Participation, Ethnography and Recognition – Community Theatre as a Human Right

This paper was presented at the Mental Health, Migration and Resilience: innovative applied arts based methodologies for research policy and practice conference at DeMontfort University on the 19th of October, 2019.

It was given in response to a project I had been involved in with the university which had led to the creation of a community play in Pune. The project, which was based around investigating notions of mental health resilience in a basti (slum) community, was a partnership between health and theatre practitioners and my work was primarily focussed on trying to ensure that the project moved away from any instrumentalist agenda and allowed the community to share their own stories to themselves.

Information on the wider project can be found here.

A 360 degree film which shows excerpts from the play (‘Suno Suno’) can be seen here.

I want to start by sharing some of the feedback that the researchers collected from some of the audience members who had seen ‘Suno Suno’, the final play that came out of the project:

‘I felt it was very good … I am actually feeling that how true it is! This all actually happens. It is only from your play that we are understanding what we are actually doing. Otherwise, we don’t pay attention to it nor realize it’.

‘Nothing like this has happened before … this is the first time that someone has come here, talked to us, asked us. So we also felt good about it and we also liked it … the play was really good … you have done it in a quite friendly manner. And this itself is an honour to us … It is our own story only; so there is nothing that we are angry at or anything. Everything was good indeed’.

‘… the things which we find difficult, you tried to show it in front of us, which motivated us … Everything was good’.

‘This all happens in the family. You are doing it to show the familial experiences. I am feeling good’.

‘It was needed here. Now the people understood how they live and what they do; this they have understood by themselves.’

It appears from these comments that the audience were happy with what they saw. That the play was accurate; that somehow it captured their lived reality; and there is a sense perhaps that this was unexpected. And perhaps most importantly that this re-presentation of their lived experience made them feel ‘good’. And yet there also seems to be the sense that the play was somehow to be learned from, that it should be viewed as some form of guidance; that it contained a message that the community were to respond to, to help them in some way. That it must have been there for a reason.

Now it’s true that the text of the play did have an element of a moralising finale; of a summing up of the importance of everyone helping each other. And although this was something that on a personal level I was ambivalent about – because of a dislike of didacticism in theatre, or at least a didacticism that doesn’t try to hide itself – it’s also clear that this was connected to a narrative form that is more traditional in India and which the audience may have been expecting. In fact a couple of days before the show I saw a modern piece performed by students and although it was in Hindi, and I couldn’t understand what was being said, the long final speech, the posture of the actor, and the accompanying music, made it clear that there was some message giving going on.

But I think that it wasn’t just the ending of the play that led many in the audience to see this as some form of consciousness raising activity, but also the very idea that a piece of theatre was being made about – and with – this community in the first place? Why on earth would anybody do that?

And this slight sense of bewilderment and confusion over purpose was palpable throughout pretty much the whole project and was, understandably, the central tension that was faced when theatre teams from different contexts met to work with social health teams from different contexts. On one hand the Western theatre practitioners said ‘we should view theatre as a research process; of a way of uncovering and learning from this basti community, of thinking as theatre as a new form of research language’. And on another hand – and there were many hands inbetween – there was a sense that the theatre was ultimately a way of sharing information, of acting as a dissemination tool, to communicate what had been learnt about the basti community even if the process of making the play was to be as collaborative as possible.

And I want to unpick this tension a little because as the applied arts become increasingly involved in work such as this, as the humanities are increasingly called upon to uncover new forms of knowledge, or rather to help dig into knowledge that exists within communities because it has perhaps developed better ways to have conversations with those communities, there is a danger, I think, of perhaps beginning to slide into previous traps that have been set when art meets social purpose.

Now let me back track a little. To 1948 and this line from The Declaration of Human Rights:

‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

This statement links together ideas of culture, of community and of participation. It says that such a thing is a human right. And if you are a community artist, as I am, running a theatre company that works with people to make shows about their stories, then you could say that this statement also begins to suggest the importance of people coming together to not just observe but to create their own culture, their own art.

And it’s this word participation that is so important to community artists. In an innate understanding of the importance of people being given the space and the resources to make their own art.

I run a theatre company, called Excavate, and for the last 20 years we have been making theatre with communities, generally communities of place and generally by creating work based on stories from the past from within those communities, yet stories that in their telling are usually informed by issues of the present. And at various times during our work, particularly during the early part of this century, we have found ourselves being asked to engage in all manner of projects that appeared less interested in theatre, and more interested in the fact that our practice was based on ideas of participation; that people liked working with us; and that therefore whilst doing our work we may be able to pass on some kind of message that the people who wanted us to work with them wanted to pass on. And these messages – which were usually aimed at working class communities – were also usually connected to things that these communities were seen to be lacking in; a so-called “deficit model of participation”.

And we said no to this. Our understanding of participation was a very democratic one, we wanted to come to the table as equals, and to decide what we would make together, knowing that some of us had different skills to share, which we would in a form of barter. You have primary knowledge, we have theatrical skills; how can we combine them and what do we want to make? Our impulse was very much allied to the origins of the community arts movement which was an inherently political project that saw participation as fundamentally about issues of power; of voice; of agency. And we felt uneasy about this interest in participation on a governmental level.

Because participation can mean many things; and can the term can be used to smuggle in many agendas.

This ‘ladder of citizen participation’ was created in 1969 by Sherry Arnstein who was writing about citizen involvement in planning processes in the United States and it was a model that the first generation of community artists referred to. At the bottom of the ladder is what Arnheim calls Manipulation and Therapy in which the aim is to cure or educate the participants. A plan is brought to the community and the job of participation is to achieve support for this plan through the process of public relations. And at the top end is Citizen Control where the entire job of planning and managing a programme or project takes place without outside interference. And it’s always worth, I think, when you declare that your work is participatory, checking in on this to see where the power really lies in these relationships. Particularly because of the danger of finding yourself on the rung of Placation, which may involve the setting up of committees to advise or plan but with the power holders having the ultimate right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice.

Participation is clearly then about power. But by the beginning of this century the word was beginning to mean something else. Participation was no longer seen as being a good in its own right, but was severed from a moral sense of democracy and exchange and was tied instead to external, governmental agendas.

Now we were utopian souls who wanted our work to make the world a better place; to bring different groups of people together and so we went to the University of Nottingham and asked them if they could work with us to find out if what we were doing was as socially useful as we blithely thought it was. And they asked us to spend three years working in an estate that was jam packed with all sorts of self-declared participatory interventionist programmes that were aiming to develop social capital and solve the many problems that had been ascribed to this particular place. And we were told, by all of the professionals that we met who were working there, that nobody would be interested in theatre; that nobody would want to get involved; that nobody would come along.

But they were wrong. Every show we made together – and we made three – was sold out.

This group of women – the Wigman Ladies, a splinter group from the Co-operative Women’s Guild – started off by being in a film in the first show, because they didn’t want to appear on stage, and then agreed to do this; and then helped us with the research for the final show. And at the end of these plays, and at the end of the project, people said things about what they had seen that were very similar to my initial quotes connected to the basti play.

And the university team that was working with us told us what we had done. Which was actually a list of what we had not done. They told us that we didn’t define people in the way that the other professional intervention teams did; as deficient, deprived, socially excluded, lacking in aspiration but rather as people who had stories to tell, whose histories were interesting, whose place in the world mattered.

