The community play as a form of historiography

This is a paper I gave for the Biography and Public History: Constructing Historical Narratives through Life-Writing conference, held on the 20th June at the University of Nottingham.

I’m a theatre maker and a playwright and I create what is known as community theatre. The origins of this for me began in the late seventies in East Devon, where I lived, where I took part in a play called ‘The Tide’, which was based on the memoirs of Jack Rattenbury, an early nineteenth century smuggler who was nicknamed the Rob Roy of the West.

The play was written by Ann Jellicoe, who had moved to the area after being a resident writer at the Royal Court, and featured a large local cast under the stewardship of a professional production team. It was a promenade play with scenes happening in and around the audience and it was the second of what Jellicoe called ‘a community play’. It was very successful. Over a hundred people were involved in making it and it ran for ten nights to packed audiences. And this new form of play became very popular very quickly, with Jellicoe’s team, the Colway Theatre Trust, creating a series of plays across the South West. All were historical plays based on archival research and all were very much about place; about both presenting a story that showed that somewhere in the past something of real interest had happened in this town that had a connection with wider national or international matters; and that in coming together to make this play the present community was asserting itself as a collective. They received national media attention and they were written by writers of real calibre. Both John Fowles and Fay Weldon were part of the writing team for the last community play I was involved in – a civil war story for Lyme Regis – before heading off to University.

In the summer of 1986 the Colway Trust ran a retreat for those from outside the region who were interested in learning how to produce their own community plays. And over a week they were led through a pretty rigorous programme, because by now the community play had developed a strict methodology. At its heart was that of creating research teams, who would ransack the archives to uncover local stories and manuscripts and diaries and letters until a suitable story was found. And once this story had been identified – and it needed to be one that could involve as many people as possible –  the research team would start to investigate the lives of everyone who was, or who may have been, involved in some way.

And by now there was an idea, or at least an aspiration, that where possible, every character in the play – or at least as many as possible – should be based on someone that lived. That because these plays were attempting to evoke a panoramic social universe, to recreate an entire community during a period of time, this meant that alongside the pamphlets and diaries and writings of more well-known and established members of the community there was also a great deal of work done in public record offices to uncover names, addresses, places of birth and death, occupation and so on. When David Edgar wrote ‘Entertaining Strangers’ for Dorchester in 1985, all 173 characters in the play – which covered a period of 40 years – were created so that the actors playing them could go to the public record office and said ‘Here I am. Here’s my address. Here’s what I do’.

And, interestingly, they did. The performers, all people from the town of Dorchester, did go and look themselves up, and visited their characters graves, and discussed their lives and background with members of the Research group. An entire community, or at least a decent representative sample of that community, found itself being resurrected en masse and re-embodied by a decent representative sample of the present community of that same place. But what use were these resurrected members of the community being put to? How did their appearance from beyond the grave at a large scale cultural event play out?

At the Colway retreat, where this community play manifesto was being drilled into the attendees, were two writers – Rupert Creed and Doc Watson – who went back to Hull and Boston to immediately start work. The Hull play of 1989, Creed told me, was ‘based on months and months of working with a local research group in Howden. We didn’t know what the story was going to be; and then one day someone brought in a pamphlet book about the life and times of a man called Snowden Dunhill and that got us really fired up, so we pursued that over at least half a year and out of that came the play’. And Watson’s team followed a similar trajectory.

But at some point the research team had to hand over the material to the playwright. Which is where things become interesting.

Most of the writers who were involved in writing community plays were of the left, partly because of its evolution from the community arts movement which very much pursued an oppositional cultural agenda that appears to have a genealogical link to the move towards People’s and Living History from the sixties onwards. And yet one of Jellicoe’s earliest demands was that the plays should not be political, because these were plays for communities of place and in such an arena politics was bound to be divisive. But of course when writers of the left are asked to write plays with large casts during a time, as the eighties were, of real political conflict then narratives about collective action in response to social injustice are almost inevitably bound to come to the forefront.

Creed’s play ‘Reap The Whirlwind’ covers a thirty year period at the beginning of the nineteenth century and centres on the contrasting and conflicting fortunes of two local families – the Dunhills, led by a notorious corn thief in the East Riding who was, like most of his family, transported to Australia; and the Clarksons, a wealthy Methodist landowning family. Creed says that one of his intentions in writing it was to examine the ‘many parallels to be drawn between this period and the changing face of Britain in the 1980’s, and to examine what lessons these characters from the past might teach us today’.

Watson’s ‘The Fens Ablaze’ – and both titles betray I think the writers political bent – is set in the mid to late eighteenth century and is about the enclosure of the Holland Fen and the riots that followed. Again this desire for the past to comment on the present is clear in the introduction in which Watson claims the story has ‘echoes in Britain today … this is intended to be a record of a happening in Boston, both in 1768 and in 1987’.

So now the dead whose life stories have been unearthed to create a communal theatrical activity are also being used to take part in a political argument about the present. And then there’s the other issue, the obvious one, that of story; of narrative; of the need to create theatre.

Both writers say that they felt very responsible for the historical accuracy of their plays even though Watson discovered several months after the very well attended performances that one of the central characters had died ‘some thirty years before the actual events of the play took place’. Creed said that he was adamant that ‘we weren’t going to fabricate the facts’ and yet the thrust of the second act is based on a storyline that Creed admits is one based largely on conjecture in which Snowden Dunhill, accused of stealing corn from the Methodist Barnard Clarkson, is shown to be innocent and is being framed by Clarkson.  When I pushed him on this he said ‘To be honest I can’t remember if that was factually accurate but it was all surmised, drawn from the court records; it looked likely that this could have happened. And of course you’ve got to make a good story’.

Which you have. For this is theatre.

The Triumph of Reason
The Triumph of Reason by Excavate – based on the life of Erasmus Darwin and staged in Elston, Nottinghamshire in the grounds of his early home.

I write community plays that are based on stories of people from the communities in which I’m working. I’m aware how much power a play can have – particularly through its collective form of reception – in creating myths and perceptions about the past. I have worked with many local historians who have wished that they could have as large an audience that a community play can draw; and who are very aware that the power of history being shown in this way, with dozens of performers dressed up in period costume talking in the first person, is often much more potent than the volume printed by the local history society.

I am also aware of the number of responsibilities that I am trying to juggle. To the history that has been unearthed. To the dead whose names are being invoked, and whose DNA may literally still be present within the community. To the present community of researchers without whom I may not be able to fulfil my function. To my own sense of self as an artist, so as not to become simply, as Stephen Lowe who has recently been working on a community play for the City of London said to me, ‘an amanuensis of the community’. And, perhaps most importantly, to the community that I am, in some ways, representing.

If as Michel de Certeau suggests, history is mediated by technique, then can this technique, the community play, create a certain type of history? I think it can and that it does.

Because of Watson and Creed’s need to surmise to both fill in the gaps and to fulfil their function as dramatists rather than historians, alongside their aim to draw parallels with the present community and to evoke place, it is clear that in their texts they use all manner of strategies; strategies which I recognise from my own work. In-jokes, place names, references to local legend, documented facts and figures, direct quotes from a range of sources often from different historical periods, colloquialisms, allusions to the here and now, all combine to create texts whose meaning ebbs and flows between a range of temporalities, whose time frames are constantly talking to each other.

The historical fabric that is created is baggy, chaotic, abundant, dynamic, anachronistic, parodic, sentimental, raucous and reflexive. It is clearly aligned to Raphael Samuel’s definition of history as ‘an organic form of knowledge’, in which the vernacular and the social are key components.  It understands Patrick  Wright’s phrase that an everyday understanding and relationship with the past is ‘cobbled together’ from memory and lore and stories. It is aware that, in the process it is engaged with, it is as much about making a history as about uncovering a history. It is situated as much in a place as in a time and as such, I think, it begins to move from the realm of history to that of memory; for as Pierre Nora has explained memory ‘attaches itself to sites, whereas history attaches itself to events’.

Nora calls for attention to be paid to a form of historical consciousness that is based on ‘collectively remembered values’ and argues that ‘the intimacy of a collective heritage’ has been increasingly replaced by a form of officially sanctioned history that is constantly reshuffling and reworking the past in the face of an escalating modernity that threatens to erase the present almost as soon as it is created.

I would argue that both ‘Reap The Whirlwind’ and ‘The Fens Ablaze’, along with many other community plays, are able, largely through their dynamic interplay with the past – both through the text and the physical connection to the past that is made by members of the present community taking on the characters of past members of that community – to contribute to a sense of a collective heritage. And that through creating these links between the then and the now they help to shape, to question, and sometimes to anchor community identity and action.

These figures from the past then, whose biographies and stories may have been tampered with so that they have a more coherent connection to the present – and, as can be seen by the Dorchester example, anyone’s life story may be open to appropriation – end up becoming unwitting re-embodied participants in a future community’s re-imagining.

As ‘Reap The Whirlwind’ ends we see Snowden’s wife reading from her exiled husband’s memoir: ‘It is beyond my conjecture to know whether this short life will be productive of any useful purpose; but at all events […] harm can happen to none by perusal of it’. The historical archive, the memoir, that initiated the writing of this community play, is unsure of any impact it may have.  But in the working through of the story, in the context of the community play, both a new archive and a new form, I think, of genuine historiographical interest have both been created.

Ironically just as the form was developing real purchase – with plays happening all over the country – it fell totally out of favour with the cultural establishment and largely, I believe, because of a misunderstanding of the historical work that it was doing. Those on the right saw the form as a fellow traveller of the oppositional community arts movement that they wanted nothing to do with. And those on the left either despaired of its lack of political aggression during a time of head on confrontation; or, saw it as being part of Robert Hewison’s ‘heritage industry’, a reactionary and nostalgic form that was succumbing to a backwards gaze and ignoring a present that was being shaped into a very worrying future.

But the community play has not vanished. The many practitioners of the work continue to create often smaller versions of these shows. Rupert Creed has been making large scale work in his home city of Hull for their Year of Culture programme, based on research into local stories. My company Excavate is currently working with the National Theatre on a community project based on interviews with and writings from a conscientious objectors community in Lincolnshire during World War Two. A national community play conference is taking place this September; and the seventh Dorchester community play, again with a large cast of characters all based on real people, will happen next year.

It is a form of work, a form of theatre and a form of history, that could I believe, given its relatively short life span the first time around, re-emerge as a popular form once again. And if, or when, it does, it should receive much more attention as a form of historiography, of biography, and of social and public history.

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The community play as event (an introduction)

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The V.C Factory by Excavate in Beeston Town Square, 2015

The community play is a theatrical form that happens very rarely.  For many towns or villages if it does happen at all it may only take place once in a lifetime. The run of the show may only last one or two nights. (I was involved in writing a five hour long community(ish) play for Leicester Haymarket called ‘The King of Spin’ which was performed for one day only at Bosworth Field in 2002. One of the performers cut short their holiday in France to take part. A mistake by another performer meant that their entire section was missed out).

The community play is often created as a model that will develop a wide range of additional activity around it; that additional activity being the point of its existence.

The community play is a play that sits at the heart of an event which contains a play.

The end of a community play – the final act – is also in some way the representation of the end of this process that contains the play. Surely the writer cannot help but be aware of this; especially given that the play may only be performed a handful of times.

Whilst this ephemerality could suggest that playwrights may turn away from writing for this form of theatre, there is something about this very fragility, of the rarity of the performance and of its fleeting nature, that brings an additional power to the event of sharing it.

In ‘Theatre Audiences’, her book on the ways that audiences receive and ‘read’ plays, Susan Bennett quotes Bernard Beckerman who identifies ‘a three-way communication between the play, the individual and collective audience. The play projects doubly. To each member of the audience as an individual … and to the audience as a whole, in that distinctive configuration that it has assumed for a particular occasion’.

In community theatre it may be possible to add another level of communication, another audience – and that is the audience that does not attend. Because the audience for this play is bounded; it is possible to draw up a list of every person who the play was intended for, because presumably it is intended for every member of that geographical community to witness. (I am talking here of a community of place).

The writer is presumably aware of the need for the play to project to this entire audience; is aware that they are engaging with a conversation with the whole community, even those who do not attend but who will perhaps be caught up in it in some other way because of its physical manifestation in the life of that community. Maybe the parking spaces for their Thursday night Zumba class will be taken by those who are rehearsing. Maybe their child will receive a letter from the school asking if they would like to be involved. Maybe a road will be closed, a clutch of fireworks will light the sky, a barely perceptible buzz of anticipation will hover in the air. All of this of course amplifies the notion of the play as event. It becomes – it has the potential to become – a seminal moment in the life of that community. And this is a moment which is all the more precious for its brevity.

The question of the way that the play is read as an event is key to an understanding of the work of the community playwright and Bennett’s work on framing devices seem to offer a very interesting base to explore this further: ‘the outer frame contains all those cultural elements which create and inform the theatrical event. The inner frame contains the dramatic production in a particular playing space. The audience’s role is carried out within these two frames and, perhaps, most importantly, at their points of intersection. It is the interactive relationship between audience and stage, spectator and spectator which constitute production and reception, and which cause the inner and outer frames to converge for the creation of a particular experience’. (p139)

The outer frame in community theatre is one that is fraught with perils and possibilities and the writer cannot help but be aware of these. It is a huge and looming presence that carries a huge accumulation of expectations. How does the writer battle with these? How do they (if they do at all) acknowledge the weight of this challenge that they face within their texts, so that they can turn this outer reading to their advantage and bring it to play in their work?

