An interview with Jon Oram

Jon Oram

In February of this year I was lucky enough to meet Jon Oram, one of the most important figures in the world of community theatre, at the house of Stephen Lowe as they met to talk about the project they are currently working on together. Jon agreed to let me interview him, for which I’m very grateful.

Can I ask you first of all to tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I’m Jon Oram; I’m Artistic Director of Claque Theatre which is basically me. I have associate people who I work with on projects, but it’s very small. And I’m a community play theatre director and a playwright. I also run improvisation workshops and do lots around improvisation.

I’m based in Tunbridge Wells and I came to community plays by working with Ann Jellicoe years ago on the Sherborne community play (The Garden by Charles Wood, 1982). I then went down to Cornwall as theatre animateur and did a community play there (The Earth Turned Inside Out by Nick Darke, 1983); and then one in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire (Waves Against The Flames by Jon Oram, 1984).  Ann asked me if I would take over the Colway Theatre Trust and I co-directed ‘Entertaining Strangers’ (by David Edgar, 1985) for Dorchester with Ann at that point, and then took over the reins.

There was about two thousand pounds in the bank and a secretary for half a day a week and nothing set up for the future. I did about eight or ten plays in the West Country before moving up to Kent (we changed the name from Colway Theatre Trust to Claque), because Kent is very much the gateway to Europe or could be; and we started doing work across Europe and then taking community plays to Canada and America and kind of broadening it. And although people talk about the Colway model we’ve developed from that; the core of that is still there but we have a much more engaged process I think with the making of the play and the finding of the scripts.

And what are you working on at the moment?

I’m now working on a community play in the City of London. I’m seventy this year and the thought of doing another play wasn’t in my mind. We had been turned down for funding for three previous projects so it was getting a little bit tiresome; getting money now for community plays is really difficult. But then I got a phone call from the City of London Director of Housing saying they would like to do a community play in the East side of the City of London, Portsokun; it’s an area that kind of runs parallel to the East End. And that just seemed really interesting. So I went and talked to them and looked around and just thought ‘well yes let’s go for it’.

And you’re not writing this one?

I’m not writing this one, no. I have been chasing Stephen Lowe for years because I knew him in the West Country. We were on the Arts Council board down there. Thankfully he slowed down enough for me to catch him up, and finally he’s said ‘yes’. I’m very pleased about that. So Stephen is writing the play. I didn’t want to do the two; I have often done the two things but I just felt I needed another pair of hands on this one.

What does Claque mean?

It goes back to Greek times. The claque were a professional group of audience members, and writers and directors would hire the claque to come to their theatres to cheer things up a bit and to move the thing along. But also writers and directors would hire them to come and visit other shows to give them a bad time. There were various jobs in the claque; my favourite was a group which would invade the stage. And the idea of the audience invading the stage was the inspiration for me calling it Claque. It’s also a French word – slap! – which is like an awakening. So those two things together. When people say they don’t know what it means the description of it helps them to understand what it is we’re trying to do in our work.

How many community plays have you written?

I think its thirty eight now. Given that each play takes about two years and I didn’t start until my mid thirties that makes me well over a hundred years old.

How did you get into writing them?

Well the first one was in a hurry. I was asked to do a community play for Gainsborough for the opening of the Gainsborough Arts Centre and it had to be done quickly. So I just did it and I enjoyed the process. I continued asking other writers to write plays and then I went to Canada and did a play in Eramosa. A woman there called Dale Hamilton, a political figure in the community, was concerned that land was being bought up by businessmen in Toronto and development was happening on prime agricultural land and she wanted to do a play to protest it. We set up this thing called ‘soundings’; asking the community to come in and express their feelings about development and to get a sense of where the community was now. We did about twenty of these and the sounding process became a part and policy of the work; a contemporary exploration of where we are and then finding stories in the past that have reverberations with the present. The process of the community doing that play (The Spirit of Shivaree, 1990) led to the community standing against the local township council at the end of the play and taking over the township. So a cast, a community play cast, was now running the township; and over three years they were able to stop the developers. So the political, social implication of doing those soundings was huge. And when I came back here I started asking writers about that process and they got very anxious about it. Writers almost by dint have a voice; they have something that they want to say, so the idea of giving that all up …  I just found it hard to find a writer who would go through that process. So I wrote the plays.

Did you feel as you were writing the plays that you were learning more and more? Were they getting better? Was there a moment when you wrote something and you thought ‘this really works as a community play?’ And have there been plays that you think were particularly successful?

I think the successful ones are the ones that really seem to echo the contemporary voice, the contemporary concerns, and are quite visible in the piece.When I first came back from Canada I did a play up in Hull with Remould. I wrote it and co-directed it with Rupert Creed; but the subject was decided and they had a very good research team; they were going on the old model as it were and I didn’t want to disturb that. (When I say any of this I’m not against anybody’s way of working).

That was an interesting play because it was within living memory, and that’s rare. It was about the trawlers and safety on trawlers; the men were going out to sea and two vessels had sunk because they didn’t have proper radio communications and the safety conditions of the trawlers was appalling. The men were always at sea so the women started the campaign; and the women who campaigned were still alive and still about and they came and did the workshops with us and the rehearsals with us and some of them were in it. Yvonne Blenkinsop and Christine Smallbone, who lost her brother on one of the ships, helped us a lot in rehearsals and she came to see it. John Prescott was the head of the Dockers union and had assisted the women, and he came to rehearsals. And they were all being represented; so there was somebody playing John Prescott, there was somebody playing Yvonne. Yvonne was also in the play but she couldn’t play herself because she was too old. And that communication between living people and real people was so moving.

I’m just going to tell you one story about Christine Smallbone. We did a depiction of the drowning, a depiction of the trawler going over, and we had the trawlermen on people’s shoulders, on wooden beds that we made that were on people’s shoulders, and they stood on top of that. And we had the real sound effect, the real sound of the last messages coming back from the ship. And I saw Christine standing there watching, just standing underneath where the actor who was playing her brother stood; and I was very concerned. The next scene was her going to the offices of the trawlermen saying enough is  enough. I put the word ‘fuck’ in the dialogue and the community said ‘no we can’t have that’. They didn’t want the word but this is what Christine said. And then, this was the first night, the actress who was playing it had obviously spoken to Christine and she got to the word and she went ‘f … f…fuck!’; she actually said it. Which was right. And I just felt a pair of hands come round my waist and it was Christine and she said ‘bless you’. And that was the most … I mean … you know, it’s that human, it’s that human connection. Whether it was a great play I can’t say. I think it was a good play but it was too long; there were too many aspects that were being forced in it.