That we did not expect everyone to be involved, but we did offer a range of ways in which people could be involved if they wished – maybe they could share a story, or help build a stage, or make some refreshments for the interval; or act or sing. That we were not interested in providing a service for clients, user groups or customers. That we did not engage in heavy duty discussion about the need for community, for positive local identities and for everyone pulling together in the face of adversity. That we were simply going to put on a performance which had a limited life.

When we began we were asked ‘can you help sort out the street lights and the dog mess?’ The community were so used to outside intervention that any form of engagement that might arrive without any desire to try and improve things in any way, but just to make something together, to be creative, was almost impossible to grasp. And we said ‘no. We can’t help you with anything. And we don’t want to. We just want to listen for now, and then work together to make some theatre about the things you’ve told us’.

There is a useful quote by James Thompson, who in writing about theatre in trauma and war contexts, (although the work we make is not in such arenas, it follows a similar principle), calls for ‘an ethnographic perspective that starts with the knowledges and practices within a community before diagnoses, treatments or performance techniques are assumed to be appropriate’.

Listening, hearing and respecting local ways of being and dealing with life militates against incoming theatre practitioners – or anybody else – initiating activities that can lead to more distress and harm, rather than the healing that is intended.

So, when I was asked if I would be interested in working on a project that was focussing on mental health and internal migration my first thought was ‘how is the theatre to be used? Is the project going to be a genuinely participative one, in which the use of theatre practices help us to listen; or is it going to be asked to pass on some kind of external message that has largely been constructed to serve a specific agenda?

And this question was a difficult one to deal with. We were working within a context where there is a tradition of using theatre to convey information, often health based, to basti communities. And working with organisations whose job is explicitly interventionist and who provide services and resources that are absolutely needed by the community. ‘What do you want us to say? What message do you want us to get across?’ was the first and second and third question that Swatantra, the Pune theatre company we were working with, understandably wanted an answer to. And when the company first went into the community and asked what kind of street plays the community would like them to do, it was initially asked to do work about sanitation issues; just as we had been asked in Nottingham to help with the street lights and dog mess. Both because the community saw the job of the theatre company as outsiders providing information, but also because it saw that through doing such a piece of work it could also proposition for resources that it felt was needed. The theatre had a very concrete and grounded social function.

I want to share another couple of quotes from the basti audience:

‘Such things are happening around here; that people cheat us. I like this part of the play.’

‘Such kind of things do happen. Yet, it feels good to watch the play’.

These are, I think, comments that reveal the value of making a show that was trying not to convey any kind of external message, even if the audience took one from it and even if the narrative form couldn’t quite help itself. Even though, as these quotes suggest, that what was being represented was not necessarily a positive or a celebratory thing – such as in this case being cheated – the fact of this being presented was in some way pleasurable and valuable. Because it was true; it was revealing and re-presenting in an artistic form a specific truth about that specific community, one which people knew and perhaps talked about but which wasn’t being represented anywhere else. And there were several comments like this. Even if the re-presented stories were not exactly as the community had told it, but were a version of it, the community – and the same thing happened during our work in the estate in Nottingham – responded as if something of the essence of what they had talked about had been successfully captured. And it was this that excited them, and made them feel ‘good’. And what is at the heart of this understanding is, I think, what the American critical theorist Nancy Fraser calls ‘recognition’.

Fraser argues that one of the ways in which people are marginalized and discriminated against is if their identities, languages, choices and ways of life are mis-recognized. This misrecognition then turns into active discrimination and injustice. Fraser argues that a politics of recognition is essential if people are to participate in society on an equal footing with others. Although she is also very clear that this must be linked to a politics of redistribution of resources.

This form of recognition, of people being allowed to express their own reality, is I think absolutely linked to the statement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I shared at the beginning. That denying people the right to participate in the cultural life of the community is to deny them a voice and to deny them power. For preventing them from being heard is the first step to denying them other rights. And being heard requires you to find a way to communicate your experience. As Francois Matarasso has written, only if people have the potential to act as artists can they communicate what is meaningful to them in life. Only if they have the right to act as artists can they be heard as well as hear. Only if they have the right to act as artists can they express and defend their reality and their values on the same basis as others.

If the arts are going to be appropriated in some way by researchers working in other fields such as happened in this project then it must realise that theatre’s superpower lies in its potential to find ways to give people their own voice. That it must use theatre to let people reveal their own knowledge and communicate their own experience for us to listen to so, that they are not simply at the mercy of other people who have greater power to make definitions and diagnoses for them.

This is surely healthy, for individuals and for communities. And before I end I want to say a little more about the potential of this work as a community building exercise. The basti project was, like most of the work I am involved in, connected to a community of place. And place is not simply a physical location. A location becomes a place by virtue of the meanings that people attribute to it. It becomes meaningful through what happens there, the social interactions and networks that are established, the cultural and political actions that are taken and experienced, the memories and stories that are built up about it.

Doreen Massey writes of place as an ‘event’. Rather than place being fixed, it is always in formation, always being made, unmade, and changed. It is ‘throwntogether’, the result of ‘the challenge of negotiating a here-and-now… drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres’. If place is always an event, and the very fact that this project was partly dealing with the challenges of the fragility of sense of place that internal migration causes, then community theatre can perhaps be seen as a place-making process in the way that it brings people together in a collective creative effort, as producers and audience. It is in these moments of publicly shared recognition, of re-presentations of grounded experience, that place may be reinvested with local meaning as a bulwark against an identity forming process that is being led by external agendas. And if these external agendas become too powerful or are not contested then the dangers of misrecognition of that place, and of those who live within it, with all of the dangers this poses, is very real.

And of course community theatre offers the potential to change associational patterns in the neighbourhood. New friends can be made, new talents can be discovered, and the performance itself can become a new shared memory. The material, geographical location becomes, for those who are involved as either audience or participants, a little more imbued with public meanings – meanings built from the life experiences of those who live there, told in language that is familiar in contrast to those narratives of local experiences that the media and politicians may turn into bureaucratic and sensationalising texts.

I want to end with one last quote from the audience, or rather an exchange between the interviewer and an audience member:

I: And do you feel that such kind of performances should happen?
R: Let us see. Let us see after a month or two if needed, then we can have another show
I: Will the people get help from this play? Will they able to understand such kind of situations also take place? Or do they understand how they have also overcome their own critical situations, likewise that are shown in the play?
R: Yes. People would be able to understand quite a bit of it. If we add some more content in it, they will understand it. But doing it just for one time, won’t help.

In this, I think, we come back to the tension over the purpose of the play; in the need for some kind of message and the idea of some kind of learning ultimately to have taken place. But also that a sense of ownership is beginning perhaps to develop – ‘if we add some more content in it’. And also, that this needs to be just the beginning of a process. That the idea of a space where people are given free rein to share stories that otherwise may not have been shared must continue. And we must be ready to find ways to hand over more power still and in doing so there is much to be gained. The knowledge we learn from observing and watching and listening should not just come from the stories that we are told, and the help that the community gives us with the script and the responses to what they have seen, but by the kind of artistic languages that people may reach for or create themselves to express what they want to express. The forms in which they speak may tell us as much, if we learn how to look, as the message that is contained within them.


An interview with Rib Davis


Rib Davis has been one of the most prolific writers of community plays over the last thirty years, writing fifteen large scale shows. The subject matter of these plays has varied hugely, from Midlands pit village life in the inter-war years (Every Other Garden ’Ad A Pit was commissioned for the D.H.Lawrence centenary festival) to the steelworks in Corby to the transformation of a village into a commuter town in Cherry Hinton. In Cambridge Davis focused on railway workers, in Beaconsfield agricultural life and in High Wycombe the Home Front. The venues have varied from community halls to a marquee to a village green to a (1990s) rave venue. These plays have all called for sustained community commitment, each with a huge cast and performance/ production crew of people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Most recently Rib Davis has directed his own play The Vision for Woking Community Play Association.

