An interview with Roy (and Maggie) Nevitt

Roy_Nevitt

Earlier this year (the 23rd August 2017) I went to visit Roy Nevitt and his wife Maggie at their house in Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes. Roy moved to the town in 1967, initially to work as a lecturer in drama at Bletchley Teacher Training College. After two years there and three and a half years in the USA, 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, 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 to do such a thing at that stage. The next thing that triggered it was when I was in Dillons bookshop in London, just browsing books 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. And 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 childrens 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 he 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 after Sylvia Pankhurst, 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.

And 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 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, because we’d moved away to America and we’d come back, 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 Max Stafford Clark and whoever else was bringing their plays in to the theatre that week.

And when you wrote that first play 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 the play had beens so successful locally that 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 Martin who was 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, senior, 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 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 the researcher 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 (McColl) 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, since 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 Cis 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 Cis 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: 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 town. 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, Lesley Fairbanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve not found what?

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

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

It’s about building community …

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

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

Verbatim?

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

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

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

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

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The numbers game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A death in the family

Ann

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

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

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

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

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

What an incredible legacy.

Here’s what I said.

 

community play image

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what are we missing by not looking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David-Edgar-playwright-010

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.

An interview with Jon Oram

Jon Oram

In February of this year I was lucky enough to meet Jon Oram, one of the most important figures in the world of community theatre, at the house of Stephen Lowe as they met to talk about the project they are currently working on together. Jon agreed to let me interview him, for which I’m very grateful.

Can I ask you first of all to tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I’m Jon Oram; I’m Artistic Director of Claque Theatre which is basically me. I have associate people who I work with on projects, but it’s very small. And I’m a community play theatre director and a playwright. I also run improvisation workshops and do lots around improvisation.

I’m based in Tunbridge Wells and I came to community plays by working with Ann Jellicoe years ago on the Sherborne community play (The Garden by Charles Wood, 1982). I then went down to Cornwall as theatre animateur and did a community play there (The Earth Turned Inside Out by Nick Darke, 1983); and then one in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire (Waves Against The Flames by Jon Oram, 1984).  Ann asked me if I would take over the Colway Theatre Trust and I co-directed ‘Entertaining Strangers’ (by David Edgar, 1985) for Dorchester with Ann at that point, and then took over the reins.

There was about two thousand pounds in the bank and a secretary for half a day a week and nothing set up for the future. I did about eight or ten plays in the West Country before moving up to Kent (we changed the name from Colway Theatre Trust to Claque), because Kent is very much the gateway to Europe or could be; and we started doing work across Europe and then taking community plays to Canada and America and kind of broadening it. And although people talk about the Colway model we’ve developed from that; the core of that is still there but we have a much more engaged process I think with the making of the play and the finding of the scripts.

And what are you working on at the moment?

I’m now working on a community play in the City of London. I’m seventy this year and the thought of doing another play wasn’t in my mind. We had been turned down for funding for three previous projects so it was getting a little bit tiresome; getting money now for community plays is really difficult. But then I got a phone call from the City of London Director of Housing saying they would like to do a community play in the East side of the City of London, Portsokun; it’s an area that kind of runs parallel to the East End. And that just seemed really interesting. So I went and talked to them and looked around and just thought ‘well yes let’s go for it’.

And you’re not writing this one?

I’m not writing this one, no. I have been chasing Stephen Lowe for years because I knew him in the West Country. We were on the Arts Council board down there. Thankfully he slowed down enough for me to catch him up, and finally he’s said ‘yes’. I’m very pleased about that. So Stephen is writing the play. I didn’t want to do the two; I have often done the two things but I just felt I needed another pair of hands on this one.

What does Claque mean?

It goes back to Greek times. The claque were a professional group of audience members, and writers and directors would hire the claque to come to their theatres to cheer things up a bit and to move the thing along. But also writers and directors would hire them to come and visit other shows to give them a bad time. There were various jobs in the claque; my favourite was a group which would invade the stage. And the idea of the audience invading the stage was the inspiration for me calling it Claque. It’s also a French word – slap! – which is like an awakening. So those two things together. When people say they don’t know what it means the description of it helps them to understand what it is we’re trying to do in our work.

How many community plays have you written?

I think its thirty eight now. Given that each play takes about two years and I didn’t start until my mid thirties that makes me well over a hundred years old.

How did you get into writing them?

Well the first one was in a hurry. I was asked to do a community play for Gainsborough for the opening of the Gainsborough Arts Centre and it had to be done quickly. So I just did it and I enjoyed the process. I continued asking other writers to write plays and then I went to Canada and did a play in Eramosa. A woman there called Dale Hamilton, a political figure in the community, was concerned that land was being bought up by businessmen in Toronto and development was happening on prime agricultural land and she wanted to do a play to protest it. We set up this thing called ‘soundings’; asking the community to come in and express their feelings about development and to get a sense of where the community was now. We did about twenty of these and the sounding process became a part and policy of the work; a contemporary exploration of where we are and then finding stories in the past that have reverberations with the present. The process of the community doing that play (The Spirit of Shivaree, 1990) led to the community standing against the local township council at the end of the play and taking over the township. So a cast, a community play cast, was now running the township; and over three years they were able to stop the developers. So the political, social implication of doing those soundings was huge. And when I came back here I started asking writers about that process and they got very anxious about it. Writers almost by dint have a voice; they have something that they want to say, so the idea of giving that all up …  I just found it hard to find a writer who would go through that process. So I wrote the plays.

Did you feel as you were writing the plays that you were learning more and more? Were they getting better? Was there a moment when you wrote something and you thought ‘this really works as a community play?’ And have there been plays that you think were particularly successful?

I think the successful ones are the ones that really seem to echo the contemporary voice, the contemporary concerns, and are quite visible in the piece.When I first came back from Canada I did a play up in Hull with Remould. I wrote it and co-directed it with Rupert Creed; but the subject was decided and they had a very good research team; they were going on the old model as it were and I didn’t want to disturb that. (When I say any of this I’m not against anybody’s way of working).

That was an interesting play because it was within living memory, and that’s rare. It was about the trawlers and safety on trawlers; the men were going out to sea and two vessels had sunk because they didn’t have proper radio communications and the safety conditions of the trawlers was appalling. The men were always at sea so the women started the campaign; and the women who campaigned were still alive and still about and they came and did the workshops with us and the rehearsals with us and some of them were in it. Yvonne Blenkinsop and Christine Smallbone, who lost her brother on one of the ships, helped us a lot in rehearsals and she came to see it. John Prescott was the head of the Dockers union and had assisted the women, and he came to rehearsals. And they were all being represented; so there was somebody playing John Prescott, there was somebody playing Yvonne. Yvonne was also in the play but she couldn’t play herself because she was too old. And that communication between living people and real people was so moving.