An interview with Stephanie Dale

Stephanie Dale

In 2015 Excavate ran a series of workshops and masterclasses for their Associate Artist team. One of these was with Stephanie Dale and David Edgar about the writing of the community play.

David Edgar wrote the first Dorchester Community Play ‘Entertaining Strangers’ which was produced in 1985 by the Colway Theatre Trust and was directed by Ann Jellicoe. It was also one of the few of these large scale plays to have a future life when it was rewritten and restaged in 1987 for the National Theatre. David then co-wrote ‘A Time To Keep’, the fifth Dorchester Community Play, with Stephanie Dale. This was produced in 2007 and directed by Jon Oram who had taken over as Director of the Colway Theatre Trust following the production of the first Dorchester play. (In 2000 the company, which has remained under the direction of Jon Oram, changed its name to Claque). Stephanie is now beginning work on what will be the seventh Dorchester play, produced by the Dorchester Community Plays Association, which was formed following ‘Entertaining Strangers’.

Whilst Claque still produce community plays across the UK and further afield, it is in the Dorchester Community Play that the theories and practice of the Ann Jellicoe model are perhaps most visible.

Stephanie has very kindly allowed me to track her progress as she researches and writes the play which will be performed in 2019. My first meeting with her was at her home in Birmingham in February of 2016 and the following is primarily based on that interview, with some additional material added at the beginning of this year.

Can I first ask you to introduce yourself?

I’m Stephanie Dale; I’m a Midlands based playwright. I write contemporary stage plays and stage adaptations. Part of my practice is about working in venues that are not traditional theatre spaces and working with large groups of social actors.

What do you mean by social actors?

I mean the people who are involved in the plays. I don’t particularly like the term amateur, and so I’m interested in exploring other titles, if there must be one. Jon Oram calls the group ‘social actors’. It’s a much more appropriate term because it encompasses what we are trying to do. The community who get involved are operating as performers but they’re not just coming to the space because they want their moment in the spotlight, they’re coming to the space because they want to work as a group, as a community, to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

And you’re writing the seventh Dorchester Community Play. So how did that come about?

Ever since Ann Jellicoe asked David Edgar to write ‘Entertaining Strangers’ 30 years ago, Dorchester stages a community play every five years. After ‘A Time to Keep,’ the DCPA staged ‘Drummer Hodge’ by Rupert Creed, which was terrific. Another few years passed, and then the energy to start thinking about the next community play emerged. People shouldn’t underestimate the time, energy, commitment and funding plays like this need; the people who are driving these projects are, particularly given the current financial climate, nothing short of incredible. In short, once that conversation began, the DCPA asked for expressions of interest and I said, yes, absolutely.

The play will be directed by Peter Cann who is a Midlands based writer/ director, and the musical director will be Tim Laycock.  We’ve all worked together many times before, which is a real bonus on a project of this scale. Peter’s a very dynamic and daring director who has considerable experience in creating large and visually thrilling spectacles, and he works exceptionally well with lots of people which is a skill in its own right. Tim lives in Dorset is and is very much part of the fabric of the Dorchester Community Play; his music is utterly delightful.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing ‘A Time To Keep’?

David wrote the first Dorchester community play ‘Entertaining Strangers’ and he had been approached to do the next one. We’d both been down to see ‘Fire From Heaven’ (the fourth play, written by Rupert Creed and produced in 2002) and as a form I was completely staggered by the intensity of the experience. It was incredible and I did have a clichéd ‘this is what I want to do with my life’ moment. Maggie Ansell (a key member of the DCPA) and I were talking to in the bar afterwards, and, at that time, I’d recently finished the MA in playwriting at Birmingham and said to her that I that I’d be really interested in being involved. They were then starting talking to David about writing the fifth play but David said he didn’t want to do another one and so it was suggested that we write it together. The advantage of that was I was working with somebody who had done it before and who knew the opportunities and threats, and he got to share his knowledge of the process and see the work through another writer’s lens/imagination. And so were interviewed by the DCPA, they offered us the commission and we were given the time period (1804). We then just had to sit down and work out how we were going to work together, at that point we had been living together for ten years, so we were fairly confident that we would work together well; we have a shared theatrical language and are both very level-headed, so that was a considerable bonus.

Initially, we were given masses of research from the DCPA research team, which was then led by Jill Pope. In collaboration with DCPA we discussed our key storyline and worked on creating key characters from real people taken from municipal records. We drank a lot of coffee. We worked out who was going to be in each scene and what happened; I supposed that process took a few months – including a wonderful tour of the secret underground tunnels of Dorchester. During the first writing week we both picked scenes and went off and wrote them and read to them each other. And then we became curious to see if it were possible to write the middle scene together. And so, we sat round this very table and we didn’t look back. David is so incredibly meticulous in his plotting and had really pushed us to create, in essence, the novel version of the script, all we had to do was improvise the actual dialogue, and actually the writing came easy and was a massive amount of fun. Also, there are so many characters in a community play it’s not very often you have to say no to an idea. We laughed our way through writing it; it was a really lovely and treasured experience for both of us.

So they allocate the time period do they? Is that always what happens?

Yes. They choose a time period. Interestingly, because they have done so many community plays, they are now starting to hit a point where they’re running out of central historical events which had a massive, and therefore dramatic, impact on the town. There are certain time periods they don’t to explore yet because they think it’s either too close to people who may still be alive or possibly too contentious.

Is that because they are explicitly political subjects, rather social ones?

All of the plays have big political elements to them. And the new play (‘Spinning the Moon’) certainly will. The most obvious thing to do in Dorchester would be Hardy, and he featured in the last play (‘Drummer Hodge’ by Rupert Creed, produced in 2014) but a community play should be about a community not a single person and so they’ve cleverly avoided doing that. This time they’ve settled on the wool trade and the collapse of the manorial system, during the late fourteen hundreds. So at the moment I’m learning a lot about monks and sheep!

‘A Time To Keep’ is fascinating because it’s about putting on a community play. It didn’t feel like an in joke but to a certain extent it felt like the play was partly celebrating those people that had done it for so long and that it was partly a reflection on their experience over all that time. Was that something that you came up with and then what back to them and said ‘look; this is what we’re thinking of doing?’

The writer(s) are always consulting with the DCPA and the core team all along. It’s their play. At the time, we thought that we wanted to celebrate the fact that they have kept the tradition going, and with four plays under their belt, there were/are certain behaviours that keep appearing – such as the person who is very shy, but who turns out to have an unexpected skill – that would be recognised, and that was met very positively.  Also, because it was the fifth community play we did feel ‘no more crusading vicars’. And so we set out to create something that was going to amuse people, even though the second half gets deviously darker.

So can you tell me about the process for this play? When were you asked to do it; how long ago?

In 2015, Peter Cann and I were appointed and within weeks we went down to work with the DCPA research team. They’d already settled on the time period for the play, and Alison Payton, who was running the research group, had already unearthed masses of documents. She presented what they’d discovered so far and then we had conversations with about twelve people, and discovered their key areas of historical research. By the end of that meeting each person went away to explore a specific area. We arranged to meet again in November. When we went back down, we were amazed by the amount of work that the team had done. We had an incredibly useful feedback session and Peter Cann did a few exercises based on living in Dorchester then and now.

In the interim I’ve had parcels through the post and emails and ‘have you seen this and have you thought of this?’, so I’ve now amassed three folders of research – everything from the wool trade and how you clip a sheep through to what was being grown on the land, through to the end of the Wars of the Roses and people returning, and the plague was still around and still impacting on rural communities. I’ve just received a document about witchcraft; I can’t wait to read that.

Now I’m starting to look into those worlds and at the moment there are three main areas. We don’t yet know how they connect: first, the monasteries, so we’re looking at Abbotsbury  – amazing stories of corruption to be found there! And second, we’ve got shipwrecks – one of the first images that has held in my imagination was a shipwreck off the coast of Weymouth. (Joanna the Mad and her fleet were run ashore in June 1535). Third, the wool trade, or the collapse of the manorial system, – and the clearance of land for sheep. Obviously that’s fantastic in terms of conflict. The lords of the manor didn’t want to/couldn’t afford to put any more money into looking after their land so they start selling it off to their sewers. So for the richer folk, who could afford it, it was a fabulous opportunity, and they bought the land, and covered it in sheep, but that meant pushing a lot of people, who had worked as labours, off the manor houses  to live in the woods, and they became landless. I’m particularly engaged with the disposed and how they managed. Part of creating a community play is about trying to form dynamic groups that an audience will remember. In reality, audiences aren’t going to remember one or two hundred characters but they will remember groupings: the rich, the poor, the smugglers; and the thrill as a playwright it is in creating those worlds and those teams of people. So at the moment I’m spinning those three areas and trying to work out what will be born from all of that.

And are they nearly always social groups?

Yes.

So inherently they rub up against each other?

Yes. And we look for the overlaps. Who is connecting those groups? Who is causing chaos through those groups? Where is the conflict of role and status? What is particularly brilliant about the wool trade is that the shepherds pass the wool on to the packers, who then pass the wool on to the women, who spin in the cottages, who then pass the wool on to the clothiers; that chain is really interesting. Currently I’m considering what if all the stories from the play come from one clip of a sheep, and where does that ball of wool go, and how does that open out and filter through into the town?

What DCPA have done brilliantly in the past is stage large-scale historically accurate stories and  what I’d like to do with this play is bring in an element of magical realism and do things that are slightly less traditional. Each time we create work like this it’s about considering what has gone before and figuring out an original way of engaging with the process and creating a fresh and vibrant way of performing the work and telling a new story.

How many people are in the research team?

There are around 12 people, some of whom were on the research team for the first community play. A lovely example would Billie Brown who is a key member of the group; she knows everything there is to know about Dorchester and is a specialist in period clothing.  As a writer it’s just such a joy and a treat to have that kind of assistance. Where else do you get that kind of support where you’re writing something and think ‘oh I’d quite like to know about the monastic daily ritual?’ I remember sending off an email about that very thing and by that evening I’d received four emails back, that kind of response is incredible; absolutely brilliant.

At the moment you’re knee deep in reading all the material and beginning to formulate things that you want to focus on. What is your next stage? How often do you meet the committee?

I’m due to meet with them again in April. And April is when we will say ‘here’s the outline of this play’, which is a little bit daunting because there is so much to read and process and time is going ridiculously quickly. I feel very secure that we have the worlds; what I don’t have yet is the plot. I’m writing in a different way this time – normally I would have the story and have a definite through line but this time I‘ve made many detailed lists: the groupings of people, and a list of what are the most amazing things that could happen within these worlds, a list of key events; lists of food, hobbies, religious ceremonies; new laws; requests for changes in the town – what made me smile was seeing a document that was calling for Dorchester to have a one-way system. Basically, at this stage, I have key places for scenes and who will be in them. So we know for example that we want to a ceremonial scene set at Abbotsbury monastery because we know that will be spectacular. Just imagine, one hundred monks lit by candlelight walking through the space singing in prayer, children with palm leaves…And then I have a list of the more unusual things that night happen within those spaces, but I’m not going to discuss that yet. My plan at the minute is to just keep reading.

Does writing help? Just trying to get something down on the page?

I’m not ready to do that yet. What I’m slowly doing is finding that story telling voice that I think will run throughout. The most important thing I’m having at the moment is meetings with Peter Cann where we sit down and talk about the ideas I’ve had within that week; we meet on a weekly basis. A hobby of the time was flying hawks so we spent time talking about how we could do that. We’re both very theatrical visual so that’s what we’re playing with at the moment; central dramatic images.

I’d like to come back to those who ended up living in the woods…

Yes; part of writing a community play is to explore cultural resonances with the past and present. I get frustrated when people say community plays are just about putting on a big piece of theatre; it is far more involved and significant than that. It’s about bring a group of people together to create a community, to explore the place where they spend their lives, to look at what was happening then and now and compare that to the past. It’s about creating life-long intergenerational links and it’s about giving a community the confidence and skills to see what they can achieve together. Currently the world is experiencing a refugee crisis. Part of the landless plot will explore how it must feel to be forced to leave your home. Peter and I are always keen to ask ‘how is the past connecting with now?’ And I think that is one very clear example. They are landless, they are moving, they’re dispossessed, they’re moving on; how does that feel?  It’s a really interesting period to explore because the wool trade is making people prosperous again post war – but equally that’s causing people to lose their land and leave the fields and be forced into being homeless.

And is Dorchester’s wealth originally built on the wool trade?

Yes. That said, there were many villages around Dorchester that were abandoned and no longer exist because there was just no need for them. They were completely wiped out by people getting rid of their patches of land and letting the sheep cover it. Also, Calais at that time was an incredibly rich and prosperous town because that’s where the key meetings for the price of wool were held. Again, it’s interesting to reflect on the opinion held of Calais then and now.

What do you think are the expectations of the commissioners and the audience for this play? Is that something you have at the back of your mind?

The standard of the work in the past has been incredibly high, as has the standard of performance. In the past, all of the directors have been brilliant at working with a huge group of people who of course have varying levels of performance skill and capabilities. All of the plays have had a core team of professionals who have delivered to the highest standard and delivered excellent pieces of theatre.

It’s no coincidence that the shows always sell out. A joy of working on a show with one hundred and twenty people is that there’s an audience already built in. But people do come from far and wide to see the Dorchester Community Play and so the expectation, and pressure, of it being incredible it certainly there.