I spoke to Rib in early December 2018 to ask him about his work, specifically in terms of the question of the evocation of place.

How did you get into this particular form of writing?

I was musical director for a play at Stantonbury, Milton Keynes, which was a community play. That’s how I really got into it by just observing how it was done; and that was a play called All Change by Roy Nevitt. And then I stayed involved with them for some years. It was seeing how that was done that was a real eye opener to me because I was used to straight naturalistic theatre. So then I got a job as a community arts worker in Derbyshire and I sort of subverted that towards doing a community play there; so that’s how I got into it.

And what was the play in Derbyshire?

The play was in South Normanton. It was called A Pennorth of Duck, ‘duck’ being that sort of mish mash of leftover meats they’d squash together and sell for a penny and the play felt a bit like that so it was a good name for it. It was about miners’ working lives between the wars. I did a series of plays about mining and that was the first of them.

Did you think of it specifically as a community play; was that the term that you used?

Yes; yes I did. And I thought if it very very much directly in the line from Peter Cheeseman in Stoke and Roy (Nevitt) and Roger Kitchin. I felt I was part of that tradition.

When was this? The mid-eighties?

Around eighty twoish, something like that.

And who were you working for as a community arts worker?

Junction 28 it was called, South Normanton Community Arts.

I know them well; they’re now based in Chesterfield and are currently celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Were you aware around this time of the Jellicoe form?

Yes I was aware of what Ann Jellicoe was doing. I think there was a tiny bit of resentment around because Ann Jellicoe seemed to give the impression that she’d invented community theatre and that she was the trailblazerm and she didn’t seem to give much credit to other people who were also working in community theatre at the same time although working in a different way. Ann Jellicoe definitely wasn’t our model but we were certainly aware what she was doing.

I think her book helped

Of course; although I had a few little issues with the book; particularly the point where, if I remember correctly, she said if you’re going to have a negative character it should be from outside of the community and that seemed to me like a recipe for xenophobia.

One of the things I’m interested in in your plays, and coming out of the Nevitt plays is that – at least the ones I’ve read – particularly Bigger, Brighter, Better and Pioneers – are very much about building communities; building place that is either rapidly changing or expanding or is a new town that is coming from scratch. And the way that these two plays are written is very much a chronological account of how this place became to be like it is. There are a lot of details about the physical construction of the places. I wonder how that style came about; that notion of the story is how the place is built.

I think sense of place is absolutely central to what I was doing, what Roy and Roger were doing and others. And in those plays it was about how did this place get created as it is. But in other of my plays it’s about how did an identity of this place get lost. So for example I did a play called West End Best End which was in Derby, for Derby Community Arts, and that as about the West End of Derby which had been completely demolished. So the play was about a recreation of a community that no longer existed. So some of the plays are looking at the creation of community and others are looking at how communities have either changed or even just disappeared.

Is this recreation you talk about a nostalgic thing?

Well there’s an element of nostalgia yes. I’ve increasingly over the years – though I don’t think I was aware of it back in the eighties –  become more and more suspicious of the word ‘celebration’ because as soon as you put in an application to HLF or whatever and say we’re going to be celebrating this or that, that immediately cuts out anything negative that you might come across, because you’re there to celebrate. I wasn’t as conscious of that in the eighties, so the idea of celebrating communities I didn’t question too much. So yes we were celebrating the existence of that community that no longer existed and saying it was a great place to live. It was very much for the people who had been there; it was based on interviews with people who had lived there and it was, like most of my community plays, fairly strict documentary; it wasn’t verbatim, so I was only making up the odd word here or there. And so it was giving back to those people their community that they had lost in some sense.

Was there then a particular job that you felt the plays had to be doing? With Roy in Milton Keynes the work was partly about creating a sense of communal identity in a new place by digging into the past.

I think I was doing something similar in other places even though they weren’t invented communities like Milton Keynes. So in Derby where there was an awful lot of movement of communities it was saying something similar – we have a history, there has been community here before and this is what it’s been like. So again it’s giving a sense of history to the people who are no living there.

How do you evoke place? What are you looking for? What are the shortcuts and the ways in that help you to evoke what place is?

Its place through people I think. So you’re quoting actual people with real names, real jobs, real occupations and hobbies and all the rest in that place. And for me that’s what is most important about placem rather than the buildings and whatever, even though we had gone into detail into them particularly in Bigger, Brighter, Better. But it’s much more for me about people and what they were doing; whether its mining or making cars. What people were doing and how they relate to each other and how they relate to place rather than the bricks and mortar side of it. (Incidentally I did do a play in Milton Keynes, Worker By Name with the Living Archive, which was about Stoney Stratford).

In both of the plays I mentioned there is a refrain in a song that says ‘What do you think we are?’ And people are trying to partly define themselves through place; there is a strong sense of connection between their identity and the place itself.

Yes, but it’s about how people feel defined by it, how they perceive themselves in it rather than what the place is itself.

If you are parachuted into a place to write a play then what is your process?

I do two sets of things. I do a lot of reading around what already exists; what has been written about this place, historically and architecturally and all the rest. And then it’s talking to people. And it really is seeing what the mood is. Let me give you a different example if I may. There is a place I won’t name but it’s in North Derbyshire and I was invited to write a play about this village. I did my research and did some interviews and came up with a draft and read it to a group of people. And what had arisen out of those interviews was that a pit village a couple of miles down the road had closed down, the pit had closed and a whole load of people from that village had come to this one and they hadn’t always been made very welcome. This was in the script, and the result of that was that the play was cancelled. They did give me the option of getting rid of it and I said no. And that for me was when I think I started to question this whole business of celebrating.

A couple of writers have told me of similar situations. Both these plays seem to me to be very much about being inside or outside, insiders or outsiders …

Yes. And how the outsiders are perceived initiallym and they become the insiders but it’s the degree to which they are or are not accepted.

When you are faced with something that is chronological, that says ‘tell the story of our community in some way’ rather than placing a story in a particular time, it is, I think, actually more difficult to evoke place. Whereas in something like Open Arms which is about a particular period in which the place is a setting which is always present I think there is a richer sense of place.

Open Arms is different because it wasn’t a documentary. It’s the only one of my community plays where there are fictional characters. So a lot of the lines were real, were straight off interviews, but nothing like my normal technique at all so it was much freer.

So what is your normal technique?

The normal technique is to try to have almost every word of every line straight off a tape or off a written source. So I’m really not making anything up except changing the tenses and adding the odd word here and there to make it sound a little bit more like spoken language when necessary and make it sound more dialoguely. And when I say documentary that’s what I mean, that I’m not  making lines up whereas in Open Arms I made lots of lines up and I made up characters. The strict documentary way – which is fourteen out of sixteen I think, of the community plays – I had a little rule which I sort of developed which is that if you name a character on stage, and loads of the characters are named, then you can only give them lines that they actually said; you’ve got them on tape or have been reliably attributed to them. You can’t give them other people’s lines. But what you can do is you can create a whole load of characters – first, second, third, fourth butcher or whatever – and you can give them lines from all sorts of people because they’re not named characters.

