Hunting down the plays

I am attempting to hunt down community play scripts and it is no easy task. My starting point has been a spreadsheet I’ve acquired of the material contained within the Community Plays Archive and Database, held at the V&A. There are 215 community theatre projects listed in all, each having a folder containing various material. And yet only half of these folders contain the scripts for the play; the rest being left with promotional posters, press clippings and other artefacts connected to these projects.

That still leaves over one hundred plays to read (potentially), which would mean a lot of time to be booked in the Reading Room (which is closed for most of August). And so I am on a mission to track down as many of the writers that I can, and to ask if they can send me a copy of the plays that they have written.

The CPAD only has material from the 80’s and 90’s and so many of those I am contacting are rather surprised that someone is interested in their work after all these years. ‘I’ve got a copy somewhere though I’ve moved house a few times’; ‘I think it’s with my ex-wife’; ‘this was in the pre-Amstrad era so it’s typed up’ have been the kind of responses that I’ve been getting. But many of the writers are responding very quickly and are keen to send me the scripts and to talk about other community plays that they have written that may not be held at the V&A.

There are very few community plays that have been published.  Some of the plays produced by the Colway Theatre Trust are available. David Edgar’s ‘Entertaining Strangers’, written for Dorchester in 1985 can be read in his reworked version for the National in 1987; Arnold Wesker’s ‘Beorhtel’s Hill’, the 1989 community play for Basildon can be found in an out of print Penguin collection; and Nick Darke’s play for Restormel in 1984 ‘The Earth Turned Inside Out’, was reworked as ‘Ting Tang Mine’, again for the National, in 1987. And ‘A Time To Keep’, the Dorchester community play written by Stephanie Dale and David Edgar is available from Nick Hern Books.

All of these plays are worth reading; and all of them convey the excitement and energy that these large cast plays are able to generate. And the texts communicate a lot. A wonderful sense of fluidity, of experimentation with form, of the blending of family drama with a panoramic social vision; of political persuasion; of writers revelling in the task that they have been set. They make you wish that more of these plays are available to read. And given that the ‘community play’ was such an important theatrical form for the last two decades of the twentieth century it’s a real disappointment that they are just nowhere to be found.

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The first script arrives – The Boston Community Play (1987) by Doc Watson

At the same time as trying to track down these plays I’ve also been looking at a number of recent HLF funded projects. And it is clear that there is a much greater importance placed on documentation for many of these. This is probably because the creation of the play text is seen by the funders, and the producers, as a historical document; a way of holding historical information that can be passed down and accessed in different ways. Which of course creates issues for the writer about the use of historical fact in their work. Is the writer meant to be writing a play, with his or her main responsibility being on evoking a time and a place based on historical research which is the backdrop for imagining and telling a story, a story that is as much about the present as the past? Or has the job become one where the conveying of the historical research is as important, or perhaps more important, than the story that it tells. In fact is the story simply a narrative device to convey historical research?

I am looking forward to seeing the plays that get hunted down in lofts or in the houses of ex-spouses. If I had a lot more time on my hands I’d love to be able to digitise them all so that they could be shared more widely. I’m hoping to discover something about these plays, something that can only be discovered by looking at these scripts. Of course looking at pieces of paper that have been unearthed after all these years isn’t the best way to understand what makes an affective community play. But in the absence of being able to travel back in time to attend what may have only been a handful of performances it must surely be the next best thing.

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