Learn how community engagement can be created globally! The spectacular outdoor show with actors on stilts and a lantern procession on International Volunteer Day was the most unusual event I worked on during my internship at Plovdiv 2019. The project was a collaboration of creative practitioners from 7 countries and the general public. Together we created and celebrated a great event.

Learning to Collaborate through Lantern Workshops

The EU Plovdiv School of Participation was a partnership programme of the EU Programme Creative Europe, the UK art-company Walk the Plank and Plovdiv 2019, the European Capital of Culture.

The training brought together about 30 Plovdiv volunteers and 26 creative practitioners from Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, and England. Most of them represented the future European Capitals of Culture.

Together we organized a celebration for and with ordinary people. I’ve already written about the event on the Volunteers Plovdiv 2019 blog and posted on Instagram. Additionally, there’s a 10-min video about our one-week experience made by Walk the Plank.

With the specialization in communications, I was the least creative participant of the project in which the majority represented the Creative Industries.

But it all made a lot of sense to me because I’d begun exploring the ideas of participation and co-creation of creative events in my master’s thesis at the University of Milan in 2018 devoted to the European Capital of Culture. And it was great to see how it all worked in a real-life project. At first glimpse, such an unusual collaboration didn’t seem realistic, though…

Anyway, just for one week, the team of complete strangers carried out a great project that in real life takes a minimum of 4 months to complete. The 4 lantern workshops were the key facilitator that turned the abstract ideas of participation and co-creation into real fun for dozens of people. Together we created 62 lanterns and organized the fairy-like procession through the city centre.

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The occupations of the trainees ranged from art teachers, dancers to puppet makers and community activists. Similarly, the qualifications of Plovdiv volunteers varied greatly. These features made our time together extremely enjoyable because we learned about so many cultures directly from those who shaped the cultural heritage of their countries.

Respecting Creativity of Others

The seemingly easy task of creating a lantern of tissue and willow turned out to be a test of tolerance for everyone. To produce and decorate a single lamp you need to collaborate and accept the vision of practicality and creativity of your partner. Additional difficulties were a different level of English and dissimilar professions of the collaborators.

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In search of a better solution: intensive brainstorming led by Daniel Magyar, a member of Veszprem 2023 (Hungary)

Locals had made their first contribution to the show several weeks earlier during a communication campaign organized by Plovdiv 2019. People wrote wishes for their hometown Plovdiv and left them in special locations.

The trainees of the School of Participation used the wishes as decorations for the lanterns and recorded them for a soundtrack. In this way, a single show became a means of collaboration for hundreds of people.

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Volunteers of Plovdiv 2019 with the trainees of the EU Plovdiv School of Participation

Co-created Events are Strong Links of the Community

Why does it make sense to create an event together with a community? Such celebrations help to improve the interaction between different community groups. This, in turn, contributes to facilitating an understanding between people and reducing tensions. And a street show is the easiest and the most positive way to unite many people.

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The highlights of the show: the founder of Shade and Fire Theater Fireter Plamen Ivanov and Plovdiv actresses Diana Tankova and Kami Klifton (Plovdiv 2019 Volunteer Coordinator)

We got very useful insights into the organization of street celebrations from the guest speaker Plamen Ivanov, the actor that performed in our show on stilts in a gorgeous green costume. 10 years ago Plamen found Shade and Fire Theater Fireter (Sofia, Bulgaria) that specializes in fire, LED & UV and stilts shows. For the decade, the theatre has wowed hundreds of prestigious events all over the world.

The theatre exemplifies the idea of participation and co-creation in modern Bulgarian culture. It regularly practices diverse means of creativity that contribute to the interaction with the audience: experimental dances, performances with juggling, stilt-walkers, light and shadow installations.

During the presentation at the EU School of Participation, Plamen shared his experience and outlined the key principles of street events.

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Plamen Ivanov shares his experience with creative practitioners from 7 countries

The engagement with spectators is at the basis of street shows, and it’s achieved through the improvisation of the actors. Plamen encouraged the participants of the EU School of Participation to more experiment and interact with the spectator. This approach makes actors and the audience equal participants and co-creators of the performance.

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The aerial drone image taken by one of the participants of EU School of Participation radio presenter & DJ George The Bad Radio (Plovdiv, Bulgaria)

As demonstrated the event created for International Volunteers Day, a co-created public celebration is definitely a natural way of bringing people together generating a sense of place through grassroots activism. ‘The experience of the Plovdiv School of Participation can be replicated and implemented in many places because it brings art and magic into everyday life’, – points out Shabnam Shabazi, the creative producer of Coventry 2021.

Undoubtedly, a co-created celebration was a positive and useful experience for all the participants. To make engagement with the audience long-lasting, though, more effort is needed. As a minimum, a tradition of collaborative events in a community. For this to happen, it’s essential to understand the motivations, goals, and differences of all the participants.

Images: Vanesa Popova, George Vasilev The Bad Radio & Tatyana Garkavaya