‘Vital Spark’?

‘Vital Spark’. It had a profound effect. I don’t know if anything concrete has come out of it but they’re now celebrating the twenty fifth anniversary. Twenty five years on a community is celebrating a play. I mean that’s quite an achievement for them don’t you think?

Does doing a play about a story within living memory make it more difficult to create because in a way it becomes an act of memorialisation as well?

Yes, yes. I think that communities are much more tender about the subjects, so you have to be very careful. And of course if you are writing about people who are living, or people’s parents or grandparents that they have memories of you, have to be really incredibly careful.

I wrote a play for Shillingstone in Dorset (The King’s Shilling, 1987) and we discovered that a woman connected to the story was still alive. I went to see her and and I told her the story and she was very touched by it, and she said ‘this is lovely;  I wish I was still in the village’. ‘Well you could be for ten days’, I said, ‘you could be in it’. And she was. I wrote a little speech for her and she sat in the audience and at the end of the play she came forward and said ‘this was my story; I’m Elizabeth’. And the cast on the first night didn’t know that was going to happen. I’d taken one of the actors to work with her; he was going to walk up onto the stage after she’d come forward, say ‘would you have the last dance with me and walk me home’, and then take her down and dance with her on the floor, which is what happened. And the cast were just … it’s being able to touch history and think  ‘my God it’s so close’. It’s like the relationship you have with your neighbour; it’s just that they live next door in the past as it were. And if plays can do that, that’s magical. But that’s not about the writing or the goodness of the play, it’s about the human spirit.

There is a lot of emphasis it seems on researching real peoples stories. What’s so important about that? Because on some level you’re still inventing everything aren’t you?

Yes, you are. And you don’t know what these people felt or thought. But you’re linking it  to the feelings and thoughts of people now. If you find a story that has reverberations to those you can carry those thoughts and feelings back. So instead of starting with a relationship to a character in the past, I’m starting with your feelings and thoughts and finding somebody that might share them; it’s the other way round.

In terms of having real people, or real names, what the community actor can bring to the stage that professionals can’t is their sense of place, their sense of their own history and I think writers need to be aware of this. It’s deeply personal and they feel a huge sense of responsibility to the ancestor that they’re playing. They can go and stand in front of ‘their’ house, they can knock on the door and say ‘hello I’m playing a character that used to live in your house’. A barber came up to me at the end of a play that I did in Tunbridge Wells and said ‘I walk around my house now and I think ‘Elsie touched that door knob’. She’s present. She’s present in my house. And she’s so welcome’.

Presumably a lot of people that are in these shows may only have been there for five or six years; so they haven’t got a rooted sense of the community.

No. The people that have arrived, absolutely they don’t. But the people that do infect the people that are new. Everyone has an attitude to where they live, If they’ve chosen to live there or they’ve arrived by circumstance they have an invested interest. Some people come to the plays because they want to meet people; a lot of amateur drama people are not so keen because they’ve only got a small part, they don’t necessarily get the sense of ensemble; so they come and they count the lines that they’ve got and they leave. They don’t get it until they see it and then they think ‘shit I’ve missed a wonderful thing here’.

One story about the connection I was talking about. ‘Entertaining Strangers’, which was for Dorchester, then went to the National Theatre and Judi Dench was in it. It was written down (a reduced cast) and David Edgar had written in the programme that it was hard to meet the limited resources of the National Theatre after working with Colway. Maggie Ansell had played the part that Judi Dench was now going to play, and Judi came down to meet Maggie and came away from that meeting saying ‘that bloody woman’, (who she had enormous respect for but Judi’s a bit of a swearer), ‘I’ve been in the rehearsal room for eight weeks trying to get to the point where she started’. Now that’s a recognition of what I’m talking about; a woman who is deeply rooted in the community.

Is it important to have a writer who comes from outside the community?

I think so. Well I know so. That’s like saying that’s the only way to do it, which it isn’t, but I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. Dale Hamilton came from her community and she carried agendas. It was just too personal to her. And then you are in danger of going deaf.

The outside writer hasn’t got the rootedness of community that you have been talking about. So what are the benefits of the writer as an outsider?

First of all it’s very rare to find a writer of real quality in the community that you are asked to do a play in. I think partly what they bring is ignorance, and I think they bring doubt. And they bring a bit of fear. I think they bring those things which I think are really important. They don’t bring a confidence of ‘I know this place’. It’s like a marriage of two minds.  You have this person who is a qualified, a more than competent writer with an enormous amount of curiosity, subject to the people that they’re talking to. And then you’ve got these people who know their community, who know each other, who have sensibility, particularly about what is happening now which is why the soundings are so important. So you’ve got two experts meeting. If you have somebody who is both an expert on what they do and an expert on what they’re writing about I don’t think you’ve got a community play. And the other thing that the writer brings to it is an openness and an objectivity and new light, new ideas, new thoughts, new interpretations on what it is people are thinking and feeling.

Is the writer trying to understand the codes of that community in some way?

The archetypal writer is someone who has something to say and that can cause problems; because they can come with their own agendas in terms of what really sparks them off. So you have to say to the writer ‘try and be open’. And you have to say to the community ‘try not to tell them things you don’t want the play to be about’; there’s a kind of censorship. I tend to work with the community and a research team about three months before they meet the writer, because the writer’s going to arrive thinking  ‘oh shit what am I going to write this play about’. And invariably very early on they’ll grab stuff and cling on to it because it’s like a security blanket. (David Cregan who died recently did a few plays for me and the first one was in Beaminster (Crackling Angel, 1987). I got a phone call about three o clock in the morning and it was David, who was sitting up presumably burning the midnight oil, and he said ‘shit John I feel so responsible’ and hung up again. He got me out of bed to tell me this! He just needed to tell somebody). You ask the community to hold things back and to enthuse and excite the writer, because at the end of the day you can’t tell the writer exactly what to write. If you’ve chosen that writer it’s because of what they bring to it; their passions. So you’ve got to find something that sparks them.