I think from the social actor’s point of view they want to develop their skills, meet new people and be a part of something they will remember for the rest of their lives, and do something they haven’t done before – particularly if they have been involved in previous plays. The DCPA always have a public reading of the play and then people then express an interest. Once the professional team have got a rough idea of numbers then the writer will rewrite the play according to how many people say they want to be involved. Everyone who wants to be in the play can be, the work will be adapted to suit numbers and key skills.

So, yes, expectation is high, and that’s a little bit scary but we having an excellent core team of professionals and the DCPA, because it is so established, have an experienced body of social actors. Also they are always involving new people and so that keeps the talent fresh and vibrant.

You were talking about bringing something new to the form. Do you think that the commissioners have a sense that ‘these are the ingredients of the community play?’ Do you think they have a sense, maybe an unspoken sense, of this is how you write a community play?

This is what we trying to break a little bit; and part of the reason why we got the commission. Of course it helps that I’ve seen the last three shows and have a deep knowledge and an experience of that place. As part of the interview for the work we stated that this is how we’ve/you’ve done it so far let’s now try and switch it up a gear and there is a really positive attitude towards that feeling.  In the past there have been those social groupings who have had their scenes and then we move on. What we’re interested in is – let’s go back to the shipwreck -rather than people standing around the edges who are waiting for their moment how can everybody in this space be involved in this shipwreck? Is there a way of everybody making a noise or sound or movement so it’s even more of a collective experience? Obviously that’s not going to be possible for the entire two hours but I think there’s a different type of story-telling that hasn’t been tried yet.

Are you the first female writer of the Dorchester play?

The first Dorchester community play was produced in 1985. Ann Jellicoe, who was the founder of the Colway Theatre Trust had been working and producing large-scale plays in Lyme, wrote ‘Under the God’ for Dorchester in 1992 and has been a massive part of the organisation. (Ann’s book ‘Community Plays: How to put them on, is a practical and really useful resource for anyone contemplating creating work of this kind). I was the first woman to adapt the Chester Mystery Plays in 2012. Deborah McAndrew is currently working on the 2018 version.

Are there any other plays that you can think of, or films even, that on some level are parked at the back of your head in providing a possible language for this play that you’re groping towards?

In terms of language, no is the short answer, although in terms of energy we keep talking about Peaky Blinders. There’s an instinctive feeling of the world we’re going to create and it comes from working on the last two or three pieces. Of course, there is something about going to see other pieces of similar work that’s inspiring too – recently I saw Birmingham Opera’s latest piece; they create exceptional pieces of community work. You never ever see any of the company waiting to perform their moment, they’re always doing, always active, always productive. Demographically, their community tends to be diverse and perhaps slightly younger, probably in their twenties, but they never stop.

DCPA loved working with Nina (Hajiyianni, the Director of ‘Fire From Heaven’, the fourth play, produced in 2002) because Nina did a substantial amount of character work with the social actors and it set up the relationships within the family groupings. When they weren’t on stage they were living their family life, and they all understood who they were in relation to one another, and they carried on living that world for the whole two hours. It’s about keeping the energy. It’s keeping the world alive.

That brings back a memory of my first workshop for ‘The Tide’ (the second community play produced by the Colway Theatre Trust in Seaton, East Devon in 1980 which I performed in as a teenager). It was absolutely about that, of family groupings working together. So you’ve set yourself a challenge. Has this come from the experience of writing your previous community play for them?

It’s about developing as a writer and wanting to do something new; wanting to do something different. I had a conversation with Rupert (Creed) because Rupert wrote ‘Fire From Heaven’ and then he did ‘Drummer Hodge.’ He said: “If you’re asked back you sort of have to give them a different present, you can’t give them the same thing; and you have to find a way of working in a different way.” At one point, around the period we’re looking at, people started sending me research documents about smugglers. We’ve been there; done that, in ‘A Time to Keep’ we can’t head back to that territory again.

I’ve recently been in Dorchester and have met with some of the people who have been in previous shows. A lot of them were coming up to me and saying ‘I was rich last time or I was poor last time’ and I’ve had a couple of people come up to me and say ‘I’ve always played nice characters, I’d love to play a nasty character’. They want to try something new too.

Have you read all the texts for all of the other plays?

Yes.

What did you learn from writing the last one that you know you’re going to carry into this?

The social groupings; definitely.

Something David (Edgar) and I discussed a lot was how to get the audience to remember characters that are key to the plot. For example, one of the characters in ‘A Time To Keep’ needed to be kept in the audiences’ mind and so we gave him a stammer. Another character held vital information was placed in a wheelchair. The wheelchair acted as a visual signifier. The audience had over 100 characters to hold on to, so finding ways to help them was/is key.

It’s also vital to remember what one hundred and thirty people can do well together. If that many people are in a space and placed, staged on different levels of scaffolding, lit and costumed well, and they sing as a collective, well, that’s hugely impressive. If you get one hundred and thirty people all carrying candles it’s beautiful, or to create a morning at Dorchester market, it’s so much fun and a joy to watch. Also remember that the DCPA shows are promenade productions, so the audience is in and amongst all of the action, which makes them part of the world of the play and not separated by the seating/stage divide.

There has to contrasts. A director can create a really intimate moment, and have children pulling at you as a member of the audience asking a question, and then you can open that tiny moment out to the rest of the cast. I love that kind of whispering in the ear and then suddenly it’s way out there, around the space, it’s all around you. That kind of really intimate, intense moment that may be so up close and personal but then suddenly you open that out as a something to share with hundreds of people.

Also, in Jon Oram’s afterword for ‘A Time To Keep’ (published by Nick Hern Books) he says ‘The plays themselves should implicate the audience’. I’m passionate about in this; and when I write I think of the community audience as an implicit character(s) somehow and try and find ways of linking the community of the play to the community of the audience. In ‘A Time to Keep’ we had a sequence where goods were smuggled through the town. The social actors asked the audience for help and food and drink was passed, chain-like, across the space, which at that point in the play was operating as Dorchester High Street.

You have said that you want to connect the play in some way to what is happening now. Are there specific things in Dorchester that you feel it would be interesting to refer to in some way in the play? Are there things that you think ‘it would be a bit tricky to do this but it would be interesting’?

We have talked to many people in Dorchester and have asked them what they think the current issues are. Dorchester is by and large a very lucky, prosperous town but there issues in the environs, those issues will be considered and may well be introduced as a theme of the play. (Issues such as lack of car parking, government cuts, affordable housing, and the price of food are often high up the list). When I adapted the Chester Mystery Plays director Peter Leslie Wild and I spent two months in Chester asking the community ‘what’s going on here?’ And the responses that we gathered were fed back into the work in various ways. The playwright can show the community back to itself. Also, as a writer you know you will always get the big laughs from things that do reference, however obliquely, the things that are going on and that people relate to. That’s important; that’s part of the deal. I know the line in the new play about Dorchester needing a one-way system will get a big laugh; it will mean something, it is a moment of shared experience.

Is that something that has happened or not in the history of the play? This sense of making connections with now? In the first play (Entertaining Strangers) you get a sense of where David’s heart is but it comes across as very much a moral argument rather than something perhaps connected to a specific community. Did that sense of connecting the historical story to what is happening in the community now occur in ‘A Time To Keep?’

That is largely to do with ‘Entertaining Strangers’ being the first DCPA play, they didn’t know then that the tradition was going to keep going and that such a legacy would grow. All of the plays have had connections with now. In our play, ‘A Time to Keep’ we also wanted to celebrate the fact it was the fifth community play and looked to the past when a new theatre manager had moved to Dorchester and was struggling to fund his theatre and create new and dynamic work, so no change there! And whilst we took all the names and dates from the municipal records and key family trees, we also had fun with the form. Both the audience and the social actors laughed at the idea of somebody turning up late for rehearsal because they recognised the format. People love to recognise themselves or situations. It’s about recognising yourself and your place in the community and how you fit.

So what are you most excited and anxious about?

There is something beautiful about printing off your first draft of a complete play and knowing what is to come. There is something very magical and rather peculiar about writing; it’s a strange process whereby the writer somehow ends up with a block of white paper, which contains many black dots, and that will move out of the writer’s hands and become, through other peoples’ labours something extraordinary. What am I terrified about? It’s a terrific team. I’m anxious that the community love the play and love being part of it. I’m anxious about reading the play – DCPA invite the playwright to read the whole play to the community – to give the play as it were to them. Very Chekhovian!

That still happens? (I remember this from my time as a teenager in three community plays produced by Colway Theatre Trust).

That still happens. It was lovely when we shared ‘A Time To Keep’ because there were two of us and that was a wonderful experience; and Tim (Laycock, the Musical Director) came and played music and sang the songs. But I’m a writer, I prefer being in the back with my cup of coffee watching.

When you read all of the previous plays did you get a sense that there is a type of script that the Dorchester Community Play requires?

We (Stephanie and David Edgar) lecture on writing community plays, most recently at a conference on Medieval and Early Modern England, in Montpellier. We suggest a list of ten core things. The main question we pose is ‘what is the core event that affects everybody in that town?’ Writers should search for the core muscle at the centre of the play, the thing that impacts on everyone. In ‘Fire from Heaven’ it was the fire, in a ‘Time to Keep’ it was the threat of Napoleonic invasion and how to deal with the troops moving in on Dorchester.

And yes, there is a kind of Ann Jellicoe model that has worked very successfully. But, like life, things are constantly developing and moving forward.

Other than the Dorchester plays are there any other community plays that you’ve been able to read?

Yes, for example I’ve read a lot of Jon Oram’s work. I think he’s on play forty or not far off. But community plays by and large are not to be published and so they do disappear. We were very lucky that ‘A Time To Keep’ was published and we were asked by drama schools if we could do a version that had fifty characters for a company of about fourteen, which we did. So ‘A Time To Keep’ has had a life beyond Dorchester. That was interesting because it had a mixed response from the community because there were those who said ‘oh brilliant you’re going to take our story and it’s going to be told elsewhere’, and there were those who felt ‘well actually it’s a community play and we shouldn’t be doing that, that’s against the whole ethos of what we’re trying to create here’.

Jon’s has this beautiful notion that when you’re watching the last show of a community play it is like watching a firework and you’re watching the show go out in front of you. It’s true, but maybe that’s what has to happen. That we go back and we revisit these points in history and we let those people live again, but just for a short time.

Because we do, we bring these characters, who were based on real people, and we let them live again. My recent paper on community plays was called ‘Walking with Ghosts’; that’s what’s happening, we are creating a vital living history.

This time, because we’re looking at the fourteen hundreds we’ve been able to find lots of lists of men, but very few women are listed because they weren’t recorded on any of the documents. In the past we have tried very hard that every character is based on a real person. At least find out their name, age, occupation and use that within the piece. What’s lovely within the Dorchester community play is that people have got to play their Great Great Great Grandfathers, and their Great Great Great Grandmothers and that’s rather beautiful; people are often very moved by that.

There is something exquisite about walking down Dorchester High Street, and knowing where people from ‘A Time To Keep’ used to live. I love standing outside a little shop and knowing that Elizabeth and Maria Meech used to live in that particular house; one lived downstairs, one lived upstairs and that one was a Conservative and one was as far left as it was possible to get. And they used to like wearing blue hats.

Recently I created a show based on an explosion at a munitions factory in Nottinghamshire and at the end we had record cards of all of those who were killed pegged out on a rope that stretched across the square in which we were performing. And a number of people came up to ask if they could have these cards because they had the name of their relative on. And we told them that they were just props but they still wanted them. And I wonder what will happen to them, if they will be passed down as family heirlooms. It may be that something that has been created from an act of the imagination will enter into the historical archive as a documented reality.

Wonderful. It is about that connection isn’t it? It’s all about connections and hooking back into the past and simultaneously throwing that forward. I am a keen geologist and the law of uniformitarianism – the present is the key to the past – is alive and well.  We are simultaneously making connections with the past and asking ‘what does the future hold?’ and ‘what are we saying about then and now and tomorrow?’

This doesn’t seem to me to be a form of theatre that has much literature surrounding it.

I am a visiting lecturer on the Applied and Community course at Birmingham School of Acting and students ask ‘what’s our reading list’? and in reference to community plays I am still asking them to read  Ann Jellicoe’s book, (Community Plays, Methuen, 1987), which as brilliant but things have moved on. Jon Oram is working on a book, which I’ve been privileged to read some of; it is detailed, current, and tremendously insightful and needs to be published as soon as possible. Working on the Applied Course and continuing to work in this field, I’d be really interested to interview some of the students who have graduated and who are creating similar work within communities. I think there is a way of comparing the work then and what’s happening now, and engaging in a dialogue about what’s different, what’s changed, and considering where do we go from here.

Let’s get the Nativity out onto the streets

The Liverpool Nativity

The Liverpool Nativity, 2007

Christmas is a time of the year when three forms of performance inundate the land – carol singing, pantomime and the nativity play, (although increasingly the Christmas musical seems to be replacing the traditional pantomime, perhaps driven by the fact that Christmas stories and myths are as much those now promulgated by film and television than by folk tales – it won’t be long before ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ becomes a standard Christmas theatre show).

Carol singing is a moment of genuine collective voice, and indeed the rise of popularity of choirs – both as an audience and a participant – is testament to the changing ways in which we are looking for our collective fix. Pantomimes are hugely interesting and complex forms of theatre, in which all sorts of theories about the way that an audience engages, responds to, and shapes the meaning of a performance can be brought into play. But it is the nativity play that most interests me.

