Kevin Fegan is a poet and playwright who works across a wide range of theatrical forms. In January of this year we had a conversation about his work, specifically as a writer of community based theatre. (The image above is from The Selkie Boy, written for Barrow Senior Youth Theatre, and commissioned by The Ashton Group). This is an edited version of that interview.
How do you describe yourself?
I keep it simple; I’m a playwright and a poet. That catches it all really. I’m very clear about that. It’s how I see myself and the work that I do. Playwright tends to come first; when I started out poet did. The crossover interests me. Everything I learnt from poetry I invest in my playwriting. Sometimes I write full length plays in verse. Sometimes I mix verse and prose. It depends on what the subject matter is and what serves that best. They cross over naturally for me and separating them out is often somebody else’s business. The poems are usually written for performance and some of them are an hour long. If they work as good story telling they hold an audience. It takes you a while to find out what your strengths are. Mine as a poet are dramatic verse.
What was your way in to community art / theatre?
I became Writer in Residence at Stocken prison in 1987, one of the first of those schemes where writers worked in prisons. It had a profound effect on me and I mark it from there. From that point I became aware of how powerful the work that we do can be in certain communities.
Before the interview for the post Kevin was sent into the prison to meet an inmate. It was someone he knew; someone that he had grown up with, someone who went to the same schools as him and who was now in his twelfth year of a jail sentence for murder. After this encounter Kevin felt unable to continue, close to tears, and wondered if he would be able to go into the interview when called. He found himself writing a poem which allowed him to carry on with the process.
I learnt then what I already knew. That’s why I write. That got me through that experience. Imagine what that means to people like T and others like him, to get them through a life sentence or the trauma of what they had done. That was massive and it answered my question straight away about why I do this work. I realised straight away from that experience how significant this work was.
How did you move into community theatre?
I wrote a few plays from that experience. We toured forty odd jails and theatres, with a professional two hander. We always had a conversation afterwards. And it was really powerful. I knew I had used my skill as a writer to empathise to the extent where they were saying (in the prisons) ‘how the fuck can you write that? You’ve never done a life sentence; you’ve never even done a sentence’.
Shortly after this finished I was offered resident dramatist at Welfare State International. They were coming towards the end of their epic career as a company but they were still on fire. Their last big project was something called Shipyard Tales and I was the resident dramatist on that. So I lived in Barrow on Furness for eighteen months and with the shipyard workers and the community of Barrow in Furness we created thirteen shows and ran an alternative cabaret nightclub. And I set up a writing club as well and published works. At the end of the eighteen months we put on these thirteen original shows that we had generated in that town. I write one, and performed it myself which I wasn’t expecting. That was in verse. I toured it for two years afterwards.
I wrote a big show with John Foxx called Lord Dynamite, a community opera. We did that at Forum 28 in Barrow in Furness and then after that, and you know most community plays don’t have a life beyond their original performance, we wrote it again for a professional company for LIFT 91 (London International Theatre Festival) on an outdoor site two football fields wide. And then we rewrote it for Totnes and then we rewrote it for the docks in Newcastle. So this was a show that had to reinvent itself. The subsequent shows weren’t with community casts. The original cast had around sixty actors but the tour was done with eight professional actors.
It was very much a hybrid of me and Foxy. He doesn’t normally write with other people; I think I’m one of the few that has managed to do that and still stay friends. We just locked ourselves away for a couple of weeks and wrote it together. It was great for me; I was a young writer (Kevin was thirty at this point) and I learnt a lot from him and he felt he could learn from me.
How would you define community art?
I haven’t got any neat definitions for you. Community Art is about artists helping non- artists, helping people in any community find the artistic expression in their own lives. If it’s a play it’s finding the drama in their lives; finding the theatrical expression within them. Art isn’t exclusive to certain individuals in society. It’s not like some people have got art and some people haven’t got art; everyone’s got art. But has it been awakened in you? Have you got access to it? Are you given permission to go there?
Everyone has culture. Does everyone have art? What is the difference between culture and art?