For a play like Bigger, Brighter, Better how many hours of interviews do you think you would have?

Oh God I don’t know. I don’t know how many people we interviewed for that, probably thirty or forty at a guess, and probably at about an hour and a half each; but that’s a guess, I honestly don’t remember.

Who transcribes that?

I did little bits of transcribing but generally it was volunteers. And I can’t remember, we may have been able to pay a few people a little bit but it was mainly volunteers and for all of those plays we got all of the interviews transcribed.

And then what? Do you read through these and start to find themes within?

Yes. So it’s trying to be as open minded as possible before you start and then letting the material – I won’t say dictate because it’s not that – tell you what’s important in there. And then making notes on the transcripts and then making notes on the notes and heading towards themes.

I’m not sure if you work in other fields but I also work in straight theatre, completely non documentary theatre, and there my approach is completely different. So for that, even if I’m working to a particular political theme or whatever, I start absolutely from character so that everything, action, dialogue, it all comes from character. Documentary plays it’s not like that at all for me; it’s a completely different animal.  What I have to do is something a bit more mechanical which is look through all of these transcripts and all of the other material and say right what are the important events here that we’ve got to include. And then, who was present at most of those events. And really we’re creating something like a tapeworm that runs through – and you can hang these scenes off that individual. And sometimes it’s more than one individual. But you’re not really developing character very much. And I think where the documentary style of mine and Roger and Roy’s has not worked is where we’ve tried to look too much at character. Because I think for that you need to be able to make stuff up. You need to be able to intuit; and if all you’ve got is what is said on the tapes I don’t think really you can go fully into character.

A tapeworm?

I think in Aspects of the Novel Forster talks about stories being like a tapeworm; but I’m talking about character in documentary theatre. An individual, a real individual who was present at a lot of things that we the audience can identify with; so he was just there, so he’s involved, he doesn’t even have to say very much. But he was there, he was part of it, so we’ve got some sort of a thread to follow through; and maybe it’s two or three characters that we can follow through. Because otherwise it really does feel like ‘well this happened, then this happened, then this happened and then – oh yes it’s the end!’ Which doesn’t feel very satisfactory.

If you haven’t got any kind of emotional investment then perhaps what you think you’re receiving is an explanation in some way?

Yes; exactly.

What about conflict? In the Jellicoe model it is often the outsider who brings the conflict into a community, often in the form of a threatening modernity which causes a community to recalibrate itself.

It’s interesting this idea of conflict or struggle because the best conventional plays, non-documentary, non-community plays, the conflict is internal, within characters; its characters struggling to make decisions to do this or that and ultimately it’s about who they are, who they want to be, who they’re capable of being. Whereas for these plays the conflict is about the community, it’s a community in conflict with whatever, whatever is happening to it, whether it’s the General Strike or the arrival of Milton Keynes or whatever; so it’s at that level that you’re dealing with conflict. Which tends to be a little less emotionally involving than individual conflict.

To what extent can you say that community plays are about what communities would like to be?

Exactly, it is that. Yes, I think so.

You said that you reached a point concerning the idea of celebration that made you rethink about your work. Has your work changed since then?

Well yes and no; but yes. It’s very hard to avoid the celebratory element altogether but in two plays – one was called Chuck Out Your Mouldies, this was about the Greenwich peninsula before the coming of the gasworks, the O2 and the rest. And the other one was called The Vision, which was six or seven years ago which was my most recent documentary play, which was about the Occenden organisation which dealt with refugees. In both those plays I played with a technique which actually Alan Bennett has used as well – but he’s tended to get more attention than I have for some reason – which was of presenting the play as a rehearsal for the play.

It’s scripted, not improvised, but the play apparently stops. Somebody interrupts, it might be the writer or director or a musician or an actor, saying ‘hold on I’ve looked at this bit of transcript and I think you should include these lines because that changes the perception of it’; or the musician saying ‘can we just redo this in a major key?’ Or it’s about an interpretation of a line with the Director coming in. The point of that is to – and I think this is really important in community play and in plays based on oral history in particular – is that it’s saying ‘this play isn’t the truth; this play is just one interpretation of this material; so it could be interpreted in so many different ways. We could have interviewed different people, we could have asked them different questions, we can use different material, we can present it differently and so on and so on’. But the problem is that when it’s come from the horse’s mouth; when its oral history, there’s a strong tendency for people to say ‘the story of’ and I think that’s pretty dangerous. So I think  one of the ways of not simply being celebratory is by being much more questioning about the whole process of how we put these things together. And making that public within the play.

That’s one of the difficult things isn’t it? When you’re trying to evoke place you have to find things that cohere so it’s very difficult to create a portrayal of place that is multi-faceted because you focus in on particular stories that seem to be at heart of an identity of a place. And you can miss all sorts of things – there could be all sorts of subcultures happening that are integral to that place that can get missed out I suppose.


Was there a sense in which you viewed the work you were doing as political?

Yes. Partly because I think that everything we do is political, and I’m not avoiding the question but I do think that. We’re political whether we intend to be or not. But yes it was quite overt politically a lot of what I was doing. So the play in Eastwood Every Other Garden Had a Pit was about the miners’ strike of 1926, quite specifically because it was in the context of the miners strike that had been happening in that place in the nineteen eighties. So it was trying to put that into a wider political perspective. Not everything is obviously political but I suppose we have to accept that by what we choose and the way we choose to present it we are all representing ourselves and part of what our self is, our political self. People who say they’re not political, well that’s political as well. People who say they’re in the middle, that’s a political position as well. Or no politics is usually right wing politics. So the answer is yes.

Was it political because you were telling working class stories that aren’t being told otherwise or were you saying we’re going to interrogate these stories through an economic, quasi Marxist way?

It was a bit of both, depending on the play; certainly the first one which is a little odd for a middle class person like me. So yes it was telling stories of people who by and large had been left out of conventional histories. So certainly the mining plays, the stories of miners, if you read the histories of mining, certainly the ones that I’d read at that time they didn’t have the stuff that these guys were telling me. So yes the former, telling working class stories that hadn’t been told, but also putting things into a wider political context. A play I did in Coventry which was about the engineering industry was very much about Thatcherism and the effects of Thatcherism on that industry. And in Corby the play I did with the steelworks was again about what I saw as steelworks owners just discarding people when they had no more use to them. So bring them all down from Scotland, dump them in Northamptonshire, work them for twenty five years and then ‘sorry mate, you’re dumped’. So yes it was certainly looking at things from a political perspective.

As someone who was writing a lot of community plays was there any kind of sense of a movement? Was there any way in which you could talk to other writers or see other work? Or did you feel quite isolated?

I didn’t have a lot of contact with other people who were working in community theatre. I became friends with Richard Hayhow, he’s one of the few. I was asked – I can’t remember the date of this, I think it was probably the late eighties, I think the organisation may have been the Arts Council, but certainly an organisation, an arts organisation or it might have been funded by the Arts Council – asked me to go around the country and evaluate community plays. So I did this. I travelled round and I must have seen about ten or twelve community plays around the country and I found it an intensely depressing experience. It sounds terribly arrogant but I just thought most of them were really bad. And what I found most depressing was not just that they were not good but that the audiences still loved them. And so I was thinking to myself ‘why do I bother?’ Why do I bother getting things to the quality that I think I get them to, if actually so long as little Jimmy is in it, and they can do some scenes where they go back to medieval times and have people going around in togas and then they do some time travel and people will love that, why am I bothering to do anything that I think has some integrity. And I know that all sounds terribly arrogant but nonetheless it’s what I felt. So my view of community theatre in general and in people doing it was that most of them I didn’t really want to have very much to do with.