For many of us the nativity is the moment that we sit squashed together on benches in a school hall and watch our children stagger through the story of the birth of Christ. And every single one of us sees something completely different, because we are generally focussing on those children we are related to, or know well; and they are, in return, looking for and at us. Apologies for bringing theory into this but I think it’s something that anyone who writes community theatre has to be aware of and to potentially use.

In ‘Languages of the Stage’ Patrice Pavis interrogates the tension between the text and the performance; a tension in which ‘the text is revealed in all its fragility, constantly menaced as it is by the gestuality which might at any time interrupt its emission, and which always guides the spectator in the rhythm of his reception’. For anyone who has watched a nativity it is always this ‘gestuality’ that is remembered; the nose that is picked as the shepherds arrive; the distracted look out into the audience from Mary as the myrrh is handed over. Of course it is faintly ludicrous to think that a group of very young children are in a position to do anything other than this, but as Pavis continues: ‘The fiction … is always at the mercy of interruptions in the enactment: the event, the spectator’s material reality, the actor’s presence’. For Pavis there is an ongoing relationship and tension between a ‘horizontal reading (obedient to the text, narration, and ideology) and in a vertical reading (constructed within the event, in the sentiment aroused by the actor’s presence)’.

I offer this here because I think that the community play revels in the tension between these two readings. Not only does it create theatrical meaning from performers who may truly interrupt the writers envisaged enactment it often does this with a huge number of them, wandering around and bumping into each other. It is messy. The readings for the audience are often – at least in the Colway Theatre model – enormously multiplied. Everywhere they look there is something else happening; there is a cacophony of messages flying around that are pieced together by the individual audience member. And yet at the heart of this there are the moments when these individuals come together, when the collective is formed and when, however messy it may be and however much the audience member may still find themselves focussing on Aunty Maude’s funny wig, the fusion of this individual reading and the potential for a more coherent group reading comes together. And this is something that can be utilised. But enough of that.

Why is it that the nativity has become the preserve of child performers? I’d be interested to know the point at which the school system decided to present this story, which is now a staple of the primary school calendar and which brings its own issues within an increasingly pluralistic society. (Although the annual Daily Mail outrage at an un-Christian nativity that it has spotted somewhere was deflected this year by the Gregg’s Nativity Sausage Roll Scandal.  As the Revered Mark Edwards said of the Gregg’s nativity scene advert ‘To replace Jesus with a half-eaten sausage roll is just going to the lowest common denominator …I think if they tried that with any other faith you can imagine the outcry there would be, and rightly so.’)

In 2007 BBC3 broadcast The Liverpool Nativity, an event that launched the city’s year as the Capital of Culture, advertising it with: ‘Liverpool’s great musical heritage is the soundtrack to a contemporary drama set in a fictitious state, a tale as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. It tells the intimate personal story of a pregnant young girl, set against a backdrop of political tension and unrest, and stars a host of well-known Liverpool actors and personalities’. This was a production in which a modern retelling of the nativity took place in locations right across the city using Liverpool actors and Liverpool music.

The Liverpool Nativity followed on from the success of The Manchester Passion, again broadcast by BBC 3, and again being a contemporary reworking of that story with Manchester music. The Bishop of Manchester said that for him the production had “a sincerity and an ability to shock and connect that is not far removed from how it must have been on the first Good Friday’, which is high praise indeed, especially in an increasingly secular world in which if you attend a Christmas service the first thing that strikes you is how few people there are in the church compared to the primary school nativity.

I don’t know how much these plays influenced the thinking of NTW and Wildworks, but in 2011 they produced what it still seen as an exemplar of community theatre practice (at least within the more traditional theatre environment) with their version of The Passion, written by Owen Sheers, which was, as the NTW website states ‘supported by over 1,000 community volunteers’, interestingly going on to say that the production brought ‘over 22,000 people to the town’.

The Passion Port Talbot

Michael Sheen in The Passion, Port Talbot, 2011

The Manchester Passion meanwhile in the same year was recreated for a Dutch audience in Gouda, another example of the way that more community orientated theatre practices have found their way to the Netherlands (where they are often developed in a way that many British community artists can only feel envious of). It is now broadcast annually in different Dutch cities and, according to Wikipedia, ‘its format has also been exported to other countries, including Belgium and the United States’. And so – it appears – the Passion play has become a franchise.

I’ve just finished reading Robert Hewison’s ‘Culture and Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940’, which traces the evolution of the idea of culture from an (at times unsuspecting) paternalistic defender of establishment values, to an all-encompassing ‘public culture’  in which ‘the traditional opposition between culture and industrial society has disappeared. Instead of preserving the classical and cultural values of western civilisation, which resisted the socially destructive drive of industrialisation, cultural activity now has the authority of the state to encourage the citizen’s indulgent consumption, no longer tempering the naked greed of the market by appeals to the spiritual and moral values of art, but extracting as much profit as possible, looking to the arts as a means of economic recovery’.

Both the Liverpool Nativity, the Manchester Passion, and (to a lesser extent maybe) The Port Talbot Passion are interesting examples of performances that are caught up in this dilemma. I’m sure that in all of these projects there was a hope that by retelling a story that everyone knows, on the streets of a specific community and using music from that community, that there was an attempt to create a sense of a collective understanding and identity that chimed with the anti-individualistic message of the stories themselves. And yet at the same time they were also unashamedly advertisements for the cities that they were performed in, for a national and maybe even an international audience. You can imagine the meetings where the plea for roads to be closed were prefaced with arguments about ‘profile’.

The tensions are even clearer when you look a little more closely at the Dutch version of the Passion, which has involvement from both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. With a clock ticking down the hours and seconds before the next edition (to be held in 2018 in De Bijlmer, Amsterdam) it appears to have become an interesting addition to the country’s cultural calendar, and one that perhaps arouses debate around social and religious issues in a country that is grappling with pluralism in the same way that we are in the U.K. And yet at the very same time that it has the ability to do this work it is clear, from the fact that the Gouda passion won an award for ‘best city marketing event’, that the moment a large scale performance enters into a public space it finds itself co-opted by the values of that public space. And these values are ultimately driving the potential for collective experience away from and out of the physical public sphere. (This article about the  ‘startling spread of pseudo-public spaces’ across London is a really well researched and worrying read).

Perhaps its time to get the nativity out onto the streets again, although in a smaller way, not worrying about TV deals and profile building. Presumably one of the reasons that the Passion is a much easier model to roll out is not just because its a more public story (rather than one that fundamentally takes place in a shed) but also because at Christmas there is literally no public space left to create such an event, as every square inch is taken up with German Markets or other ways to ensure that we spend as much money as possible to keep things just about ticking along.

Maybe the hidden nature of the nativity story lends itself perfectly to secret performances that happen in the shadows of this great consumerist splurge. Or maybe I just have to accept that the only spaces where a nativity play can happen are in churches, where nobody goes anymore; theatres, which are trying to balance their books with a successful pantomime aided by a star name from a successful TV series; or a primary school.

An interview with Roy (and Maggie) Nevitt

Roy_Nevitt

Earlier this year (the 23rd August 2017) I went to visit Roy Nevitt and his wife Maggie at their house in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes. Roy moved to the town in 1967, initially to work as a lecturer in drama at North Bucks College of Education situated in Bletchley Park. After two years there, three and a half years in the USA, and eighteen months as Director of Drama at Wanstead High School, he returned to Stony Stratford and was appointed Director of Drama at Stantonbury Campus where he began to build up community drama in the new city. His wife Maggie worked alongside Roy, becoming Advisor to the Milton Keynes Foundation in 1989, and then Arts Consultant to the Community Trust. Most of the interview was with Roy, as it was he that was the writer (and director, and producer) for the majority of the community theatre work that was made during this time; but Maggie had many insights to share as the interview progressed.

This is a long interview, but it’s one that I think gives a fantastic overview of the work of one of the earliest pioneers of the community theatre movement, and of a period when theatre was viewed, and financially supported, as an important tool of community building on a strategic level. And it also gives a real insight into the crossover of a variety of theatrical forms, and of the movement from a decidely political impetus to a situation that many people will recognise today.

roy-nevitt-dec-2017.jpg

Roy, can you begin by telling me a little about the first play that you made here? Where did the idea come from – the notion of making a play of this type? And what was the function of the project and script?

I think the root of it all was when I was attending a drama course at Keele University with Peter Slade in 1965, prior to taking up a post of Head of Drama in a comprehensive school in Shropshire. The nearest professional theatre to Keele was the Victoria Theatre, Stoke on Trent, so on a free evening I wandered into Stoke looking for a play and I walked right into Peter Cheeseman’s ‘The Staffordshire Rebels’ and it blew my mind. It was so exciting. It was telling the story of the English Civil War as it took place precisely in that area of North Staffordshire. It had humour, colour, energy, history; and it was a documentary play.  He’d done this with twelve dedicated professional actors, people like Ben Kingsley and Robert Powell; he had actors of that quality performing in this wonderful homemade documentary. And I was thinking – and this is really near the beginning of my career as a drama teacher – ‘bloody hell! I could do this!’ But being an educator I would want students in it, I’d want to have them involved in every stage of it. But I’d also want to have my colleagues on the teaching staff involved in it; and I’d want to have their parents involved in it. I’d want it to be a community play.

So that settled in the sands of time really because I had too much other work to ever do such a thing at that stage. The next thing that triggered it was when I was in Dillons bookshop in London, just browsing with some time to kill, and I picked up a book by Bertram Edwards called ‘The Burston School Strike’. And it was an extraordinary book, full of documents that had arisen from the historical event of a school strike that happened in the Norfolk village of Burston in 1913. The strike was triggered because of huge injustice by farmers and church people and landowners, who were on the governing board of this school, to the teachers whose only offence was that they loved the children. They demanded justice for the children, boots for them to wear rather than walking through snow barefoot, coal to put on the fire so they didn’t have to freeze to death during their lessons; and for farmers not to be allowed to take them out of school to pick up stones from the fields or frighten crows away as part of the agricultural season. So these teachers, because they had the children’s interests at heart, and a general liberal sense of education, were unpopular and they were twice sacked; once in a previous school and then subsequently in Burston, a village about two miles from Diss in Norfolk. Now Bertram Edwards had been incredibly excited when he found out about this historical event and couldn’t understand why it had been forgotten because it was a tremendous story. The school went on strike, and the kids went on strike supported by their parents to such an extent that they built a strike school on the village green. It started in 1917 I think, and stopped running in 1939.  And we went to see the school and it still had all the names of all the trade unions that had supported it stamped on the side of the building, although now it was just a furniture store or something.

I befriended Bert and asked ‘can I make a play of your wonderful book?’ and he said it’s what he always dreamt would happen, that there would be a play; and he introduced us to the people who were still living (now in their seventies) who’d been children at this school that had gone on strike. A principal one of those was a woman called Violet Potter; and Violet, aged fifteen – when Mrs Higden the headteacher had come in to say that she and Mr Higden would no longer be their teachers because they’d been dismissed from their post – Violet walked to the front of the class and wrote on the blackboard ‘we are going on strike tomorrow’. And I knew I had the end of my First Act right there, with her writing that on board.

The Strike School was opened with a big event with dancing and singing and speeches and trade unionists and so on, and the central speech was by Sylvia Pankhurst which I was able to find verbatim; and she said things like ‘whose feet would not dance on a day like today?’ And this fabulous celebration of the power of people to confront blatant conservative injustice and protect the interests of children and education was there in that historical event.

Having got to know Violet, and all these other striking children that were still alive, we got permission to take our play in its draft form and perform it in situ in all these bits of Burston village. The school scenes were performed in the school, and the church scenes  in the church, and the field scenes were out in the fields and so on. They got so interested in our telling of their story, we from Milton Keynes telling their story in Burston, that they all came in buses to see a matinee of our performance when it was finished and complete. There’s a moment at the end of the play when our actress, who was a fifteen year old girl playing Violet Potter, had to make her speech saying  ‘I declare this school open and to be forever a school for freedom’. And on that particular matinee, with Violet Potter sitting on the front row of a theatre in the round stage, this young actress reached out and lifted up Violet Potter, the real one, who aged seventy something spoke the words that she’d originally spoken on that day. For me that was the absolute proof of the spirit that runs through these kinds of plays if they’ve remained true to their source material. If the characters as performed by the actors are true to the people they are representing, so much so that the real people in the audience will tell you ‘that’s exactly what happened’. We know it wasn’t exactly what happened; that when people say ‘I saw my father on the village green shouting that speech like that’, you know it can’t have been precisely like that. But they feel it was like that so there’s a ring of authenticity running through this kind of stuff; and the proof is that the people whose stories are being told tell you that you’ve got it right.books_0007_The_Burston_School_Strike_by_Bert_Edwards-257x300And what was the year of that play?

It was 1974; no actually the performance was in 1975.

You said the inspiration was seeing Peter Cheeseman – in terms of an idea of the style – and that you said you thought you would expand that idea so that it wouldn’t be with a professional cast but that it would be a ‘community play’. I’m wondering what the notion of a ‘community play’ was in 1974, because I know that my notion of a community play comes from a later period actually, which is the Ann Jellicoe moment about four years after that. So I’m wondering what your reference for the ‘community play’ was.

Well OK, I wasn’t coming to it with a notion of what a community play was; I was coming to it from the grass roots, the bottom up. I wanted a play where I could have thirty children performing alongside God knows how many adults. Let’s say forty adults and thirty children, with the adults being my fellow teachers and the parents of the children and other members of the community. These are the people I wanted to work with on such a project.

