Ann Jellicoe, the writer, and the ‘community play’

My introduction to community theatre came through the work of Ann Jellicoe, probably the most influential writer and director working in the field and the woman who is still most closely identified with the notion of the ‘community play’. Indeed Jellicoe’s own book Community Plays: How To Put Them On,  published in 1987 is still the only available text that provides any kind of blue print for the creation of community theatre; (I know three of the people in the photograph on the front of this book – Mr Carlyon was the father of one of my best friends and Mrs Hill still works in a shop in my home town of Colyton. I have always been a little bit frustrated by this cover though – for I was standing just behind Alexandra, and yet somehow missed out on being included in the image).

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In many ways Ann Jellicoe and ‘community theatre’ have become synonymous, and her work, which had great success during the eighties and into the nineties, became for many the defining notion of what ‘community theatre’ should be (and, for many, still is). Put very simply it was the idea that the play, a play which was produced by a professional production team and written by a professional writer, would be performed entirely by the community.

The moment of inception of these community plays, of this new theatrical paradigm, coincides almost exactly with the first Thatcher government, the radical shift towards a monetarist policy which has been defined as ‘neoliberal’, and a redefinition in which ‘the values of ‘community’ which informed the 1970s were to be replaced by those of the nuclear family and the individual’.[1]  By the time of ‘Entertaining Strangers’ the tenth play (and the last to be directed by Ann Jellicoe, who was to resign from the company she had formed in protest at a large Arts Council cut), the Miners’ Strike had recently come to an end, the Conservatives were in the middle of their second term of office, and the turmoil in the Labour Party was most clearly shown by Neil Kinnock’s attack on the Militant tendency in his Leader’s speech to the party conference in Bournemouth.[2]  This was a period of economic uncertainty, of industrial unrest (that would soon be used as the excuse for a curb on Trade Union rights), of accelerating social disintegration and of political realignment.

At the same time many of the writers who had been seen as the leading voices of the left and who had cut their teeth in alternative theatre movement from which the origins of community theatre had sprung were being welcomed into the cultural mainstream. Brenton, Hare and Bond were all commissioned by the National Theatre in what could be seen either as an entryist tactic similar to that employed by Militant, or as the dominant culture absorbing emergent ideologies. (Ironically an unofficial strike over pay and work shifts by backstage staff at the National lead to Strife, John Galsworthy’s play about a strike in Wales being ‘staged in limited, or the wrong, decor, since no scenery can be moved without “black-legging”’.[3] The striking workers were eventually dismissed).

As Baz Kershaw, one of the most perceptive analysts of this work asked – how could a series of plays being performed by amateurs of all ages in a series of South Western towns where ‘the contextuality of community theatre rendered it especially sensitive […] as conservatism in local communities was legitimised by the wider socio-political climate’ possibly create work that could in any way be seen as political? [4]  The answer was to lie in the position within the production process of the writer.

Ann Jellicoe has never suggested that the form of community theatre that she created should be seen as political; in fact she stressed the opposite: ‘Politics are divisive. We strongly feel that the humanising effect of our work is far more productive than stirring up political confrontation.’[5]  And it is this commitment to keeping out of trouble that has led some commentators and critics to view this work as inherently reactionary. That whilst it proclaimed to be part of the community arts agenda of challenging the cultural and social hegemony, in reality it reinforced ‘an idealised notion of community as an unchanging unity’.[6]  And if the local community was merely representing in microcosm the wider social sphere, with all of its attendant inequalities and tensions, then it was merely reproducing social norms that were represented in the dominant cultural art forms. Which was not what many in the community arts tradition were aiming for.

And yet many of the writers that Jellicoe chose to write the plays (when she wasn’t doing so herself) were those that most would recognise of being of the left – Howard Barker, David Edgar, Sheila Yeger. Was this because she felt that these writers were more able to deal with material that was about the interaction of the individual and the local with wider social forces? Well if so she didn’t let on, preferring instead to say that ‘It has certainly been my experience that amongst eminent or accomplished writers, the most generous in time and energy relating to ‘ordinary’ people are generally socialist. They take their obligations to a community with great serious and sensitivity.’[7]  Which suggests that it was those writers embrace of the context in which the work was to be made, the idea of this being a conversation, that was what she valued the most. This was not about creating work with a political message inscribed in the text but much nearer to the idea of those community artists who could see the necessity to create new means of expression through social engagement and conversation. As Jellicoe makes clear. For these ‘generally socialist’ writers who she preferred to work with ‘find it a great problem when they are asked not to write a “political” play and a great deal of my time and energy has been spent in talking them through this problem’.[8]

Given that any writer rarely gets an opportunity to create theatre with a cast of over a hundred with its potential for overtly social themes this statement may suggest that the writers found the job slightly frustrating, an opportunity thwarted. But comments by Barker, Edgar and Yeger suggest the opposite. Yeger is particularly interesting in that she very clearly saw the opportunity as one that allowed her to ‘say the things that I always say’, only in an amplified way, and that in the first draft ‘I had aimed a kick at the groin’.[9] But after working with Jellicoe to ‘relinquish some of the things in my first draft’ she created something that she found much more potent and ended with ‘a more subtle and I think, a much more human play’.[10]