I’m just going to tell you one story about Christine Smallbone. We did a depiction of the drowning, a depiction of the trawler going over, and we had the trawlermen on people’s shoulders, on wooden beds that we made that were on people’s shoulders, and they stood on top of that. And we had the real sound effect, the real sound of the last messages coming back from the ship. And I saw Christine standing there watching, just standing underneath where the actor who was playing her brother stood; and I was very concerned. The next scene was her going to the offices of the trawlermen saying enough is  enough. I put the word ‘fuck’ in the dialogue and the community said ‘no we can’t have that’. They didn’t want the word but this is what Christine said. And then, this was the first night, the actress who was playing it had obviously spoken to Christine and she got to the word and she went ‘f … f…fuck!’; she actually said it. Which was right. And I just felt a pair of hands come round my waist and it was Christine and she said ‘bless you’. And that was the most … I mean … you know, it’s that human, it’s that human connection. Whether it was a great play I can’t say. I think it was a good play but it was too long; there were too many aspects that were being forced in it.

‘Vital Spark’?

‘Vital Spark’. It had a profound effect. I don’t know if anything concrete has come out of it but they’re now celebrating the twenty fifth anniversary. Twenty five years on a community is celebrating a play. I mean that’s quite an achievement for them don’t you think?

Does doing a play about a story within living memory make it more difficult to create because in a way it becomes an act of memorialisation as well?

Yes, yes. I think that communities are much more tender about the subjects, so you have to be very careful. And of course if you are writing about people who are living, or people’s parents or grandparents that they have memories of you, have to be really incredibly careful.

I wrote a play for Shillingstone in Dorset (The King’s Shilling, 1987) and we discovered that a woman connected to the story was still alive. I went to see her and and I told her the story and she was very touched by it, and she said ‘this is lovely;  I wish I was still in the village’. ‘Well you could be for ten days’, I said, ‘you could be in it’. And she was. I wrote a little speech for her and she sat in the audience and at the end of the play she came forward and said ‘this was my story; I’m Elizabeth’. And the cast on the first night didn’t know that was going to happen. I’d taken one of the actors to work with her; he was going to walk up onto the stage after she’d come forward, say ‘would you have the last dance with me and walk me home’, and then take her down and dance with her on the floor, which is what happened. And the cast were just … it’s being able to touch history and think  ‘my God it’s so close’. It’s like the relationship you have with your neighbour; it’s just that they live next door in the past as it were. And if plays can do that, that’s magical. But that’s not about the writing or the goodness of the play, it’s about the human spirit.

There is a lot of emphasis it seems on researching real peoples stories. What’s so important about that? Because on some level you’re still inventing everything aren’t you?

Yes, you are. And you don’t know what these people felt or thought. But you’re linking it  to the feelings and thoughts of people now. If you find a story that has reverberations to those you can carry those thoughts and feelings back. So instead of starting with a relationship to a character in the past, I’m starting with your feelings and thoughts and finding somebody that might share them; it’s the other way round.

In terms of having real people, or real names, what the community actor can bring to the stage that professionals can’t is their sense of place, their sense of their own history and I think writers need to be aware of this. It’s deeply personal and they feel a huge sense of responsibility to the ancestor that they’re playing. They can go and stand in front of ‘their’ house, they can knock on the door and say ‘hello I’m playing a character that used to live in your house’. A barber came up to me at the end of a play that I did in Tunbridge Wells and said ‘I walk around my house now and I think ‘Elsie touched that door knob’. She’s present. She’s present in my house. And she’s so welcome’.

Presumably a lot of people that are in these shows may only have been there for five or six years; so they haven’t got a rooted sense of the community.

No. The people that have arrived, absolutely they don’t. But the people that do infect the people that are new. Everyone has an attitude to where they live, If they’ve chosen to live there or they’ve arrived by circumstance they have an invested interest. Some people come to the plays because they want to meet people; a lot of amateur drama people are not so keen because they’ve only got a small part, they don’t necessarily get the sense of ensemble; so they come and they count the lines that they’ve got and they leave. They don’t get it until they see it and then they think ‘shit I’ve missed a wonderful thing here’.

One story about the connection I was talking about. ‘Entertaining Strangers’, which was for Dorchester, then went to the National Theatre and Judi Dench was in it. It was written down (a reduced cast) and David Edgar had written in the programme that it was hard to meet the limited resources of the National Theatre after working with Colway. Maggie Ansell had played the part that Judi Dench was now going to play, and Judi came down to meet Maggie and came away from that meeting saying ‘that bloody woman’, (who she had enormous respect for but Judi’s a bit of a swearer), ‘I’ve been in the rehearsal room for eight weeks trying to get to the point where she started’. Now that’s a recognition of what I’m talking about; a woman who is deeply rooted in the community.

Is it important to have a writer who comes from outside the community?

I think so. Well I know so. That’s like saying that’s the only way to do it, which it isn’t, but I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. Dale Hamilton came from her community and she carried agendas. It was just too personal to her. And then you are in danger of going deaf.

The outside writer hasn’t got the rootedness of community that you have been talking about. So what are the benefits of the writer as an outsider?

First of all it’s very rare to find a writer of real quality in the community that you are asked to do a play in. I think partly what they bring is ignorance, and I think they bring doubt. And they bring a bit of fear. I think they bring those things which I think are really important. They don’t bring a confidence of ‘I know this place’. It’s like a marriage of two minds.  You have this person who is a qualified, a more than competent writer with an enormous amount of curiosity, subject to the people that they’re talking to. And then you’ve got these people who know their community, who know each other, who have sensibility, particularly about what is happening now which is why the soundings are so important. So you’ve got two experts meeting. If you have somebody who is both an expert on what they do and an expert on what they’re writing about I don’t think you’ve got a community play. And the other thing that the writer brings to it is an openness and an objectivity and new light, new ideas, new thoughts, new interpretations on what it is people are thinking and feeling.

Is the writer trying to understand the codes of that community in some way?

The archetypal writer is someone who has something to say and that can cause problems; because they can come with their own agendas in terms of what really sparks them off. So you have to say to the writer ‘try and be open’. And you have to say to the community ‘try not to tell them things you don’t want the play to be about’; there’s a kind of censorship. I tend to work with the community and a research team about three months before they meet the writer, because the writer’s going to arrive thinking  ‘oh shit what am I going to write this play about’. And invariably very early on they’ll grab stuff and cling on to it because it’s like a security blanket. (David Cregan who died recently did a few plays for me and the first one was in Beaminster (Crackling Angel, 1987). I got a phone call about three o clock in the morning and it was David, who was sitting up presumably burning the midnight oil, and he said ‘shit John I feel so responsible’ and hung up again. He got me out of bed to tell me this! He just needed to tell somebody). You ask the community to hold things back and to enthuse and excite the writer, because at the end of the day you can’t tell the writer exactly what to write. If you’ve chosen that writer it’s because of what they bring to it; their passions. So you’ve got to find something that sparks them.

And what are the things that you most often end up saying to a writer who may be working on their first community play?

