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

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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.

The community play as initiation into the public world

20500020He Had Roses in His Heart – a community play for Caunton, 2005

I’m currently reading Richard Sennett’s 1977 book ‘The Fall of Public Man’, a fascinating account and theory of the move from man as a social actor to that of a psychological entity, as he/she moves through the eighteenth century to the present day in the specific milieus of Paris and London.

It’s not an easy read but it is a provocative and stimulating one. At heart Sennett (and I am only half way through) appears to be saying that there is a constant interplay between the public and the private, and that for public man to exist – and by this he means (I think) a mode of discourse in which the individual and the personal are hidden in the background so that the encounter between strangers is free and uninhibited – a whole range of factors need to be brought into play.

For Sennett the great cities of London and Paris, and the fact that these grew at a huge rate in the eighteenth century as people who did not know each other arrived to make their fortune, was the perfect setting to witness the forms of social interaction that were created to allow these places to function, and for meaning to be created amongst this ‘gathering of strangers’.

Throughout the book he refers to the idea of theatrum mundi, the idea going back to the ancient Greeks that all the world really is a stage. This allows him to also analyse what is happening on the public stage during his period of investigation, and to draw conclusions about what this means for his argument. In the mid nineteenth century for example he suggests that the fashion for accurate historical interpretation in costume and set so that ‘what you see on the stage is what the person really is’, is in contrast to the vanishing visual clues that are now a part of city life due to the mass production of cheaper clothes, and also a desire from most individuals to ‘hide’ themselves because of a growing belief in the link between the external and the internal; the fact that your character can be read and interpreted by external clues and that therefore you are constantly in danger of involuntarily revealing yourself.

During this period, ‘(I)n the city, society must depend on art to end mystification, to tell a truth which men and women can otherwise arrive at by an often faulty process of deduction from miniaturised clues. That is to say, the relation between the audience and this art form began to be one of dependence. The theatre was doing for them that which in the modern capital they could not easily do for themselves’.

This has got me thinking a little about the community play. Of course all theatre is, to some extent, like all good art, a way of communicating and revealing a truth that may be slightly out of view and difficult to otherwise pull into focus. But the community play, and community art (as opposed to participatory art which may have no real interest in the social or the communal at all, but simply continue to dig ever deeper into our current ideology of the primacy of the individual) may be doing this very thing that Sennett mentions here – it may be doing for a community, and for the individuals within that community, something that cannot be otherwise done. It may be an act of revelation which cannot be arrived at or communicated in any other form. And this revelation is one that allows the community to be glimpsed, to be perhaps understood, to be more easily entered into.

Of course there is the fact of the community play’s existence, the production process, which plays a part; a community is revealed when it becomes clear that for an objective to be undertaken that collective action is required. But this needn’t be a play. It could be a jumble sale or a darts tournament or a karaoke night. The community play is one in which a representation of a community – past or present (and always because of the fact that it is performed by the living it is a mixture of the two, unless the subject matter is the here and now or an imagined future) – is laid out before an audience, who may or may not be strangers.

Which is why the community play is such a fragile and important form of theatre. And why the writer has to be incredibly sensitive to the specific codes of meaning that exist within the community in which they are working. The audience may be looking at the play for clues as to what it means to be a member of the community in which they live. For those who are new to this community they may be hoping to discover an idea of the traditions and rituals, the social forms and the specificities of language which will help them to enter into this new social arena.

They may in fact be thirsting for this, wanting to find the unique in this local, wanting to discover rules which will allow them, as Sennett’s public man is allowed, to converse and engage freely and uninhibitedly with their new social world. For those who have been in this community for a long time, or throughout their whole life, they may be looking for a play that encapsulates and communicates the unspoken rules that have been established, so that they can continue, so that communal interaction can be at its most healthy and vigorous.

