Rib Davis has been one of the most prolific writers of community plays over the last thirty years, writing fifteen large scale shows. The subject matter of these plays has varied hugely, from Midlands pit village life in the inter-war years (Every Other Garden ’Ad A Pit was commissioned for the D.H.Lawrence centenary festival) to the steelworks in Corby to the transformation of a village into a commuter town in Cherry Hinton. In Cambridge Davis focused on railway workers, in Beaconsfield agricultural life and in High Wycombe the Home Front. The venues have varied from community halls to a marquee to a village green to a (1990s) rave venue. These plays have all called for sustained community commitment, each with a huge cast and performance/ production crew of people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Most recently Rib Davis has directed his own play The Vision for Woking Community Play Association.
I spoke to Rib in early December 2018 to ask him about his work, specifically in terms of the question of the evocation of place.
How did you get into this particular form of writing?
I was musical director for a play at Stantonbury, Milton Keynes, which was a community play. That’s how I really got into it by just observing how it was done; and that was a play called All Change by Roy Nevitt. And then I stayed involved with them for some years. It was seeing how that was done that was a real eye opener to me because I was used to straight naturalistic theatre. So then I got a job as a community arts worker in Derbyshire and I sort of subverted that towards doing a community play there; so that’s how I got into it.
And what was the play in Derbyshire?
The play was in South Normanton. It was called A Pennorth of Duck, ‘duck’ being that sort of mish mash of leftover meats they’d squash together and sell for a penny and the play felt a bit like that so it was a good name for it. It was about miners’ working lives between the wars. I did a series of plays about mining and that was the first of them.
Did you think of it specifically as a community play; was that the term that you used?
Yes; yes I did. And I thought if it very very much directly in the line from Peter Cheeseman in Stoke and Roy (Nevitt) and Roger Kitchin. I felt I was part of that tradition.
When was this? The mid-eighties?
Around eighty twoish, something like that.
And who were you working for as a community arts worker?
Junction 28 it was called, South Normanton Community Arts.
I know them well; they’re now based in Chesterfield and are currently celebrating their fortieth anniversary. Were you aware around this time of the Jellicoe form?
Yes I was aware of what Ann Jellicoe was doing. I think there was a tiny bit of resentment around because Ann Jellicoe seemed to give the impression that she’d invented community theatre and that she was the trailblazerm and she didn’t seem to give much credit to other people who were also working in community theatre at the same time although working in a different way. Ann Jellicoe definitely wasn’t our model but we were certainly aware what she was doing.
I think her book helped
Of course; although I had a few little issues with the book; particularly the point where, if I remember correctly, she said if you’re going to have a negative character it should be from outside of the community and that seemed to me like a recipe for xenophobia.
One of the things I’m interested in in your plays, and coming out of the Nevitt plays is that – at least the ones I’ve read – particularly Bigger, Brighter, Better and Pioneers – are very much about building communities; building place that is either rapidly changing or expanding or is a new town that is coming from scratch. And the way that these two plays are written is very much a chronological account of how this place became to be like it is. There are a lot of details about the physical construction of the places. I wonder how that style came about; that notion of the story is how the place is built.
I think sense of place is absolutely central to what I was doing, what Roy and Roger were doing and others. And in those plays it was about how did this place get created as it is. But in other of my plays it’s about how did an identity of this place get lost. So for example I did a play called West End Best End which was in Derby, for Derby Community Arts, and that as about the West End of Derby which had been completely demolished. So the play was about a recreation of a community that no longer existed. So some of the plays are looking at the creation of community and others are looking at how communities have either changed or even just disappeared.
Is this recreation you talk about a nostalgic thing?
Well there’s an element of nostalgia yes. I’ve increasingly over the years – though I don’t think I was aware of it back in the eighties – become more and more suspicious of the word ‘celebration’ because as soon as you put in an application to HLF or whatever and say we’re going to be celebrating this or that, that immediately cuts out anything negative that you might come across, because you’re there to celebrate. I wasn’t as conscious of that in the eighties, so the idea of celebrating communities I didn’t question too much. So yes we were celebrating the existence of that community that no longer existed and saying it was a great place to live. It was very much for the people who had been there; it was based on interviews with people who had lived there and it was, like most of my community plays, fairly strict documentary; it wasn’t verbatim, so I was only making up the odd word here or there. And so it was giving back to those people their community that they had lost in some sense.
Was there then a particular job that you felt the plays had to be doing? With Roy in Milton Keynes the work was partly about creating a sense of communal identity in a new place by digging into the past.