It’s writing for the form. The canvas is huge. You can have up to 130 – 150 people in the cast and there are tricks that have been developed over the years. Ann Jellicoe came up with an early trick which she called ‘baskets’. How do you write a play for say eighty people? Well you have eight protagonists, you have eight central people which is about as much as an audience can carry. And each of those characters have a family around them: a mother, father, brother, sister, wife, children, neighbour and that’s ten people. Those eight people with ten people around them make up your eighty people. And you can see ‘that’s the Fell family, that’s the Smith family, that’s the council, those are the Suffragettes’, whatever the grouping is you understand the uniform. In terms of design we try and make it so that you can identify the groups in some way so that you try and make it simple for the audience to follow. So this discussion around what I’ve learnt about promenade theatre is quite an important one to have. And when the script starts evolving I’m saying ‘don’t forget that for every scene you’ve got 120 people who could be contributing in some way. Let’s keep them busy. Let’s use this wonderful facility’. So the numbers; the numbers game is huge.

And then there’s staging itself. You have scenes that are quite short, and you can move from a stage up in the north and the audience turn round to a stage in the south. I don’t know why we’ve done this but we name our stages geographically. We have the north, south, east and west stages. We have stages that break up so that they can then move around. So you might have an 8 foot by 8 foot stage but actually it’s made up of four smaller stages which can then truck through the audience. We say ‘keep the audience moving; keep them turning’. We’re learning about that the whole time and those things are really important for the writer; the fact that the space is so flexible. And that the audience needs to be present in what is happening.

Is the audience more of an implicit character in community theatre?

Yes. In Stephen’s play that he’s currently writing, which has the working title of ‘Sanctuary’, there’s going to be a march of the unemployed, and there’s going to be a recruiting of people to join the skeleton army, and there’s going to be salvationists. And so there are moments when people are making street speeches, and instead of having one speaker you can have ten; people on step ladders, or sitting on people’s shoulders, or standing on a chair. And they can be planted throughout the audience and gather people  around them. First of all this gives ten people a speech, and to a certain extent you have to think about the experience of the performers and so if there is somebody who can’t project very well you can give them a speech like this. But also in the interval the audience can talk about the different speeches that they heard. You’ve been at a social event. You’ve got something to tell somebody that you’ve come with who you got split up from. That’s important. You can try and promenade together and stay together as much as you can but then a parade will come through the middle, or there will be a riot, and you’ll get split up; you’ve lost each other for a while. I think that’s really healthy. So something for the writer to think about is ‘how can we split the audience up?’ How can we get them to share different experiences from one another? How can we implicate them in the drama? How can we get you to hold a banner and march with the unemployed? How can we set up situations where you can be standing next to a character who, while a scene is going on, turns to you and asks you a question?

The first community play I saw was Howard Barker’s ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ in Bridport (1981). In it a boy has been accused of setting fire to a flax field and the Judge is going to condemn him to death as an example to the community. There’s a wonderful speech in which he says ‘On Monday England was very calm and on Friday very wild; and today I suggest is Friday, so we have to make an example of you in these wild times’. And a little girl is standing next to me in costume, and she pulls on my trouser leg and I look down, and her mum is standing next to her in costume, and this little girl says ‘I don’t understand. Why are they hanging Sylvester?’ And she’s looking at me, and I’m looking at the mother, and they’re waiting for an answer. There’s a six year old girl dragging me reluctantly into the past, identifying with this boy two hundred years ago who was murdered unjustly in her community. So the the writer needs to be aware of those possibilities.

And is there, with this notion that the play wants to make the audience implicit / complicit with the drama, something that says, at the end of the play, ‘we’ve all been together in this room?’ Does an awareness of the moment of the social event and the awareness of the play need to come together? Does that make sense?

It can. It does make sense. I mean I’ve been doing this now for thirty something years and I know I’m just scratching the surface. And yet the notion of community plays, the actuality of community plays happening is vanishing. Yet it’s such an extraordinary concept. I’m going to be very sad to leave them.

Is there an impetus and a trajectory – which is a dramatic one because you’ve got all these people – that leads to an awareness of collective power? Is that generally what happens in these plays?

You can’t really define how you end any play. I mean its theatre right so you can’t put those rules on to it. What I find galling is a play that ends in a celebration that hasn’t earnt that celebration in its storyline; that has not been a journey of struggle and thought. Or that the thing that we’re celebrating is so small and shallow or untrue. That we must end on a celebration. Howard Barker’s play ended on a celebration of the hanging of Sylvester, because it was well done; he had a hangman with a heart who wanted to break his neck quickly and cleanly so he would leave this world with the least suffering. That’s a big celebration; that’s a very thoughtful celebration. The cast carried him round on their shoulders and the audience followed, and we were singing ‘it was well done, it was very well done, lucky old Sylvester’. Extraordinary.

How many drafts does a community play go through generally? Is it a lot?

It can be. I asked August Wilson and Sam Shepherd, the American writer/actor, if they would write a play for Minneapolis and they both said ‘what a wonderful idea, what an extraordinary process. But no’. I was talking about the process of soundings and Sam Shepherd said ‘opinions in America are like arseholes, everybody’s got one. And they won’t tell you what to write about. And they won’t tell you what not to write about. And they will criticise your play’. So I ended up writing it (Flying Crooked, 1990). Minneapolis is a theatre town, you can’t afford to go bums up there. So I was very careful. I ended up writing that play sitting on the pile of the drafts. It was chair high, and I sat on it and typed the last draft.

And is there a general move that you can see – obviously you’re trying to get deeper into the story – in terms of the form?

There’s a draft of all the stories that you’ve got from the research material. Then you’ve got three or four synopses which you’re presenting. You’ve then got the first draft of the first half, the first draft of the second half, the rewrites of that following conversations with the research team and where we might look at a scene that has been written and play around with it improvisationally. You then do a public play reading and get feedback from that before the next draft. Then we do the casting and you find you have a proportion of women and a proportion of men and a proportion of children that doesn’t match the play and so you have to rewrite the play to suit the collective of people that you’ve got. Then there’s people coming forward in casting and you think ‘Oh God I’ve got to write something specially for him or her’. So there’s that draft. Then you go into rehearsal and all of that is tweaked and you arrive at the production draft.

So how long is that in total? Around eighteen months to a two year process?

Eighteen months minimum.

And do you think some writers may not engage with the process because it’s a heck of a lot of work for might only be a handful of performances?

Twelve performances. But they write them. I asked Arnold Wesker to write a play for Basildon. I’d asked him to come along to Thornbury near Bristol to see a community play that I did there that Nick Darke had written (A Place Called Mars, 1988). I’d said to Nick ‘don’t think about a community play, think about a film. Don’t ever question ‘is that possible?’ We’ll make it possible’. We were working in an empty bowling alley; it had balconies where people could sit, it was huge. On one stage was a house, another was a big raked stage with a village square.  And Nick wrote a stage direction: ‘Amelia sails to America’. So we need a big sailing ship. And then it says ‘she is blown off the ship in a gale, and she’s swallowed by a whale and she’s blown through the blowhole’. Bastard. So we had a life-sized whale, because we could, and she did; she was swallowed by the whale. It was amazing. And at the end of act one this huge tail comes up and about three hundred blue paper plates went flying across the audiences. And Arnold, who refused to promenade, was sitting almost alone in the gallery upstairs and afterwards he said ‘if I’m going to write this play it won’t be a promenade. No focus’.

