What to do with the elephants?

I’ve just booked my ticket for next years ICAF, a tri-annual event in Rotterdam that brings together community arts practitioners and researchers from across the world to share their work and discuss their practice. It’s a glorious and provocative event in a glorious and provocative city. In 2014 I wrote a series of short pieces as I joined a small team as part of EMPAF, who visited the work of a number of Dutch community artists leading up to the festival.

It’s not really writing about writing, but never mind:

I am in Het Hoge Heem, a house for the elderly in Uithoorn. It’s a semi state run place, one of 27 in the region. An older lady has just gone behind a sheet rigged up on some pole to make a shadow puppet theatre screen. She is holding an elephant shadow puppet, which presumably she made in one of the two earlier workshops held here. She is accompanied by a primary age child from a local school who also has an elephant. It’s national puppetry day here in the Netherlands. And also Volunteers Day. There were some folk back at base, where Franz – puppeteer in chief –  lives and where we had lunch, from the pharmaceutical company Bayer, who were putting in their four hours of voluntary service a year in return for a certificate and a 20% off voucher at some department store or another. Some of the puppets they helped with, based, I think, on designs from some of the older people, are being used in this workshop where the young and the old are practising using the puppets behind a large screen for the first time.

Joanne Oussoren, from Droomtheater reads The Carnival of Animals while Saint Saens plays. A local politician is also holding an elephant but hasn’t had a go yet. She may have lost her post in the regional(?) government on Wednesday but deals are being made as we speak and she may be welcomed back in. The state is in retreat she tells me. It’s the same in the U.K. I tell her. Probably worse. (Definitely worse). And there doesn’t seem to be much heard in the way of protest. The same here, she says; it’s strange. Where’s the revolution? Hope she gets back in.

The house where Franz, who is running this project, Carnaval der Dieren, lives is part of a Central Housing project; one of around one hundred in the country. Franz moved here 24 years ago, about a year after it was opened. He got lucky. First in a one bed apartment and then moving to a two bed apartment. There are fifteen in all; of various sizes. And there is – most importantly – a large communal room. When he was first here people ate together twice a week; now it’s once a month. There’s a rota for looking after the chickens, for clearing up the communal room; which is used mainly now for the birthday parties of those that live here, full of relatives rather than housemates (or whatever the collective term for such a thing is). If you ever earn over thirty three thousand euros you have to leave. Many haven’t. When a space becomes free they have a meal and invite people to be communal and sociable and make their case. Some struggle.

Het Hoge Heem has a waiting list. The communal room is large and airy and light and Eric, the activities organiser, is overseeing today’s activity. There are around 130 rooms here. But many of the activities are not well attended. Today there are really only a handful of older people joining in, more women than men, (one looks frighteningly like Ann Widdecombe; another has wonderful shoes). By the time people arrive here, Eric tells me, they have spent five or six years retreating into themselves, learning isolation and loneliness; like many (most?) older people do.

Next Friday there will be one more workshop and then, on the Sunday a performance complete with a six piece brass band. The ‘political woman’ as she’s called, will help to rewrite the story to make it more topical. There is talk about the swans of Uithoorn but nobody is quite sure what to do with the elephants. This project has been crowd funded.

Twenty years ago, when Joanne set up Droomtheater, she was writing plays about Freudian cases; now she’s interested in the notion of the social dream. She works in the Feyenoord area of Rotterdam, a very multicultural area (unlike here). She has discovered that puppetry is a readily accepted artistic form that has many connections with other cultures. Droomtheater have taken work to schools and mosques. They blend live music, story-telling and puppetry. When she went to Iran she couldn’t believe how many puppet companies there were.

And, as she explains, she’s getting older and so is thinking about the kind of community that she wants to live in. A shared space; like the project that Franz is in, this ‘special place’; rather than being alone. It is lovely. There’s a river outside. The rain has stopped and the sun is coming out.