I think I was doing something similar in other places even though they weren’t invented communities like Milton Keynes. So in Derby where there was an awful lot of movement of communities it was saying something similar – we have a history, there has been community here before and this is what it’s been like. So again it’s giving a sense of history to the people who are no living there.
How do you evoke place? What are you looking for? What are the shortcuts and the ways in that help you to evoke what place is?
Its place through people I think. So you’re quoting actual people with real names, real jobs, real occupations and hobbies and all the rest in that place. And for me that’s what is most important about placem rather than the buildings and whatever, even though we had gone into detail into them particularly in Bigger, Brighter, Better. But it’s much more for me about people and what they were doing; whether its mining or making cars. What people were doing and how they relate to each other and how they relate to place rather than the bricks and mortar side of it. (Incidentally I did do a play in Milton Keynes, Worker By Name with the Living Archive, which was about Stoney Stratford).
In both of the plays I mentioned there is a refrain in a song that says ‘What do you think we are?’ And people are trying to partly define themselves through place; there is a strong sense of connection between their identity and the place itself.
Yes, but it’s about how people feel defined by it, how they perceive themselves in it rather than what the place is itself.
If you are parachuted into a place to write a play then what is your process?
I do two sets of things. I do a lot of reading around what already exists; what has been written about this place, historically and architecturally and all the rest. And then it’s talking to people. And it really is seeing what the mood is. Let me give you a different example if I may. There is a place I won’t name but it’s in North Derbyshire and I was invited to write a play about this village. I did my research and did some interviews and came up with a draft and read it to a group of people. And what had arisen out of those interviews was that a pit village a couple of miles down the road had closed down, the pit had closed and a whole load of people from that village had come to this one and they hadn’t always been made very welcome. This was in the script, and the result of that was that the play was cancelled. They did give me the option of getting rid of it and I said no. And that for me was when I think I started to question this whole business of celebrating.
A couple of writers have told me of similar situations. Both these plays seem to me to be very much about being inside or outside, insiders or outsiders …
Yes. And how the outsiders are perceived initiallym and they become the insiders but it’s the degree to which they are or are not accepted.
When you are faced with something that is chronological, that says ‘tell the story of our community in some way’ rather than placing a story in a particular time, it is, I think, actually more difficult to evoke place. Whereas in something like Open Arms which is about a particular period in which the place is a setting which is always present I think there is a richer sense of place.
Open Arms is different because it wasn’t a documentary. It’s the only one of my community plays where there are fictional characters. So a lot of the lines were real, were straight off interviews, but nothing like my normal technique at all so it was much freer.
So what is your normal technique?
The normal technique is to try to have almost every word of every line straight off a tape or off a written source. So I’m really not making anything up except changing the tenses and adding the odd word here and there to make it sound a little bit more like spoken language when necessary and make it sound more dialoguely. And when I say documentary that’s what I mean, that I’m not making lines up whereas in Open Arms I made lots of lines up and I made up characters. The strict documentary way – which is fourteen out of sixteen I think, of the community plays – I had a little rule which I sort of developed which is that if you name a character on stage, and loads of the characters are named, then you can only give them lines that they actually said; you’ve got them on tape or have been reliably attributed to them. You can’t give them other people’s lines. But what you can do is you can create a whole load of characters – first, second, third, fourth butcher or whatever – and you can give them lines from all sorts of people because they’re not named characters.
For a play like Bigger, Brighter, Better how many hours of interviews do you think you would have?
Oh God I don’t know. I don’t know how many people we interviewed for that, probably thirty or forty at a guess, and probably at about an hour and a half each; but that’s a guess, I honestly don’t remember.
Who transcribes that?
I did little bits of transcribing but generally it was volunteers. And I can’t remember, we may have been able to pay a few people a little bit but it was mainly volunteers and for all of those plays we got all of the interviews transcribed.
And then what? Do you read through these and start to find themes within?
Yes. So it’s trying to be as open minded as possible before you start and then letting the material – I won’t say dictate because it’s not that – tell you what’s important in there. And then making notes on the transcripts and then making notes on the notes and heading towards themes.
I’m not sure if you work in other fields but I also work in straight theatre, completely non documentary theatre, and there my approach is completely different. So for that, even if I’m working to a particular political theme or whatever, I start absolutely from character so that everything, action, dialogue, it all comes from character. Documentary plays it’s not like that at all for me; it’s a completely different animal. What I have to do is something a bit more mechanical which is look through all of these transcripts and all of the other material and say right what are the important events here that we’ve got to include. And then, who was present at most of those events. And really we’re creating something like a tapeworm that runs through – and you can hang these scenes off that individual. And sometimes it’s more than one individual. But you’re not really developing character very much. And I think where the documentary style of mine and Roger and Roy’s has not worked is where we’ve tried to look too much at character. Because I think for that you need to be able to make stuff up. You need to be able to intuit; and if all you’ve got is what is said on the tapes I don’t think really you can go fully into character.