What kind of plays were they? Were they amateur versions of community play?

They were mixed. A lot of them had funding. The plays that I was doing were amateur in the sense that casts were amateur and we would sometimes be able to pay a bit to musicians. It would depend on the particular budget and the funding but sometimes we could pay professionals to come in and give guidance on set or costume and lighting or design, sound whatever, to work with local people. But the people in the cast always were amateur. So I don’t think it’s about whether they were amateur or not, it’s about whether they were any good or not.

So they were being produced by community arts organisations and local councils?


Texts vanish, you don’t get a chance to read and learn from what other community play writers are doing.

That’s true. I’ve been terrible on that front. I mean I’m terrible in terms of just looking after scripts; loads of them I just don’t have a script of anymore. And also at that time you weren’t writing on a computer. I mean the ones I’ve written since I’ve had computers are nearly all preserved. But the ones that were just typed out over the years they’ve just disappeared. And I was equally dreadful in the early years about looking after interviews and getting proper consent; nobody even thought about getting  consent; you just interviewed people and said it was for a play and they said OK and you did it. And you hoped someone would look after the cassette sometime but usually they didn’t; and it was all very sort of expendable which is not how we approach things these days at all. It was a different sort of mind set.

What’s the community play of yours that you are most proud of?

Probably Every Other Garden Had a Pit. And that’s because we were working in a community that was absolutely divided between miners who had been on strike and miners who hadn’t. And we had people from both sides in the cast and the place was absolutely packed every night, and it was quite electric.

There’s one thing I should add, maybe, which is that I’m now finding a lot more satisfaction in writing fiction plays, which are well researched but fiction, and where what happens does come from character. The limitations of the (community play) form  can be exciting – like writing for a string quartet can be more exciting than writing for a full orchestra – but nevertheless there are limitations.

Is community theatre as far as you can see it still out there and happening?

Yeah I think it’s still out there happening; I think so. I don’t know that there’s a feeling of a community theatre movement. I actually felt myself much more part of a Community Arts movement. There were lots of people in community arts that I knew and I felt very much part of that. I was also for quite a while making my living mainly in community arts – rather than the community theatre movement. I saw community theatre as a subsection of community arts.

I think the money for projects may now be coming from the HLF as much as from anywhere else.

They are; and again you come back to that word ‘celebrate’. And it is very often a nostalgic ‘we was poor but we was happy kind’ of thing that I’m continually trying to persuade people out of.

 I don’t know if other people experienced this but I got into a rut after about five or six years of working in community theatre.  I did a play in Loughborough called You Wouldn’t Dream Of It Today and that title is about as uninspired as the play was. And the play was really very dull, very cliché ridden, and I felt pretty, in retrospect, ashamed of it. And I think I just got into a cycle of this is how you do it. A new town has asked me to do this so you just got through the motions. And it’s just as possible with community theatre as a writer to go through the motions as it is if you’re Jeffrey Archer. Just a little mea culpa there. 














Provocation to the Dorchester Community Play Association Conference

On the 15th September I took part in a Community Play Conference held in Dorchester. The event marked a year since the death of Ann Jellicoe and was very much a tribute to her work and legacy, with some space being made for suggestions and provocations about future directions for the work. Jon Oram gave a wonderful talk about Ann, the potential of this form of play, and of the need for its reinvigoration.

I was part of a panel that was tasked with looking forwards rather than backwards, which I did – through suggesting that the way the community play animates the past is where its future lies. It’s something I’ve written about recently on this site so by posting this I’m aware that I’m repeating myself. But here it is anyway.

community play image

I’m showing you this because in many ways I think this photo is to blame for everything that’s happened to me over the last 38 years. It’s from ‘The Tide’ and I was stood here (just outside of the frame, to the left). I was in two more community plays after this, ‘Colyford Matters’, and ‘The Western Women’, which was developed whilst I was part of a Theatre Sports group that Ann ran, based on the work of Keith Johnstone. Fay Weldon was originally working on that script but struggled with the form and it ended up being written by Ann.

This book came out in 1984 when I was in my first year at Loughborough University on Ann’s advice. And fifteen years later I was running a theatre company that produced community plays that were Jellicoesque – plays based on aspects of the past where the idea of community was a geographical one and the performers were all from the community. There was money to do this, through the Arts Council, and our work was often site specific. And being outside we were able to do things like this.

The Triumph of Reason

The company is still going, but the work we do has changed, and we haven’t applied to the Arts Council for four years. We now develop projects in partnership with universities or find ourselves doing smaller projects funded by the HLF or Creative People and Places. So right now we’re doing ‘The Rutlanders Return’, a community play with a cast of around 35 in Rutland, based on research into the years immediately following the First World War and its impact on the County.

So what next for the community play?

Well my suggestion for future models of working – or rather a renewed energy for the form, specifically within the wider theatrical environment – is based on examining and understanding and shouting about the historical work that the community play does. I want to do this firstly because a lot of community theatre work that is currently happening is being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Secondly that the Heritage Lottery Fund do not fund this work with any joy or enthusiasm or indeed understanding of what the community play can do in terms of its relationship with history. And thirdly because when the moment comes – as it hopefully will – when the funding for socially engaged art is expanded under a Corbyn government, the community play will need to fight its corner amongst a whole heap of other projects and art forms and programmes that fall under the banner of participatory. And I think that if the form is able to create its own space, to advocate its own field of specialism that is not replicated anywhere else, that the large scale community play has a real chance to re-emerge and become part of the theatrical landscape as it was for a brief moment in the eighties and nineties. And just to give you an idea of numbers there are around 215 identified community plays produced between 1978 and 1998 that have materials connected to their production currently held in the Community Plays Archive and Database at the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance.

I’m currently doing a PhD in community theatre, examining the scripts of the plays. And I’m doing this for two reasons. Firstly because I write community plays and I want to read community plays, to learn from the form. To see the things that a community play text is doing that is different to other forms of theatre texts. But they’re very difficult to find because the scripts aren’t published. Which is perfectly understandable on an economic level. But it is fascinating that you cannot read ‘A Poor Mans Friend’ by Howard Barker, given that he is such a respected writer across Europe.  And secondly because whilst there has been a lot of academic  research into the value and impact of participation in community theatre, there’s not been so much about the actual art that has been made. And as a writer I think there is some art involved. And that the writing of a community play is an art that is worthy of some attention.

So I’ve been contacting writers and they’ve been saying ‘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. And just about all the plays I’ve read are history plays which delve into a distinct historical period.

And it is this relationship between the community play and its use of history that interests me more than any other aspect of the form. And it is a relationship, I propose, that has caused – and continues to cause – problems for the community play form within the funding ecology and the wider cultural environment.

Now it’s important to understand that at the very moment that the community play form was finding its feet, there was a political battle raging over the ways that history was being used. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher wrote:

‘… a whole generation has been brought up to misunderstand and denigrate our national history. Far the blackest picture is drawn by our socialist academics and writers of precisely those periods of our history when greatest progress was achieved.’

And this began a re-evaluation on the right of history, and particularly of the Victorian period. History began to be used as a kind of moral underpinning for contemporary policy. And this, coupled with a large increase in museums and centres that were often built in ex industrial sites, led to the idea of a ‘heritage industry’, a term that was coined by the cultural commentator Robert Hewison and which stuck. And his criticism was basically one that said all this looking backwards was a smokescreen for what was going on in the present, and that ‘hypnotised by images of the past, we risk losing all capacity for creative change’.