Culture embraces the tribal way in which you live. What tribe do you belong to? What is their language and what are there customs? What’s their ancestry? People engage in the arts by their millions. They’re as popular as sports and very comparable. People dip in and out of them at different times in their life. You might swim for five years and then never swim again for twenty and then take it up a bit later in life. It could be the same with playing a guitar or painting.
So a lot of the time it’s about giving a platform for that because people are doing it anyway … it’s about recognising that and allowing them an opportunity to express it and hopefully along the way raising the bar. If you’re working as a professional artist in the community your ambition is to create as high quality work as possible. Whatever level people are engaged at, and you have to be good at tapping into what level they’re at, you want to show them the next step up. And some of them turn out to be your peers; there as good as you are at what you do.
Have you seen the form or the ethos of Community Theatre changing?
It’s changed; it’s developing all the time. There may well come a time when it gets the recognition it deserves.
I’ve been aware over the span of my career that there are different types of community theatre … and when someone commissions me to write a community play there’s always a discussion about what they mean by community play, where it fits in the spectrum of community plays. Because at one end I come and work with your community, I engage your community and I go away and write a play and bring it back as a gift and say this is what I’ve made for us to perform; and that’s a perfectly valid form of community theatre and maybe the most prevalent one, but it’s not the only one. I’ve also been into communities, where I’ve said on Day One, like with Opera North in Mansfield in 1993 where I said to the group of writers, local writers who were interested and came forward, ‘in 18 months we’re going to have written a community opera, we’re going to perform it in that leisure centre, and I won’t have written a single word; you’ll have written all of it, do you believe me?’ And that’s what we did. I drew that material out of them; I edited it, I structured it; I shaped it; I helped them put it together, I helped them to get it as strong as it could be before it was handed over to the community actors. But they wrote it. And that’s at the other end of the community theatre spectrum.
In between are the ones where you write with a team of writers; I’ve done that as well. Where I’m the lead writer on it but I’m also using other writers material as we go along and I’m structuring it and shaping it because I’ve got those skills, that’s why I’m getting paid to do it. I understand how plays work; I understand how to structure a play; I understand how to respond content to form. And so there’s a whole spectrum of what we call community plays.
I did a couple of pieces for Quarantine in their early years and what Quarantine do is work with people finding the drama in their lives, irrespective of whether they’re professional performers or not. One of the shows I did with them was with refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester and again I didn’t write the script, I put it together. I tease the material out of people and you’ve got to be good at that as a community playwright. Then I help them shape it. Is this a song? Is this a scene? Is this a story? Is this a poem? Is this a dance? Is this a video projection?
I did a show with them called White Trash. We took young unemployed men, took them off the dole, from white trash areas in Manchester and formed a company with them. We said ‘right we’re going to create a show called White Trash and it’s about your lives because people call you white trash, you know that don’t you?’ And of course they know it. ‘Let’s explore that. What’s behind white trash; who are you really?’ They, we, created that show. So I’m writer/devisor alongside a director, and you work as a team getting this material but I take charge of structuring it. I haven’t written a single word of it but I’ve shaped it. And it’s really powerful stuff sometimes
Where do you think community theatre finds itself now?
My understanding is that the generation before me made a bold attempt to take theatre out to the people and community theatre was part of that. They’re admirable sentiments but they become very patronising really quickly. It’s not about bringing theatre to the people it’s about finding the theatre in the people and letting that theatre breathe in that community. And the only reason it doesn’t breathe is because it doesn’t have the profile that the other end of the theatre spectrum has.
The genre is developing in lots of different ways and has become more subtle and more sophisticated. In terms of recognition we’re a long way from that.
I feel I’ve been privy to the most incredible experiences that I’ve shared with people and next to nobody apart from that group are aware that that happened . No-one knows what you’ve just done but it can be, not always, but it can be, the most awesome experience. I let go a long while back of the excitement of high profile work, those commissions you get with a top theatre company; sometimes those experiences … they don’t move you as much. You may not have the experience that I know that I can have and I might have had with something that has no profile at all.