I think in Aspects of the Novel Forster talks about stories being like a tapeworm; but I’m talking about character in documentary theatre. An individual, a real individual who was present at a lot of things that we the audience can identify with; so he was just there, so he’s involved, he doesn’t even have to say very much. But he was there, he was part of it, so we’ve got some sort of a thread to follow through; and maybe it’s two or three characters that we can follow through. Because otherwise it really does feel like ‘well this happened, then this happened, then this happened and then – oh yes it’s the end!’ Which doesn’t feel very satisfactory.
If you haven’t got any kind of emotional investment then perhaps what you think you’re receiving is an explanation in some way?
What about conflict? In the Jellicoe model it is often the outsider who brings the conflict into a community, often in the form of a threatening modernity which causes a community to recalibrate itself.
It’s interesting this idea of conflict or struggle because the best conventional plays, non-documentary, non-community plays, the conflict is internal, within characters; its characters struggling to make decisions to do this or that and ultimately it’s about who they are, who they want to be, who they’re capable of being. Whereas for these plays the conflict is about the community, it’s a community in conflict with whatever, whatever is happening to it, whether it’s the General Strike or the arrival of Milton Keynes or whatever; so it’s at that level that you’re dealing with conflict. Which tends to be a little less emotionally involving than individual conflict.
To what extent can you say that community plays are about what communities would like to be?
Exactly, it is that. Yes, I think so.
You said that you reached a point concerning the idea of celebration that made you rethink about your work. Has your work changed since then?
Well yes and no; but yes. It’s very hard to avoid the celebratory element altogether but in two plays – one was called Chuck Out Your Mouldies, this was about the Greenwich peninsula before the coming of the gasworks, the O2 and the rest. And the other one was called The Vision, which was six or seven years ago which was my most recent documentary play, which was about the Occenden organisation which dealt with refugees. In both those plays I played with a technique which actually Alan Bennett has used as well – but he’s tended to get more attention than I have for some reason – which was of presenting the play as a rehearsal for the play.
It’s scripted, not improvised, but the play apparently stops. Somebody interrupts, it might be the writer or director or a musician or an actor, saying ‘hold on I’ve looked at this bit of transcript and I think you should include these lines because that changes the perception of it’; or the musician saying ‘can we just redo this in a major key?’ Or it’s about an interpretation of a line with the Director coming in. The point of that is to – and I think this is really important in community play and in plays based on oral history in particular – is that it’s saying ‘this play isn’t the truth; this play is just one interpretation of this material; so it could be interpreted in so many different ways. We could have interviewed different people, we could have asked them different questions, we can use different material, we can present it differently and so on and so on’. But the problem is that when it’s come from the horse’s mouth; when its oral history, there’s a strong tendency for people to say ‘the story of’ and I think that’s pretty dangerous. So I think one of the ways of not simply being celebratory is by being much more questioning about the whole process of how we put these things together. And making that public within the play.
That’s one of the difficult things isn’t it? When you’re trying to evoke place you have to find things that cohere so it’s very difficult to create a portrayal of place that is multi-faceted because you focus in on particular stories that seem to be at heart of an identity of a place. And you can miss all sorts of things – there could be all sorts of subcultures happening that are integral to that place that can get missed out I suppose.
Was there a sense in which you viewed the work you were doing as political?
Yes. Partly because I think that everything we do is political, and I’m not avoiding the question but I do think that. We’re political whether we intend to be or not. But yes it was quite overt politically a lot of what I was doing. So the play in Eastwood Every Other Garden Had a Pit was about the miners’ strike of 1926, quite specifically because it was in the context of the miners strike that had been happening in that place in the nineteen eighties. So it was trying to put that into a wider political perspective. Not everything is obviously political but I suppose we have to accept that by what we choose and the way we choose to present it we are all representing ourselves and part of what our self is, our political self. People who say they’re not political, well that’s political as well. People who say they’re in the middle, that’s a political position as well. Or no politics is usually right wing politics. So the answer is yes.
Was it political because you were telling working class stories that aren’t being told otherwise or were you saying we’re going to interrogate these stories through an economic, quasi Marxist way?
