love, an understanding, even ten years on”. The words “community” and “family” were used by every single interviewee. Empowerment: engaging with our actions Disempowerment and meaninglessness are common symptoms of alienation. Community theatre stands against this because participants play an active role and see that their skills and ideas are valuable. Theatre also brings us into the moment and unites our bodies and minds. By helping us to engage more positively with our actions, the creative process brings us meaning, purpose and pleasure, and gives us the confidence and motivation to strive for this in other areas of our lives too. Geraldine claimed that many of the participants lacked confidence and direction at the beginning of the process, and hoped to empower them. One person said that the production "built my confidence" while another said it taught them that “we all have the ability to do great things”. This attitude was often expressed in relation to race: “seeing my culture expressed on stage like that […] gave me an aspiration to be a significant person of colour in this country”. The creative process gave participants a sense of hope and power: “people often cannot control what’s going on in their lives, because of poverty or whatever […] but we can find hope in creativity […] and then we start to deal with things”. Furthermore, it resisted alienation by bringing people into the joy of the moment. For one participant, the project represented what is not easily accessible in mainstream society: “Geraldine managed to capture that essence of taking you to another place, of really, really feeling it. Think that’s something we’re missing in our culture, the safety to feel […] it’s not about creating it because I want to be famous and I want to get money out of it, I’m creating because I want to and that’s okay in itself”. Self-discovery and expression While I’ve spoken of the importance of coming together as a group, the arts also encourage personal expression and autonomy. Creative spaces allow people to shed their ‘pre-given’ roles and experiment with new ones, increasing self-awareness and opening up possibilities for change. We start to realise who we really and what really matters to us, and we learn to express this in different ways too. One participant claimed that “in society […] we’re really lacking places where we feel safe to express ourselves”. Carnival Messiah offered that: “Being creative, it was really taking you deep inside yourself […] you’re clearing a space for people to bring their personal experiences and it be valid”. Another person said that the productions “really did change people’s lives, it changed their attitudes about themselves”. When asked how the artistic experience made them feel, someone replied “it’s a feeling of comfort, of knowing that where you belong, where you feel fulfilled, like your soul is being given what it needs for happiness”. This was especially significant in terms of cultural and racial identity. Many of the people involved in Carnival Messiah “had a feeling like they weren’t part of a society they’d been born into, but the culture people assumed they knew about, for example Caribbean culture, they wouldn’t be connected to that either […] they were sort of floating in between”. The educational programme explored cultural identity at an intellectual level, and the creative process allowed people to experiment and celebrate this at a more intimate level. This countered the negative effects of discrimination and helped participants feel more connected to who they were: “they’d never been exposed to [their heritage] in that way before, never perceived it as positive”, “it was a reflection of my culture, and so it really spoke to me […] that was unusual and exciting, that was an eye opener for me”. Conclusion I have spoken about how the social and economic structures that dominate our society can lead to feelings of alienation, and how creative experiences can help to reconnect and empower individuals and communities. Carnival Messiah is an extraordinary example of community theatre that demonstrates this potential. This success was due to many factors including Geraldine’s impressive vision and leadership, the integration of many diverse people, the combination of the political and the personal, and the sheer scale and intensity of the project. Geraldine herself also emphasised the importance of carnival culture in her work, suggesting that this magnified the ‘fullness’, ‘openness’ and ‘transcendence’ of the production. Community arts programmes will not single-handedly de-alienate our societies, but they can enrich the lives of those that take part and act as a catalyst for further social change. In the current social and political climate, this feels more important than ever. With thanks to those at GCF and the Carnival Messiah family for their contributions. I’m incredibly grateful for all you have taught me and hope you know how important the work that you do is. About the Author Anna May Anna is originally from High Wycombe but moved to Leeds in 2015. She has been studying English Literature and Sociology at the University of Leeds and will graduate this summer. Alongside her degree, Anna has been involved in lots of creative outreach work, which is what she's most passionate about. For example, she has facilitated drama workshops in local primary schools and has also been running the Bereaved Student Network - a group that connects and supports students who have lost someone close to them. Anna first worked with the Geraldine Connor Foundation in 2017 through a research scholarship. She helped to document the impact and legacy of Carnival Messiah in the run up to the ten-year anniversary and film launch. Since then she's been involved in a number of GCF's projects, and has enjoyed seeing some of the amazing artistic work taking place across the city. Anna is unsure what she'll do next, but hopefully will find a job in the arts, education or health and well being sector - preferably one that is creative and based in the community!