Sennett asks at one point in his book, what a public actor is, and suggests that it is someone whose identity ‘is the meeting point between who a person wants to be and what the world allows him to be. Neither circumstance nor desire alone, it is one’s place in a landscape formed by the intersection of circumstance and desire’. It seems to me that this is a good definition of a community play, because in just about all of those that I have read there is both a historical understanding of the identity of the community (they are defined as a community of shipbuilders or farmworkers or post war families looking for new homes etc.) and also an idealised notion at play of what this community represents, whatever its specific makeup. And this idealised notion is often represented in the gradual move towards a more collective sense of identity throughout the narrative as a (usually) small society made up of many competing forces find themselves facing a challenge that requires them to engage with each other in a more public sense.

This does not mean that at the end of these plays that the community has somehow evolved into some new form where internal tensions have been eradicated; for these internal tensions are inevitable. The local, after all, can never be isolated from the historical forces that surround it. But it does mean that the individuals within these plays – and there are almost always one or two individuals who make a journey of discovery in the potential power of community throughout the narrative – realise that through engaging with the public world that surrounds them that their private lives are also transformed in some small way.

20500001The initiation into Caunton continues

Some years ago Excavate (then Hanby and Barrett) produced a community play for the small village of Caunton in North Nottinghamshire as part of a series of four community plays in four neighbouring villages over four weeks, produced in partnership with New Perspectives (‘The Festival of The Beck’). One of the performers suggested that the play be performed every few years as it would give incoming families a chance to learn something of the village, and that it would be a ‘welcoming thing to do’. I think that what he meant was that this would in some way act as a form of initiation into the village, that through either taking part in or in watching the show that these newcomers would be given an imagined version of ‘Caunton’ that all could relate to and refer to and which, through being made concrete, would perhaps allow for public and social interaction to be more easily facilitated. That a model had been created which could act as an ongoing tool for social engagement. This village was one in which there was already a reasonably large amount of communal activity taking place, with many varied ways to engage with others on offer. But it was this play that the performer settled on as the most effective way of opening up the social world of the community to the stranger.

The community play then, in presenting an easy to see portrait of the public world of the local community, and in the journeys that characters make as they move to a better understanding of their role as social creatures, would seem to offer a useful guide to the interplay between the personal and the communal and through doing so a way into reconnecting with the idea of the public man.

2016 – the year that the lug went missing

It’s been a very difficult year, one which appears to make the need to find ways to develop conversation about shared values and notions of community more important than ever.

I thought that for my last post of 2016, after writing so much about the work of others, I’d share a small excerpt from one of my own scripts. And I’ve chosen this one because I think it is about an issue that is going to continue to impact on the political discourse over the next twelve months and beyond – the disconnect, the bewilderment, and the anger that is felt and increasingly heard in the conflict between a globalised economy and a sense of the local.

It comes from A Lifetime Guarantee which Hanby and Barrett (before we became Excavate) created in 2012 for the University of Nottingham who were interested in exploring the history of the Raleigh factory, one of Nottinghan’s most iconic industries, given that their Jubilee Campus was built on part of the old factory site.

This was a touring community play that we took to the places where the most Raleigh pension cheques were sent out to. And everywhere we went the place was packed. At the end of the night we would be besieged by people who wanted to share their stories and as a result we carried out more research and developed I Worked At Raleigh – a website with over ten hours of audio interviews from ex workers, along with a smartphone app that is linked to the site and which has been relaunched this year.

See you all in 2017.

lug

Stuart’s father – who is played by the same performer (Robbie) who played Frank Bowden at the beginning of the play – is sat down polishing a lug.

Stuart:           I started at Raleigh in 1997. On weld frame. It wasn’t much of a job to be honest. But I thought that it would please my father; who revered Raleigh, had been there most of his life as a Tool Setter, made bicycles in his shed, and who seemed as he got older to look more and more like Mr Frank Bowden himself.

Father:           Ugly word isn’t it, ‘lug’. But it’s the most beautiful part of a bicycle.

Stuart:           We don’t see them Dad.

Father:           What did you say?

Stuart:           I said we don’t see them. Lugs!

Father:           No.

Stuart:           So is it nearly finished?

Father:           What?

Stuart:           Is it nearly finished? Your latest project?

Father:           It is. Jimmy’s coming over later and we’re going to braze it. You should stay and watch; he’s an artist Stuart, a bloody artist.