Maybe there were other ways for the politically radical to be written into the text. If it could be seen that what may be inherently political in this process was not the specific story that was to be told, but the way in which it was to be told, the way that the relationship between the artist and the social context was to be interrogated, then maybe there was no reason to be frustrated at all, but to be utterly thrilled by the potential that was on offer. And that therefore the writer of these plays, if they truly understood and were responsive to the conversation that was happening between the means of production and their artistic form, would be able to offer something that was truly radical.

It is specifically in the example of Howard Barker that Baz Kershaw sees how potent this form of community theatre could be.  His appointment as the writer of the second community play ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ was ‘politically audacious because of his iconoclastic socialism […] aesthetically audacious, because of his predilection for subverting conventional theatrical codes’.[11]  In a detailed examination of Barker’s text and of the performance of it Kershaw explains how the playwright was able to construct a script that, as a performance, was both aesthetically and politically efficacious, because of the way that the means of production of the realisation of the script, along with the interplay of the historical context of the story with the specific local tensions within the community, became an integral part of the play and the performance’s reading. This is, of course, no easy task and ‘less skilful writers may fail to animate this type of intertextuality through historical parallelism, so that the event will not be inflected by radicalism’.[12]

This specific theatrical form then, the ‘community play’, had the potential to indicate a potential path for other forms of community and political theatre through ‘a sensitive animation of the relationships between the play and the event of which it is part […] socio-political criticism and community celebration […] analysis and the carnivalesque’ with each responding, informing, questioning and transforming the other. [13] The play was a part of a process that was an event that contained a play. And if the writer was able to investigate the work that the play was doing within this context, as well as the way in which the play sat within and was produced by the event, then perhaps we were beginning to see the development of the theatrical form as a socially and aesthetically conjoined vessel. Contextual animation was and is fundamental.

Barker was an outsider brought in to produce a script for a community who wished to make theatre. Or rather he was brought in to produce a script for a community who were interested in exploring what would happen if theatre was made there. And this partnership between an established writer and a community was highly successful, at the very least in artistic terms.

For a few years following on from ‘A Poor Man’s Friend’, Jellicoe continued to work with writers whose work could also be seen in the established theatre venues, before leaving the company in 1985. Under the guidance of Jon Oram the work continued (and does still, with Stephen Lowe currently writing a play for the City of London[14]) although many of the plays were now written by Oram, albeit with some notable exceptions.  The community play form was copied and produced across the country, as well as being exported to the Netherlands (there are 215 identified community plays that have materials connected to their production currently held in the Community Plays Archive and Database at the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance).[15] But even though community theatre appeared to have become recognised as a valid cultural project bringing artists and communities together, the problems of documentation, or rather the lack of it, along with the fact that these productions, without the involvement of such prestigious names as Howard Barker of David Edgar, seemed to happen without any interest from the wider world. This was exacerbated by the obvious fact that each production was only ever tailored for a specific community and left little in the way of a published trace (and never a script) meaning that it was always operating alongside the dominant theatrical culture and never threatening to impinge on it in any way; not that this position was one to be disparaging of.

But there was always a question nagging away in the background. Whose theatre was this? Did it belong to Barker and the other writers? To the Colway Theatre Trust, or Claque as they were to become? To Ann Jellicoe and the directors that followed in her path? To the people of Bridport and all of the other communities who performed and helped produce the productions? This question of ownership, of power, is one that still lies at the heart of most discussion and contestation within the community theatre and community arts movement. And the working through of these questions, of decisions that have been made in response to them, have meant that there are very few other situations in the history of community theatre where we have seen such established writers as Barker producing community theatre work. For by the mid-nineties community theatre was on the cusp of another key phase of its development; an engagement with the New Labour agenda and of a developing instrumentalism of the community arts movement.

[1] Kershaw, The Politics of Performance. p.168.

[2] ‘I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.  You start with far-fetched resolutions.  They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.  (Applause) I am telling you, no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos – (Continuing applause) – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.’

[3] National Theatre, Welcome to the National Theatre:The history of the National Theatre:Stage by Stage [n.d] [accessed 29th March 2016]

[4] Kershaw, The Politics of Performance, p. 182.

[5] Jellicoe, Ann Community Plays: How to Put Them on (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), p.122.

[6] Woodruff, Graham, Community, Class and Control: a View of Community Plays. New Theatre Quarterly 5/20 (1989).

[7] Jellicoe, pp. 123-124

[8] Ibid., p. 124.

[9] Jellicoe, p123.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kershaw, The Politics of Performance, p. 187.

[12] Ibid., p. 203.

[13] Ibid., p. 201.