And why did you want to work with them? Because they offered you raw materials to do a big play or for another reason?

Well partly … yes partly because they became as passionate about it as I did. My colleagues wanted to use it, and the work we were doing and the document stuff, within the curriculum; this fitted in exactly with them. The Open University got terribly excited by it all and made it into a perfect example of curriculum development within a secondary school, and published papers on that which became course materials for their students.

So was this a time when the idea of local history and people’s history in the education sector was quite big?

Stantonbury was a unique kind of school. When we moved here for the second time we were coming into a situation where four towns and thirteen villages, with forty thousand people, was going to expand into a new city with a million people over a period of time. And my role at Stantonbury was Director of Drama and Theatre, but I was first of all paid by the Development Corporation whose responsibility was to build a city. And they chose to pay me because they wanted someone to advise them on theatre in a new city context; but they left me with total freedom to do whatever I wanted. So I said ‘I want to be based in a school campus with a professional theatre’, and if I could work from there then I could do everything that they would want me to do in terms of growing drama and theatre from the grass roots. And so a community play like the one I’ve just described, which was the first one, had this effect of involving people who’d lived here for ever, but also including all these people who were just arriving from Belfast, Glasgow and London to come into the new city. So that fusion of two communities, who had to learn to live together, around a creative project like the making of a new play; and the performance of it to an audience, and then even extending to being an audience for that kind of thing, was met by this kind of play. We were largely involved in education but we were also involved in community development, in a situation that had to have community development if it was going to be a successful city.

And that was why they employed you I presume?

Yes; Bucks County Council quickly saw my value and took over my salary. But I was able to stay with complete autonomy over my work for the next twenty seven years. And the theatre was such that I was teaching kids in the theatre in the daytime, I was rehearsing community people in the evenings and Sundays, and we were promoting professional theatre on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. And so we had access to professional theatre practitioners who would run workshops with whoever was our cast in our current play;  kids and adults could all work with people like Mike Alfreds and his company Shared Experience;  and there were numerous ways that they could get close to productions by Joint Stock, Hull Truck, Belt and Braces, 7:84 and many others, who were bringing their plays into our theatre in any particular week, helping Front of House, backstage and participating in workshops run by some of these companies.

And when you wrote The Burston School Strike was that the first play you had written or had you written anything before? And what did you use as a reference point as you were trying to write something that was different?

I had written some things before with Gordon Vallins, who was at the Belgrade in the great Belgrade T.I.E days. He was my colleague at North Bucks College of Education when we were training teachers and we’d written a so called documentary play about America in the year of the presidential election … it must have been 1968.  I won’t go into a lot of detail about that but it was a kind of fake documentary in my book because it was all derived from secondary source materials, like the Warren report over the assassination of Kennedy and so on. A true documentary goes to primary source materials, and must do. So our primary source materials for Burston were the actual people who had lived the experience; and the letters that were written; and the minutes of meetings that were preserved.

Now on the back of that, because the play had been so successful locally, the Development Corporation commissioned me to write another community play, but on a local subject; it had to be about somewhere here. I think they gave me two thousand quid as a commissioning fee, which was quite a lot in those days, and I used it entirely to pay a researcher. We had several volumes of good local history books by a man called Sir Frank Markham who had been MP for this Buckinghamshire area, and he was a good enough scholar to have put footnotes and notes at the end of chapters saying exactly where he got his source material from. His own narrative of the history that he was telling was in the voice of a cultured, educated, serious member of the community; but that was no good to us – that’s the secondary source material that I didn’t want anything to do with. But it told us where to go for the primary source material. So I sent the researcher, Margaret Broadhurst, to the House of Lords records office; I sent her to the National Transport Records office; to the Bodleian library; wherever there was a document that revealed what was going on in the particular story that we were interested in.

We didn’t know what the story was going to be when we started researching. We knew it was going to be about Wolverton, which is a railway town, one of the four towns that existed before Milton Keynes enveloped it all. We started collecting right from Domesday up to the present day and we had shelf loads of filing boxes with the documents that we’d managed to collect. It would have been a terrible pageant if we’d gone down that road but there was a period, 1830 to 1865, where every file was packed with wonderful material about the railways and their arrival. I’d sent Margaret to the Northampton newspaper records, and there were two newspapers in Northampton in the nineteenth century. One was a Whig newspaper and one was a Tory newspaper and you had completely opposing views in conflict with each other every week of what the railways meant to people. Which is one of the essential drama tools, to have those opposing, conflicting points of view. One paper would say the railway was a great moral teacher; it would teach the value of punctuality, ‘because what purpose would it do you to arrive at a station ten minutes after the train has left’? And then the other one – the landlords side of the story – was saying ‘these trains are ghastly machines crossing our land belching this vile smoke, making all this noise and scaring our horses’. And so we had all this stuff in pure original primary source material form; and it was Peter Cheeseman, who we engaged as consultant to the writing of the play, who helped me see clearly what the structure should be.

Basically it’s going to be a chronology; it’s got to have a really great moment to finish the first half, and then it’s going to have a second half and it’s going to have a great ending. And it’s going to be basically constructed as a scene, followed by a song, followed by a scene, followed by a song. And the scenes would have, as the spoken utterance of the actors, primary source material. But the songs could be more reflective and contain more generalisations and be more … transcendent if you like.

But of course it’s going to be converted into … well let me tell you my method of really pinning down a dramatic script that’s come from a load of documents. I want to know the answer to six questions, and they’re all ‘w’ questions. I want to know ‘Who?’ – and they’re the characters. And if you look at your documents they’re about people. You know it’s this Lieutenant General who’s giving evidence to the House of Lords enquiry over the railway question and whether he as a military man wants railways or not; and he says he’d rather his soldiers march than go by railway unless there was an emergency, like a riot somewhere in Liverpool in which case he’d love the railways – and so we’ve got a character there. So the ‘who’ question gives you the people, the characters, and they’re real people who had real lives and who spoke words that have been recorded in real situations.

The next one is ‘Where?’ You want a physical location to play this scene, a strong sense of place. Are they inside; are they outside? Are they around a table; are they in a field? Where is it? Is it a fight between the railway navvies and the canal navvies? And so is it on a canal bridge? Where is this ‘where?’ location.

‘When?’ You want a specific time; to pin it to the time of day. You want a sense of which year it was and how it relates to other events.

‘What?’ is the action – what is going on here? It gives you the action of the scene and that’s essential to it obviously; what are they doing?

‘Why?’ is that great question. Good theatre directors always ask an actor to do nothing unless there’s a motivation to do it. You can’t even move unless there’s a reason to move;  unless you want something; you want to gain something; you want to get something; you want to achieve something. That’s what makes you do it and that’s what makes you speak; that’s what makes you say those precise words in that precise tone of voice. So the why? is the motivation.

And then of course the sixth one is a bit of a joke really but it’s the ‘Weather’. So often a scene in the pouring rain with umbrellas is interesting. Or if its freezing cold with everyone all wrapped up in blankets, or sweltering in the sun. And so that’s how you get the business of each episode down on paper in a dramatic form – using those questions – and as I say then it’s about how you link the scenes together.

Then there’s the obvious statement that these plays are not pretending to be true, even though they’re documentaries based on primary source material and real people.  They’re not true but there’s a feeling for truth in them. They’re actually works of art; they’re fictions because they’ve been constructed. There’s been a process of selection to decide what to include and what not to include. There’s been a process of juxtaposition to get the tension that arises from that happening immediately after that, or in relation to that. So this scene which is packed with humour follows that one which was deadly serious and gives the audience a little relief from all that concentration; which is one of the things the songs do as well. They give the audience a refreshment, having concentrated on one scene before concentrating on another.

So you’ve got the story and you’ve got the things you want to do in each episode to make it as theatrically interesting and engaging and affecting as possible. When selecting the scenes are you also aware of any contemporary concerns or issues that make you go ‘we’ll choose this bit of the story because, for instance, there’s an argument about a motorway or something’. Do you know what I mean? So that there’s a contemporary awareness …

Absolutely. I’ll give you two responses to that question. On the one hand generally speaking we found that we were telling a story about the invasion of newcomers into an existing population and the tensions that arise from that. In ‘All Change!’ we placed it in the 1830’s to 1860s when the railways came and all these people cascaded in to Wolverton to build the railways, and build the new town of Wolverton and live in it. So that parallel experience with our contemporary experience of what was happening with Milton Keynes was in general what we were doing with the whole play.

A specific example of how I might answer your question is around two main characters in the play – James McConnell who was our railway superintendent, in charge of the works at Wolverton, who was a kind of hero in our play really because of the kind of things he achieved. He built a science and arts institute which was giving genuine training to workers; and he built the Bloomer steam engine. And he was also the guy who cracked the problem of metal fatigue. He wondered why so many axles on the trains that were being built were breaking and causing accidents. And he realised it was because they were solid axles, and that the constant pressure near the wheel onto a solid axle changed the nature of the metal from a fibrous material into a crystalline material, and the moment it became crystalline it snapped. So he invented the hollow axle and those never snapped because somehow they transmitted the vibrations along the axle without that change in the structure. So we were kind of locally proud of our James McConnell.

But there’s another guy in the play called Richard Moon and he’s the Chairman of the London and North Western Railway Company. And he based himself in Crewe and nurtured a little engine called the Watt engine. It was small, it was light, it was fast and it was cheap and it didn’t last. But Moon’s philosophy was to make as much money as possible for the smallest outlay.  McConnell’s philosophy in Wolverton meanwhile was to  make things of magnificent craftsmanship, built so they’d last forever and beautiful to look at. Now for me as a dramatist the best thing I did was go and meet Reverend Awdry, who is the Thomas the Tank Engine man and knew all about James McConnell. He gave me a priceless account of a race against time that was occasioned by an event in the American Civil War, where a British ship had been attacked and hijacked with the result that the British government demanded that if the crew and ship weren’t released immediately that Britain would go to war against America. Now the message was sent from America that the crew had been released; but if you think about it that message had to cross the Atlantic by boat to Ireland; had to get on a steam packet and go around Ireland to Anglesey; and then it had to get on a railway engine from Holyhead to Stafford, so there was a need for the train journey to be made as quickly as possible to reach the Houses of Parliament before war was declared. There was a time pressure on it. And Awdry had collected the exact timings of that race from Holyhead to Stafford and all the conditions that prevailed. The first part of the journey was made with the Watt engine and then at Stafford the message was transferred to a Bloomer engine which would make the next stage to Euston, coming right through Wolverton, coming right through our midst here. And we had the timings of that.

They came out of the Kilsby tunnel into dense fog, which slowed it down, but then it built up speed again; the fog cleared at Tring and they were doing seventy miles an hour into Euston and they got the message there with two minutes to spare. And the performance of the Bloomer engine was superior over the distance to the performance of the Watt; so the Wolverton engine had won over the Crewe engine and McConnell had won over Moon. Now that provided the finale, that race of the two trains, with two guys on the engine and the narrative being spoken. We actually got two railwaymen to talk to us and recreate that journey in their imagination. We asked them questions like ‘in the dense fog how do you know where you are?’ and they’d say ‘sound. There’s a quality. If you’re going through a cutting you know exactly that you’re going through a cutting. If you’re in an open field it’s a different sound; if you’re going through a tunnel obviously you know where you are’. They taught us how to shovel coal authentically, and what the driver is on the lookout for at all times. So we staged it on the basis of their input.

I mentioned earlier, in terms of structure, about having a great ending for the first half and a great ending for the second and that was our ending for the second. But for me these are Thatcher’s days, you know. There are arguments about what the nature of work is today? Is it something we should be proud of? Should we have a lifetime job? Should we be craftsman? Should we be refining our skills to perfection? Should we be encouraging our young people to train for these skills? Should we have apprentices? Should we be ingenious in our inventions? Should we solve problems like metal fatigue? Should ordinary people be able to do that? Or are we all about quick and easy; making a quick profit with the smallest possible investment; concentrating on the greatest possible profit and all that short termism which seemed to come in with Thatcher. And so we felt we were making a contemporary political point within the historical frame.

Was that something that you thought ‘it’s in the text, it’s in the historical moment, it’s an implicit understanding, the audience will get it’? Or did you think ‘I want to make it a bit more explicit?’

No, it was the first; implicit and trusting the audience to make the connection.

And did they?

Well one might make a little programme note, drop a hint or two for them to look for it.

I don’t know if you know Punch magazine; I don’t think it’s published anymore but it’s a priceless magazine. We found this edition where Mr Punch took a train from London to Wolverton, and he stepped out of the train at Wolverton and had eleven minutes to go into the refreshment room to get some soup to refresh him before he continued his journey to Birmingham. And there’s another document in a book we found called ‘Stokers and Pokers’ – these are firemen for the railways and it was a book about them, but it included data about the Wolverton refreshment room that Mr Punch entered. We know that there was a laundry maid, a scullery maid, a kitchen maid, and a housemaid on duty. There was an ‘odd man’, and a matron to guard the reputation of the girls who worked in the refreshment room against the attentions of predatory males who would get off the train. All these characters who we were able to put on the stage.