He came to Basildon, very dubious about this awful thing that he’d seen, and he loved the theatre. It was the Towngate Theatre and this was going to be the opening, the community were going to open it with a community play. Theatres aren’t conducive to promenade anyway, but he was very clear: ‘right, nothing like promenade here’. Then he walked round the town and said ‘I can’t write this play. I can’t find one positive thing to say. You talk about celebration you must be kidding’. I took him to the local bus station for beans on toast and as we came out a guy came up to us carrying bin liners and stinking of meths, breathed all over Arnold and said ‘the trouble is, when you wake up from the dream, Margaret Thatcher’s still alive’. And he looked at me and said ‘right, I’ve got the first scene, I’ll write it’. (Beorthel’s Hill, 1989)

It seems to me that the Basildon play is partly about the writer wondering what to write about. There is a constant refrain ‘I wish I knew who these people were’.

It’s interesting you should say that because I pointed that out to him. I worked with him for three days on the final draft. He sat and read it to me and then he read it again before I was allowed to say a word. I said nothing to him about what to write but at the end I had this thing burning away inside me that I wanted to say: ‘I think you’re wrong’. And I said ‘you express that you feel that you don’t know these people, but I think there is a line in this play that shows that you don’t. And it’s not for me to tell you what to write but you said there are no poets in Basildon. I think you’ll be proved wrong. Because I think you have a group of people who are going to do your play better than you ever expected; and you’ll be moved by it’. And he said ‘you’re right, you don’t have a right to tell me what to write’. On the first night I had Dusty Wesker on my left and Arnold on my right and the play started and the narrator comes to this line and he says ‘there are no poets in Basildon. Well one or two, there’s always one or two’. Arnold had spoken to him. Dusty said to me ‘I’ve never known Arnold make a concession’.

I think there’s something interesting about those plays, plays about those types of places, plays where you’re not doing a history play because they’re new towns, and actually the play is partly about trying to find what the community is, about groups of individuals coming together.

Yes. Well Arnold was given somebody’s diary and that was the centre of his play.

Was it well received? Because it is quite a knotty, tricky thing.

Well, you know the story. The town refused to take refugees who had fled the rule of Idi Amin, and the children went to the airport with flowers because they were so shocked by their parents and by the council which had turned away these people. We had all these flowers dropping and the kids running on the spot; beautiful, it was a lovely ending.

What do you think a good community script needs to do? And do you give advice to writers or generally just let them get on with it?

Listen. I think the writer does need to bring their own voice and in order to do that you need to listen and observe and ensure that the issues of the day are addressed in some way, and are clear. And that you create something in which the audience have enjoyed the night, because for lots of them this will be their first experience of theatre. So I think enjoyment is important. I think music is very important not just in the mood it creates but technically it gives the untrained actors a break and it’s a breathing exercise to remind them to keep the volumes up. And the audience should go away feeling that they’ve participated in something, that they feel implicated; that they feel that they could have done something. And that if they could have done something then, then they can actually do something now about the same issue. So they go away feeling slightly energised about the potential to change things.

So you’ve given them a sense of agency through a kind of fictionalised agency in the past?

Yes, I think so; if people come away and they’ve made the connection. If I was to write a play now in Tunbridge Wells, who voted to stay in (during the Brexit referendum) I think I’d try and emphasize the fact that they did that and that the battle is not over. We’d find a story in the past associated with being ungracious; when a group of people in Tunbridge Wells were ungracious about accepting people in the community, and a group of people in Tunbridge Wells fought that attitude and won. Or fought it and lost and then won. You find a story that has reverberations.

Because it’s so difficult to get funding for community plays I would suggest that smaller versions of the community play are being done with heritage funding. The danger is perhaps that you are creating a chasm between the present and the past.

It also keeps the past in the past, and we can’t affect the past but the past can affect us. One of my favourite lines is ‘you may be done with the past but the past is not done with you’. So the past is great if you’re going to draw from it. And if you’ve got historians reading and doing the research they can get very twitchy about what’s false and what’s true. With plays I think you have to bend what is true to get to truth; you have to bend the facts sometimes a little bit in order to get to a deeper truth about now. But if the plays don’t relate to now you’re going to see a history lesson.

I did the first Dorchester community play with Ann, and then David and I talked about doing a second one and he brought Stephane Dale in to write it with him, ‘A Time to Keep’, the fifth one. And then they asked me if I would write a play and I said ‘yes but I want to go through this process of soundings, and getting the voice of this community’ and they said ‘we want it set in this particular period of time because we haven’t done that period’. And I said ‘no thank you very much’. I love them, Dorchester, they do great things and they’re great to see but I don’t want to go back to what they now call the Colway model. I fundamentally believe I’ve had more success with communities in terms of their sense of the plays afterwards when the subject has come from where we are now and then searching back.

Are there any community plays that you’ve not been involved with that you particularly admire?

Well the Howard Barker play was … I’ve never got anything close to that; a phenomenal piece of work. He won’t touch them now; I don’t think he’s interested in that kind of narrative anymore. And I think he really resented Ann trying to depoliticise the work. Ann was a pioneer, extraordinary, but there were certain things she believed in like ‘politics is divisive’, even though every single bloody writer she asked was a rabid socialist. David Edgar put a Marxist speech in the mouth of a Victorian Minister in Entertaining Strangers. And ‘if there are any baddies make sure they come from out of town’. Politics is only divisive because we don’t talk freely about it. The sounding process is where you talk about that and you try to come to some understanding if not a consensus. Consensus isn’t everything but understanding is. And you then present a series of voices; I think it’s imperative actually. The only story a community has got to say is political because it’s about the collective.        

New Labour, new community theatre

jpm15-ruos-9224

Thorney Beginnings, Marvellous Middles and Moorends – a show by Excavate for the Right Up Our Street programme funded by Creative People and Places

The New Labour administration that began in 1997 is seen as a key moment in the relationship between the by then established community arts movement and the wider social sphere with an arts policy that embraced cultural democracy, increased funding, and was highly aware of the wider social importance of the arts. A dedicated policy group was set up to investigate how to achieve this and in its report to the DCMS advised that the Arts Council had a specific institutional role to play in addressing social exclusion: ‘ACE should explicitly recognise that sustaining cultural diversity and using the arts to combat social exclusion and promote community development are among its basic policy aims.’[1] The Next Stage report that was subsequently produced by the Arts Council in May 2000 reflected this recommendation stating the need to ‘develop the potential for relevant forms of theatre to play a role in tackling social exclusion’.[2]

Whilst it is clear that under New Labour this conjunction of the arts and social exclusion became a new imperative in the arts and funding ecosystem, I think it is worth backtracking a little to a moment that is often overlooked in the rush to identify the Blair government with an increasing instrumentalism of the arts. In 1994 the Conservative government of John Major introduced the National Lottery, which explicitly attached financial support to the arts to the idea of ‘good causes’. Suddenly it was possible to get public funding for arts projects through the Awards For all scheme, which was part funded by the Arts Council but administered through the Communities Fund, simply by showing that these projects had some social impact regardless of the quality of the art form.[3]  And many, myself included, rushed to take advantage of this economic largesse, creating all manner of small scale artistic interventions with community groups across the land.