What I love about theatre is that it’s live, it happens, it’s gone. It has the potential to be incredibly beautiful and powerful and then you move onto the next one. So I’m not interested any more in who’s seen it and who hasn’t. I’m interested in the community that has engaged in that piece; what’s it meant for them. And I’m part of that because I’m part of the people that are putting it together
Is there anything that you are aware of that you are doing differently now when you write for community theatre than when you first started?
You have to take into account the make-up of your likely cast. There will be strong performers, there will be weak performers and so how do you create a meaningful experience for the whole cast? And that has to affect the way you write. You have to make a virtue of that.
The things that you can do in community theatre that you can’t do in mainstream theatre, simply because of the cost, are those large casts; and I love writing chorus. I love writing for a large group of people to speak as one voice and then also within that chorus to have individual cameos and individual characters, that step out of the chorus and perform and then step back in. That’s what I mean by making a virtue of it; that’s playing to its strength, when you hear a group of people speaking as one voice, and for me that would usually be in verse. That’s something that you can’t achieve, certainly not in repertory theatre because you can’t have those numbers.
That’s with a big cast, but what if you are writing for smaller ones?
I think all the time you are aware that you have to stretch your cast but not provide them with the impossible; so you probably can’t be as obtuse as you could be with a skilled cast.
How does this inform the style of the play? If you are saying that characters may have to be less complex is there a tendency for them to become more emblematic?
I think it affects the style in which you write. You’re going to avoid heavy naturalism in a community play. Invariably it is more stylised … as you say characters become a bit more representative and you haven’t got the space to create a really subtle three dimensional character or set of characters in the way that you can when you’re dealing with a small professional cast. But I wouldn’t want to say that one way of writing is more skilled than the other; they require different skills.
Does the fact that you know your audience affect the way that you write? Does your relationship with the audience in some way change and does that impact on the script?
I’m not sure what you mean.
Quite often I find that when I’m writing a community play, and I know the audience … say it’s for the community of Bilborough and I become very aware of who these people are and their experiences of theatre and so I’m trying to find the right language that I think that community will relate to. But also because ultimately it’s a piece about living in this place together I’m trying to tie that up in some way what’s happening on stage … I’m trying to mirror that in some way in the text. Does that make any sense?
Are you talking about one of the dangers of patronising your audience? Of giving them what they want? Because we can quickly identify what will please them and you can give them that if they want, but I find that patronising and I won’t let myself do that. So occasionally I’m fired, occasionally I get sacked … because I won’t … I say to them ‘look I want this to hurt a bit as well. I want it to be joyous but I want it to hurt as well. I don’t want it to be an easy show. I’m not interested in writing easy shows for you’.
But the very fact that you’re saying that suggests on some level that you’re thinking about the audience. And in a way perhaps that is slightly different than you would do if you were writing a play that is going to tour, and the audience is just a collection of people in that theatre.
Yes I am thinking of the audience; without a doubt. I got fired from the Warwick Community Play. Warwick is a very middle class area and the people who were bankrolling the play were chief execs and bankers and business people, and I had a pop in the script at this community in a light-hearted way. It was fun, but I had a pop; and I insist on doing that. The script never got performed. They paid me off and said to me ‘we can’t do this. It offends our middle class values’. They actually said that. And I said ‘look when I work in a working class area I offend working class values’. That’s part of my job. I come in, I identify what makes a community tick and I say ‘what do you reckon to this?’ You have to do it in a way that isn’t exploitative or offensive, but equally isn’t tame.
The important thing for a writer is not to patronise and not to do it the easy way. You can do that but it’s not as enjoyable for you; and you know it won’t be for them.
Does this awareness of the audience give you a focus that you may not feel if you’re not writing for a specific audience? Is it helpful?
It probably is helpful, but I have a base line that I use for any play I write. I imagine myself in the audience and I didn’t want to be there … my friend or my girlfriend or whoever has brought me and I haven’t read the programme and I don’t know the title of the play, I don’t know what it’s about and I didn’t want to be there. And I have to reach that person; I have to engage that person at the simplest level. And then over and above that I’m in the audience and I’m a human being that wants my senses excited, I want my emotions excited, and I want my intellect excited. And when I’m getting all three I’m getting a good deal. And that’s what I try and write, every time.
