The community play as event (an introduction)

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The V.C Factory by Excavate in Beeston Town Square, 2015

The community play is a theatrical form that happens very rarely.  For many towns or villages if it does happen at all it may only take place once in a lifetime. The run of the show may only last one or two nights. (I was involved in writing a five hour long community(ish) play for Leicester Haymarket called ‘The King of Spin’ which was performed for one day only at Bosworth Field in 2002. One of the performers cut short their holiday in France to take part. A mistake by another performer meant that their entire section was missed out).

The community play is often created as a model that will develop a wide range of additional activity around it; that additional activity being the point of its existence.

The community play is a play that sits at the heart of an event which contains a play.

The end of a community play – the final act – is also in some way the representation of the end of this process that contains the play. Surely the writer cannot help but be aware of this; especially given that the play may only be performed a handful of times.

Whilst this ephemerality could suggest that playwrights may turn away from writing for this form of theatre, there is something about this very fragility, of the rarity of the performance and of its fleeting nature, that brings an additional power to the event of sharing it.

In ‘Theatre Audiences’, her book on the ways that audiences receive and ‘read’ plays, Susan Bennett quotes Bernard Beckerman who identifies ‘a three-way communication between the play, the individual and collective audience. The play projects doubly. To each member of the audience as an individual … and to the audience as a whole, in that distinctive configuration that it has assumed for a particular occasion’.

In community theatre it may be possible to add another level of communication, another audience – and that is the audience that does not attend. Because the audience for this play is bounded; it is possible to draw up a list of every person who the play was intended for, because presumably it is intended for every member of that geographical community to witness. (I am talking here of a community of place).

The writer is presumably aware of the need for the play to project to this entire audience; is aware that they are engaging with a conversation with the whole community, even those who do not attend but who will perhaps be caught up in it in some other way because of its physical manifestation in the life of that community. Maybe the parking spaces for their Thursday night Zumba class will be taken by those who are rehearsing. Maybe their child will receive a letter from the school asking if they would like to be involved. Maybe a road will be closed, a clutch of fireworks will light the sky, a barely perceptible buzz of anticipation will hover in the air. All of this of course amplifies the notion of the play as event. It becomes – it has the potential to become – a seminal moment in the life of that community. And this is a moment which is all the more precious for its brevity.

The question of the way that the play is read as an event is key to an understanding of the work of the community playwright and Bennett’s work on framing devices seem to offer a very interesting base to explore this further: ‘the outer frame contains all those cultural elements which create and inform the theatrical event. The inner frame contains the dramatic production in a particular playing space. The audience’s role is carried out within these two frames and, perhaps, most importantly, at their points of intersection. It is the interactive relationship between audience and stage, spectator and spectator which constitute production and reception, and which cause the inner and outer frames to converge for the creation of a particular experience’. (p139)

The outer frame in community theatre is one that is fraught with perils and possibilities and the writer cannot help but be aware of these. It is a huge and looming presence that carries a huge accumulation of expectations. How does the writer battle with these? How do they (if they do at all) acknowledge the weight of this challenge that they face within their texts, so that they can turn this outer reading to their advantage and bring it to play in their work?

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