The state had declared its interest in community art. Not in the art of the community art but in its social impact, in its by-product, or tied together in a package that George Yudice calls ‘culture as resource’, with the production of the work being a method for social and economic development. [4]  And the state was willing to pay because they had a list as long as your arm of the things that they needed help with.

This was not what the idea of cultural democracy that had fired the community arts movement was all about. But after years of tough economic times many community arts organisations, with buildings to support and wages to pay, were willing to engage in this new relationship. After eighteen years of Tory rule they were willing to embrace anything that (New) Labour offered them on the assumption that this was a move in some kind of new direction, and presumably a leftward one, however small that might be.

Perhaps this was always a possibility. As Owen Kelly indicated it had always been difficult to pin down any kind of artistic agenda for community arts leaving the definition to one of process and ‘a behavioural or moral position.’[5]  And the moral position was increasingly being viewed as one in which the aim was to bring as many people as possible into the arts tent, and once they were there to ensure that they were given the chance to participate fully.

Community arts found itself in a double bind. Seeking to confront the state by its culturally democratic imperative to give voice to communities who had little power in the face of the political, social and economic apparatus. And yet now being asked to do this on terms other than their own, a position that Owen Kelly had warned of in which community artists were increasingly positioned as a kind of semi creative social worker, a situation that lets ‘one branch of the state send in a group of people to clear up the mess left by another branch of the state’ and worst still wilfully refusing to accept that this was the case.[6]

But could the work that the state was sending its way be assimilated and developed and re-imagined by the community arts movement or would it actually find itself being neutered by this new partnership? Perhaps the fact that even its name began to change might help to offer a clue into who was coming out on top.

‘The phrase ‘community art’ fell out of favour at the beginning of the 1990s, to be replaced by the seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’ writes Francois Matarasso in his essay ‘All In This Together’: the Depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain 1970-2011’.[7] Matarasso is an interesting voice in this debate, a much quoted voice for the merits of cultural democracy and also for the benefits of participation. In Use or ornament: The social impact of participation in the arts, he asserts that

Art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned;  contributes to social cohesion, benefits environmental renewal and health and injects creativity into organisational planning.[8]

And yet by the time of ‘All In This Together’ he finds himself bemoaning ‘a transition from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds today’.[9]

Matarasso, in searching for the move to ‘participation’ suggests that the term ‘community’, being co-opted by the State ‘to rebrand policies such as the ‘community charge’, ‘community policing’, and ‘care in the community’, became ‘treated with suspicion by academics and radicals alike’.[10]  And that with a recent history of political retreat from the ideals of the left the emergence of the new term ‘participatory arts’ was a much needed shot in the arm. But what was this participation that had crept into the lexicon so that community arts companies found themselves using this term as either an alternative or even a defining term over and above that of ‘community’? How – or did – it differ from what had gone on before?

nightbainbridge_192Bolsover Bingo – Excavate – for the First Art programme funded by Creative People and Place and Places

At this current moment a large injection of funding has been made available by ACE through the Creative People and Places scheme to ‘cold spots’, areas of the country where ‘involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average’; a scheme driven by the belief that ‘everyone has the right to experience and be inspired by art and culture, so we want to transform the opportunities open to people in those places’.[11] Many of the organisations that are running the programmes funded by this scheme are community arts organisations, and they have spent huge amounts of time setting up mechanisms to ensure that the local voice drives the work that is made, as can be seen as the first evaluation reports begin to come out of the first phase of this work.[12]

The fact that community arts work is largely produced by organisations that are not necessarily art form specific (although different organisations tend to specialise in certain media) has also impacted on the level of conversation and debate around these issues of participation. Only two of the fourteen organisations that make up the forum of the East Midlands Performing Arts Federation (EMPAF) are companies that would describe themselves through their art form – Excavate and Salamanda Tandem [13]– all of the others comprise staff teams who create projects but do not necessarily deliver them, employing outside and associate artists for this purpose. Therefore the questions that they grapple with are not so much those that may concern the individual artist tasked with developing an artistic intervention in, with and/or alongside a community but rather how they can ensure that what is defined as a community project, and which represents that community, is truly shaped and voiced by that community, rather than being used or hijacked by an outside force (as Sheila Yeger suggested that she wanted to do in the writing of her community play as mentioned here). All of which leads, understandably, to the participants increasing involvement in all aspects of the production process. The community play model of Ann Jellicoe can be seen as a move towards this position, a development from the first stage of community theatre where the interaction appeared to be simply one of companies coming out and performing their work to, and in, communities. And surely, if you are searching for an increasingly democratic culture, then a trajectory of increased participation appears to be in line with the original thinking of the community arts movement. But is this participation a social one, or something else?  Did the increasing move into work with defined social impact agendas alter the very notion and relationship between the participants and the art that they were meant to be making together?

The work of Excavate has nearly always been based in communities defined by geography, where contested issues of how that community is defined are a part of the process. It was a strange experience to find ourselves being asked by Nottinghamshire County Council sometime around 2005 to work with a community of teenage girls to create a piece of work that would help reduce levels of teenage pregnancy (we politely refused the offer, although sadly not with the insight shown by Mark Murphy[14] who suggested in a workshop I attended that if he makes a piece of community based theatre work he wants people to be so caught up and excited by the process that he would rather there were more teenage pregnancies). But Excavate were not alone in having such a conversation. From the late nineties community artists found themselves confronting an ever more defined series of communities to which they were asked to ‘provide’ a service, communities that were nearly always defined by deficit, communities not of difference, but of similarity, at least within the definitions of the community that the artist was (and still is) invited to work with.

Whether this is regarded as art or as social work what is clear is that the relationship between the artist and the participant in such a relationship became one in which the process was meant to lead to some form of personal development which may be monitored for funding purposes. The community artist was offering a service, not only to the commissioning body that is working with them in an effort to alleviate some form of social issue, but also with the participants who were aware that they were involved in this work because of this social issue, and that as a result there could, perhaps should, be some individual benefit to this participation.

Training for the community artist became more about issues of care than about the art form. Government regulations insisted upon levels of disclosure and insurance creating subtle shifts of perception of the role of the artist. The funding requirements that allowed this work to happen, and which kept many community arts companies in the black, needed attendance figures and evaluation sheets which tended to ask participants what they had learnt from the process, if they had met new people, what they had most enjoyed by taking part. All of them questions about their individual relationship to the work at hand and rarely prompting debate of the potential for collective action as something that may evolve from this artistic engagement.