And Hewison’s ideas and criticisms were widely discussed within cultural circles and it was around this time that the funding began to dry up. Which may be a coincidence but I don’t think so. I think that the community play with its flat caps and bonnets became lazily seen as implicitly conservative and old fashioned.

Now once we hit the mid to late nineties the word ‘community’ in terms of theatre and plays and art generally is replaced by another word, that of ‘participation’. Which is a rather different thing; and which was connected to a wider programme of using the arts to solve social ills. My company was lucky in that this was a period where doing community plays – and we still used that word – was viable again in terms of a funding perspective, largely through stressing the benefits to those who were involved. And there is reams of research into this, as community arts organisations, who originally set up as semi radical groups, found that to keep going they had to take the money that was on offer through all sorts of non-artistic goals. We were once asked if we could do a play that would help with teenage pregnancy which we declined. Because we wanted to make community plays. To work with towns and villages to explore their history and their stories and to make work together that had to cope with all the tensions and contradictions and incoherencies that communities of place have.

And now we are in a totally different funding environment and it is, as I – and I’m sure many of you here have found – very difficult to get funding for these expensive projects. And so we have turned to universities and to the Heritage Lottery Fund. And we are not alone. The HLF fund a lot of theatre, although they don’t really want to. Plays with community casts that are based on historical stories seem to fall through the cracks. The HLF think it should be funded by the Arts Council and the Arts Council think that maybe it can be left to the HLF. But community theatre work is happening through the HLF and it is going under the radar. Of 630 projects that the HLF funded in the first year of their ‘First World War: Then and Now’ scheme, 61 projects involved the use of community theatre in some way.

And yet when I spoke to the HLF about what they think the value of doing this work is I was told – at quite a senior level – ‘My policy staff all have some knowledge of theatre projects, but I wouldn’t say anyone has more than a general view, which is about its usefulness as a way into heritage … I’d be happy to have a conversation and see what you make of it, but we may not have much to say, I fear’.

Which I was fascinated by. The HLF carries out a fair amount of research but there’s no evidence or reports or thinking around how the community play interrogates and digs into and creates history. A history that is then shared to a collective audience, often of hundreds of people, in a public space. And my argument – and one that I want to put to the HLF so that they understand it more and so that they unleash their funding more willingly – is that the community play is creating a genuinely dynamic and exciting form of public history that should be embraced and supported and developed.

Which I need to justify. Now in my academic work there is a fair amount of theory that is bounded up with this but fundamentally what I’m saying is that the community play is a form of history that has all sorts of demands placed upon it, all sorts of constituencies connected to it, all sorts of tension between historical fact and dramatic necessity and evocation of place. And because the writer nearly always says ‘I’m interested in the connection between what was happening then and what is happening now’, whilst knowing that they have to honour the research; and because there is literally a physical re-embodiment of the past by the present; what you end up with are texts that are the antithesis of ‘heritage’ – which tends to present a historical moment all neatly bound up and labelled – and which instead presents history in a very chaotic and dynamic way in which different time frames are talking to each other.

The historian Raphael Samuel who was present at the first national conference on heritage in 1983 – which just shows you how quickly terms can become embedded in the discourse – said that ‘History is an argument about the past, as well as the record of it, and its terms are forever changing’. And Samuel saw history as a very democratic process and writes brilliantly of how history is a social and organic form of knowledge, blending the social and the vernacular and is ‘the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands, many of which belong to an army of amateurs, and madcap enthusiasts’.

Patrick Wright, whose book ‘On Living In An Old Country’ is really worth looking at, says that an understanding and relationship with the past is ‘cobbled together’ from memory and lore and stories. And this is how history is not only understood but more importantly how it is used by individuals and by communities in their engagement and relationship with place. And the way that the community play digs into this, and plays with it, and creates new understandings and debates and imaginings of history and of place is something that no other art form does. And we should be much more aware and interested in that. Because I think that it is something that we can use to advocate for our work.

And we are – hopefully – going to have to advocate. Because if we do get a Corbyn government, you only have to look at the history of the GLC’s arts policy in the eighties to see that there will be money available for socially engaged and community arts practice. And that when that moment comes we will need to fight our corner. Because of that word that has replaced community – participation.

I went to the National Theatre a couple of weeks ago to see ‘Pericles’, which is the first project in a scheme called Public Acts, initiated by the Artistic Director Rufus Norris who, inspired by the work of the National Theatres of Wales and Scotland, is looking at ways to make work that has a focus on connection to community, whether that be within specific social groups in London, or with communities outside of the capital. And we’re working with Rufus at the moment to develop a play based and hopefully taking place in Lincolnshire and it’s clear that this idea of a National Theatre having more of a sense of place and community is important to him.

‘Pericles’ was about participation. It was not a community play. And you can see in the funding agreements that are being reached with the big theatres that participation and community outreach is part of the deal. And so there are more youth theatres and participatory projects, which are all perfectly valid and interesting but they are not offering what the community play offers. And when the new money comes they will be waving their participatory projects around and calling for a bigger slice of the funding.

There is one other source of funding that I’ve mentioned that I think may be useful for us all. And that is university research funding. There is an increasing importance placed upon universities and research. And, like the repertory theatres, there is an increased demand for them to engage with their communities more, and also to find different ways to disseminate their research. And they are looking for people to help them with this. And community plays and community theatre, with their many different forms of involvement and output, is something that offers a rich source of research. I am currently working on two research projects with universities, neither of which have come through humanities departments; one of which has the term ‘community theatre methodology’ in the title. There is, I have just discovered a ‘creative turn’ that is happening in the social sciences. So we should engage with it while it’s there and aim to build up a body of research about what we do that digs into the form that we can thrust back to the Arts Council and the HLF and say ‘look there is a theatre that is only forty years old, that was cut off in its prime but which kept going and has learnt from its history, and this is what it does. Now let’s do it again. With lots of money. Because it’s worth it’.

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.

The community play as event (an introduction)


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?

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


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, 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?


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


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’.


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


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.

The threefold cord is not so quickly broken – Heartlanders, the community play for Birmingham of 1989


David Edgar, the co-writer of Heartlands, along with Stephen Bill and Anne Devlin

For anyone who has been engaged in theorizing about community arts over the last decade or so the very notion of what constitutes community has been one of the key elements of the debate. Writers such as Grant Kester, Martha Fleming, and Miwon Kwon have dug deep into the contingency of the term ‘community’ and offered all manner of terms for ways in which a group of individuals who end up compromising a collective may be constituted, self-realized and externally defined, and how these different understandings impact upon the relationship between the artist, the community and the work that is made.

Kwon’s ‘One Thing After Another’ (a text that deals primarily with American public art and its shift from the creation of sited larger scale visual art pieces to dialogical works made with and in communities as the site of the ‘public’) is an attempt to begin to shape a practice which might get beyond the inherent dangers lurking in the ‘idealised spectre of community’ , a spectre which leads, often inadvertently, into avenues that prevent a genuinely provocative investigation into self and collective identity. For Kwon, along with Kester and Fleming, unless this notion of ‘community’ is challenged then the work that is produced may continue to exhibit the ‘typical essentializing process in community-based art: the isolation of a single point of commonality to define a community – whether a genetic trait, a set of social concerns, or a geographical territory’.