Stuart:           I’m off to the football.

Father:           We used to make everything there. Everything.

Stuart:           I know.

Father:           I lost count of the tools I had to make for the hundreds and hundreds of machines in that place.

Stuart:           Yes Dad.

Father:           If it’s not made in Nottingham it’s not a Raleigh.

Stuart:           It is made in Nottingham.

Father:           It’s not is it? It’s put together there.

Stuart:           We do the frames though Dad and you know they’re the most important.

Father:           Everything’s welded.

Stuart:           People don’t want heavy bikes anymore. We’ve just got to do things differently.

Father:           That’s it isn’t it? Make things easier, simpler to use. Get rid of anything that requires time or attention or care or real understanding.

Stuart:           They’re just bicycles dad. And people will always use them for different things.

Father:           What did you say?

Stuart:           Nothing.

Father:           Do you know how to make a frame ring?

Stuart:           You know we don’t do that.

Father:           It was such a lovely sound. Making sure the joints had brazed. Touching it just so on the floor, and hearing that little ring. Like a bell. And if it didn’t; if it made a clunk do you know what we called it?

Stuart:           A dead frame Dad. You’ve told me; a thousand times. And off it went to be rectified.

Father:           I don’t understand it Stuart; I try to but I don’t. How can it make sense to get your gears from the other side of the world rather than from over the road?

Stuart:           Parts have been made in other countries for years you know that.

Father:           The sports field’s gone; Head Office has gone.

Stuart:           But Raleigh is still here Dad. It’s different; but it’s still making bikes.

Father:           I knew this bloke who used to be sent out all over the world for the company. He’d just come back from Kenya where the factory they were starting was next to this lake with this huge flock of flamingos on it. And he told me that wherever in the world he was everyone would ask about the Nottingham factory. Because the Nottingham factory was held in awe. It was Raleigh. The rest were just pretenders.

Stuart:           Not any more.

Father:           You see the thing about a lug is that it’s designed to make sure that everything fits together, just so. That everything slots into place. And the factory had a place Stuart. At the heart of Nottingham. It was where we made things. Where Nottingham made things that were used all over the world. I’d go to London on our trips and me and my workmates would point, every time we saw someone ride past on a Raleigh; ‘look’ we’d say, ‘that’s one of ours – that’s one of bloody ours’. And I felt proud. We all did. Proud of those bicycles.

A speech for the launch of Year of the Artist (2000)

As I’ve been sorting through folders on my laptop I’ve come across a speech I gave at the launch of the Year of the Artist in Nottingham, at the Broadway Cinema in 2000. This scheme followed on reasonably quickly from the launch of the National Lottery and, along with the birth of Creative Partnerships in 2003, was for many artists the moment that they were able to start charging some proper fees for their work.

I was invited, along with Jeanie Finlay and Simon Withers, to give a short talk on the value of the scheme from an artist’s perspective. I wanted to be reasonably provocative and think that it did have some useful things to say, which is why I’ve posted it here.

My project ended up being called Sticking A Pin In, and took the form of a residency at BBC Radio Nottingham. Every week I would appear at the radio station with an ordnance survey map of the county, a blindfold and a pin. Every week someone would ring in and tell me to go right a bit and left a bit and wherever the pin landed would be where I would spend the next week travelling to (by public transport). Before I stuck my pin in I would talk about my findings and play excerpts from the audio recordings I had made with my portable minidisc player on my previous journey . These were then turned into a series of radio monologues called The Village.

Year of the Artist, as this BBC news report states ‘took artists out of seemingly elitist venues such as museums and concert halls, and into football grounds, onto public transport, banks and the workplace’, and reached ‘more than 25 million people’.

The images I used in my presentation – some of which I’ve included here – come from a project called ‘Tales From The Robin Hood Line’ from 1999. This involved me travelling to six ex-mining villages to gather stories and create a series of monologues which used digitally manipulated slides (created by Carol Green). It was an incredible experience that I will write about in more depth later.

Good afternoon everybody.