As Shannon Jackson has identified

systemic support for the arts paradoxically can use the arts as a vehicle for training citizens to seek ‘individual solutions to systemic problems’ to recall Ulrich Beck. Such artistic palliatives offer therapeutic rehabilitation, temporary pride, or imaginative escape in once-a-week artist visits that are not reciprocally empowered to re-imagine the political economic landscape of participants.[15]

Process and product, social engagement and artistic output, event and play, context and artwork, were all, in the original aims of the community arts movement, to be tied up in a chaotic but ultimately transformative experiment that the community artist was to traverse hand in hand with the community they worked in and alongside. But now, with what Claire Bishop describes as this ‘ethical turn’; judgement was increasingly confined to ‘the degree to which artists supply a good or bad model of collaboration – and to criticise them for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to ‘fully’ represent their subjects (as if such a thing were possible).’[16] Just as Matarasso was concerned that the trend ‘has been from radicalism to remedialism’[17] so Bishop can see this move leaving art entering ‘a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures’.[18]

So what happened to the art? There is no doubt that community arts and community theatre, through their ongoing instrumentalisation, had found that the social impact of the work began to drive the methodology. And this work takes time: ‘What people often see is the tip of the iceberg. For every youth performance that people watch, what they don’t see is the hours of meetings that have gone on before this to make small but important changes to youth service provision to see that happening’.[19] The engagement with the specifically social, as a part of the work of community arts organisations had become increasingly time consuming, moving attention further and further away from the art that was being made. Discussions and debate about the actual work seemed to vanish. Which seemed to brush a rather problematic issue under the table. Because aesthetic quality, as any community artist is aware, ‘forms the most fraught core’ of many debates around the work. [20]

There are many reasons why questions of what is and what is not high quality have been troubling for the community arts movement. From whose standpoint are these judgements being made? If arts organisations begin to strive for artistic ‘quality’ then will they merely begin to mimic dominant forms of culture? And if it is the process of making the work that is seen as being what truly defines the ethos then does it really matter if the finished product is aesthetically efficacious? As the move from ‘community’ to ‘participation’ progressed; the social work that the arts was being asked to do escalated; the evaluation required of this work to prove impact expanded;  the individual’s experience as a ‘recipient’ of an artistic intervention became more important; so the actual debate about what was being made as art began to recede out of view.

But does this matter? If the work that is being made is for and with a very specific community, do we need to be so caught up in the debate about the quality of the artistic work? Maybe struggling with issues of participative democracy rather than artistic quality were the questions that needed to be untangled to allow community art and community theatre to thrive? But what of quality? Does it have to be the case that increased participation and a more democratic form of making work means that the work is less artistically potent?

It is certainly the case, as Bishop argues, that most community arts has ‘no secondary audience: it has no discursive framing nor an elaborated culture of reception to facilitate comparison and analysis with similar projects, because community art is not produced with such a critical audience in mind’.[21]  Except of course the audience with and for whom the work is made. Su Braden makes the point that this audience is one that may be ‘the last in line to respond to artistic innovations’ and that this therefore has the potential to lead to an artistic conservatism.[22]  Playing on Adorno’s question of ‘what do the people want?’ (as Bishop will go on to do) Braden realises the inherent irony of a question which whilst appearing democratic is offering nothing new. For it is only through the production process of making work that new means of expression can arrive. But for this to happen I would suggest that there needs to be a genuine exchange between artists and community in which, as in any exchange, both sets of voices are given equal weight.

[1] John Hughson and David Inglis, ‘”Creative Industries” and the Arts in Britain: Towards a “Third Way” in Cultural Policy?’, Cultural Policy 7/3 (2001) pp. 457 – 478 (p. 464).

[2] Hughson and Inglis, p. 462.

[3] DCMS, Lottery Grants Information [n.d] http://www.lottery.culture.gov.uk/Information.aspx  [accessed 26th March 2016].

[4] Louise Owen, ‘The Witness and the Replay’ in Performance and Community: Commentary and Case Studies ed. by Caoimhe McAvinchey (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) pp 155-187 (p. 169).

[5] Kelly, Owen, Community, Art and The State (London, Comedia, 1984 2001), p. 14.

[6] Kelly, p. 188.

[7] Francois Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”: The Depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain, 1970 – 2011 , in Community Arts Power: Essays from ICAF 2011 ed. by Eugene van Erven (Rotterdam, Rotterdams Wijktheater, 2013) pp.214 – 239 (p. 215).

[8] Francois Matarasso, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (Stroud: Commedia, 1997).

[9] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 216.

[10] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 225.

[11] http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/funding/creative-people-and-places-fund

[12] Such as the Final Evaluation report for Right Up Our Street, written by Dr Leila Jancovich, Leeds Beckett University (as yet unpublished).

[13] http://www.salamanda-tandem.org/

[14] http://www.markmurphy.info/

[15] Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, (Oxon: Routledge, 2007) p. 27.

[16] Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorshop (London, Verso, 2012), p. 23.

[17] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 216.

[18] Bishop, p. 23.

[19] Interview with Kevin Ryan, Chief Executive Officer of Charnwood Arts, 22 March 2016.

[20] Bishop, p. 190.

[21] Bishop, p. 190.

[22] Braden, Su, Artists and People (London, Routledge, 1978), p. 72.

An interview with Stephen Lowe (part one)

stephen-lowe

Stephen Lowe is currently working with Claque and Jon Oram on a community play for the City of London in celebration of the opening of the new Aldgate Square. I will be tracking Stephen’s journey through the process and met him at his home in December 2016 to find out about his involvement with the project, and his experience and thoughts on writing for community theatre.

Can I start by asking how you would describe yourself?

The way that they laughingly describe me is as a distinguished English playwright. I don’t know if I’m distinguished but I do know that after doing it for forty odd years that I’m a playwright.

When did you realise?

It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, write a play; every time you start you wonder if you can manage it again. I started writing plays when I was 22, 23 and the woman who got me started professionally was Ann Jellicoe. She read a play of mine that the Royal Court considered to be very controversial and had said that the Court wouldn’t do the play, but she employed me as a story reader; 50p a play. You used to go in on Friday afternoons and get what you could. She sent my play to a young director who had just taken over the Nottingham Playhouse called Richard Eyre, and I went to see Richard and he said he wouldn’t dare do it, it was a very problematic play, but he would commission me for a stage play which seemed an amazing offer and I didn’t believe him. So I stayed at Scarborough (where I was working as an actor and assistant stage manager for Alan Ayckbourn), and Richard came to see me and said ‘time is running out would you do a play?’ And I did, and it was called ‘Touched’. I began to think I was a playwright by that point. But I had written twenty seven plays by then.

So Ann was working at the Court at that time?

She was working at the Court and she really took me under her wing, and I used to go down to her house, her photographer husband’s on Sundays. When she moved to Lyme she asked me to do a community play, the first one. And then for about the next ten odd years she’d ask me if I would do a play. And I was just too busy to get round to it.

So can you tell me about the community theatre project that you’re working on? What it is, how it came about and where you are with it at the moment?

Jon Oram, who took over from Ann Jellicoe, asked me over the next ten years to do a play and I think that he finally gave up, until about nine months ago when he phoned me and said this was his last attempt to see if I’d write a play. And I said ‘yes’. He’d been commissioned by the housing department of the City of London, Aldgate, and they were clearing an area next to St. Botolph’s Church to create a major piazza on what was the old route in Aldgate itself to the City of London. And they wanted a community play to open that event, to celebrate it.