And what are the things that you most often end up saying to a writer who may be working on their first community play?

It’s writing for the form. The canvas is huge. You can have up to 130 – 150 people in the cast and there are tricks that have been developed over the years. Ann Jellicoe came up with an early trick which she called ‘baskets’. How do you write a play for say eighty people? Well you have eight protagonists, you have eight central people which is about as much as an audience can carry. And each of those characters have a family around them: a mother, father, brother, sister, wife, children, neighbour and that’s ten people. Those eight people with ten people around them make up your eighty people. And you can see ‘that’s the Fell family, that’s the Smith family, that’s the council, those are the Suffragettes’, whatever the grouping is you understand the uniform. In terms of design we try and make it so that you can identify the groups in some way so that you try and make it simple for the audience to follow. So this discussion around what I’ve learnt about promenade theatre is quite an important one to have. And when the script starts evolving I’m saying ‘don’t forget that for every scene you’ve got 120 people who could be contributing in some way. Let’s keep them busy. Let’s use this wonderful facility’. So the numbers; the numbers game is huge.

And then there’s staging itself. You have scenes that are quite short, and you can move from a stage up in the north and the audience turn round to a stage in the south. I don’t know why we’ve done this but we name our stages geographically. We have the north, south, east and west stages. We have stages that break up so that they can then move around. So you might have an 8 foot by 8 foot stage but actually it’s made up of four smaller stages which can then truck through the audience. We say ‘keep the audience moving; keep them turning’. We’re learning about that the whole time and those things are really important for the writer; the fact that the space is so flexible. And that the audience needs to be present in what is happening.

Is the audience more of an implicit character in community theatre?

Yes. In Stephen’s play that he’s currently writing, which has the working title of ‘Sanctuary’, there’s going to be a march of the unemployed, and there’s going to be a recruiting of people to join the skeleton army, and there’s going to be salvationists. And so there are moments when people are making street speeches, and instead of having one speaker you can have ten; people on step ladders, or sitting on people’s shoulders, or standing on a chair. And they can be planted throughout the audience and gather people  around them. First of all this gives ten people a speech, and to a certain extent you have to think about the experience of the performers and so if there is somebody who can’t project very well you can give them a speech like this. But also in the interval the audience can talk about the different speeches that they heard. You’ve been at a social event. You’ve got something to tell somebody that you’ve come with who you got split up from. That’s important. You can try and promenade together and stay together as much as you can but then a parade will come through the middle, or there will be a riot, and you’ll get split up; you’ve lost each other for a while. I think that’s really healthy. So something for the writer to think about is ‘how can we split the audience up?’ How can we get them to share different experiences from one another? How can we implicate them in the drama? How can we get you to hold a banner and march with the unemployed? How can we set up situations where you can be standing next to a character who, while a scene is going on, turns to you and asks you a question?

The first community play I saw was Howard Barker’s ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ in Bridport (1981). In it a boy has been accused of setting fire to a flax field and the Judge is going to condemn him to death as an example to the community. There’s a wonderful speech in which he says ‘On Monday England was very calm and on Friday very wild; and today I suggest is Friday, so we have to make an example of you in these wild times’. And a little girl is standing next to me in costume, and she pulls on my trouser leg and I look down, and her mum is standing next to her in costume, and this little girl says ‘I don’t understand. Why are they hanging Sylvester?’ And she’s looking at me, and I’m looking at the mother, and they’re waiting for an answer. There’s a six year old girl dragging me reluctantly into the past, identifying with this boy two hundred years ago who was murdered unjustly in her community. So the the writer needs to be aware of those possibilities.

And is there, with this notion that the play wants to make the audience implicit / complicit with the drama, something that says, at the end of the play, ‘we’ve all been together in this room?’ Does an awareness of the moment of the social event and the awareness of the play need to come together? Does that make sense?

It can. It does make sense. I mean I’ve been doing this now for thirty something years and I know I’m just scratching the surface. And yet the notion of community plays, the actuality of community plays happening is vanishing. Yet it’s such an extraordinary concept. I’m going to be very sad to leave them.

Is there an impetus and a trajectory – which is a dramatic one because you’ve got all these people – that leads to an awareness of collective power? Is that generally what happens in these plays?

You can’t really define how you end any play. I mean its theatre right so you can’t put those rules on to it. What I find galling is a play that ends in a celebration that hasn’t earnt that celebration in its storyline; that has not been a journey of struggle and thought. Or that the thing that we’re celebrating is so small and shallow or untrue. That we must end on a celebration. Howard Barker’s play ended on a celebration of the hanging of Sylvester, because it was well done; he had a hangman with a heart who wanted to break his neck quickly and cleanly so he would leave this world with the least suffering. That’s a big celebration; that’s a very thoughtful celebration. The cast carried him round on their shoulders and the audience followed, and we were singing ‘it was well done, it was very well done, lucky old Sylvester’. Extraordinary.

How many drafts does a community play go through generally? Is it a lot?

It can be. I asked August Wilson and Sam Shepherd, the American writer/actor, if they would write a play for Minneapolis and they both said ‘what a wonderful idea, what an extraordinary process. But no’. I was talking about the process of soundings and Sam Shepherd said ‘opinions in America are like arseholes, everybody’s got one. And they won’t tell you what to write about. And they won’t tell you what not to write about. And they will criticise your play’. So I ended up writing it (Flying Crooked, 1990). Minneapolis is a theatre town, you can’t afford to go bums up there. So I was very careful. I ended up writing that play sitting on the pile of the drafts. It was chair high, and I sat on it and typed the last draft.

And is there a general move that you can see – obviously you’re trying to get deeper into the story – in terms of the form?

There’s a draft of all the stories that you’ve got from the research material. Then you’ve got three or four synopses which you’re presenting. You’ve then got the first draft of the first half, the first draft of the second half, the rewrites of that following conversations with the research team and where we might look at a scene that has been written and play around with it improvisationally. You then do a public play reading and get feedback from that before the next draft. Then we do the casting and you find you have a proportion of women and a proportion of men and a proportion of children that doesn’t match the play and so you have to rewrite the play to suit the collective of people that you’ve got. Then there’s people coming forward in casting and you think ‘Oh God I’ve got to write something specially for him or her’. So there’s that draft. Then you go into rehearsal and all of that is tweaked and you arrive at the production draft.