For Kwon there is ‘a need to imagine alternative possibilities of togetherness and collective action’ and she finds inspiration in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, whose work on the philosophical theorizing of community has become influential in the community arts field. For Nancy ‘there is no communion, there is no common being, but there is being in common’ and ‘the question should be the community of being and not the being of community’. And for Kwon this means that the challenge ‘is to figure out a way beyond and through the impossibility of community … to suggest the impossibility of total consolidation, wholeness and unity’, and to ‘suggest that such an impossibility is a welcome premise’.

I offer this very brief and simplistic introduction into this idea as a preface to an examination of the Birmingham community play of 1989, Heartlanders, written by a trio of playwrights (in itself an interesting and unusual process) – Stephen Bill, Anne Devlin and David Edgar (who recently offered this interesting provocation). I make the connection between Kwon’s challenge and this play because Bill, Devlin and Edgar were tasked not with writing a community play for a village or a town, where the myth of some kind of homogenised community or at least of a number of competing social groups that fuel the narrative might be dramatically maintained, but in a city of a million people – where to even attempt to create any kind of commonality or coherence must be virtually impossible. What is so impressive about this text is the way that they face this challenge head on, and in doing so offer some fascinating insights into how writers may approach the challenge of writing a community play, as well as producing an alternative vision of what a community play may look like.

Heartlanders was staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in October 1989 and unlike most large cast community plays written around that time is not set in a previous historical period but in ‘the autumn of 1989’. It is a play that defines the city not, as many historically based community plays do, through the conflicts between social classes defined and animated most usually through their work, but through the individuals and the small units of family that live there and amongst the disparate small businesses and enterprises – taxi drivers, restaurant owners, hairdressers – that occupy this post-industrial landscape. It is a play about strangers and chance encounters and one in which the driving force of the narrative is the search not for community but for family or partnership. This is a search that will bring a host of disparate characters together as their lives become as intermingled as Spaghetti Junction, the image of which is on the cover of the NHB publication of the text (sadly now out of print although the odd second hand copy is still available; and thanks to David Edgar for my copy).

This is community as a chaotic encounter; individuals colliding into each other and sometimes sticking together; sometimes cognisant and sometimes oblivious to the impact their meetings have. All taking place in a city that cannot be clearly seen or described; there is no real sense of ‘Birmingham’, rather a series of spaces and places in which encounters are had and relationships are developed and defined. And yet whilst the city is not one that we can easily ascribe any sense of character to, its locations and the characters who occupy and find themselves within them, become ultimately inseparable.

Heartlanders begins with departures – of the three characters whose journeys through Birmingham we will follow through the play. Aan is flying from his home country of India to find a woman, Katya, who he met five years ago on the ‘Beach of Shells’ and who he hopes to walk with  ‘along a beach in Birmingham’. The other two characters, Tom, a middle aged man leaving from Wales and Margaret, who is travelling from Oswestry, do not yet reveal what they are looking for.

From departures we move, literally, to arrivals; specifically at Digbeth Bus Station where our characters, along with a host of others (including Johan, a ‘central European music student’, who we will encounter throughout the piece as he makes a tortuous journey to a school of music that no-one seems able to clearly direct him to) find themselves immediately thrust into a fluid landscape of comings and goings populated by a diverse range of peoples (including a male voice choir and a Polish dance troupe). Tom finds himself being approached by Rose Devine, a young Irish woman who is trying to escape the clutches of a group of nuns who have paid for her coach ticket (a ruse that Rose has cooked up, she is in fact waiting for someone to arrive from Liverpool) and does so by pretending to recognise Tom as her ‘Uncle Bobby’. Through the simple act of naming Rose appears to have created a surrogate family member – the first instance of what will be a central theme of the creation of alternatively defined family units –  as Tom, realising that Rose is down on her luck, pregnant and waiting for someone who appears to have abandoned her, takes her under his wing and pays for Rose to stay the night at a hotel.

Margaret meanwhile finds herself in conversation with Joel, who has missed his bus to Heathrow from where he was planning to fly to Jamaica (‘My racial home. My roots’), and persuades him to help her in the search for her daughter Sandra who has left home without leaving any forwarding address, suggesting that she may have ended up in ‘the company … of tramps, and punks, and junkies … presumably you are intimately acquainted with … such people’.  Aan, with the help of a friendly taxi driver, finds his way to Katya’s family only to find out that she has also moved out of the family home and into the home of a man that they do not know; something which they have categorically not consented to.

And so the searching begins. Margaret and Joel move through the formal and informal social support landscape of the city (cafes, advice bureaus, hostels, pizzerias) gathering an ever expanding collection of Joel’s friends on the way, all of whom have advice as to where a young woman in Birmingham may end up. Tom at least has a telephone number. As the phone rings in old flame Patricia’s flat, and Tom leaves a message for the woman that has initiated his journey, Patricia is bewildered to hear this voice from the past (‘I left home over thirty years ago’) whilst Terry (her boss) is amazed to discover that she is Welsh, having obviously lost (or hidden) all traces of her roots.

This is a world in which the social spaces are not those of the union hall, the factory, or the church but the smaller units provided by the modern service industries. The incidental characters that we meet are not represented as the ‘workers’ or ‘family groupings’ that are used to assimilate large casts in so many community plays, but are very much individuals whose identity is created as much through their responses to the commercial world that surrounds them (there is a detailed discussion over a pizza order from Joel’s group of friends) and by a sense that they are all trying to cope with the day to day realities of city life than by anything else. This is not a coherent community at all; it is one that is being created, most obviously through the challenge of finding a missing woman (who has removed herself from the community that she previously inhabited). And when Joel discovers that the missing woman is in possession of Margaret’s credit card it is obvious that the search has become more difficult for ‘if she got access, as it were, to Access … (T)hen she could be staying, shopping , bopping anywhere’. (A good example of how the most recent past – here the early days of easy money – can often seem like the most alien landscape). And so when the large scale group scenes do erupt, with the First Act culminating in the largest scene so far, the collective is not defined by trade or battle or religion or social struggle but by its involvement in a Clint Eastwood Lookalike Contest and ‘a fashion parade from Hot Sox of Moseley’ at the Wild West Night at the Canopy Club.

By the beginning of Act Two Aan has found Katya, who is now calling herself Kathy as identities continue to reshuffled. When Katya introduces Aan to Rita, a health visitor, as coming from India, Rita replies ‘You’re not from Nottingham or Leicester’ leading Aan to reply ‘(fed up) I’m really Indian’. This is a thread that runs throughout the piece as the expectations that characters have of each other are continually undermined and re-evaluated, their apparent external definition being continually counteracted or contradicted the moment that further investigation or dialogue is had. The minute that a position is stated, a belief held, an attitude formed by a character is the minute that these can be changed with contact and dialogue and the experience of others and otherness. It is only through direct individual to individual encounter that change is made possible. Even Margaret, who has spent the play offending people by blithely revealing her prejudices, realises that this odyssey has led to her ‘(M)eeting people, going places that I never thought existed. And perhaps I wish I had’’.

The question of roots and belonging that has been ticking away throughout the play now comes right to the surface as Joel’s friend Ernest, a tramp, suggests that the place to look to find the missing daughter is a hairdressers, because ‘somebody whose hair you’re cutting … you get to know ‘em’. Joel realises that Ernest is right: ‘It’s her roots. It’s Sandra’s roots … Her hair. And how she wouldn’t let the roots go. And so she will almost certainly have had it done. And paid, of course, by Access’.