As my and my wife’s parents get older; as my friends talk about setting up a communal living project, (there’s some land identified in Belper, Derbyshire) I wonder if Franz is right. He thinks – hopes – that this social experiment of the sixties may return. Because of this retreating of the state. Because of the need that will arise for people to need more help. It’s cheaper for a health visitor to come and visit a project with five older people in, and who get day to day support from those who live around them, he suggests, then by putting them up in these nursing homes, even with their part funding from charities. And they can have Franz’s puppet shows there too.

History or heritage? Thoughts on the HLF (Part One)

20150704_0215 ‘The V.C. Factory’, a community theatre project funded by the HLF

Anyone who has been involved in developing a community theatre project with the HLF knows that it can be a tricky business. The HLF don’t really get theatre; they seem to prefer things that are a bit more tangible and are very keen on websites and digital output. And yet it may be that it is the HLF who are now the main funders of community theatre work.

The recent ACE report ‘Analysis of Theatre in England’ (published 13th September 2016), only mentions ‘community theatre’ a couple of times, both occurring in Appendix 9: The awareness of theatres’ civic and social roles. But this is about the roles of the theatre buildings and their places within the community; the services that they offer as spaces as much as the work that they do. It is not, in any way, connected to the original vision of community theatre workers that Su Braden, in perhaps the earliest theoretical examination of the community arts movement (Artists and People, 1978), saw as growing out of artists ‘spontaneous and gradual understanding of the underlying forces which control culture and access to self-expression’; and which ultimately leads to a genuinely dialogic exchange between artist and community in which the artist who wished to communicate with the community needed to understand and embrace (which is not the same as mimic) the cultural traditions of that community; and that through this a deep engagement in and with this new social context allowed the possibility of new means of artistic expression to develop.

However if you tap ‘Community Theatre’ into the HLF main search box you will get (as of the 18th November 2016) 279 results. Exactly what form of ‘community theatre’ these projects take is difficult to tell, but given the HLF’s funding parameters, and looking through a number of projects, it seems to suggest that the work is both geographically bounded (the community is very often a community of place) and is performed by local people, usually with the support of some outside professional help; a model that has many similarities with the ‘community play’ model of Ann Jellicoe and beyond.

But what happens when the work is funded by an organisation whose opening statement on their About Us page reads:

‘From the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks we love, from precious memories to rare wildlife… we use money raised by National Lottery players to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about’.

Is work that is funded by the organisation work that may find it more difficult to trouble and interrogate history and heritage? Does the actual term ‘heritage’, as Robert Hewison suggests (The Heritage Industry; Britain in a Climate of Decline, 1987) delineate a difference between a fluid and ongoing interrogation and engagement with our history, and a past that is placed in aspic, defined and labelled and rubber stamped with a specifically proscribed meaning that we can then put on a shelf to look at?

These are major questions, and ones which I will return to. But for now I want to look at one project that has been funded by the HLF. I have chosen this project because both the script and a Writers Statement are available online, something that is reasonably rare. And also because it comes through a funding stream that highlights the tensions between creating theatre and the demands of telling the historical story ‘correctly’, the First World War: then and now scheme.

The script is by Louise Gallagher and connects nicely to the HLF programme that funded it in that it is called ‘Then and Now Stories’. At the end of the script Gallagher asserts that it is available ‘for the use of school and community groups in the Kirkby Lonsdale area’, and as I read it I presumed it had been written for a cast of younger performers. But looking at the images from the show (available on the website) it is clear that this was not the case when the script was first performed.

I want to look at this script because it does, I think, tackle head on a number of issues that this tension between theatre and heritage, between imagination and fact, throws up.

First of all some quotes from the writer on the project (from the Programme Notes):

‘I wanted to facilitate the people’s telling of themselves rather than for me to ‘tell’ them … I didn’t think it would be right to dress them up in the point of view of someone who had no experience of what they have been through’.

‘I did some research but really what I was writing was a reflection of my own vision of the world not a representation of others’.