So how long is that in total? Around eighteen months to a two year process?

Eighteen months minimum.

And do you think some writers may not engage with the process because it’s a heck of a lot of work for might only be a handful of performances?

Twelve performances. But they write them. I asked Arnold Wesker to write a play for Basildon. I’d asked him to come along to Thornbury near Bristol to see a community play that I did there that Nick Darke had written (A Place Called Mars, 1988). I’d said to Nick ‘don’t think about a community play, think about a film. Don’t ever question ‘is that possible?’ We’ll make it possible’. We were working in an empty bowling alley; it had balconies where people could sit, it was huge. On one stage was a house, another was a big raked stage with a village square.  And Nick wrote a stage direction: ‘Amelia sails to America’. So we need a big sailing ship. And then it says ‘she is blown off the ship in a gale, and she’s swallowed by a whale and she’s blown through the blowhole’. Bastard. So we had a life-sized whale, because we could, and she did; she was swallowed by the whale. It was amazing. And at the end of act one this huge tail comes up and about three hundred blue paper plates went flying across the audiences. And Arnold, who refused to promenade, was sitting almost alone in the gallery upstairs and afterwards he said ‘if I’m going to write this play it won’t be a promenade. No focus’.

He came to Basildon, very dubious about this awful thing that he’d seen, and he loved the theatre. It was the Towngate Theatre and this was going to be the opening, the community were going to open it with a community play. Theatres aren’t conducive to promenade anyway, but he was very clear: ‘right, nothing like promenade here’. Then he walked round the town and said ‘I can’t write this play. I can’t find one positive thing to say. You talk about celebration you must be kidding’. I took him to the local bus station for beans on toast and as we came out a guy came up to us carrying bin liners and stinking of meths, breathed all over Arnold and said ‘the trouble is, when you wake up from the dream, Margaret Thatcher’s still alive’. And he looked at me and said ‘right, I’ve got the first scene, I’ll write it’. (Beorthel’s Hill, 1989)

It seems to me that the Basildon play is partly about the writer wondering what to write about. There is a constant refrain ‘I wish I knew who these people were’.

It’s interesting you should say that because I pointed that out to him. I worked with him for three days on the final draft. He sat and read it to me and then he read it again before I was allowed to say a word. I said nothing to him about what to write but at the end I had this thing burning away inside me that I wanted to say: ‘I think you’re wrong’. And I said ‘you express that you feel that you don’t know these people, but I think there is a line in this play that shows that you don’t. And it’s not for me to tell you what to write but you said there are no poets in Basildon. I think you’ll be proved wrong. Because I think you have a group of people who are going to do your play better than you ever expected; and you’ll be moved by it’. And he said ‘you’re right, you don’t have a right to tell me what to write’. On the first night I had Dusty Wesker on my left and Arnold on my right and the play started and the narrator comes to this line and he says ‘there are no poets in Basildon. Well one or two, there’s always one or two’. Arnold had spoken to him. Dusty said to me ‘I’ve never known Arnold make a concession’.

I think there’s something interesting about those plays, plays about those types of places, plays where you’re not doing a history play because they’re new towns, and actually the play is partly about trying to find what the community is, about groups of individuals coming together.

Yes. Well Arnold was given somebody’s diary and that was the centre of his play.

Was it well received? Because it is quite a knotty, tricky thing.

Well, you know the story. The town refused to take refugees who had fled the rule of Idi Amin, and the children went to the airport with flowers because they were so shocked by their parents and by the council which had turned away these people. We had all these flowers dropping and the kids running on the spot; beautiful, it was a lovely ending.

What do you think a good community script needs to do? And do you give advice to writers or generally just let them get on with it?

Listen. I think the writer does need to bring their own voice and in order to do that you need to listen and observe and ensure that the issues of the day are addressed in some way, and are clear. And that you create something in which the audience have enjoyed the night, because for lots of them this will be their first experience of theatre. So I think enjoyment is important. I think music is very important not just in the mood it creates but technically it gives the untrained actors a break and it’s a breathing exercise to remind them to keep the volumes up. And the audience should go away feeling that they’ve participated in something, that they feel implicated; that they feel that they could have done something. And that if they could have done something then, then they can actually do something now about the same issue. So they go away feeling slightly energised about the potential to change things.

So you’ve given them a sense of agency through a kind of fictionalised agency in the past?

Yes, I think so; if people come away and they’ve made the connection. If I was to write a play now in Tunbridge Wells, who voted to stay in (during the Brexit referendum) I think I’d try and emphasize the fact that they did that and that the battle is not over. We’d find a story in the past associated with being ungracious; when a group of people in Tunbridge Wells were ungracious about accepting people in the community, and a group of people in Tunbridge Wells fought that attitude and won. Or fought it and lost and then won. You find a story that has reverberations.

Because it’s so difficult to get funding for community plays I would suggest that smaller versions of the community play are being done with heritage funding. The danger is perhaps that you are creating a chasm between the present and the past.

It also keeps the past in the past, and we can’t affect the past but the past can affect us. One of my favourite lines is ‘you may be done with the past but the past is not done with you’. So the past is great if you’re going to draw from it. And if you’ve got historians reading and doing the research they can get very twitchy about what’s false and what’s true. With plays I think you have to bend what is true to get to truth; you have to bend the facts sometimes a little bit in order to get to a deeper truth about now. But if the plays don’t relate to now you’re going to see a history lesson.

I did the first Dorchester community play with Ann, and then David and I talked about doing a second one and he brought Stephane Dale in to write it with him, ‘A Time to Keep’, the fifth one. And then they asked me if I would write a play and I said ‘yes but I want to go through this process of soundings, and getting the voice of this community’ and they said ‘we want it set in this particular period of time because we haven’t done that period’. And I said ‘no thank you very much’. I love them, Dorchester, they do great things and they’re great to see but I don’t want to go back to what they now call the Colway model. I fundamentally believe I’ve had more success with communities in terms of their sense of the plays afterwards when the subject has come from where we are now and then searching back.

Are there any community plays that you’ve not been involved with that you particularly admire?

