The community play as a form of historiography

This is a paper I gave for the Biography and Public History: Constructing Historical Narratives through Life-Writing conference, held on the 20th June at the University of Nottingham.

I’m a theatre maker and a playwright and I create what is known as community theatre. The origins of this for me began in the late seventies in East Devon, where I lived, where I took part in a play called ‘The Tide’, which was based on the memoirs of Jack Rattenbury, an early nineteenth century smuggler who was nicknamed the Rob Roy of the West.

The play was written by Ann Jellicoe, who had moved to the area after being a resident writer at the Royal Court, and featured a large local cast under the stewardship of a professional production team. It was a promenade play with scenes happening in and around the audience and it was the second of what Jellicoe called ‘a community play’. It was very successful. Over a hundred people were involved in making it and it ran for ten nights to packed audiences. And this new form of play became very popular very quickly, with Jellicoe’s team, the Colway Theatre Trust, creating a series of plays across the South West. All were historical plays based on archival research and all were very much about place; about both presenting a story that showed that somewhere in the past something of real interest had happened in this town that had a connection with wider national or international matters; and that in coming together to make this play the present community was asserting itself as a collective. They received national media attention and they were written by writers of real calibre. Both John Fowles and Fay Weldon were part of the writing team for the last community play I was involved in – a civil war story for Lyme Regis – before heading off to University.

In the summer of 1986 the Colway Trust ran a retreat for those from outside the region who were interested in learning how to produce their own community plays. And over a week they were led through a pretty rigorous programme, because by now the community play had developed a strict methodology. At its heart was that of creating research teams, who would ransack the archives to uncover local stories and manuscripts and diaries and letters until a suitable story was found. And once this story had been identified – and it needed to be one that could involve as many people as possible –  the research team would start to investigate the lives of everyone who was, or who may have been, involved in some way.

And by now there was an idea, or at least an aspiration, that where possible, every character in the play – or at least as many as possible – should be based on someone that lived. That because these plays were attempting to evoke a panoramic social universe, to recreate an entire community during a period of time, this meant that alongside the pamphlets and diaries and writings of more well-known and established members of the community there was also a great deal of work done in public record offices to uncover names, addresses, places of birth and death, occupation and so on. When David Edgar wrote ‘Entertaining Strangers’ for Dorchester in 1985, all 173 characters in the play – which covered a period of 40 years – were created so that the actors playing them could go to the public record office and said ‘Here I am. Here’s my address. Here’s what I do’.

And, interestingly, they did. The performers, all people from the town of Dorchester, did go and look themselves up, and visited their characters graves, and discussed their lives and background with members of the Research group. An entire community, or at least a decent representative sample of that community, found itself being resurrected en masse and re-embodied by a decent representative sample of the present community of that same place. But what use were these resurrected members of the community being put to? How did their appearance from beyond the grave at a large scale cultural event play out?

At the Colway retreat, where this community play manifesto was being drilled into the attendees, were two writers – Rupert Creed and Doc Watson – who went back to Hull and Boston to immediately start work. The Hull play of 1989, Creed told me, was ‘based on months and months of working with a local research group in Howden. We didn’t know what the story was going to be; and then one day someone brought in a pamphlet book about the life and times of a man called Snowden Dunhill and that got us really fired up, so we pursued that over at least half a year and out of that came the play’. And Watson’s team followed a similar trajectory.

But at some point the research team had to hand over the material to the playwright. Which is where things become interesting.

Most of the writers who were involved in writing community plays were of the left, partly because of its evolution from the community arts movement which very much pursued an oppositional cultural agenda that appears to have a genealogical link to the move towards People’s and Living History from the sixties onwards. And yet one of Jellicoe’s earliest demands was that the plays should not be political, because these were plays for communities of place and in such an arena politics was bound to be divisive. But of course when writers of the left are asked to write plays with large casts during a time, as the eighties were, of real political conflict then narratives about collective action in response to social injustice are almost inevitably bound to come to the forefront.

Creed’s play ‘Reap The Whirlwind’ covers a thirty year period at the beginning of the nineteenth century and centres on the contrasting and conflicting fortunes of two local families – the Dunhills, led by a notorious corn thief in the East Riding who was, like most of his family, transported to Australia; and the Clarksons, a wealthy Methodist landowning family. Creed says that one of his intentions in writing it was to examine the ‘many parallels to be drawn between this period and the changing face of Britain in the 1980’s, and to examine what lessons these characters from the past might teach us today’.

Watson’s ‘The Fens Ablaze’ – and both titles betray I think the writers political bent – is set in the mid to late eighteenth century and is about the enclosure of the Holland Fen and the riots that followed. Again this desire for the past to comment on the present is clear in the introduction in which Watson claims the story has ‘echoes in Britain today … this is intended to be a record of a happening in Boston, both in 1768 and in 1987’.

So now the dead whose life stories have been unearthed to create a communal theatrical activity are also being used to take part in a political argument about the present. And then there’s the other issue, the obvious one, that of story; of narrative; of the need to create theatre.