‘This wasn’t about my vision; this was about their collective vision as mediated by me. It feels like quite a responsibility when put like that’.

‘I’ve also learned that verbatim material as and of itself doesn’t necessarily make for engaging theatre. So, having started out wanting everything to be ‘true’ I’ve decided to use facts where they are available, for example the names and addresses of the soldiers included on the KL memorial, and to fictionalise from sources where exact facts were not available e.g. the retelling of the actual death of a conscientious objector. I’ve also tried to imagine the real people we’ve learned about and tried to give them voices which I hope will be authentic as well as engaging’.

‘Throughout this project I’ve really learned about the importance of audience and how as a writer you should have them in the back of your mind consistently as you write’.

There are, it seems to me, contradictions within this statement; but contradictions that are totally understandable and recognisable and which indicate some of the potential tensions that the writer feels when tasked with creating something that is both a document and artefact that serves a heritage purpose (due to the demands of the funders), and one that serves a dramatic purpose.

I think that Gallagher is obviously very aware of these because her text is one that consistently interrogates the role of the writer as a researcher / imaginer and the various purposes at play within the creation of this sort of performance. There is no ‘story’ as such, no recognisable narrative arc in which we engage with character and purpose and conflict. Instead a group of ‘Players’, over 16 scenes, convey information, often through the form of what can almost be seen as games, that ask the audience to think about the purpose of remembering, and the ways in which we are able, or even if we are able, to really penetrate the lives of those caught up in the mass trauma that was the First World War. This is a performance text that plays with being outside of and inside of the characters; that asks questions of what can be known, as well as what should be shown.

It is clear from the opening of the text that Gallagher is aware of the overarching purpose of this piece, that it is an act of memorialisation:

8 of the players freeze in the form of a memorial, whilst four others pose as onlookers.

From the very beginning there is an awareness of the gap between what is known and what may need to be imagined:

Player 1         We knew lots of facts and figures like ten million combatants died.

Player 2         And 60, 000 died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Player 1         But we were more interested in them, the individuals.

Player 2         The real people, the dads and mums and grandmas and granddads.

(…)

Player 2         We didn’t have their actual words.

Player 1         At the moment, you know, before they left.

Player 2         But we did know things about them from Sidney Richardson’s records.

Player 1         And from the stories you told us.

Player 2         And we knew about other people like them.

Player 1         From the diaries on worldwar1.com and the interviews with those affected recorded by the BBC fifty years later.

Player 2         So we imagined…

Player 1         …what they might’ve said.

This reference to the specific information source is interesting; both validating the veracity of the research in a very formal way whilst quickly pointing out the shortcomings of being able to construct a play using only this material. The imagination is called for. The creative act of the playwright (and those who were involved in the creation of the script) is validated.

For much of the script the Players are aware of their imaginative recreation of the historical facts, always ready to comment on this. So, Scene Two begins:

 Player 1         We imagined what they might have had with them besides kit. We knew diaries were banned but that lots of soldiers had them, and we knew non- standard issue postcards were banned at the front but that lots nevertheless were sent. We wondered if they’d taken photographs or games or gramophone records, as we knew some people had played them.

At one stage the Players ‘speak as if they are trying to remember a long past dream’. They are stuck between representation and being; between fact and imagination; between presence and non-presence. And perhaps the key moment in the text, that captures this tension best, is the long section that follows, as the performers come forward and tell us who they are / represent. Some are able to give a fair amount of information:

Player 4         Walker, Michael, Royal Scots Fusiliers and I live at 22 Mitchelgate, Kirkby Lonsdale. I’ve already served in the Boer War and in it I lost my brother. Up till now I’ve been working as a stone mason. My wife has just had a little girl; she’s a few weeks old. I’m 34.

But for others there is very little they can say, because very little has been discovered, and that which has been discovered is not clear anyway:

Player 11       Richardson, John W of Main Street, Kirkby Lonsdale. That’s all I know.