Well the Howard Barker play was … I’ve never got anything close to that; a phenomenal piece of work. He won’t touch them now; I don’t think he’s interested in that kind of narrative anymore. And I think he really resented Ann trying to depoliticise the work. Ann was a pioneer, extraordinary, but there were certain things she believed in like ‘politics is divisive’, even though every single bloody writer she asked was a rabid socialist. David Edgar put a Marxist speech in the mouth of a Victorian Minister in Entertaining Strangers. And ‘if there are any baddies make sure they come from out of town’. Politics is only divisive because we don’t talk freely about it. The sounding process is where you talk about that and you try to come to some understanding if not a consensus. Consensus isn’t everything but understanding is. And you then present a series of voices; I think it’s imperative actually. The only story a community has got to say is political because it’s about the collective.        

An interview with Stephen Lowe (part one)

stephen-lowe

Stephen Lowe is currently working with Claque and Jon Oram on a community play for the City of London in celebration of the opening of the new Aldgate Square. I will be tracking Stephen’s journey through the process and met him at his home in December 2016 to find out about his involvement with the project, and his experience and thoughts on writing for community theatre.

Can I start by asking how you would describe yourself?

The way that they laughingly describe me is as a distinguished English playwright. I don’t know if I’m distinguished but I do know that after doing it for forty odd years that I’m a playwright.

When did you realise?

It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, write a play; every time you start you wonder if you can manage it again. I started writing plays when I was 22, 23 and the woman who got me started professionally was Ann Jellicoe. She read a play of mine that the Royal Court considered to be very controversial and had said that the Court wouldn’t do the play, but she employed me as a story reader; 50p a play. You used to go in on Friday afternoons and get what you could. She sent my play to a young director who had just taken over the Nottingham Playhouse called Richard Eyre, and I went to see Richard and he said he wouldn’t dare do it, it was a very problematic play, but he would commission me for a stage play which seemed an amazing offer and I didn’t believe him. So I stayed at Scarborough (where I was working as an actor and assistant stage manager for Alan Ayckbourn), and Richard came to see me and said ‘time is running out would you do a play?’ And I did, and it was called ‘Touched’. I began to think I was a playwright by that point. But I had written twenty seven plays by then.

So Ann was working at the Court at that time?

She was working at the Court and she really took me under her wing, and I used to go down to her house, her photographer husband’s on Sundays. When she moved to Lyme she asked me to do a community play, the first one. And then for about the next ten odd years she’d ask me if I would do a play. And I was just too busy to get round to it.

So can you tell me about the community theatre project that you’re working on? What it is, how it came about and where you are with it at the moment?

Jon Oram, who took over from Ann Jellicoe, asked me over the next ten years to do a play and I think that he finally gave up, until about nine months ago when he phoned me and said this was his last attempt to see if I’d write a play. And I said ‘yes’. He’d been commissioned by the housing department of the City of London, Aldgate, and they were clearing an area next to St. Botolph’s Church to create a major piazza on what was the old route in Aldgate itself to the City of London. And they wanted a community play to open that event, to celebrate it.

I was struck by it; it’s not the normal place to do a community show, particularly because while there’s 8000 people that actually sleep in that area the real weight is the 42000 that arrive every day at 9 o’clock and leave at 6, apart from the weekends; and these 8000 don’t speak to each other. There’s lots of council flats; a large Bangladeshi community; working class Italian, English or whatever; the Barbican people, who certainly don’t speak to the people outside the Barbican, and so on. So from the beginning it was different from a normal community play. When my company Meeting Ground had done one many years ago you knew ninety percent of who you were working with. What their background was and why they were there, and you worked to find their voice and your voice in a public arena.

This (the London play) really was an attempt to create a community. Most of the narratives of this kind of process that come out of the Ann Jellicoe / Colway model, the stories are often very similar. There’s a community, a community of fishermen or steelworkers that then becomes endangered; the fishes all dry up, they close the mines. And so in the first act there’s community, in the second act it’s being smashed apart and in the third act, hopefully, there’s some kind of positive new identity, or survival beyond, or adaptation. That’s the kind of matrix I think.  When the people who are involved in this play have never spoken to each other and can’t afford to go in the same restaurants and don’t necessarily speak the same language it’s an interesting situation; tricky to find the kind of narrative you’re going to operate with.

It’s advantage in this case is that the City of London is universally known and has its mythology around it, a man and a cat and all that kind of stuff; and you think there’s bound to be stories there that are meaningful. The problem is that if you do a play about the plague in Derbyshire there’s one specific time that you’ll pick, which is when the plague came; it’s not too difficult to make these decisions. But there are more stories drawn into the world of the city of London then probably anywhere else on the planet. You can work your way through the Romans and the lions and the tigers that they brought over and which they’re still finding bones from; you’ve got the great plague, you’ve got the great fire of London, you’ve got the Blitz. If you want to set it around certain individuals you’ve got everybody: Pepys, fictional characters like the Wife of Bath; Blake, they all lived there at one point. Chaucer lived at Aldgate, the gate above the gate. So in one sense you’re completely swamped  for choice. And against that there is the ambiguity of not really having a community. I kept saying to Jon ‘well I’ll do the best I can to get stories that will draw people together’. The advantage of writing for an organisation like that (Claque) is that whereas everybody else is now asking you to do a play with two people this is the offer where somebody says you’ve got 130 in the cast.

Jon’s timing was good, because I’d just worked in South Africa with a company from the townships in Capetown and I’d had the joy of 36 people on stage so I thought ‘yeah 130, that will be fun’. But you’re writing unknown for these 130 people; it could be 130 women, that end up wanting to be in it, no men; or 130 who come from one site and none from any other. Normally you would know what the postman was like and who the bank manager was so you could cunningly write the script to draw out the headmasters. So you’ve got one hand tied behind your back with this process; and at the same time it was a curiously interesting opportunity to bring diversity together.

So the key for me was to look at the way in which theatre worked and to see if there was a way of finding a context which could be paralleled by what we did. I went through various periods including tigers and things with the Romans and realised I can’t write anything where people wear togas, it would just make me laugh. And I have a particular fascination with the Victorian period and its ambiguities; it’s oppressiveness but also its kind of revolutionaryness. So I set it in the 1880’s which is the apex of steam and industrialisation and building and drew in Irish workers who were oppressed and being thrown out of their homeland; the Jewish community is coming over from the pogroms and the English working class is believing that its being put out of jobs and onto the street and into the workhouse by the foreigners. It’s a melting pot.