I was struck by it; it’s not the normal place to do a community show, particularly because while there’s 8000 people that actually sleep in that area the real weight is the 42000 that arrive every day at 9 o’clock and leave at 6, apart from the weekends; and these 8000 don’t speak to each other. There’s lots of council flats; a large Bangladeshi community; working class Italian, English or whatever; the Barbican people, who certainly don’t speak to the people outside the Barbican, and so on. So from the beginning it was different from a normal community play. When my company Meeting Ground had done one many years ago you knew ninety percent of who you were working with. What their background was and why they were there, and you worked to find their voice and your voice in a public arena.

This (the London play) really was an attempt to create a community. Most of the narratives of this kind of process that come out of the Ann Jellicoe / Colway model, the stories are often very similar. There’s a community, a community of fishermen or steelworkers that then becomes endangered; the fishes all dry up, they close the mines. And so in the first act there’s community, in the second act it’s being smashed apart and in the third act, hopefully, there’s some kind of positive new identity, or survival beyond, or adaptation. That’s the kind of matrix I think.  When the people who are involved in this play have never spoken to each other and can’t afford to go in the same restaurants and don’t necessarily speak the same language it’s an interesting situation; tricky to find the kind of narrative you’re going to operate with.

It’s advantage in this case is that the City of London is universally known and has its mythology around it, a man and a cat and all that kind of stuff; and you think there’s bound to be stories there that are meaningful. The problem is that if you do a play about the plague in Derbyshire there’s one specific time that you’ll pick, which is when the plague came; it’s not too difficult to make these decisions. But there are more stories drawn into the world of the city of London then probably anywhere else on the planet. You can work your way through the Romans and the lions and the tigers that they brought over and which they’re still finding bones from; you’ve got the great plague, you’ve got the great fire of London, you’ve got the Blitz. If you want to set it around certain individuals you’ve got everybody: Pepys, fictional characters like the Wife of Bath; Blake, they all lived there at one point. Chaucer lived at Aldgate, the gate above the gate. So in one sense you’re completely swamped  for choice. And against that there is the ambiguity of not really having a community. I kept saying to Jon ‘well I’ll do the best I can to get stories that will draw people together’. The advantage of writing for an organisation like that (Claque) is that whereas everybody else is now asking you to do a play with two people this is the offer where somebody says you’ve got 130 in the cast.

Jon’s timing was good, because I’d just worked in South Africa with a company from the townships in Capetown and I’d had the joy of 36 people on stage so I thought ‘yeah 130, that will be fun’. But you’re writing unknown for these 130 people; it could be 130 women, that end up wanting to be in it, no men; or 130 who come from one site and none from any other. Normally you would know what the postman was like and who the bank manager was so you could cunningly write the script to draw out the headmasters. So you’ve got one hand tied behind your back with this process; and at the same time it was a curiously interesting opportunity to bring diversity together.

So the key for me was to look at the way in which theatre worked and to see if there was a way of finding a context which could be paralleled by what we did. I went through various periods including tigers and things with the Romans and realised I can’t write anything where people wear togas, it would just make me laugh. And I have a particular fascination with the Victorian period and its ambiguities; it’s oppressiveness but also its kind of revolutionaryness. So I set it in the 1880’s which is the apex of steam and industrialisation and building and drew in Irish workers who were oppressed and being thrown out of their homeland; the Jewish community is coming over from the pogroms and the English working class is believing that its being put out of jobs and onto the street and into the workhouse by the foreigners. It’s a melting pot.

There is a Japanese philosophy which defines very simply the different kinds of societies that you can have. The key one, and I won’t bother you with the others, is what’s called Many in Body, One in Mind. Many in Body where they’re all different colours, races, types, whatever, celebrating that; but they have one aim in mind that works in the creation of a society; it brings them together and the discovery of that one aim informs that society. So the vision and the diversity can kind of go together. Theatre is that. You’ve got actors, lighting people, all very, very different; and if they can come together and see the aim of what they want to build they can become as one and you get ensemble, you get all these words that are used in the theatre; the troupe etc. And that in itself, celebrating that is important for the producers. So you want a tale that in a funny sense mirrors that process. So therefore I am looking for the most diverse kind of situation across class, across creed, across sexuality; and then you begin to get excited because you do need 130 characters and you can look at things with that twist that history gives us.

It was a very, very difficult time (the 1880’s). They were building the great things and Catholic churches all over the place, and tunnelling away and building the underground; the Irish navvies were blowing themselves up in the tunnels; women’s positions were thrown up in the air; and everybody has a sense of a loss of identity and a potential gaining of identity, but it’s fragile. So that’s what I’m looking for; it’s that kind of edge.

I remember talking to Ann way back, at the beginning of it (community theatre); she was going to bring in Royal Court writers, in inverted commas left wing writers, and they might take a storyline that the community itself wasn’t too excited by, it was exposing; and what was built into it was a tension between them (the community) and the individual voice of the playwright, which is in some sense sacrosanct, because otherwise they just become the amanuensis of the community. At the same time you’re trying to find something that they would still want to do. And they may have a range of diversities that are insoluble in finding one solution to it.

So you can come to a meeting as we did last week; there’s twenty people in the room and they’re all saying what they want it to be. And some want it to be about this and some want it to be the other side of that coin; they’re not immediately homogenous so there’s an endless series of dynamics which can be to a certain extent bewildering because … for example take the Jewish question, a group that became the heart of what we call the East End. When they came over from the pogroms they spoke Yiddish, hardly any Hebrew and most of them no English. When I went to talk to the rabbi of the oldest Jewish synagogue in the country and the curator there, they were saying that when these Jews came to the synagogue, they found Jews who had been there for 200 years, who’d established themselves with great care from Spain and Portugal. And these poor people that had just arrived didn’t even speak the same language. So there was considerable tension within their own societies. Now I don’t know anything about that, I can only research that. And you’re going to end up putting words in the mouth of someone, so it’s very tricky. If you alienate your groups, your people, then you will probably end up without a show. But if you lose what it is you are saying and concede it to one group over another then the thing starts falling apart. So there’s a tension which ultimately has to become a creative tension.

And is one of the ways of resolving that to allow the creative tension of the process to somehow become a part of the script?

Yes.

It becomes an implicit storyline?

You are trying to create something that comes out of a dynamic, out of a tension that most people will not see, they will just see what happens in 1885 or whatever; and gradually I found that tempted me. You see I’m one of those playwrights who does not write autobiographical plays that much; I like writing plays about what I don’t know rather than what I do know. So I’ll plough into the Jewish situation, or the Irish situation, throw books at me and I’ll eat them; but the journey is imagining people that are very different. So in a funny sense the more I see the problem as almost impossible the more I’m tempted to find some narrative that goes there which will still have an edge to it.

It’s about work and the lack of work; it’s about what happens on the street in the 1880’s; it’s about the women and how they’re forced into prostitution; it’s about the Salvation Army trying to save souls and what that means; it’s about the chaos of energies and its theatricality is for me centred around work or idleness, despair and alcoholism. So I wanted to find an image from the politics of the time that looked at work from another perspective and that brings the characters to understand, if only fleetingly, a different way of looking at their life.