Just over a year ago I was sitting at a bar in Newstead village doing a bout of research for a project that I was doing with the Playhouse which basically involved me visiting a number of ex mining communities and collecting stories from these places for a series of solo shows based on my travels. And I had decided, given the atmosphere in the bar to be cautious in declaring my reasons for being there. Because if you haven’t been to Newstead village do not let your imagination use Newstead Abbey as a template. There are no peacocks in Newstead village. If there were they would be covered in rust or something.

Anyway I had decided to ease myself into the conversation, by just sitting at the end of the bar and hoping that I would be assimilated into the group through osmosis. And after about an hour and a half feeling pretty pleased that my ruse had paid off and that I could now count these men as collaborators, and maybe even put them on my mailing list, I decided that the time was right to talk to them about this valuable community based arts project.

And I told them and they listened and they said “Well it’s all bollocks!” before deciding through some kind of telepathy to totally ignore me just as the landlord finished pouring my sixth pint of Guinness.

peacock

And I had three months of this. Although nothing quite as vitriolic. And after a while I began to think that maybe it was all bollocks and began to sympathise with this antipathy towards anything that was seen as ‘art’ because these places appeared to be laden with arts activities dominated by a subtext that seemed to say ‘look, we can help you’. This isn’t just art this is therapy.

And so in Newstead they had decided to set up a special Mayday celebration replete with Maypole and Maypole dancing in an effort to reinstigate a timetable of public events that would help to give the place some shape, to combat an alarming lack of Jack Straw’s beloved civic responsibility.

But the village had never had a maypole. It had been specifically built to service a pit. Tit and knickers nights and dominoes at the Welfare were the prevalent cultural activities. Pagan celebrations never got a look in.

And this confusion over the means with which to create a sense of identity and community was prevalent wherever I went.

‘We used to be close knit, coal mining, chapel going, labour and co-operative orientated working communities’, was the general gist of it. ‘And now we’re not’. And when I asked people what they did do nowadays they said ‘well most us work in sandwich factories and there’s a lot of new Blues Brothers acts coming through’.

blt2

sandwichqueen

onthebelt

Anyway some months later I found myself in the south of the County, working for Rushcliffe Borough Council where I was doing a not too dissimilar project. And these villages used to be stuffed full of ruddy faced and besmocked villagers, stooking the barley, stodging the brooks, bending the willow, and generally being very rustic with each other.

But now they’re inhabited by hordes of people with chamois leathers polishing one of their copious cars. And complaining about plans to build houses in the immediate vicinity because it would destroy the soul of the village.

And I came across the Keyworth Quiz. An activity which has been going on for over 20 years and which has become central to a sense of what the village is. Thirty plus teams from all over the village congregating at the village hall over a two month period to contest the celebrated trophy. And the Quizmaster has to write fifteen hundred questions a year to facilitate this activity. And I wrote a piece gently poking fun at this burden of questioning, because it appeared to me that this was a feat of some magnitude. Four questions a day, every day. You have a couple of bad weeks and you’re having to come up with one every waking hour of your life. And this monologue, which was nothing savage, was banned from being performed in the village. Because it was seen as an attack and a threat. And it all became a bit Stepford Wivesy, the Parish Council sitting around making Muttley noises. Which is odd because having been stung with the bollocks thing in Newstead I had decided to go for the jugular in the piece that I made, to tackle the situation head on, hence the peacock image. And the interesting thing was that the ruder I was about their village the more they liked it. And when I performed the monologue, which was called Crashing Through The Boundary, again at the Nottingham Playhouse, the Newstead Regeneration Officer, one of a growing industry, organised a bus trip and everyone that had seen the thing came to see it all over again. In their best suits and outfits.

Although to be fair to Keyworth they have since allowed myself and John Hewitt to make a film about the quiz. Although we’re expecting blood to be spilled when we finally show it.