We also discovered all of the food and drink that was available; the bottles of stout that were warmed up and all the cakes that are named in these lists. So we gave all this material to one of our songwriters who – having learned from Ewan (MacColl) and Peggy (Seeger), how to make any number of classic folk songs – chose to do what is called an accumulation song. So the verse told you ‘if you ever you take the railway that runs to Wolverton Town, three hours out of Euston the passengers set down’, and explains how you can get into this Refreshment Room. And then the chorus talks about the people and the jobs they’re doing and the food that’s available; and every chorus ends with ‘and a matron to guard their reputation’. And this just lent itself to an exquisite form of choreography to the song where of course, in the middle of it, Mr Punch steps down off of the train and enters the room where he’s got eleven minutes to get his hot soup. And when he’s served the soup, the steam, he says, ‘rose from the ladle and took the skin off my face’ as it was far too hot to eat. And having ordered and paid for the soup, and having had no time to drink it, the whistle goes and he has to get back on the train. So it was a wonderful dance with song and music; a really humorous way of ending the first half.

You mentioned that if the researcher hadn’t have found the boxes it might have been like a ‘ghastly pageant’.

I wouldn’t have done it then.

By pageant what do you mean? Just a collection of historical anecdotes from A to Z?

I’ll tell you something. There was a later play that we created entirely from the diaries of a local woman. She wrote the diaries from I think 1900 to 1920, something like that. Anyway she was an extraordinary woman and we wanted to write her play and tell her story because it was a Sister Play to a play about a boy soldier that we’d written, the Albert French story (‘Your Loving Brother Albert’). And Albert’s story, which ended in his death in France in the war, was in contrast to this girl’s story who stayed at home. Her diaries are full of bicycle rides; of dealing with men who try it on with her; of going to church and making fun of the vicars; of working in the sewing room of Wolverton Works and so on … it’s a wonderful story. But one of the things that she did with her friends was put on one of these pageants, put on these hospital fetes to raise money for the hospital up at Northampton. And their fete, parts of which we staged, was the kind of pageant that I didn’t want to make a hundred, a hundred and fifty years later. They were like Empire Day fetes; they had children dressed as leeks and patriotic songs.  

You mentioned the days of Thatcher. Was there a sense that the emerging social and economic order was changing and in play? Were discussions about the changing ethos more prevalent in an educational setting? Was this in the ether and informing work?

Well it was really. I mean Wolverton had been a town with thousands of people building railway engines and over time that had reduced to a railway repair works, and then by the time Thatcher was around it was ‘will there even be a future for this great industry which had been the soul of the town?’

We were here to build an exciting new city which was born out of the Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee time in government and yet it entered the phase when Thatcher was in power. The Open University had been created at the same time in our town, in Milton Keynes, with the same idealism. And the idealism that made Milton Keynes what it is, because it’s still here and has survived everything, is about a belief in people and the talents of people and the dignity of people and people being worth total respect; and their right to work and earn a decent living and have a decent education.

We had the chance to create a new school from scratch at Stantonbury, and that’s where the theatre was and that’s where these plays were happening and that’s where the whole drama and theatre experience was being grown and developed; in a brand new school where we did things differently. We had no school uniforms; we had no punishments, because you didn’t need them. Everybody was on first name terms from the Director down to the youngest child and including the cleaning staff. It was a community itself, and adults could come into the lessons if they wanted to and they wouldn’t find the door shut. Now, twenty years after Thatcher, they’ve built gates around the school and you can hardly get in without unlocking a gate. And they’re all in school uniforms because there has been a change, and that change has been eating away at that wonderful idealism and that socialism which was present in the days when we created the school.

And was that a word that people used, socialism, back then?

Oh yeah, we were not ashamed of ‘socialism’ and still aren’t.

So socialism was part of the driving force of the whole experiment?

I would say so; and I would say it was for Peter Cheeseman in Stoke on Trent as well. A People’s Theatre; a theatre for people; a theatre about people.

Was there a sense that the theatre you were making was partly a political project in any way?

I told you that we got professional theatre companies in every week; who were those companies? Joint Stock doing ‘Fanshen’; Belt and Braces; 7:84, seven percent of the population owns eighty four percent of the wealth. Theatre of any quality was political in those days, and it was left wing.

And you saw the work that you were making being part of that family of left wing theatre?

Except we never started from an ideology. We started from source material, actuality; and it was the creative transposition of actuality into an art form that we were about.

Was it about the community that was created in the process of making the piece that was important, rather than what the piece was saying politically?

Yes. Well I think both are important. Sometimes we had to defend documentary theatre against some of our extremely radical friends in political theatre because we weren’t doing strident anti-Thatcher plays. We weren’t doing stridently, outspoken, manifestly political plays; that’s not the nature of a documentary play. But because you’re dealing with working class people as much as you’re dealing with middle class people, people can draw their own conclusions in the historical perspective about what kind of deal these working class people are getting and what kind of impositions these upper class people are making. If you look at that railway struggle, the wealthy people with the land were against the railways and tried to stop them and used everything they could to do so. And they only withdrew their opposition when they were extravagantly bribed by the railway companies to give up their opposition. But they were selfish and they wanted to maintain what they’d got; they were men of property and they didn’t want to lose any of it. Whereas you’ve got the working people whose lives were being transformed for the better because of the railways. They were getting decent jobs, regular jobs, jobs within which they they could unionise, jobs that had respect – a train driver had great respect, a fireman had respect, a signalman had respect – because they were skilled and were looked up to within their communities. So people in the audience could see that. They can draw their own political conclusions and you don’t have to distort; you never distort anything. But I admit that you do select.

So this is all happening in the mid-seventies onwards?

Mid-seventies to ninety was our heyday I’d say.

So at what point in this process … because you’re making these plays that you call ‘documentary plays’ that are involving the community …

We called them local musical documentary plays, but they’re community plays, yes ..

Then Ann Jellicoe starts doing her stuff down in the South West, are you aware of that?

We’re very much aware of that and we went to see one or two of them and we knew Ann.

How did you know Ann?

Well we knew her well enough at conferences to recognise her, or find out who she was and then have conversations with her about the respective work. I think she knew the work that we were doing and we obviously knew hers. We admired what she was doing, we were just aware that she was running an operation that would arrive in a town or village like the circus coming to town. They would stay and do a wonderful job of creating a play there and performing it there, and then they would go away again and it would be a different town or village that would get the next opportunity. And we knew that we were consciously doing something different from that in that we were here to stay, and we were growing our single community from within. And sure enough, over many years and many plays, everyone getting bigger and better in many ways, we were achieving that.

Was there any kind of conversational cross-fertilisation or observing these plays that called themselves ‘community plays’ that threw up suggestions for ways to work slightly differently? Or was your work going down a particular path?

Yes; I didn’t learnt anything from Ann’s work except that we weren’t the only ones that could make great community plays which would involve lots of local people of all ages and all characteristics, all occupations; and that they would all transcend themselves in that co-operative endeavour and do something, and achieve something beyond their wildest dreams. I think Ann could say that see achieved that. Jon Oram could say it and we would certainly say that.

And in terms of you going on to write shows, and the selection of the material, was it something that as it went on you thought ‘right, we’ve tackled this aspect of living in a developing city so we’re going to look at this aspect’? Or was it actually ‘we’ve found this story’ and it’s the story that was more important?

The second one was the Albert play, based entirely on Albert’s letters from the war. And the success of that led us to do something which we called ‘Days of Pride’; and by then we were wanting to include living memory. Having done ‘All Change’ which was set historically, with the only connection with living people in terms of providing spoken utterance for actors to use in was those train drivers and firemen that I talked about earlier, we now wanted living memory. And when we did ‘Days of Pride’ there were still people alive who had lived through the war, and so we were able to get most of our material first hand from the people who’d lived the experience.

The major character in ‘Days of Pride’ is an incredible story teller, Hawtin Mundy. He was a man who when we met him was blind and had been for some time but his memory was incredible for detail. His language was what I would call uneducated language, it hadn’t been channelled into the clichés and conventional speech that we all use but was the earthy, down to earth language which calls a spade a spade. His testimony of his experiences going through the First World War; through the Battle of Arras, the Battle of the Somme, being three times wounded and made a prisoner of war. He experienced everything first hand and had this vivid recall. He described what it’s like to be in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ during battle and spoke in these biblical terms; because that was their literature, the bible, and so when he spoke with passion he spoke in those terms.

So we’ve got Hawtin’s complete testimony, against which we’ve got all of the documentary material we were able to collect from hundreds of other people who were alive then, and other documents that were discoverable from that time. And here we come to that political question once again. There was a terrific controversy in the newspapers of the time where the women at McCorquodales Printing Works in Wolverton, next to the Railway Works, were going on strike for more pay. They wanted a shilling a day or something, and the soldiers at the front were hearing about this and writing to the paper saying ‘what are these women doing? We’re standing in mud up to our necks for a shilling a day and there they are in the comfort of home going on strike. What’s going on?’ And a woman called Sis Axby spoke pure Women’s Lib; she gave the perfect case for why it was necessary for women to have some self-respect in their work and some adequate pay to live on. Of course they had sympathy for the men who were fighting but that didn’t mean that the womens struggle was not completely necessary and completely valid. And so the politics of Women’s Liberation and that whole struggle for the Suffragettes is there in the documents and make fabulous theatre, fabulous episodes within the play. So you’ve been on the battlefront with Hawtin in the Somme with all the explosions and events and incidents, and then you’re with Sis Axby back on the Home Front talking to a great crowd of women.

And you’re writing these?

I wrote Burston (‘The Burston School Strike’) and ‘All Change!’ I wrote Albert (‘Your Loving Brother Albert’) and then I included Roger Kitchen who was the co-director for the Living Archive (the three of us, with Maggie, were the co-founders) in the writing process for ‘Days of Pride’ because he was the one who interviewed Hawtin Mundy. Without Roger there would have been no documentaries from then on.

Roger was working on Days of Pride as a researcher?

He was. He lent me the letters for Albert so it was his gift of the letters that enabled me to write that one. And when it came to ‘Days of Pride’ it was the gift of his interviews with Hawtin, the soldier, that was so valuable. He would sit down at the table here with a typewriter, and we’d have the documents all spread out and the transcripts of the interviews at our disposal, and basically – I think it’s fair to say – I was the dramatist who knew how to make it into a dramatic scene, but Roger knew the material inside out. In the purest sense I was the dramatist involved in the writing and he was the provider of the raw material.

So you’ve written a number of plays now and is there a sense – and this might be a difficult question because it’s difficult to know in the heat of the moment never mind all those years ago – that you were more confident or more comfortable with it, or that you had settled on some kind of way of doing it, or that you were developing in some way?

We were … we were developing for a time. The one after ‘Days of Pride’, which was a tremendous success, was called ‘The Jovial Priest’ and it was about a notorious local priest. Again there was a lots of extant living memory that fed into building up the story. I thought that play had a weakness, which was that we were never able to get the story from the priest’s point of view; because it was all locked up in the church archives and they were buggered if they were going to let us have it. We had masses of hugely entertaining material, everybody else’s perception of this eccentric priest who was incredible. He used to come down a steep hill steering with his feet on the handlebars of his bike; he’d challenge anybody to a swimming race in the river; he went down to Eastbourne and did high diving off of the pier; he had a church with a congregation of two thousand and reduced it to just four. He was High Church, arrogant, fanatical, Donald Trumpist; an extraordinary man who alienated his entire congregation.

Maggie Nevitt Dec 2017

MAGGIE: At one point he called them all together and told them they were not married because the licence from one church had not been passed on to the one that they were in now; so everyone was living in sin. Well you can imagine how that went down.

ROY: And the ‘Jovial Priest’ was people’s nickname for him, an ironic, sarcastic term. But the documents that we needed to get hold of were in what the church calls the War Chest. It was all of the complaints against this vicar to the Bishop; and all those complaints exist, and all his ripostes were kept in this War Chest, and they just wouldn’t release them because they’re still embarrassed.

So without those what do you use instead for his … was he in it?

He was definitely in it.

So that character was created?

No; no we didn’t invent anything. A lot of it was action because we had an incredible number of descriptions of his behaviours so those were all staged. And we wove narrative into the dialogue, so quite a lot was conveyed through that narrative woven into dialogue.

But given the fact that he was such a brilliant character presumably you would want to create a …

I’d have to look at the script and see what words we put into his mouth because quite frankly I can’t remember. People did report what he’d said, what his sermons were all about and when he told his congregation that they were all living in sin that would have been derived from a document. The newspapers of the 1920’s and 30’s were verbatim; they would record verbatim things that were said, public speeches etc. So when I said we’d got nothing of the man himself I mean we’d got nothing personal from him; except that we knew his wife left him and so we staged that.

And the fact that you had nothing personal meant that you felt unable, within the rigour of your method, to invent that material?

That’s right.

Even though you wouldn’t have been inventing anything other than … you knew the situation but rather than put words into his mouth and create a character you wouldn’t do that?

That was the rigour that we worked from and I do see the point that you’re hinting at. I recently listened to Hilary Mantel talking about the historian and the creative writer and that wonderful tension that exists between the two; and she would have no hesitation, in fact it would be her purpose, to find out what was in the mind of this character and give him appropriate language. But we denied ourselves that. We made a play that was incredibly popular, partly because we introduced more popular musical styles and relaxed a little on the folk music thing.

Then with ‘Sheltered Lives’, again I would confess that it had weaknesses. It had a brilliant first half because the documents we found about the outbreak of the Second World War, and the events of the Second World War locally, were much richer than in the second half of the war . For example we had a wonderful source of letters written to his mum and dad by an evacuee who was placed in a house in Wolverton, and the stuff we got from those letters was incredible. We felt we had to get to the end of the war and we were doing scenes, because we’d found documents about things that were happening then, and when we looked back on it we wondered how we got away with the second half really. It just was weaker than the first half which is never a good thing.