In 1888 two remarkable things happened in relationship to the city; the first was that the Match Girls went on strike, the first strike by women ever recorded, and incredibly won. And they were part of the biggest march for the poor and unemployed, which was attacked in Trafalgar Square by the police and the army; women and children beaten to the ground, it was called the first Bloody Sunday. I was trying to find something that would be visually exciting, that would show the actors working, and when their characters discovered a new way of looking at work. And of course it was there because the key figures running the march and talking about radical left wing politics were Annie Besant, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and the whole of that movement. And I discovered that Morris and Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite artist were doing stained glass windows. And I began to go around the churches in the city looking at them, most of them had been bombed out during the war and had been replaced; in particular the wonderful ones that Burne-Jones did at Marylebone. And I knew that I wanted an image of coming together with bits.

(And my idea was) that the workers on these windows don’t know what the picture’s going to be; they make the glass and Burne-Jones is sketching but they don’t know what it is they’ve actually made. And they take sanctuary after the beating they get on the day of Bloody Sunday in the church where their window is covered up, waiting to be revealed to the rich, and they demand to see it. What has their work done? William Morris and Marx are saying the same thing at this time. That we find identity through true work, and they mean creative work.

And so the image started to form that would become the piece. So you begin to find yourself … you begin to start thinking in a different language. You’ve read the books, you can make the arguments, you can sketch the characters, you can find the music and so on. But then you have to start seeing it. And you have to go back to the characters, to the heart of the characters, you have to get with your people (the participants). And then – and only recently – I began to think it might be possible.

So I did something I’ve not done before; which was the way of presenting the text. There’s a steering committee keeping an eye on us, and I thought if I present it to them written out as dialogue and parts for 130 we will all be lost; it’s just not the way to communicate it, it will take two and a half hours. So I thought I’ll do a ten page treatment to say what happens, a narrative treatment. And I gave it to the director, to Jon, and I said ‘you read it’, it will take 25-30 minutes then we can have the talk. And it was one of the most intelligent things I’ve done in a long time. Because it did mean that for the next forty five minutes or an hour they (the participants and the committee) talked about it, and as something that was so obviously unfinished they genuinely felt they could ask a question about it.

One of the things the Jewish lads did when they came over, because of the prejudice against them on the streets, they took up boxing and they set up boxing youth clubs. And I had a scene, a crucial scene, in the boxing ring.  And one of the guys (at the meeting) said ‘doesn’t it go somewhere; is that it? Isn’t there a tournament scene?’ And I just went ‘yeah’. It turned out to be much more useful than other occasions where … I don’t like readings anyway.

So how long have you been working on it? When did it start and where are you now and when does the play happen?

We started over a year ago, easily over a year ago, with just me and Jon wandering around the place. Then we started having a meeting with the Whitechapel art gallery, with the city organisations and libraries. The day of that treatment was officially the day I would have presented the first draft and I’ve asked that to be the first draft. We should have then had three months to polish that and have all the subsidiary groups coming together to do it, with the next step for me to give the final rehearsal draft in before Easter. And then for them to be doing it in the Summer. It is put back because of building.

I’ve been talking to some writers who have had experiences of handing work in to committees where there are certain things they don’t want to be touched; certain nerves they don’t want to be touched. Is there an overseer of this? Is there a panel that will eventually look through it and go ‘you know what we really like it but we can’t mention that’? Is it that kind of process?

I think there probably will be.

And if that was the case and they came back to you and they said those things presumably your choice would be either to go ‘yes OK I’ll do what you say’ or ‘no I’m not going to’. Or to use the creative tension of that. Because it sounded a bit like what you were saying is that the experience of writing the play and the tensions within that inform what the story is, the narrative. The context of writing the play is in the play?

Yes it does, yes.

The notion of the stained glass window is fascinating because it is absolutely connected to the location and the idea of the disparate communities coming together to create .. was it one kind or one mind?

One mind. Itai doshin. It’s the perfect society. It’s dynamic of course because you start with the diversity and the diversity has to find its central core value; its dynamic creation. Once it finds it together – that we all decide that we’ll make a play that will mean something, that we’ll feel something – then we come to what will change the world.

It also feels that the stained glass window idea is partly your struggle to tie together these disparate elements.

Yes that’s exactly what it is. And it’s interesting, because one of the things that was running through my mind before I came to the stained glass window was Banksy, was images on the street. And in a funny sense the church stained glass fuses all that. You can have heaven and hell and whatever but it’s dependent on the light. And the characters defend the window like the Alamo at the end of the treatment. Whilst everybody’s running riot they try to save their own work.

Can I ask about the audience? One of the things when you write a community play is that you know who the audience will be. You know the audience will be from this community; you are presenting the community in which they live back to them. With this it must be trickier because I presume that there is a notion that the audience could be from outside that community.

Mathematically of course it’s ridiculous. If you’ve got eight thousand – that’s children, that’s old people, that’s large numbers who don’t speak English – even if you could extrapolate 130 of them, and all the people you need backstage, there’s practically no audience left. It’s not like in a place where you start with forty or fifty thousand people and they’ve all got aunts and uncles; you haven’t got an audience. And even more you haven’t got an audience who can afford to come anyway. So the notion of community itself, in the sense that are talking about there being a community here, is like drawing the map of Poland. You know if you take the map of Poland during the last three or four hundred years sometimes it’s not there at all, sometimes its half of Europe.

We’re imagining a community structure. I think it’s almost a uniquely difficult route. We have to open up, widen that notion of community. You can either move across, outside the city to the working class area of the East End with all of its gentrification and so on; or, which is what you’re briefed to do, you can look centrally at the city.

Having spoken for over an hour by this point we decided to arrange to meet again in the New Year. I explained to Stephen the intentions of my work, and how little investigation into this field of work there seems to be …   

And so we’re in danger of constantly remaking the proverbial wheel.

Yes.

The responsibility as a writer in these plays is that whatever you do your job is to inspire those who are taking part, and through their work to inspire an audience. And that’s key. You have to keep re-stimulating so they can get hold of the image, so they can get hold of the smoke and the people coming out of the tunnel; and they’re your way to the audience. It’s not that you’re separated off satisfying them; it’s getting them to imagine and be excited that will carry it.

So they have to make a journey of discovery themselves?

Totally.

It’s not giving them something they already know?

No good.

It’s just outside of their reach?

Yes. So Jon is interested in getting them to look at family histories; and he’ll also put real names on characters of ours. The prostitutes for example, that are in the play, are down in the census of 1838 as prostitutes, and they’re down in the 1890s in the workhouse where they both died, still listed as prostitutes. And those things kind of – if they’re (the participants) finding their own individual connection with the project in some way or another – you are giving them little charges of energy and meaning. And we gradually grow to exist together. It doesn’t mean you give up every difference or shade, far from it. You’re making a society. And in a time when societies are literally being blown up on the street and countries are divided amongst themselves and slaughter their own, door by door, we have to see something which is … how do we create society? It’s never been asked before because societies have just evolved or been manipulated in various ways to false images; but how do we do that? Well you do that by becoming increasingly creative and giving respect for each individual in that process. And putting the creative arts first; our creative imaginations. For me the story that you’re telling over and over again in some way is about the struggle to go through change in a healthy way.