Have you read any other community theatre texts?
There are so few published. When I worked for Welfare State I would read what Foxy had written for comparable shows so that I could get a sense of how it worked on the page. But plays for community casts that you can read are very few.
Is it a field of work then that requires a lot of self-learning?
Yes, but it doesn’t have to be. Walk The Plank started doing some proper training for National Theatre of Wales for the show they were creating for their millennium, and they were training people up around Wales; emerging artists and experienced artists who wanted to develop their skills for site specific theatre. I know this is separate but there’s a cross over because you often find yourself writing site specific community theatre which is a really fascinating area. I was saying to them ‘did you include a writer in the training?’ and they said no. And I said ‘so to your knowledge there’s never been a time when a playwright who has written a lot of site specific shows has attempted to pass on what they’ve learnt?’. And he said no. But they might include it next time.
One of the big things that I pass on to writers when they ask me about site specific work is – and it’s very simple – is that verse works a lot better outdoors. If you’re doing a show outdoors, back off on prose and up the verse, because heightened language works more outside. It’s mnemonic, especially if you use rhyming verse. Your audience latch onto it; prose just disappears in a way that it doesn’t in a theatre. Rhyming couplets, which aren’t very sophisticated at all in terms of poetry, come into their own in outdoor work. So there’s little tricks like that that I’ve learnt that I pass on to other people.
Without networks around you, and the fact that there is so little to refer back to, how do you think you have been able to move your craft forward?
You do because it’s what experience is; you don’t stop developing your own skills and everything I’ve learnt I will endeavour to take into the next project. And that learning is sometimes about what works but it’s also about what doesn’t work. I’m not going to make that mistake again, because I made that mistake in that play. So it’s that; building up that knowledge based on experience that allows you to walk into a venue or a community or both and say OK I know what will work here … a bit of this and a bit of that.
And have you ever tried to assemble that learning?
No it’s in my head because no-one has ever asked me to put it on paper. It’s important and valid and it should be collected and passed on.
Can I just go back to what happened at Warwick? Do you think that you weren’t as committed to that community in some way perhaps?
I think it exposed me as much as them. Afterwards I thought about it and I thought ‘what prejudice was I taking in to that project?’ And I’m kidding myself if I think I’m not, because I am. We like to think of ourselves as broad minded and tolerant but actually I’m aware that I will struggle with the class system as much as anyone.
When you looked back at the section of the play that offended them did you think ‘I’d gone too far’ or ‘That was fine!’
My original reaction was where’s your sense of humour? It’s funny. It makes me laugh why doesn’t it make you laugh? You’re being over sensitive! But when you think about it more, which you have to do because I don’t want to get the sack, even if they pay me off – which they did – I want the show to be performed. I am culpable certainly … I’m not living in a vacuum am I?
Are you aware that there are things you have learnt from writing for Community Theatre audiences and casts that you to carry over into your other theatre writing?
One example would be I’m very confident and experienced at writing for a group as well as for individual characters. So just as I write huge choruses for community casts I like taking those principles into situations with smaller casts. I want them to be an ensemble, and this is why and this is how they will express themselves as an ensemble. I like those type of plays and that’s a skill I think I’ve learned from one area of theatre that I’ve used in another area of theatre. That’s just one example – there’ll be others. Use of verse would be another one. How to use verse; when and why?
If you had to give one piece of advice to someone writing a community play what would it be?
Respect. Respect that community and that material and get the best out of it. I don’t mean do it for the money; I don’t mean do it because the NT says we want some top writers to work in a community like they do with Connections (a youth theatre scheme). A lot of those plays are crap because the writers aren’t respecting that community of young people. Treat it with the respect it deserves and you will get the most incredible rewards from any community. It’s there to be had; those riches are there to be had, not just for the people involved in it but for the creative team as well.