MAGGIE: People like it.

ROY: They liked it but we were hyper critical of it. And certainly whatever we did we tried to make it dramatic; and it was enriched by music and we lifted it in every way we could through production and so on. But if you read it on the page I think you too would agree that this is a flawed play.

So the starting points always seem to be the discovery of some interesting source material that you then tell using an authentic source, using authentic voices as much as possible. You shape it; you use music to give yourself a breathing space to be less austere with your rigour; and then around that you involve as many people as possible. There are implicit connections you are looking for, or if there are stories that have a connection to the kind of contemporary identity or the current situation you may draw those out a little bit. Is there a sense over the years where you’re thinking ‘OK, we’ve now lived in this community for this length of time, we can see the way this community is beginning to bed itself in’ and that the awareness of this impacts on the choices of the stories? Or is it purely what lands in your lap?

I’ll answer in a personal way.  Having got as far as … was ‘Sheltered Lives’ the last one that we did?

MAGGIE: No. It went Burston, ‘All Change!’, Albert, ‘Days of Pride’, ‘The Jovial Priest’, ‘Sheltered Lives’, ‘Nellie’ …

ROY: OK, so Nellie was the last one and then …

MAGGIE: We did ‘Nellie’ and Albert together …

ROY: We revived Albert. There had been a tradition of reviving a number of those plays, sometimes because we didn’t have the energy or the time to make another new one and it was time to bring one back because it had been so successful.

MAGGIE: We used to put them on every November you see …

ROY: And so quite often they got a second run, a play that had happened before. So that filled up the years. But to be honest there was a point when the creation of new ones was not something I wanted to do anymore. We came to a point where the churches asked us for one; we have an ecumenical tradition of churches in Milton Keynes and we were asked if we would do one to celebrate ecumenical church life. My response was ‘no, but we’ll do the Tony Harrison Mysteries for you, in three parts of ten performances each night; so you’ll get thirty nights of performance and it’ll be as good and as big and as colourful as the way that the National Theatre did it’. And so that’s what we gave them. We gave them a nativity at Christmas, Passion at Easter and Domesday in the Autumn; all within thirteen months. They had thirty nights of performance; stunning theatre, stunning music and involving the same people who had been trained through the documentaries …

MAGGIE: And a lot of the Christian Councils people as well …

ROY: And new people coming in all the time, because the whole project was growing like a mushroom.

So the people who are involved in it and are growing it are very much both people from the school, that are connected to the school, but also just community members who are invited in?

MAGGIE: Who invite themselves in. You get men and women and the kids coming along on Sundays, because you’ve got making workshops going on Sundays all day; and before you know it the kids are old enough to be in the plays. That’s how it develops.

So you’ve got a cast of what, a hundred?

ROY: Yes; quite often a hundred. But in a way the school was a community school. We ran a community college in the evenings and in a sense you could say all the work we did in the theatre was an informal branch of the community college, which was a pretty informal thing anyway.

You said that at the beginning your job was being funded by the …

Development Corporation …

That it was a development post in some way?

Initially yes …

Did that end?

Well no that stayed there because they asked me at one stage, early on, ‘what kind of theatre should we build in the city centre, to complete the city centre profile?’. And I said you don’t spend a penny on a huge theatre and make a white elephant when you’ve still only got maybe fifty thousand people around; you need a catchment of one hundred and fifty thousand at least to justify a theatre of the size and quality that we would like. And so the alternative was to invest in grass roots theatre all over the city. Obviously our theatre got huge benefits from it, and the music centres and the orchestras.

MAGGIE: And there were other small theatres on the campuses coming on stream so that you could develop a professional circuit.

ROY: We created what we called a Theatre Consortium, so we shared all our expertise; all these grass roots centres were working with the same purpose and with mutual support. By the time we felt we had a population big enough, and the passion strong enough in enough people to justify a big theatre, we started a Milton Keynes Theatre Development company to get one built. We had Branson’s money to build it until he suddenly fell out with his fellow investors over something and withdrew. So we were suddenly without a theatre again and yet the population was needing one and demanding one. Then the Lottery came along and as if by magic we got twenty million from the Lottery, seven million from the Commission for New Towns, we raised three million and we somehow fudged the remaining two or three million. And we’ve got one of the most beautiful theatres. The group that we invited to come in and manage it for us was a tiny little company called Turnstyle Theatre who had one theatre I think, down in Woking. It was Rosemary Squire and Howard Panter; and they so impressed me. I was in charge of that committee at that moment and they got the job. They’re now Ambassadors Theatre Company, the biggest in the country. And we’re still the showpiece theatre on their portfolio. It’s a beautiful theatre in the centre of Milton Keynes.

And what was their first production? Did you do a show early on there?

The first performance that hit that stage was our ‘All Change!’ play.

MAGGIE: They had a week before the professional opening; a week of community work.

ROY: Which is part of completing the process of building. We’d been building an audience for it through all the grass roots work that I’ve been describing, including our work in Stantonbury. The next huge thing we did was the National Theatre bringing ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’ It was a March production of this great play, performed in three tents and the weather was all squally and we had a huge adventure that week getting that up and running. I was able to tell the audience that ‘what you’re getting tonight in this canvas theatre is what you’re going to get in that’; and you could look a hundred yards across the park and there it was, still in its scaffolding,  the new theatre coming out of the ground.

Throughout the eighties and nineties more and more people in different parts of the country are doing ‘community theatre’ – was there a burgeoning scene of conferences and meeting other practitioners and writers? Did it feel like this was a form of theatre that was in the ascendancy? And when did it all stop?

Well it wasn’t limited to what your prime interest is, which is community plays. We also created the Living Archive, which in its first days we called the National Centre for Documentary Arts. We published journals; we went to innumerable conferences; we held our own conferences including the Theatre of Fact conference at Stantonbury Theatre; and we created a professional T.I.E. company which lasted for seven years.

The Living Archive had a mission of turning people’s histories into any kind of art form, including drama and music and songs and fabric making and radio ballads and films; and that had a tremendous network impact I think.

But in terms of the theatre side did someone else come in?  What happened to it?

Well we just changed our emphasis. We knew we had to carry this huge reservoir of acting, design, music, and dance ability in the community; all that experience had to keep growing and we did it by going into the Mysteries that I mentioned, along with ‘Lark Rise’ and ‘Candleford’, by Keith Dewhurst. Juniper Hill, which is where Lark Rise is, is only thirteen miles from where we live, where we’re sitting now. And so in a sense we were doing a local story by using Flora Thompson’s books but inspired by Keith Dewhurst’s treatments and the National’s version of it. And then we did the RSC’s ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, in four parts. I think Nicholas was thirty four nights of performance spread over a month. And worked on for a year.

MAGGIE: It’s a big commitment for amateurs.

ROY: So that’s nine hours, nine hours of performance.

And who was funding this?

Arts Council, Gulbenkian Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Esme Fairbairn.

MAGGIE: Box Office, sponsorship and that lovely thing where you could double or triple your money through Challenge Funding, which doesn’t seem to exist anymore and was wonderful. You get a new sponsor and you get two thousand from them and then the Borough Council will double it and the ABSA, the association of British Sponsorship for the Arts would give you another match. So that two thousand gives you six.

ROY: But we always undertook to earn on Box Office a third of the total revenue costs of the project, and then we’d get a third through sponsorship, and a third through grants. We actually needed about sixty thousand towards the end.

Meanwhile Rib Davis was continuing with the documentaries; we’d handed them over and he did several.

MAGGIE: He did ‘Worker By Name’ which is the story of a man who lived in the square here in Stony Stratford; a man called Tom Worker.

ROY: And he did ‘A Particular Journey’. We’d done a day in the life of the whole population where everybody in the city was able to keep a diary for a day. It was a mass observation project, and we were very close in spirit to mass observation; it was an inspiration. Rib chose one particular testimony from that day and he dramatized it into ‘A Particular Journey’. He wrote other plays like ‘Nielsen’s Fifth’, which I directed,

MAGGIE: But that was before; that was early days, very early days.

ROY: So Rib continued with the community plays, and then he went national and did it for any town who wanted to pay him.

And did he continue with the rigour? Or did he start to put words into people’s mouths?

MAGGIE: I think he did if he was working for the Living Archive, because Roger (Kitchen) was a stickler; he was absolutely literal. Rib used the documentary but was much more of a playwright. From my memory it was a much freer structure, a much freer vocabulary you might say.

When you were writing and making your plays can you think of any particular texts that you read where you thought ‘this is interesting, this is the kind of work that I do’? Or did you see a community play that you particularly liked? Or did you think ‘nobody is really writing about how you put these things together, I should do that?’ Does it feel as though it’s an invisible craft?

ROY: Yeah I don’t think it’s been … I’ve not found it.

You’ve not found what?

The definitive account of what these plays were all about. I’ve had a number of articles published in Drama Magazine; in a German publication; in Dartington papers. And every time we created a programme for any one of our plays I wrote a Director’s Note which had my thinking fresh at the time when it was red hot on the page. So I’ve reflected on my job in bits and pieces and fragments; and also in the publications we created for the Living Archive which people subscribed to. It’s a pity we couldn’t keep those up but it  was losing money; we were only charging two pounds. In those documents they do have something about what I think we were doing with our plays and why they were important and why they were so popular. But I don’t know of anybody else who’s really taken it on. I think there have been some reviews in The Guardian newspaper and Times Educational Supplement of things that we’ve done that I think have been very intelligent and have talked about our work.

MAGGIE: I think that in many respects this kind of work transmuted into what became known as ‘Tribunal Theatre’, like the work of Nicholas Kent at the Tricycle. We used to go and see a lot of those plays, but I feel they were so much more political.  You (Roy) were not that political and I’m speaking for myself here, almost as an audience member. I always feel that your work was as a joiner together. It was in order to bring people together that you weren’t pointing out the most contentious elements; whereas I always felt with the Tribunal Theatre that’s exactly what they were doing. It’s setting one up against another; it’s almost creating a court scene. Our purpose was completely different to that.

It’s about building community …

It’s absolutely building; and maybe we stopped doing it when we felt that it’s time had happened; that we’d done that part, or Roy had done it anyway.

ROY: What do they call this other form of theatre?

Verbatim?

ROY: Yes, verbatim. Well before verbatim theatre, I mean you’d think David Hare had invented the form when he did that railway play ‘The Permanent Way’; you’d think he’d invented it. Peter Cheeseman did ‘The Knotty’, way back in the sixties, which is his Stoke Potteries railway play. We did ‘All Change!’, which was our railway play. And then along comes David Hare with ‘The Permanent Way’ and suddenly its big news, and it was no better than than ‘The Knotty’ and I would dare say no better than our play. And yet because it’s David Hare, because it’s the National Theatre, it gets adulation; and it gets attributed as a new invention.

MAGGIE: So maybe we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder that we’re the poor relations. I don’t know; I don’t feel badly about it.

ROY: No; I don’t have any feelings about it. It’s like Alecky Blythe, with her stuff; the technique of listening to dialogue and just reproducing it instantaneously.  These things which are fashionable come along and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea if the mainstream tradition of it was recorded somewhere.

MAGGIE: It’s important to document it because in time somebody is going to reinvent it for their time. So it’s important to have an idea of what went on.

The numbers game

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The Reckoning, Lyme Regis 1978. Photograph: Roger Mayne Archive.

Community plays are most clearly identified with large inter-generational casts; and in many instances the whole point of producing a community play is to involve as many people in it as possible. It is meant, after all, to represent the whole community and as such needs a certain heft to give it any kind of claim to such.  Ann Jellicoe states that ‘120 is a good size. 150 is beginning to be rather large. Above this figure, all the logistical problems seem to grow at a compound rate’. Sarah Burton, in her practical guide ‘How To Put On A Community Play’ states that a community play ‘requires a lot of people to be in it, who are not regular performers. A cast of five is not a community play’. (Although interestingly Jon Oram, who has written a great number of large cast community plays, writes in the Afterword of ‘A Time to Keep’ of ‘the first touring community play, Fightback, which I wrote for eight community actors’).

There is no other play form that has such a large cast and for many writers this is the most difficult challenge of all. How can you give each participant a meaningful role? How can you navigate your way through a text with so many characters and the potential storylines that this implies? How do you simply keep track of this mass of humanity?

Stephanie Dale, who wrote ‘A Time To Keep’, a community play for Dorchester with David Edgar told me that you ‘have characters that need to be remembered. So one of the characters it was really important to remember … we gave him a stammer, one of the characters we put in a wheelchair. You are writing in very broad brush strokes so you can give people a cane and you can give people the arm in a sling and the visual signifiers are really important. There is a way of telling the audience ‘you need to hang on to this person, you need to stick with this persons journey’.

But it is impossible to do this with every character, to present a mass of delineated individuals. The answer is in groupings, Stephanie suggested, in finding ways to create clusters of character types: ‘… you’re trying to form groups that an audience will remember. Because an audience aren’t going to remember one hundred and twenty characters but they will remember the rich, the poor, the smugglers; and it is about creating those worlds and those teams of people … where are the overlaps? Who’s connecting through those groups? Who’s causing chaos through those groups?’

These groupings are inherently social. They generally start with the family, where additional members can be added; they then move into groupings defined by work or class; and then, more generally, into groupings defined by geography. And one of the most interesting movements within a large number of the community plays that I have read is how these groupings shift throughout the narrative. Generally this is a move from a smaller grouping to a larger grouping, in response to a threat to the community which has ramifications for these smaller groupings. Put simplistically the community ‘pulls together’; disparate social groupings find themselves allying with each other and, through this, understanding the potential that their collectivity has. Once these smaller groups develop into larger social groups then the plays take on a more explicit political poise as these social groups clash head on.