And this question of the way in which towns and villages across Nottinghamshire identify themselves following the demise of their traditional communities began to really interest me and when this YOTA thing came up I thought that it would be a good chance of taking some time to look at this further and try to reimagine the County and to explore those places where the impetus for new means of identity could come, and who the new figureheads could be so that Robin Hood, and DH Lawrence, and lace and coal and Methodism could be thanked for their services and placed to one side.

slide01

And BBC Radio Nottingham were willing to take me on board which is great because they cover the whole County, serve as a way of cementing locality and community for many people, and loads of lovely equipment to use. And so armed with a minisdisc, and a microphone I will be trying to create a future blueprint for the identity of the County. I’m still reasonably vague about how it will all turn out in the wash, as you’ve probably guessed by me banging on about previous projects, but that’s the plan.

Thank you.

Ther first pin that I stuck in the map took me to Mansey Common and Eakring. Whilst there I met a woman who was a Methodist, the last Methodist in the village. Intriguingly she lived next door to Helen Cresswell, the writer who had created Lizzie Dripping, a programme I used to watch as a child, and who, she told me, had been named by Mary (the Methodist) after Helen had heard her shout out to her daughter as she was going off to play – ‘and you make sure you’re home on time Lizzie Dripping!’

This was the resulting monologue.

Common Ground

Sound of a fire burning, and of dough being worked briskly. A warm feeling to this. Let this play for around ten seconds.

Listen to that. That’s aggression; that’s what that is.

A particularly hard knead.

It’ll be a fine loaf though. Oh yes. You may as well turn bad things into something good. The Manure Theory. No use weeping and wailing all day. If a moper comes knocking on your door you should always make a tidy excuse, as my father told me. There’s those that deserve sympathy and those that ask for it and if you get tangled up and can’t tell the difference then you’re a bigger fool then they are and you may as well go straight ahead and throw every last bit of time you’ve got into a bottomless pit.

The bashing stops.

There. Behold my loaf of devastation.

Or maybe it would be better as rolls.

Oh I don’t care!

I mean it was surprising it lasted as long as it did really. I should stand here and give thanks.

But I still haven’t built up the courage to write to Mr and Mrs Wilkinson. They’ll feel terrible, I know they will. I can see them now, just after the service had ended, and him explaining how they were going up North. And we all looked around the chapel in a kind of slow motion. And a very odd little sound came out from the back of my throat. A bit like a frog when it’s been stepped on.

He’d only just come back from Iona too, doing his lay preaching training. And I was ever so looking forward to him doing his first sermon in front of them all at Ollerton. Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones it was going to be. He did a bit of it in his living room after June had cooked some lovely bacon.

Bread goes into oven.

She opens a door and walks outside. The sound quality changes. Birds etc. (from my Ambient MD)  Again let this play for around ten seconds.

It’s beautiful today. They get better each year you know, these Autumns. There’s a couple of trees down Back Lane that have taken my breath clean away, and I can’t remember them doing that before. Maybe it’s just the gratitude growing.

Sighs. A bird singing.

Two hundred years and that’s that. Shunted into St.Andrews. I know they’ve got the heritage the Anglicans, and they’ve stood the test of time, you can’t deny that. But I’m Methodist stock through and through. Ministers and Lay Preachers that’s what I’m used to. And why they can’t let the vicars write their own prayers if they see fit to do so seems daft to me. I mean surely there’s times when you hunt around in your prayer book for the right thing to say and find that none of them really hits the nail on the head.

And it seems so crowded now. Although ten is hardly what you could call a multitude.

It’ll make a nice house though, that chapel, that’s true enough. Just like the Primitive one. And the old school. And the old smithy. There’s folk after it already I’ve been told. That’s what happens to these places isn’t it? They become lanes full of houses with old in the title. We’ll be called Old Eakring before you know it. Preserved and pickled and all the life sucked out of us. But Methodism isn’t finished yet. Oh no. There’s a good Methodist tradition here, it’s just that there aren’t any Methodists. But some of the other chapels on the circuit are still going strong; it’s not all fingertip stuff. Walesby’s tottering a bit, but they’re still open for services. And I think that one of them have started doing a Songs of Praise type thing – going round the village and asking people for their favourite hymn and then telling them that if they come along on Sunday they’ll be guaranteed to hear it. It’s not a bad idea I suppose but you’re putting your organist under a bit of pressure.

