Provocation to the Dorchester Community Play Association Conference

On the 15th September I took part in a Community Play Conference held in Dorchester. The event marked a year since the death of Ann Jellicoe and was very much a tribute to her work and legacy, with some space being made for suggestions and provocations about future directions for the work. Jon Oram gave a wonderful talk about Ann, the potential of this form of play, and of the need for its reinvigoration.

I was part of a panel that was tasked with looking forwards rather than backwards, which I did – through suggesting that the way the community play animates the past is where its future lies. It’s something I’ve written about recently on this site so by posting this I’m aware that I’m repeating myself. But here it is anyway.

community play image

I’m showing you this because in many ways I think this photo is to blame for everything that’s happened to me over the last 38 years. It’s from ‘The Tide’ and I was stood here (just outside of the frame, to the left). I was in two more community plays after this, ‘Colyford Matters’, and ‘The Western Women’, which was developed whilst I was part of a Theatre Sports group that Ann ran, based on the work of Keith Johnstone. Fay Weldon was originally working on that script but struggled with the form and it ended up being written by Ann.

This book came out in 1984 when I was in my first year at Loughborough University on Ann’s advice. And fifteen years later I was running a theatre company that produced community plays that were Jellicoesque – plays based on aspects of the past where the idea of community was a geographical one and the performers were all from the community. There was money to do this, through the Arts Council, and our work was often site specific. And being outside we were able to do things like this.

The Triumph of Reason

The company is still going, but the work we do has changed, and we haven’t applied to the Arts Council for four years. We now develop projects in partnership with universities or find ourselves doing smaller projects funded by the HLF or Creative People and Places. So right now we’re doing ‘The Rutlanders Return’, a community play with a cast of around 35 in Rutland, based on research into the years immediately following the First World War and its impact on the County.

So what next for the community play?

Well my suggestion for future models of working – or rather a renewed energy for the form, specifically within the wider theatrical environment – is based on examining and understanding and shouting about the historical work that the community play does. I want to do this firstly because a lot of community theatre work that is currently happening is being funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Secondly that the Heritage Lottery Fund do not fund this work with any joy or enthusiasm or indeed understanding of what the community play can do in terms of its relationship with history. And thirdly because when the moment comes – as it hopefully will – when the funding for socially engaged art is expanded under a Corbyn government, the community play will need to fight its corner amongst a whole heap of other projects and art forms and programmes that fall under the banner of participatory. And I think that if the form is able to create its own space, to advocate its own field of specialism that is not replicated anywhere else, that the large scale community play has a real chance to re-emerge and become part of the theatrical landscape as it was for a brief moment in the eighties and nineties. And just to give you an idea of numbers there are around 215 identified community plays produced between 1978 and 1998 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.

I’m currently doing a PhD in community theatre, examining the scripts of the plays. And I’m doing this for two reasons. Firstly because I write community plays and I want to read community plays, to learn from the form. To see the things that a community play text is doing that is different to other forms of theatre texts. But they’re very difficult to find because the scripts aren’t published. Which is perfectly understandable on an economic level. But it is fascinating that you cannot read ‘A Poor Mans Friend’ by Howard Barker, given that he is such a respected writer across Europe.  And secondly because whilst there has been a lot of academic  research into the value and impact of participation in community theatre, there’s not been so much about the actual art that has been made. And as a writer I think there is some art involved. And that the writing of a community play is an art that is worthy of some attention.

So I’ve been contacting writers and they’ve been saying ‘I’ve got a copy somewhere though I’ve moved house a few times’; ‘I think it’s with my ex-wife’; ‘You do realise this was the pre-Amstrad era so it’s typed up’. But they have been arriving, in jiffy bags, thousands of old pages kept together with rusting staples. And just about all the plays I’ve read are history plays which delve into a distinct historical period.

And it is this relationship between the community play and its use of history that interests me more than any other aspect of the form. And it is a relationship, I propose, that has caused – and continues to cause – problems for the community play form within the funding ecology and the wider cultural environment.

Now it’s important to understand that at the very moment that the community play form was finding its feet, there was a political battle raging over the ways that history was being used. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher wrote:

‘… a whole generation has been brought up to misunderstand and denigrate our national history. Far the blackest picture is drawn by our socialist academics and writers of precisely those periods of our history when greatest progress was achieved.’

And this began a re-evaluation on the right of history, and particularly of the Victorian period. History began to be used as a kind of moral underpinning for contemporary policy. And this, coupled with a large increase in museums and centres that were often built in ex industrial sites, led to the idea of a ‘heritage industry’, a term that was coined by the cultural commentator Robert Hewison and which stuck. And his criticism was basically one that said all this looking backwards was a smokescreen for what was going on in the present, and that ‘hypnotised by images of the past, we risk losing all capacity for creative change’.

And Hewison’s ideas and criticisms were widely discussed within cultural circles and it was around this time that the funding began to dry up. Which may be a coincidence but I don’t think so. I think that the community play with its flat caps and bonnets became lazily seen as implicitly conservative and old fashioned.