(…)

Player 3        Hardacre, Lance Corporal Harold, of Casterton Post Office where I used to live with my dad, step-mum and grandma. Up until now I’ve been making boots. I think I might be 23 but I could be younger.

And, most importantly, these players do not always talk in the first person. Sometimes they begin as though they ‘are’ the characters that they are talking about and then refer to themselves in the third person:

Player 5         Sydney Warwick joining the Border Regiment, I’m seventeen years old and I’m from Cautsfield, Kirkby Lonsdale. That’s all that can be remembered.

This phrase – ‘that’s all that can be remembered’ –  is a phrase that is used several times in this scene; and it is a vital one. The playwright is aware that an act of imagination is needed to tell this story, and yet when it comes to these names – names from the memorial – there is a sense that to imagine, to elaborate, to falsify, is not allowed. That even to take on the role of the individual at this point may be troubling, and that a retreat to a commentary upon the person rather than a fictional inhabitation of them (in however crude a form) may be what is required. That this is an act of memorialisation, and memorialisation has its own ethical boundaries which push up against artistic and creative ones. The result being that all that can be done, the only space for creative interrogation, is in the way that this information is presented. And once you have set out on this memorialisation route then where do you stop?

Player 2         But I want to remember all of them, the ones who didn’t come back; there’s nearly two dozen more.

Player 1:        There are too many. (Places hand on P’s shoulder). About turn.

This interrogation of what exactly these performers are presenting, the balance between the act of the imagination and historical fact continues to the end. There is a scene when we hear the Players reading out lines from the official postcards that the soldiers were given to send home after battles (postcards which had a series of set responses that they were to underline to communicate a basic message) intercut with imagined text that belie these official words:

Player 3         I am going on well.

Player 8         On top of my legs are the legs of three other soldiers.

Player 4         I hope to be discharged soon.

Player 9         I must be getting some sleep because every so often there’s a dreadful tickling sensation on my face or my ear or my arm and I start awake cursing the rat that’s just run over me.

Maybe the act of the imagination then is absolutely necessary when the official documentation, the sources that are available to us, have been through a process of official censorship that mitigates against any accurate and honest reflection on the events of that time. (We know that so many of those who returned never wanted to talk about what had happened to them. It is incredible to think that with around six million men mobilised during World War One that there is actually so little in the way of free and open description of what it was like; which presumably is one of the reasons why the poems of Owen and Sassoon are so heavily leaned upon).

20150704_0146-2‘The V.C. Factory’, a community theatre project funded by the HLF

Ultimately this performance text understands the context in which it is placed and is aware that it is the relationship between the raw material and the audience that is where the power lies. That to intervene too much in the mediation of this information may be a mistake. As shown most clearly in Scene Ten:

Player 1 sits behind desk DSL. Player 2 lays out a ‘Welcome’ mat DSR. As P1 says each address Player 2 who stands by the desk takes the ‘telegram’ and passes it to one other player who comes forward onto the mat and takes the telegram. The scene should keep being replenished as players go off and come on again in other roles until the very end where only one is left.

Music starts very quietly 6-8 lines into this scene and very gradually gets louder; the tune should grow more and more distorted as the scene progresses: Waltzing Matilda.

Player 1         (Behind desk) Mrs Procter, Low Biggins, Kirkby Lonsdale.

Player 2         (Stands) Mrs Procter, Low Biggins, Kirkby Lonsdale.

Player 3 comes forward onto the ‘Welcome’ mat, she takes the telegram, freezes, 4 and 5 come forward to comfort her; 3, 4 and 5 exit.