It was a bit of both, depending on the play; certainly the first one which is a little odd for a middle class person like me. So yes it was telling stories of people who by and large had been left out of conventional histories. So certainly the mining plays, the stories of miners, if you read the histories of mining, certainly the ones that I’d read at that time they didn’t have the stuff that these guys were telling me. So yes the former, telling working class stories that hadn’t been told, but also putting things into a wider political context. A play I did in Coventry which was about the engineering industry was very much about Thatcherism and the effects of Thatcherism on that industry. And in Corby the play I did with the steelworks was again about what I saw as steelworks owners just discarding people when they had no more use to them. So bring them all down from Scotland, dump them in Northamptonshire, work them for twenty five years and then ‘sorry mate, you’re dumped’. So yes it was certainly looking at things from a political perspective.
As someone who was writing a lot of community plays was there any kind of sense of a movement? Was there any way in which you could talk to other writers or see other work? Or did you feel quite isolated?
I didn’t have a lot of contact with other people who were working in community theatre. I became friends with Richard Hayhow, he’s one of the few. I was asked – I can’t remember the date of this, I think it was probably the late eighties, I think the organisation may have been the Arts Council, but certainly an organisation, an arts organisation or it might have been funded by the Arts Council – asked me to go around the country and evaluate community plays. So I did this. I travelled round and I must have seen about ten or twelve community plays around the country and I found it an intensely depressing experience. It sounds terribly arrogant but I just thought most of them were really bad. And what I found most depressing was not just that they were not good but that the audiences still loved them. And so I was thinking to myself ‘why do I bother?’ Why do I bother getting things to the quality that I think I get them to, if actually so long as little Jimmy is in it, and they can do some scenes where they go back to medieval times and have people going around in togas and then they do some time travel and people will love that, why am I bothering to do anything that I think has some integrity. And I know that all sounds terribly arrogant but nonetheless it’s what I felt. So my view of community theatre in general and in people doing it was that most of them I didn’t really want to have very much to do with.
What kind of plays were they? Were they amateur versions of community play?
They were mixed. A lot of them had funding. The plays that I was doing were amateur in the sense that casts were amateur and we would sometimes be able to pay a bit to musicians. It would depend on the particular budget and the funding but sometimes we could pay professionals to come in and give guidance on set or costume and lighting or design, sound whatever, to work with local people. But the people in the cast always were amateur. So I don’t think it’s about whether they were amateur or not, it’s about whether they were any good or not.
So they were being produced by community arts organisations and local councils?
Texts vanish, you don’t get a chance to read and learn from what other community play writers are doing.
That’s true. I’ve been terrible on that front. I mean I’m terrible in terms of just looking after scripts; loads of them I just don’t have a script of anymore. And also at that time you weren’t writing on a computer. I mean the ones I’ve written since I’ve had computers are nearly all preserved. But the ones that were just typed out over the years they’ve just disappeared. And I was equally dreadful in the early years about looking after interviews and getting proper consent; nobody even thought about getting consent; you just interviewed people and said it was for a play and they said OK and you did it. And you hoped someone would look after the cassette sometime but usually they didn’t; and it was all very sort of expendable which is not how we approach things these days at all. It was a different sort of mind set.
What’s the community play of yours that you are most proud of?
Probably Every Other Garden Had a Pit. And that’s because we were working in a community that was absolutely divided between miners who had been on strike and miners who hadn’t. And we had people from both sides in the cast and the place was absolutely packed every night, and it was quite electric.
There’s one thing I should add, maybe, which is that I’m now finding a lot more satisfaction in writing fiction plays, which are well researched but fiction, and where what happens does come from character. The limitations of the (community play) form can be exciting – like writing for a string quartet can be more exciting than writing for a full orchestra – but nevertheless there are limitations.
Is community theatre as far as you can see it still out there and happening?
Yeah I think it’s still out there happening; I think so. I don’t know that there’s a feeling of a community theatre movement. I actually felt myself much more part of a Community Arts movement. There were lots of people in community arts that I knew and I felt very much part of that. I was also for quite a while making my living mainly in community arts – rather than the community theatre movement. I saw community theatre as a subsection of community arts.
I think the money for projects may now be coming from the HLF as much as from anywhere else.
They are; and again you come back to that word ‘celebrate’. And it is very often a nostalgic ‘we was poor but we was happy kind’ of thing that I’m continually trying to persuade people out of.
I don’t know if other people experienced this but I got into a rut after about five or six years of working in community theatre. I did a play in Loughborough called You Wouldn’t Dream Of It Today and that title is about as uninspired as the play was. And the play was really very dull, very cliché ridden, and I felt pretty, in retrospect, ashamed of it. And I think I just got into a cycle of this is how you do it. A new town has asked me to do this so you just got through the motions. And it’s just as possible with community theatre as a writer to go through the motions as it is if you’re Jeffrey Archer. Just a little mea culpa there.