Now once we hit the mid to late nineties the word ‘community’ in terms of theatre and plays and art generally is replaced by another word, that of ‘participation’. Which is a rather different thing; and which was connected to a wider programme of using the arts to solve social ills. My company was lucky in that this was a period where doing community plays – and we still used that word – was viable again in terms of a funding perspective, largely through stressing the benefits to those who were involved. And there is reams of research into this, as community arts organisations, who originally set up as semi radical groups, found that to keep going they had to take the money that was on offer through all sorts of non-artistic goals. We were once asked if we could do a play that would help with teenage pregnancy which we declined. Because we wanted to make community plays. To work with towns and villages to explore their history and their stories and to make work together that had to cope with all the tensions and contradictions and incoherencies that communities of place have.

And now we are in a totally different funding environment and it is, as I – and I’m sure many of you here have found – very difficult to get funding for these expensive projects. And so we have turned to universities and to the Heritage Lottery Fund. And we are not alone. The HLF fund a lot of theatre, although they don’t really want to. Plays with community casts that are based on historical stories seem to fall through the cracks. The HLF think it should be funded by the Arts Council and the Arts Council think that maybe it can be left to the HLF. But community theatre work is happening through the HLF and it is going under the radar. Of 630 projects that the HLF funded in the first year of their ‘First World War: Then and Now’ scheme, 61 projects involved the use of community theatre in some way.

And yet when I spoke to the HLF about what they think the value of doing this work is I was told – at quite a senior level – ‘My policy staff all have some knowledge of theatre projects, but I wouldn’t say anyone has more than a general view, which is about its usefulness as a way into heritage … I’d be happy to have a conversation and see what you make of it, but we may not have much to say, I fear’.

Which I was fascinated by. The HLF carries out a fair amount of research but there’s no evidence or reports or thinking around how the community play interrogates and digs into and creates history. A history that is then shared to a collective audience, often of hundreds of people, in a public space. And my argument – and one that I want to put to the HLF so that they understand it more and so that they unleash their funding more willingly – is that the community play is creating a genuinely dynamic and exciting form of public history that should be embraced and supported and developed.

Which I need to justify. Now in my academic work there is a fair amount of theory that is bounded up with this but fundamentally what I’m saying is that the community play is a form of history that has all sorts of demands placed upon it, all sorts of constituencies connected to it, all sorts of tension between historical fact and dramatic necessity and evocation of place. And because the writer nearly always says ‘I’m interested in the connection between what was happening then and what is happening now’, whilst knowing that they have to honour the research; and because there is literally a physical re-embodiment of the past by the present; what you end up with are texts that are the antithesis of ‘heritage’ – which tends to present a historical moment all neatly bound up and labelled – and which instead presents history in a very chaotic and dynamic way in which different time frames are talking to each other.

The historian Raphael Samuel who was present at the first national conference on heritage in 1983 – which just shows you how quickly terms can become embedded in the discourse – said that ‘History is an argument about the past, as well as the record of it, and its terms are forever changing’. And Samuel saw history as a very democratic process and writes brilliantly of how history is a social and organic form of knowledge, blending the social and the vernacular and is ‘the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands, many of which belong to an army of amateurs, and madcap enthusiasts’.

Patrick Wright, whose book ‘On Living In An Old Country’ is really worth looking at, says that an understanding and relationship with the past is ‘cobbled together’ from memory and lore and stories. And this is how history is not only understood but more importantly how it is used by individuals and by communities in their engagement and relationship with place. And the way that the community play digs into this, and plays with it, and creates new understandings and debates and imaginings of history and of place is something that no other art form does. And we should be much more aware and interested in that. Because I think that it is something that we can use to advocate for our work.

And we are – hopefully – going to have to advocate. Because if we do get a Corbyn government, you only have to look at the history of the GLC’s arts policy in the eighties to see that there will be money available for socially engaged and community arts practice. And that when that moment comes we will need to fight our corner. Because of that word that has replaced community – participation.

I went to the National Theatre a couple of weeks ago to see ‘Pericles’, which is the first project in a scheme called Public Acts, initiated by the Artistic Director Rufus Norris who, inspired by the work of the National Theatres of Wales and Scotland, is looking at ways to make work that has a focus on connection to community, whether that be within specific social groups in London, or with communities outside of the capital. And we’re working with Rufus at the moment to develop a play based and hopefully taking place in Lincolnshire and it’s clear that this idea of a National Theatre having more of a sense of place and community is important to him.

‘Pericles’ was about participation. It was not a community play. And you can see in the funding agreements that are being reached with the big theatres that participation and community outreach is part of the deal. And so there are more youth theatres and participatory projects, which are all perfectly valid and interesting but they are not offering what the community play offers. And when the new money comes they will be waving their participatory projects around and calling for a bigger slice of the funding.

There is one other source of funding that I’ve mentioned that I think may be useful for us all. And that is university research funding. There is an increasing importance placed upon universities and research. And, like the repertory theatres, there is an increased demand for them to engage with their communities more, and also to find different ways to disseminate their research. And they are looking for people to help them with this. And community plays and community theatre, with their many different forms of involvement and output, is something that offers a rich source of research. I am currently working on two research projects with universities, neither of which have come through humanities departments; one of which has the term ‘community theatre methodology’ in the title. There is, I have just discovered a ‘creative turn’ that is happening in the social sciences. So we should engage with it while it’s there and aim to build up a body of research about what we do that digs into the form that we can thrust back to the Arts Council and the HLF and say ‘look there is a theatre that is only forty years old, that was cut off in its prime but which kept going and has learnt from its history, and this is what it does. Now let’s do it again. With lots of money. Because it’s worth it’.