There is a Japanese philosophy which defines very simply the different kinds of societies that you can have. The key one, and I won’t bother you with the others, is what’s called Many in Body, One in Mind. Many in Body where they’re all different colours, races, types, whatever, celebrating that; but they have one aim in mind that works in the creation of a society; it brings them together and the discovery of that one aim informs that society. So the vision and the diversity can kind of go together. Theatre is that. You’ve got actors, lighting people, all very, very different; and if they can come together and see the aim of what they want to build they can become as one and you get ensemble, you get all these words that are used in the theatre; the troupe etc. And that in itself, celebrating that is important for the producers. So you want a tale that in a funny sense mirrors that process. So therefore I am looking for the most diverse kind of situation across class, across creed, across sexuality; and then you begin to get excited because you do need 130 characters and you can look at things with that twist that history gives us.

It was a very, very difficult time (the 1880’s). They were building the great things and Catholic churches all over the place, and tunnelling away and building the underground; the Irish navvies were blowing themselves up in the tunnels; women’s positions were thrown up in the air; and everybody has a sense of a loss of identity and a potential gaining of identity, but it’s fragile. So that’s what I’m looking for; it’s that kind of edge.

I remember talking to Ann way back, at the beginning of it (community theatre); she was going to bring in Royal Court writers, in inverted commas left wing writers, and they might take a storyline that the community itself wasn’t too excited by, it was exposing; and what was built into it was a tension between them (the community) and the individual voice of the playwright, which is in some sense sacrosanct, because otherwise they just become the amanuensis of the community. At the same time you’re trying to find something that they would still want to do. And they may have a range of diversities that are insoluble in finding one solution to it.

So you can come to a meeting as we did last week; there’s twenty people in the room and they’re all saying what they want it to be. And some want it to be about this and some want it to be the other side of that coin; they’re not immediately homogenous so there’s an endless series of dynamics which can be to a certain extent bewildering because … for example take the Jewish question, a group that became the heart of what we call the East End. When they came over from the pogroms they spoke Yiddish, hardly any Hebrew and most of them no English. When I went to talk to the rabbi of the oldest Jewish synagogue in the country and the curator there, they were saying that when these Jews came to the synagogue, they found Jews who had been there for 200 years, who’d established themselves with great care from Spain and Portugal. And these poor people that had just arrived didn’t even speak the same language. So there was considerable tension within their own societies. Now I don’t know anything about that, I can only research that. And you’re going to end up putting words in the mouth of someone, so it’s very tricky. If you alienate your groups, your people, then you will probably end up without a show. But if you lose what it is you are saying and concede it to one group over another then the thing starts falling apart. So there’s a tension which ultimately has to become a creative tension.

And is one of the ways of resolving that to allow the creative tension of the process to somehow become a part of the script?

Yes.

It becomes an implicit storyline?

You are trying to create something that comes out of a dynamic, out of a tension that most people will not see, they will just see what happens in 1885 or whatever; and gradually I found that tempted me. You see I’m one of those playwrights who does not write autobiographical plays that much; I like writing plays about what I don’t know rather than what I do know. So I’ll plough into the Jewish situation, or the Irish situation, throw books at me and I’ll eat them; but the journey is imagining people that are very different. So in a funny sense the more I see the problem as almost impossible the more I’m tempted to find some narrative that goes there which will still have an edge to it.

It’s about work and the lack of work; it’s about what happens on the street in the 1880’s; it’s about the women and how they’re forced into prostitution; it’s about the Salvation Army trying to save souls and what that means; it’s about the chaos of energies and its theatricality is for me centred around work or idleness, despair and alcoholism. So I wanted to find an image from the politics of the time that looked at work from another perspective and that brings the characters to understand, if only fleetingly, a different way of looking at their life.

In 1888 two remarkable things happened in relationship to the city; the first was that the Match Girls went on strike, the first strike by women ever recorded, and incredibly won. And they were part of the biggest march for the poor and unemployed, which was attacked in Trafalgar Square by the police and the army; women and children beaten to the ground, it was called the first Bloody Sunday. I was trying to find something that would be visually exciting, that would show the actors working, and when their characters discovered a new way of looking at work. And of course it was there because the key figures running the march and talking about radical left wing politics were Annie Besant, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and the whole of that movement. And I discovered that Morris and Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite artist were doing stained glass windows. And I began to go around the churches in the city looking at them, most of them had been bombed out during the war and had been replaced; in particular the wonderful ones that Burne-Jones did at Marylebone. And I knew that I wanted an image of coming together with bits.

(And my idea was) that the workers on these windows don’t know what the picture’s going to be; they make the glass and Burne-Jones is sketching but they don’t know what it is they’ve actually made. And they take sanctuary after the beating they get on the day of Bloody Sunday in the church where their window is covered up, waiting to be revealed to the rich, and they demand to see it. What has their work done? William Morris and Marx are saying the same thing at this time. That we find identity through true work, and they mean creative work.

And so the image started to form that would become the piece. So you begin to find yourself … you begin to start thinking in a different language. You’ve read the books, you can make the arguments, you can sketch the characters, you can find the music and so on. But then you have to start seeing it. And you have to go back to the characters, to the heart of the characters, you have to get with your people (the participants). And then – and only recently – I began to think it might be possible.

So I did something I’ve not done before; which was the way of presenting the text. There’s a steering committee keeping an eye on us, and I thought if I present it to them written out as dialogue and parts for 130 we will all be lost; it’s just not the way to communicate it, it will take two and a half hours. So I thought I’ll do a ten page treatment to say what happens, a narrative treatment. And I gave it to the director, to Jon, and I said ‘you read it’, it will take 25-30 minutes then we can have the talk. And it was one of the most intelligent things I’ve done in a long time. Because it did mean that for the next forty five minutes or an hour they (the participants and the committee) talked about it, and as something that was so obviously unfinished they genuinely felt they could ask a question about it.

One of the things the Jewish lads did when they came over, because of the prejudice against them on the streets, they took up boxing and they set up boxing youth clubs. And I had a scene, a crucial scene, in the boxing ring.  And one of the guys (at the meeting) said ‘doesn’t it go somewhere; is that it? Isn’t there a tournament scene?’ And I just went ‘yeah’. It turned out to be much more useful than other occasions where … I don’t like readings anyway.

So how long have you been working on it? When did it start and where are you now and when does the play happen?