Rose meanwhile continues to show Tom the city, having persuaded him to stay long enough to visit the upcoming computer exhibition at the NEC that Patricia will be attending (as revealed in her answerphone message). Aan is trying to woo Katya, who he has found with the help of her sister Pushba (who has a crush on Aan). Meeting Katya in the same park (at the same time) as Margaret, Joel and Ernest are there Aan gives her a present of a ‘mobile of tinkling white shells in the shape of hearts’ from the beach that Katya came to when she visited Aan on her holiday. But for Katya this is not such a happy memory, recalling that when she went to India she was hoping to be ‘lost in a sea of brown faces’ but that ‘I stood out there as much as I do here’; and that ‘I knew then there was no perfect place – where I could be happy. (That) I would find it with someone’. She tells Aan that he should return to India, and asks him to come and meet her partner, ‘Martin Murphy’.

Tom and Rose go to the Exhibition Centre, (where all of the computer systems being displayed are named after a fruit) and Patricia reveals that life is going well for her as long as she doesn’t ‘slip to 90% of my target’ and that ‘I’m lucky, I don’t need sleep’. Tom is unable to make the romantic gesture that may be required and Rose’s attempts to egg him on are cut short by labour pains which lead to Patricia and Tom having to carry her on a chair to hospital where she is seen by – Martin Murphy. Patricia tells Tom of the decision for her departure from their Welsh hometown, that whilst Tom saw the close knit community as being friendly, for her ‘(E)veryone used to live in everyone else’s kitchens. Just walk in the back door … I didn’t find it friendly. I couldn’t breathe’. As Rose is told that she needs to rest she calls on her ‘aunty’ to allow her to stay for a few nights in her flat which Patricia reluctantly agrees to. ‘It’s why I came back’, Tom tells Patricia; ‘I’ve never forgotten this person who really cared’. It is as though through this encounter with a stranger (Rose) that Patricia’s humanity, which was being strangled by the pressures of her job, has begun to be rekindled. Again it is the individual to individual encounter that leads to the potential for self-realisation.

With the threads of the play beginning to tighten, we are now presented with both ends of the lens as a panoramic view of the city that Patricia’s flat provides is counterpointed with the kicking of the new life inside Rose’s stomach that her new ‘relatives’ listen to through a stethoscope that Rose has ‘borrowed from the hospital’. Johan, our literally wandering musician, ‘passes by at ground level’.

The hairdresser idea meanwhile seems to have worked and Margaret and Joel finally have an address for a ‘friend’ of Margaret’s daughter who takes them to her allotment, another of the socially constructed outdoor spaces that the play occupies, along with the parks and the zoo. At the allotment Sandra reveals that this friend, Rita, is actually her birth mother, a mother that Margaret had told her had died in childbirth. Again the past has competing definitions, only this time it is because Sandra has been lied to, ‘About who I am. About where I come from’.

As some form of resolution is reached Margaret explains how ‘When I arrived here, at the bus station, there were three people, who had come here, to the city, to look for people who they’d lost. And I’d really like to know, I really would, what the others found. Because I have found what I was looking for. But I’ve also found – found out what it was. And although it was … It wasn’t. If you see what I mean. But I have to tell you, what I’ve found, what I’ve found out I was looking for, I could not have found, without … Understanding that the threefold cord is not so quickly broken’.

This is the journey that Margaret, and the audience, have ultimately made; a move towards an understanding and appreciation of the importance of human relationships, and that these human relationships may take any form at all, being neither weaker or stronger for the form that they take. Margaret began the play with a family that had fractured. By the end of the play – through the help of another kind of family, an unexpected one provided by the city and one which has allowed her to re-imagine herself – she has become part of a larger family unit; one that has reconstituted her previous familial elements through expansion and change.

We now move to the end of the play, a Diwali gathering at a temple where Katya/Kathy is explaining the rituals to Martin (‘I feel quite at home. All these candles remind me of my childhood’). As she finally confronts her parents (who are with Aan) disagreements are resolved and Katya is to have a ‘new place in her parents lives’ that is ‘Not too near’ and yet ‘Not too far’.

A procession is formed, the final collective image of the play, ‘joined by performers with more candles, bells and lanterns. The Hindu music is changing too: we recognise the Coventry Carol. In short, the ritual of the Diwalli is turning into Christmas’. Which allows Heartlanders to end as a Nativity play as the main characters, narrating about themselves, each sum up their journeys:

JOEL.              And as Joel finally decided that you’re ultimately closer to the place you love in than the place from whence you came …

PUSHBA.        So someone else …

AAN.               Somewhere in Birmingham …

MARGARET   Was proving nonetheless that it can be pretty damned important where you’re born

Patricia, Tom, Rose and the baby ‘become aware that they are in the centre of attention, of the procession and the audience. Like a rabbit caught in the headlamps of a car, they are frozen into a state of confused but polite bemusement: a successful businesswoman, an elderly Welshman, a young woman he picked up at a bus station, her three-day old child, in the middle of the city, on Christmas Eve, surrounded by the rising strains of a favourite carol, and then, finally, by the darkness’.

Heartlanders is a play in which the idea of a continually evolving and re-evolving community, one in which it appears there is no common being but plenty of being in common, is revealed. But here it is not communities that are being reshaped as much as  families. Ravi (Katya’s mother) has always wanted a son and now has a surrogate in Aan. Katya is to have a new husband; Tom is now Uncle to Rose, and has a baby to help look after with his potential new partner and Rose’s ‘Aunty’ Pat; Joel has ripped up his ticket to stay in a city that he was earlier bemoaning to rejoin his family of friends that may perhaps now be extended to include Margaret; Margaret has a whole new familial situation to deal with.

This is a play in which, unlike so many of the community plays of that time, there are no strangers from out of town who confront and impact upon (and sometimes create) a collective community ethos. Here everyone has the potential to be a stranger to everyone else, or, through chance or design, to become something other. Alongside the core cast, whose stories interweave and bounce off of each other, we see a large cast of characters who quickly reveal tiny aspects of their lives before they are whisked off stage, to reappear again in new locations and configurations, sometimes aware of each other and sometimes not, but all linked somehow to the onward thrust of the story – the search for family and for love. And when family is found it has to be remade or it is reconfigured. Around this shape shifting is the reality of place, a place that is also created by the endless invention and intervention of those who open pizza parlours and hairdressers and feed animals at the zoo. The city – Birmingham – is an amorphous, swirling entity that only comes into focus at any moment through the constellation of the interactions that happen there.

There is one small scene in the play between the ‘yuppie’ Lynn and a hairdresser, Wendy that I think gets to the heart of what Heartlanders is showing. Lynn reveals how bored she is and how ‘the one thing that I really like is getting shot of house and wifery and going out and doing things alone’; an anonymity that the city provides (although when we later see two courting couple pass each other in a park hiding their faces from each other we are reminded that even a city of one million people cannot provide total secrecy). Wendy then alters Lynn’s perception of her (a perception based on her social function) by revealing her knowledge of the post-impressionists and that her father ‘based his stuff on Bonnard’. She then explains to Lynn that ‘when you do someone for a second time, you see the cut. The first cut, from the time before. I always get a real kick from that’.

The city is like an ever changing haircut, in which the shadow of previous cuts are there if you look hard enough but are hidden beneath the ever changing physical and social landscape that allows, and is the battleground for, a constant evolution and re-imagining both of what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be part of a community.