Stephanie Dale suggests that the interplay between the social and the individual is what gives the community play its power: ‘There is something that I love in a promenade situation where you can have a really intimate moment, and have children pulling at you as a member of the audience asking a question, and then you can blow it out to everybody. I love that kind of whispering in the ear and then suddenly it’s way out there and it’s all around you. That kind of really intimate, intense moment that may be so up close and personal but then suddenly you open that out as a something to share for everybody’.

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The Girl In The Woods – a community play for Broxtowe 2007 by Excavate

In a similar vein Kev Fegan says: ‘The things that you can do in community theatre that you can’t do in mainstream theatre, simply because of the cost, are those large casts; and I love writing chorus. I love writing for a large group of people to speak as one voice and then also within that chorus to have individual cameos and individual characters, that step out of the chorus and perform and then step back in. That’s what I mean by making a virtue of it; that’s playing to its strength, when you hear a group of people speaking as one voice, and for me that would usually be in verse. That’s something that you can’t achieve, certainly not in repertory theatre because you can’t have those numbers’.

So, it would appear, the potential of the community play is the way that this tension between the individual and the collective is explored. Which is a hugely important task and one that requires the writer to be incredibly sensitive to the meanings and potential readings of this interplay; for they are inherently political.

Richard Sennett suggests that “‘Public’ behaviour is a matter, first, of action at a distance from the self, from its immediate history, circumstances, and needs: second, this action involves the experiencing of diversity’ and that ‘… the public (also) is a geography; it exists in relation to another domain, the private. Publicness is part of a larger balance in society’.

‘The Fall of Public Man’ from which these quotes are taken attempts to chart – through the analysis of data and writings about Paris and London from the seventeenth century onwards – how modes of thinking about the individual and their place and function within society has changed; and how there has been an increasing shift to the primacy of the individual over the notion of the collective. Sennett appears to be critical of the undermining of the public sphere and the balance between a public and a private realm.

Perhaps the community play is an ideal form in which this interplay between the personal and the public, the individual and the social can be played out. Perhaps it cannot help but represent this by the very organisational and structural methods it needs to support the large numbers involved; where for the audience to get a hold on who characters are they have to be put into groups that are defined (usually) by function/job or by family (with the added help that they then carry the same name).  Of course the public world can be symbolised and shown in a play with a much smaller cast, but it is only in a large cast play that that social becomes more than a symbol, it becomes a living presence.

To think of a large cast as a problem to be solved by simply giving everyone a line, or to use it as a tool of spectacle is therefore to miss the potential of what the playwright has in their hands. It is the way that the personal and the public interconnect, the slide from individual action to communal action and way this is used that gives the plays their real power and meaning.

Ann Jellicoe spends little time discussing the writers craft in Community Plays and How To Put Them On, but she does point out the difference between large scale scenes where numbers are just used to bolster the numbers in crowds, as opposed to those moments when the individuals in the plays come together to create a theatrically justified ensemble. She doesn’t really define what this means, but I think it is when the physical forming of a collective is used to bring together a mass of interconnecting narratives to show both the way that these stories intertwine and how they are inextricably linked, but also how once formed, once realised, this new collective grouping can become a force that will impact on the rest of the story. ‘I would quote as successful examples: the scene in The Poor Man’s Friend when the ghosts of those who have been hanged with Bridport rope come back through the audience trying to justify themselves, whingeing, blathering, blustering; Moule’s nightmare in Entertaining Strangers when he is supported and carried, tormented, writing and trembling, all over the church. The scene in The Western Women when the women gradually find confidence and a voice finally demanding with almost ecstatic vehemence, the right to share danger with the men’.

Massive numbers of people doing the same thing in the same space are often powerful moments to witness. But when the journey to this moment, the decisions that have been taken by the disparate individuals and groups who then come together, like separate flocks of starlings appearing in the distance to join a murmuration, is shown (as well as those who have been unable to become part of this collective) then that is when the community play is truly revealing the potential of the community in action.

A death in the family

Ann

On Friday (September 1st) I met Baz Kershaw for the first time at the TaPRA conference in Salford. What I most wanted to know from this most insightful of writers and theorists of community theatre (and explorations of ‘the radical’) was whether or not the play that Medium Fair performed at my primary school, and which I still have some fuzzy pictures of in my head, was The Wizard of Oz. It was. And the year that I saw it, he was able to tell me, was 1975. Soon after this he and Medium Fair became involved in a new idea, a development of the relationship between community and theatre that his company had been exploring, a new idea that was to be pioneered by Ann Jellicoe. Baz told me he was going to see Ann next week.

The day before (Thursday 31st August) I had given a ten minute ‘provocation’ to the Applied and Social Theatre group about the role of the writer in the community play. I had one image to accompany it – that of the cover of Ann’s book – and as soon as it came up it was obvious from the response that it was a text that many people knew and had a fondness for.

The day after getting home I discovered that Ann had died, through an obituary written in The Guardian. It feels like a death in the family; and that is, of course, what it is. As people whose work I know and respect have written of their feelings it is obvious that Ann was a woman whose ideas and work and energy and vision were hugely instrumental in the kind of theatre that they would themselves go on to make in their lives. The word ‘inspirational’ is often used in obituries, but it is only now that I truly understand what it means.

I would like to thank Ann. I first met her when I was twelve or thirteen; and she was a part of my life from then on until I left East Devon to go to university (to study drama, on her insistence). I was very lucky to have been involved not only as a performer in three community plays – The Tide, Colyford Matters, and The Western Women – but also in a small Theatre Games group that she set up. Alongside experimenting with the ideas of Keith Johnstone we were also lucky enough to have an early encounter with Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (although I don’t think it was Boal himself who worked with us), and to work on ideas for The Western Women with Fay Weldon, before Ann took over on writing the script.

My paper at TaPRA was partially a call to reignite the community play movement, because I still believe that it has the potential to create the most incredible and potent theatre, and that the act of making it can also be genuinely radical. Will Weigler responded to my words by saying how in Canada, after a visit by Jon Oram to create a community play with Dale Hamilton in Eramosa (which Jon himself talks about here) the idea quickly spread and many similar projects began to appear all over the country.

What an incredible legacy.

Here’s what I said.

 

community play image

 

I’m sure that many of you will recognise this book which was published in 1984 – the year that I went to university to study drama as a result of being in three of these community plays. About five seconds after that photograph was taken, in 1980, I entered the scene and stood just behind Alexandra, whose brother I used to play Subbuteo with.

And I’m aware that maybe my current research is actually all about trying to rectify in some way the fact that I arrived a little too late to be included in the picture.

I’m now a writer of community theatre – a term that I am happy to use – about thirty five plays in all, many of which have followed the Jellicoe model of a geographically bounded community and of a production technique where a writer is either invited or jettisoned into a community to create work with and alongside that community. And I have realised that there is very little discussion and very little in the literature about what the job of such a role entails.

So I’m reading the community plays that the first generation of community playwrights wrote to see what they were up to; although they’re not easy to get hold of. The V&A house the Community Play Archive and Database which contains materials on 215 community theatre projects through to 1999 although only half include the script of the play. Which has led me to contacting, where possible, the writers directly. ‘I’ve got a copy somewhere though I’ve moved house a few times’; ‘I think it’s with my ex-wife’; ‘You do realise this was the pre-Amstrad era so it’s typed up’. But they have been arriving, in jiffy bags, thousands of old pages kept together with rusting staples.

So far I have read around thirty of these scripts as I seek to uncover any generic affiliations that may allow me to unearth a prototype textual form. Most of the plays are set in a historical moment. And this link between the community play as a form and a heritage agenda that it appears to be closely connected to, is important I think in terms of where such plays often find themselves now.

In Theatres of Memory, Raphael Samuel locates the late 1960s as the explosion of do it yourself family and local history, having a particular appeal to the geographically and socially mobile, those who without the aid of history were genealogical orphans. And many of these scripts tap into that newly emerging enthusiasm, originating from a process of community research, often with the intention of identifying real people to base characters on.

Last week I was at a rehearsal of a community play for Barrow Hill written by Kev Fegan, whose first work in this field was with Welfare State. The project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Looking through a database of HLF funding for projects under their ‘First World War: Then and Now’ scheme almost ten per cent stated they were planning to use community theatre in some way.  Yet when I asked a senior member of the Strategy team how they viewed community theatre, given the extent to which they were funding it, I was told that ‘ I wouldn’t say anyone has more than a general view, which is about its usefulness as a way into heritage … we may not have much to say, I fear’.

When Arnold Wesker died last year none of the obituaries mentioned ‘Beorhtel’s Hill’, his community play for Basildon of 1989. By this stage Jon Oram had replaced Ann Jellicoe as the Artistic Director of the Colway Theatre Trust and had, he told me, approached Wesker to write a community play. And that one day, whilst walking through Basildon together Wesker had turned to him and said ‘Jon I can’t write this play … I can’t find one positive thing to say about this dumphole’. And that just as he said this a man came up carrying bin liners stinking of meths, breathed all over Wesker and said ‘the trouble is, when you wake up from the dream, Margaret Thatcher’s still alive’. At which point Wesker said ‘right, I’ve got the first scene, I’ll write it’.

The play features a narrator, who happens to be around 55, the same age as Wesker was when he wrote it. ‘Who are they?’ are his first words as he surveys a chorus of community characters; and the entire text is punctuated by the sense of bewilderment the narrator feels as he at once observes and evokes; with the plays’ final words being one last cry of  ‘who are they? If only I knew who they were’. Wesker has been unable to learn a thing about this community whilst carrying out his work. But he has been completely aware of his exteriority; completely aware of the dangers of what Benjamin calls ‘ideological patronage’.

Now such artistic prerogative does exhibit a rather problematic stance, especially in a field which can, as Grant Kester suggests, fall prey to a ‘fetishization of authenticity in which only those artists who can claim an integral connection to a given community are allowed the ethical mandate to work with or represent it’. At a workshop last year at the ACTA centre in Bristol, which was asking how individual and community ownership of theatre happens, I brought up the question of the role of the writer. One director told me that they don’t use writers, but facilitators; to ensure a democracy of input; and another that in some ways he’d like to ban scripts along with any other artefacts of the event.

But what are we missing by not looking?

Richard Sennett, as Jen Harvie discusses in ‘Fair Play’, evokes the idea of ‘material consciousness’ as a key part of the craftsman’s skill, in which ‘all his or her efforts to do good quality work depend on curiosity about the material at hand’. And, importantly, ‘this curiosity is not simply about material objects but also material relations of production, including the material and social networks between people that the craftsperson engages in’.

These curiosities about the relations of production are clearly evident in the plays I have been reading by invited and commissioned writers. And this contextual understanding of their position and role appears to correspond to a range of narrative strategies. The plays are full of strangers who provoke and shatter and antagonise and question and confuse. Full of liminal characters who operate within and between different communal groups. And they constantly exhibit the interplay between the ‘geography’ of the public, as Sennett calls it, and the private domain. They are more often than not very self-reflexive texts, aware that the play they are writing is part of an event that contains a play.

In ‘Come Hell or High Water’ by Rupert Creed and Richard Hayhow, the community play for Bridlington of 1995, there is a conversation between an artist who is painting a seafront scene and a local fisherman:

‘You’ve got them ships dead right. Not sure about the flags though’, says the fisherman.

‘They add more colour. Balances the composition’, says the Artist.

‘They’re still wrong’, replies the fisherman.’ You’ve got them flying in the wrong direction’.

These writers may have been getting many things wrong, but perhaps their struggle to find a voice for a new form of theatre, and their confusion and awareness of their position in a wider social process, proclaiming the right for their individual voice as they also seek the acceptance of the collective, exhibits something of the projective, thrown together, and dissonant understandings of community that have become more recently theorised. As Claire Bishop suggests ‘a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained not erased’. And of course for a playwright conflict is the engine of narrative.

I want to briefly return to the question of heritage, because the community play found itself developing as a form at the same time that Robert Hewison and the heritage baiters, as Samuel calls them, saw heritage begin its ‘inflationary career’ commodifying the past and shoring up a crumbling national identity. And that it, heritage, became in Samuel’s words, ‘one of the principal whipping-boys of Cultural Studies’.

I wonder that if by neglecting to investigate the work that the texts of this first generation of community playwrights was doing that the community play movement allowed the subtleties, and potential of its work to be overlooked, and that the more easily observable signs of its production processes and its cross germination with a heritage discourse was therefore able to take precedence when identifying and codifying its formal qualities. That by remaining partially invisible to itself it was unable to follow Lyotards’ process whereby, ‘art is caught in an eternal treadmill of formal innovation and assimilation’ and instead found itself dissolving into some kind of quasi HLF franchise which has no real interest with, or understanding of, the idea of community theatre as an act of social provocation.

I am aware I may be trying to validate my practice. But the role of the writer in community theatre is a specific form of writing with specific challenges and the methods that writers have used when faced with these challenges – whatever their relationship with the communities they are working with –  should be brought to light to ensure that the community play, as it moves through its second and into its third generation, is able to stand up for itself again as a hugely ambitious social experiment in the introduction of theatre into the public sphere.

And maybe we should love our writers a little more, especially when they fly the flags in the wrong direction.