You wonder who will move into it. And it’s upsetting. Because before you know it there’ll be fancy kitchen units and implements where the Minister used to give the sacrament. Not that anybody does any cooking these days. Oh no. They’ve not got the time.

No God and no Time. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s moved into this village that’s got any. They just don’t bring it with them. Which is daft isn’t it. Because that’s what you want in a place like this. I mean look at the clock at St.Andrews. That hasn’t moved forward for years and years and years. If you took that as your guide it would be 6.30 every day, all day. Not that anybody would be able to tell you without looking first. Maybe that’s why they’ve still got the congregation and we haven’t. But they like their clocks don’t they, the Anglicans. Like to make sure everything happens when it’s supposed to.

It’s God’s revenge I think. Every time they shut down another one of his houses he makes Time a little bit shorter. And nobody noticed at first; well you wouldn’t. And then all of a sudden the day’s over before it’s begun and nobody’s got any time to do anything any more. If it was down to me I’d make sure that whoever buys that chapel has some time. I’d want to see it. Come on, empty your pockets. Show me your time.

I mean if Agnes had still been alive then maybe the Wilkinson’s wouldn’t have felt so guilty about leaving me there. She was the staunchest Methodist you’ve ever set eyes on was Agnes. Never bought a Tombola ticket in her life. She had red fingertips when she died from the blackberry picking. A basketful of berries and her lying on the floor of her cottage with deep red fingertips and a sheet white face.

The sound of the dumble now starts and continues underneath this section

I went to the dumble when I found out.

The dumble for about four seconds.

We used to go up there as young girls when we’d fallen in love and be all soppy. She was a good friend was Agnes. Running to the Primitives together so that we could get up to the Balcony and eat our sweets without being spotted. Spying on all the men coming in with their waistcoats and the ladies in their hats.

Dumble for three seconds.

It’s been there since time began that has. Well at least since somebody started making a note of it. And it’ll be there until the next ice age. Because the farmers can’t use that. They can pull down the hedges and put them up again as many times as they like, but the dumble will keep going; digging deeper and deeper into the earth.

There’s hedges standing there that are five or six hundred years old. Folk going back generations would have picked berries from those as they took their beast to graze up Mansey Common. Hardly anybody knows where it is nowadays. And it’s one of the most beautiful things. Most of the commoners are Doctors and Architects.

The dumble fades into the sound of the Methodist church door opening and suddenly Mary is in the church and the sound quality has changed utterly.

I don’t know who was more nervous that first Sunday after Mr and Mrs Wilkinson had left. But it was our turn for the Minister and I could picture him getting ready over in Ollerton. Putting on his dog collar and running out to his car as the rain splattered down. Wondering if it was still worth it. But when he arrived he was wonderful.

And it had such a warm feel that chapel, what with all the oak. The panelling and the pews and the communion rail. And Eakring means a ring of oaks you see, so it all made sense. And his voice seemed to fit that deep colour just right.

It was a lovely sermon; although you felt you had to concentrate all the while. ‘I think the Lord may be trying to tell you something’, he said, ‘maybe you need extra guidance’.

I wonder if he thought it was special like I did.

Oh but it was thriving here it was. It really was. With all the farmers and the men who worked on the fields. The Sunday School and the Women’s group and people coming to read passages from the bible or talk about their own lives. And the anniversary in the second week in May when all the circuit came and the supper afterwards was known as the best Methodist supper in the whole of Nottinghamshire.

You wonder what will come to take it’s place. Because if there’s a space something usually takes root and has a go. Just look at the hedges.

A sudden noise of crowds which carries on underneath this:

I went into Mansfield a couple of weeks ago, to one of the chapels there. And as we were going in on the bus I saw an old man crossing the road. And he had a drink from McDonalds in his hand, you could tell because it had that big M on it. And he was trying to race across because of all the traffic, and the drink was spilling everywhere, splashing onto the road. And it looked for a moment as if he was bleeding, and it was his blood that was splashing all over the ground. And he was holding onto this thing, this throw away cup, for dear life. It upset me very much that did. And I thought I wouldn’t go back there for a good while.

The noise of crowds now moves into the sound of a helicopter flying overhead.