We started over a year ago, easily over a year ago, with just me and Jon wandering around the place. Then we started having a meeting with the Whitechapel art gallery, with the city organisations and libraries. The day of that treatment was officially the day I would have presented the first draft and I’ve asked that to be the first draft. We should have then had three months to polish that and have all the subsidiary groups coming together to do it, with the next step for me to give the final rehearsal draft in before Easter. And then for them to be doing it in the Summer. It is put back because of building.

I’ve been talking to some writers who have had experiences of handing work in to committees where there are certain things they don’t want to be touched; certain nerves they don’t want to be touched. Is there an overseer of this? Is there a panel that will eventually look through it and go ‘you know what we really like it but we can’t mention that’? Is it that kind of process?

I think there probably will be.

And if that was the case and they came back to you and they said those things presumably your choice would be either to go ‘yes OK I’ll do what you say’ or ‘no I’m not going to’. Or to use the creative tension of that. Because it sounded a bit like what you were saying is that the experience of writing the play and the tensions within that inform what the story is, the narrative. The context of writing the play is in the play?

Yes it does, yes.

The notion of the stained glass window is fascinating because it is absolutely connected to the location and the idea of the disparate communities coming together to create .. was it one kind or one mind?

One mind. Itai doshin. It’s the perfect society. It’s dynamic of course because you start with the diversity and the diversity has to find its central core value; its dynamic creation. Once it finds it together – that we all decide that we’ll make a play that will mean something, that we’ll feel something – then we come to what will change the world.

It also feels that the stained glass window idea is partly your struggle to tie together these disparate elements.

Yes that’s exactly what it is. And it’s interesting, because one of the things that was running through my mind before I came to the stained glass window was Banksy, was images on the street. And in a funny sense the church stained glass fuses all that. You can have heaven and hell and whatever but it’s dependent on the light. And the characters defend the window like the Alamo at the end of the treatment. Whilst everybody’s running riot they try to save their own work.

Can I ask about the audience? One of the things when you write a community play is that you know who the audience will be. You know the audience will be from this community; you are presenting the community in which they live back to them. With this it must be trickier because I presume that there is a notion that the audience could be from outside that community.

Mathematically of course it’s ridiculous. If you’ve got eight thousand – that’s children, that’s old people, that’s large numbers who don’t speak English – even if you could extrapolate 130 of them, and all the people you need backstage, there’s practically no audience left. It’s not like in a place where you start with forty or fifty thousand people and they’ve all got aunts and uncles; you haven’t got an audience. And even more you haven’t got an audience who can afford to come anyway. So the notion of community itself, in the sense that are talking about there being a community here, is like drawing the map of Poland. You know if you take the map of Poland during the last three or four hundred years sometimes it’s not there at all, sometimes its half of Europe.

We’re imagining a community structure. I think it’s almost a uniquely difficult route. We have to open up, widen that notion of community. You can either move across, outside the city to the working class area of the East End with all of its gentrification and so on; or, which is what you’re briefed to do, you can look centrally at the city.

Having spoken for over an hour by this point we decided to arrange to meet again in the New Year. I explained to Stephen the intentions of my work, and how little investigation into this field of work there seems to be …   

And so we’re in danger of constantly remaking the proverbial wheel.

Yes.

The responsibility as a writer in these plays is that whatever you do your job is to inspire those who are taking part, and through their work to inspire an audience. And that’s key. You have to keep re-stimulating so they can get hold of the image, so they can get hold of the smoke and the people coming out of the tunnel; and they’re your way to the audience. It’s not that you’re separated off satisfying them; it’s getting them to imagine and be excited that will carry it.

So they have to make a journey of discovery themselves?

Totally.

It’s not giving them something they already know?

No good.

It’s just outside of their reach?

Yes. So Jon is interested in getting them to look at family histories; and he’ll also put real names on characters of ours. The prostitutes for example, that are in the play, are down in the census of 1838 as prostitutes, and they’re down in the 1890s in the workhouse where they both died, still listed as prostitutes. And those things kind of – if they’re (the participants) finding their own individual connection with the project in some way or another – you are giving them little charges of energy and meaning. And we gradually grow to exist together. It doesn’t mean you give up every difference or shade, far from it. You’re making a society. And in a time when societies are literally being blown up on the street and countries are divided amongst themselves and slaughter their own, door by door, we have to see something which is … how do we create society? It’s never been asked before because societies have just evolved or been manipulated in various ways to false images; but how do we do that? Well you do that by becoming increasingly creative and giving respect for each individual in that process. And putting the creative arts first; our creative imaginations. For me the story that you’re telling over and over again in some way is about the struggle to go through change in a healthy way.

An interview with Kevin Fegan

selkieboy1

Kevin Fegan is a poet and playwright who works across a wide range of theatrical forms. In January of this year we had a conversation about his work, specifically as a writer of community based theatre. (The image above is from The Selkie Boy, written for Barrow Senior Youth Theatre, and commissioned by The Ashton Group). This is an edited version of that interview.

How do you describe yourself?

I keep it simple; I’m a playwright and a poet. That catches it all really. I’m very clear about that. It’s how I see myself and the work that I do. Playwright tends to come first; when I started out poet did. The crossover interests me. Everything I learnt from poetry I invest in my playwriting. Sometimes I write full length plays in verse. Sometimes I mix verse and prose. It depends on what the subject matter is and what serves that best. They cross over naturally for me and separating them out is often somebody else’s business. The poems are usually written for performance and some of them are an hour long. If they work as good story telling they hold an audience. It takes you a while to find out what your strengths are. Mine as a poet are dramatic verse.

What was your way in to community art / theatre?

I became Writer in Residence at Stocken prison in 1987, one of the first of those schemes where writers worked in prisons. It had a profound effect on me and I mark it from there. From that point I became aware of how powerful the work that we do can be in certain communities.

Before the interview for the post Kevin was sent into the prison to meet an inmate. It was someone he knew; someone that he had grown up with, someone who went to the same schools as him and who was now in his twelfth year of a jail sentence for murder. After this encounter Kevin felt unable to continue, close to tears, and wondered if he would be able to go into the interview when called. He found himself writing a poem which allowed him to carry on with the process.

I learnt then what I already knew. That’s why I write. That got me through that experience. Imagine what that means to people like T and others like him, to get them through a life sentence or the trauma of what they had done. That was massive and it answered my question straight away about why I do this work. I realised straight away from that experience how significant this work was.