Player 1:        Mrs Walker, 22 Mitchelgate Kirkby Lonsdale

Player 2:        Mrs Walker, 22 Mitchelgate Kirkby Lonsdale

The scene continues in this pattern as more and more names are read out. I imagine that in performance it could be very moving, but it is also indicative perhaps of the way that certain moments, particularly those around memorialisation, particularly those in which real people who have died and who have left real families behind, create real problems for the writer. It is as though the writer is caught in the headlights of an ongoing and unspoken agreement of how we mark these moments. That we cannot use them as moments to interrogate the past because they are also the present, and as part of our present and our contemporary concern about causing personal offence or upset, we are left with nowhere to go. But of course the writer will always find a way to push out their elbows, however boxed in they may be, even if it is only in the form of a musical accompaniment.

In Scene 11 we move from the stories of ‘Then’ to the stories of ‘Now’; again the process being very clearly marked out:

Player 1         That was Kirkby Lonsdale then.

Player 2         And this is Kirkby Lonsdale now.

Again we are given simple information, memories of relatives garnered from school children; and then, in Scene 14 we are told what these children said when asked ‘why we remember the First World War’. Which gets to the very heart of this act of memorialisation, as yet again the Players come in and out of role, allowing them to comment on the words they are saying:

Player 3         Because of how futile war is, and to remember how many men were sacrificed for the evil of governments, and to think of the soldiers that risked their lives for our country and to remember all the soldiers that died.

Player 2 nods; Player 3 looks uncomfortable

Player 3         Except the ones who don’t want to be remembered.

In this moment Player 2 seems to become a gatekeeper of conscience; perhaps subtly interrogating the HLF’s own function as they ‘protect’ the heritage that we all ‘care about’:

Player 10       Because it was such an awful war and people wanted to remember all the brave people that fought in World War 1. Everyone knew someone who had died or got injured in the war but it did not stop another war.

Player 2 nods vigorously

Player 11       I – I don’t know.

Player 2 tut-tuts

Player 12       Because we won the war.

Player 2 tut-tuts

As the text reaches its end (Scene 15) we return to ‘then’, as information is intercut with first person narratives, almost certainly imagined:

Player 2:        … by April 1918 men up to 51 years old were conscripted.

Player 7         I don’t want to be catching moles all my life. I mean, I don’t mind it, but I’d like to settle down one day back home in Kirkby Lonsdale where I’m from, find a job there that pays and meet a nice girl.

Finally the past and the present, the then and the now, are brought together as:

One by one the players go back to the memorial formation. While they are doing this the others shake cans at audience members saying ‘memorial fund, memorial fund, put your hands in your pockets for the memorial fund’.

Throughout this script then, it appears clear to me, Gallagher is aware of her contested role within the process. She is a writer and one of her main tools is the act of the imagination, and yet, in this instance, she is faced with a situation in which she may feel that the material does not belong to her, and that therefore she needs to represent it as directly and honesty as possible. But as a story teller she wants to interrogate the material that she has at her disposal and so develops a number of strategies to do this which allow the writer and the material and the audience to come together not so much to explore the stories, but the purpose and potential implications of telling these stories.

A fair amount of HLF funding is around anniversaries; it’s a good way to try and draw some funding from them – ‘look it was fifty / seventy five / one hundred years ago that this event happened; surely now (rather than forty nine / seventy seven / one hundred and three years ago) would be the time to bring it to light for and with the local community’. Although not every anniversary is by any means an act of memorialisation (with the attendant dangers of being dragged into the gravitational pull of officially sanctioned tropes) it is a moment of rehydrating the past, of presenting the updated version of the story that can be passed on until the next time it is shared. And so it is in danger of being viewed as something that must be told correctly, that mustn’t veer too far from the ‘truth’ as it is known; that its job, ultimately, is one of heritage and not one where a historical story is used to tell of the here and now.

20150704_0040‘The V.C. Factory’, a community theatre project funded by the HLF

If, as Robert Hewison suggests, ‘the heritage industry only draws a screen between ourselves and our true past’ then how can community theatre funded by the HLF find ways to ensure that the ‘true past’ is brought to life? And how can it do what all history should do – excite and antagonise and interrogate and stimulate the present?