There they go again. Sweeping round the village to keep an eye on those students clambering up the pretend electricity pylons. You’d never believe it would you. A load of massive great pylons built in the village and not one of them producing the tiniest hint of power. But they’ve got to practice somewhere I suppose. Just like the lay preachers. It’s no good going out into the world to do your job and finding that you’re scared stiff of heights or haven’t got a single sensible word sitting anywhere in your head.

That’s where I met Mr Wilkinson and introduced him to Methodism. When National grid used to be BP. The second world wars best kept secret that was, and we were sitting right on top of it. Oklahoma oilmen moving in, wells springing up all over the woods, and work found for a lot of folk. Two million barrels for the war effort.

You wonder if they’ll ever want to try and get at it again. They said it was unviable in the end. But you don’t know how desperate they’re going to get though, do you?

But if they do it won’t be with those old nodding donkeys.

That’s what I was; unviable. Two hundred years and it comes down to the Minister in the pulpit turning the pages of that great big old bible, and me, just me, in the congregation. It’s difficult to avert your gaze in that situation, for the pair of you.

Can you imagine Christ sitting at the table for the Last Supper and seeing that only half of the disciples have turned up because the others were too busy, or couldn’t really be bothered. Getting up to announce that ‘One of you shall betray me’ and realising that nobody is paying the blindest bit of attention.

Sound of congregation singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’, (a whole chorus of).

I do miss it you know. My one to one tuition. And I often wonder how the Minister is. We’d begun to work some lovely harmonies.

The sound of the congregation fades into a duet with a one or two harmonies.

 

Copyright Andy Barrett 2000

Time for a community theatre of the absurd?

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As I’ve been reading through the texts of the many community plays that have been sent to me one of the most obvious things is that they nearly always have large casts. In many ways this sense of scale, of creating a large cast of characters both to reflect a wide social milieu that can somehow capture the breadth of community, with its many different components and interactions, whilst at the same time creating opportunities for as many people as possible to engage with the process, is at the very heart of what a community play is.

During the eighties and nineties this wasn’t a problem. The community play, as a specific form of theatre, had many cheerleaders and received a good share of arts funding. But such a structure – one that needs a lot of people to engage in it – was always going to be vulnerable if the money started to run out and the rather large organisational costs started to become a little prohibitive. As, it appears, happened.

But there is also a connection between scale and narrative. Organising a very large amount of characters who represent different aspects of the social strata calls for a narrative form which demands clarity, to allow the audience to navigate their way through this mass of humanity. As a result the community plays that I am reading, from the eighties and nineties and into this century, are often full of conflict within and between families, and within and between social classes. There are usually traumas or challenges which families or social groups or whole communities find themselves having to grapple with and which are resolved at the end, often with the characters having learnt something about the larger social world which they inhabit; they have somehow learnt about the role of community in a mirroring of the audiences relationship to the material.

This need for the writer to carefully plot a series of characters journeys through a wider social environment often results in plays that, in terms of their narrative structure, are rather classical and conservative. And coupled with the fact that many are based on historical stories they can appear as though they are the theatrical equivalent of the Victorian novel. It would be difficult to imagine, for instance, a community theatre of the absurd.

The community theatre writer is tasked with balancing agendas and ambitions. As a result of this they have many different jobs and roles (and as I start to interview more writers I will begin to get a sense of what these are). After hearing Gaby Saldanha’s paper ‘Translation as Performance’ at the recent In Dialogue symposium, where she looked at theories of performance and comments by translators to interrogate the performative nature of the art of translation, I have begun to think that one of my jobs as a community theatre writer is a little akin to that of the translator. Of course we have to act as storytellers and dramatists, to construct narrative and plot, but we have a host of other roles to play as well. Chief of which is to somehow translate an evocation of the community – of place, of the local, of some form of collective identity – and to find the right words (and narrative structure) to communicate this.

Alongside this there are the agendas that are brought to the table by the commissioning bodies, and their understandings of what the community theatre playwright is expected to produce. Often these come in the form of explicit social interventions, the idea that the plays are to serve a purpose and that the actual art is really a by-product of a range of interactions  and interventions that take place during the process of creating the finished piece of theatre (interactions which are then evaluated and sent up the shute to someone who can suggest that ‘yes this is all helping’, although it doesn’t really look that way right now).