Both writers say that they felt very responsible for the historical accuracy of their plays even though Watson discovered several months after the very well attended performances that one of the central characters had died ‘some thirty years before the actual events of the play took place’. Creed said that he was adamant that ‘we weren’t going to fabricate the facts’ and yet the thrust of the second act is based on a storyline that Creed admits is one based largely on conjecture in which Snowden Dunhill, accused of stealing corn from the Methodist Barnard Clarkson, is shown to be innocent and is being framed by Clarkson.  When I pushed him on this he said ‘To be honest I can’t remember if that was factually accurate but it was all surmised, drawn from the court records; it looked likely that this could have happened. And of course you’ve got to make a good story’.

Which you have. For this is theatre.

The Triumph of Reason
The Triumph of Reason by Excavate – based on the life of Erasmus Darwin and staged in Elston, Nottinghamshire in the grounds of his early home.

I write community plays that are based on stories of people from the communities in which I’m working. I’m aware how much power a play can have – particularly through its collective form of reception – in creating myths and perceptions about the past. I have worked with many local historians who have wished that they could have as large an audience that a community play can draw; and who are very aware that the power of history being shown in this way, with dozens of performers dressed up in period costume talking in the first person, is often much more potent than the volume printed by the local history society.

I am also aware of the number of responsibilities that I am trying to juggle. To the history that has been unearthed. To the dead whose names are being invoked, and whose DNA may literally still be present within the community. To the present community of researchers without whom I may not be able to fulfil my function. To my own sense of self as an artist, so as not to become simply, as Stephen Lowe who has recently been working on a community play for the City of London said to me, ‘an amanuensis of the community’. And, perhaps most importantly, to the community that I am, in some ways, representing.

If as Michel de Certeau suggests, history is mediated by technique, then can this technique, the community play, create a certain type of history? I think it can and that it does.

Because of Watson and Creed’s need to surmise to both fill in the gaps and to fulfil their function as dramatists rather than historians, alongside their aim to draw parallels with the present community and to evoke place, it is clear that in their texts they use all manner of strategies; strategies which I recognise from my own work. In-jokes, place names, references to local legend, documented facts and figures, direct quotes from a range of sources often from different historical periods, colloquialisms, allusions to the here and now, all combine to create texts whose meaning ebbs and flows between a range of temporalities, whose time frames are constantly talking to each other.

The historical fabric that is created is baggy, chaotic, abundant, dynamic, anachronistic, parodic, sentimental, raucous and reflexive. It is clearly aligned to Raphael Samuel’s definition of history as ‘an organic form of knowledge’, in which the vernacular and the social are key components.  It understands Patrick  Wright’s phrase that an everyday understanding and relationship with the past is ‘cobbled together’ from memory and lore and stories. It is aware that, in the process it is engaged with, it is as much about making a history as about uncovering a history. It is situated as much in a place as in a time and as such, I think, it begins to move from the realm of history to that of memory; for as Pierre Nora has explained memory ‘attaches itself to sites, whereas history attaches itself to events’.

Nora calls for attention to be paid to a form of historical consciousness that is based on ‘collectively remembered values’ and argues that ‘the intimacy of a collective heritage’ has been increasingly replaced by a form of officially sanctioned history that is constantly reshuffling and reworking the past in the face of an escalating modernity that threatens to erase the present almost as soon as it is created.

I would argue that both ‘Reap The Whirlwind’ and ‘The Fens Ablaze’, along with many other community plays, are able, largely through their dynamic interplay with the past – both through the text and the physical connection to the past that is made by members of the present community taking on the characters of past members of that community – to contribute to a sense of a collective heritage. And that through creating these links between the then and the now they help to shape, to question, and sometimes to anchor community identity and action.

These figures from the past then, whose biographies and stories may have been tampered with so that they have a more coherent connection to the present – and, as can be seen by the Dorchester example, anyone’s life story may be open to appropriation – end up becoming unwitting re-embodied participants in a future community’s re-imagining.

As ‘Reap The Whirlwind’ ends we see Snowden’s wife reading from her exiled husband’s memoir: ‘It is beyond my conjecture to know whether this short life will be productive of any useful purpose; but at all events […] harm can happen to none by perusal of it’. The historical archive, the memoir, that initiated the writing of this community play, is unsure of any impact it may have.  But in the working through of the story, in the context of the community play, both a new archive and a new form, I think, of genuine historiographical interest have both been created.

Ironically just as the form was developing real purchase – with plays happening all over the country – it fell totally out of favour with the cultural establishment and largely, I believe, because of a misunderstanding of the historical work that it was doing. Those on the right saw the form as a fellow traveller of the oppositional community arts movement that they wanted nothing to do with. And those on the left either despaired of its lack of political aggression during a time of head on confrontation; or, saw it as being part of Robert Hewison’s ‘heritage industry’, a reactionary and nostalgic form that was succumbing to a backwards gaze and ignoring a present that was being shaped into a very worrying future.

But the community play has not vanished. The many practitioners of the work continue to create often smaller versions of these shows. Rupert Creed has been making large scale work in his home city of Hull for their Year of Culture programme, based on research into local stories. My company Excavate is currently working with the National Theatre on a community project based on interviews with and writings from a conscientious objectors community in Lincolnshire during World War Two. A national community play conference is taking place this September; and the seventh Dorchester community play, again with a large cast of characters all based on real people, will happen next year.

It is a form of work, a form of theatre and a form of history, that could I believe, given its relatively short life span the first time around, re-emerge as a popular form once again. And if, or when, it does, it should receive much more attention as a form of historiography, of biography, and of social and public history.

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