With the move of much community based theatre into the heritage sector there are other agendas at play still. The social imperative is still there hovering in the background, but these agendas are more about communicating ‘fact’; of unearthing a historical story and re-presenting it rather than using this story as a way to trouble the present. Maybe there is space for work to reflect on current issues, but these usually come in the form of some kind of parallelism – look how what happened then reflects on / can teach us about now. Then there are the agendas and expectations of the community and the participant.

Mid Pennine Arts have recently set up their MPA50 project, one of several examples of  community arts organisations using anniversaries to reflect on their history and to try and unearth artefacts from their many years of work (and often funded by the HLF, such as this project marking the fortieth anniversary of Junction Arts). One of the moments that is well documented by MPA is the visit of Welfare State way back in 1971. There is a letter to the Burnley Express that caught my eye, in which the writer says ‘On Saturday evening my two youngest children persuaded my wife and I to take them to see the ‘Welfare State’ performing one of their – I thought meaningless – rituals on Turf Moor Estate’. And although Keith admits that ‘I can’t say I fully understood what it was all about’ he found the event ‘a most pleasurable experience’.

What is so interesting about looking back at the work of Welfare State is how, through the use of image and spectacle and music, they created a blend of carnival and ritual that allowed a real space for interpretation. Obviously for Keith Whalley such a space turned out to be of much more value to him than he was anticipating. Which, I think, is a very useful admission. It always interests me to see the numbers of people who attend the Nottingham Contemporary where the artwork is often difficult to contextualise and where entrance points for understanding the work are not easy. It seems to me that there may be a greater thirst for people to be lost in something that they cannot quite grasp, which is slightly out of reach, than we realise. In a world where interactions are increasingly monetized and graded and graduated perhaps this sense of slight bewilderment and disorientation is a very healthy one.

With community plays, rather than the community performance model of Welfare State, there is much more of a reliance on text, and an interpretative space is perhaps much less easier to create. The narrative structures, as mentioned above, at least in the large community play model, find themselves needing to tie up threads of plot and story, to draw together the social and character conflicts, to offer resolution. Narrative forms which are highly recognisable, being seen daily in film and television.

But what happens when the production process changes, when the possibility of creating such large works vanishes, as has generally been the case over the last fifteen years? How can a smaller cast, a smaller group of people carry out the weight of the work that the community play is meant to be doing? Might it mean moving away from the narrative form that the larger casts, as I am suggesting, imply? Maybe it offers a chance to experiment with form and narrative. Maybe through experimenting with form and narrative the job of ‘translating’ the community may be done in more potent ways. But doing such a thing, of experimenting with form, is no easy task. Because of the production processes that surround the making of the work.

As well as the HLF the other main funder of community theatre is, right now, the Creative People and Places scheme. As it states on its home page – ‘Creative People and Places is about more people choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live’ (note the fact that choice is given priority here over the act of creation). From my own experience, and of many others I have spoken to, there is a real disappointment in the way that this scheme has played out.

Instead of genuine conversations between artists and communities that create spaces that may be troubling, uncertain and genuinely creative in their search for a language and form that responds to the very specific questions and environment that the community is grappling with, more often than not the conversation is a very one sided one. Communities get to ‘choose’ and the artists come and ‘deliver’. For reasons of funding, local politics, community agency, but ultimately perhaps of artistic cowardice, the overriding need is to ‘give people what they want’, thereby closing down any real discussion and experimentation in the reaching instead for forms that are readily understandable. The exact opposite of the situation I mentioned earlier at the Nottingham Contemporary.

Theatre and performance is increasingly finding ways to engage with the social creating work that searches for new forms responding to gaming, digital technology, global networks, amongst many other influences. This could be a hugely liberating moment for community theatre makers, and for community theatre writers. Perhaps it is time that a community theatre of the absurd is initiated. Or at the very least a community theatre that is hungry in its search for new narrative forms.