How did you move into community theatre?

I wrote a few plays from that experience. We toured forty odd jails and theatres, with a professional two hander. We always had a conversation afterwards. And it was really powerful. I knew I had used my skill as a writer to empathise to the extent where they were saying (in the prisons) ‘how the fuck can you write that? You’ve never done a life sentence; you’ve never even done a sentence’.

Shortly after this finished I was offered resident dramatist at Welfare State International. They were coming towards the end of their epic career as a company but they were still on fire. Their last big project was something called Shipyard Tales and I was the resident dramatist on that. So I lived in Barrow on Furness for eighteen months and with the shipyard workers and the community of Barrow in Furness we created thirteen shows and ran an alternative cabaret nightclub. And I set up a writing club as well and published works. At the end of the eighteen months we put on these thirteen original shows that we had generated in that town. I write one, and performed it myself which I wasn’t expecting. That was in verse. I toured it for two years afterwards.

I wrote a big show with John Foxx called Lord Dynamite, a community opera. We did that at Forum 28 in Barrow in Furness and then after that, and you know most community plays don’t have a life beyond their original performance, we wrote it again for a professional company for LIFT 91 (London International Theatre Festival) on an outdoor site two football fields wide. And then we rewrote it for Totnes and then we rewrote it for the docks in Newcastle. So this was a show that had to reinvent itself. The subsequent shows weren’t with community casts. The original cast had around sixty actors but the tour was done with eight professional actors.

It was very much a hybrid of me and Foxy. He doesn’t normally write with other people; I think I’m one of the few that has managed to do that and still stay friends. We just locked ourselves away for a couple of weeks and wrote it together. It was great for me; I was a young writer (Kevin was thirty at this point) and I learnt a lot from him and he felt he could learn from me.

How would you define community art?

I haven’t got any neat definitions for you. Community Art is about artists helping non- artists, helping people in any community find the artistic expression in their own lives. If it’s a play it’s finding the drama in their lives; finding the theatrical expression within them. Art isn’t exclusive to certain individuals in society. It’s not like some people have got art and some people haven’t got art; everyone’s got art. But has it been awakened in you? Have you got access to it? Are you given permission to go there?

Everyone has culture. Does everyone have art? What is the difference between culture and art?

Culture embraces the tribal way in which you live. What tribe do you belong to? What is their language and what are there customs? What’s their ancestry? People engage in the arts by their millions. They’re as popular as sports and very comparable. People dip in and out of them at different times in their life. You might swim for five years and then never swim again for twenty and then take it up a bit later in life. It could be the same with playing a guitar or painting.

So a lot of the time it’s about giving a platform for that because people are doing it anyway … it’s about recognising that and allowing them an opportunity to express it and hopefully along the way raising the bar. If you’re working as a professional artist in the community your ambition is to create as high quality work as possible. Whatever level people are engaged at, and you have to be good at tapping into what level they’re at, you want to show them the next step up. And some of them turn out to be your peers; there as good as you are at what you do.

Have you seen the form or the ethos of Community Theatre changing?

It’s changed; it’s developing all the time. There may well come a time when it gets the recognition it deserves.

I’ve been aware over the span of my career that there are different types of community theatre … and when someone commissions me to write a community play there’s always a discussion about what they mean by community play, where it fits in the spectrum of community plays. Because at one end I come and work with your community, I engage your community and I go away and write a play and bring it back as a gift and say this is what I’ve made for us to perform; and that’s a perfectly valid form of community theatre and maybe the most prevalent one, but it’s not the only one. I’ve also been into communities, where I’ve said on Day One, like with Opera North in Mansfield in 1993 where I said to the group of writers, local writers who were interested and came forward, ‘in 18 months we’re going to have written a community opera, we’re going to perform it in that leisure centre, and I won’t have written a single word; you’ll have written all of it, do you believe me?’ And that’s what we did. I drew that material out of them; I edited it, I structured it; I shaped it; I helped them put it together, I helped them to get it as strong as it could be before it was handed over to the community actors. But they wrote it. And that’s at the other end of the community theatre spectrum.

In between are the ones where you write with a team of writers; I’ve done that as well. Where I’m the lead writer on it but I’m also using other writers material as we go along and I’m structuring it and shaping it because I’ve got those skills, that’s why I’m getting paid to do it. I understand how plays work; I understand how to structure a play; I understand how to respond content to form. And so there’s a whole spectrum of what we call community plays.

I did a couple of pieces for Quarantine in their early years and what Quarantine do is work with people finding the drama in their lives, irrespective of whether they’re professional performers or not. One of the shows I did with them was with refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester and again I didn’t write the script, I put it together. I tease the material out of people and you’ve got to be good at that as a community playwright. Then I help them shape it. Is this a song? Is this a scene? Is this a story? Is this a poem? Is this a dance? Is this a video projection?

I did a show with them called White Trash. We took young unemployed men, took them off the dole, from white trash areas in Manchester and formed a company with them. We said ‘right we’re going to create a show called White Trash and it’s about your lives because people call you white trash, you know that don’t you?’ And of course they know it. ‘Let’s explore that. What’s behind white trash; who are you really?’ They, we, created that show. So I’m writer/devisor alongside a director, and you work as a team getting this material but I take charge of structuring it. I haven’t written a single word of it but I’ve shaped it. And it’s really powerful stuff sometimes

Where do you think community theatre finds itself now?

My understanding is that the generation before me made a bold attempt to take theatre out to the people and community theatre was part of that. They’re admirable sentiments but they become very patronising really quickly. It’s not about bringing theatre to the people it’s about finding the theatre in the people and letting that theatre breathe in that community. And the only reason it doesn’t breathe is because it doesn’t have the profile that the other end of the theatre spectrum has.

The genre is developing in lots of different ways and has become more subtle and more sophisticated. In terms of recognition we’re a long way from that.

I feel I’ve been privy to the most incredible experiences that I’ve shared with people and next to nobody apart from that group are aware that that happened . No-one knows what you’ve just done but it can be, not always, but it can be, the most awesome experience. I let go a long while back of the excitement of high profile work, those commissions you get with a top theatre company; sometimes those experiences … they don’t move you as much. You may not have the experience that I know that I can have and I might have had with something that has no profile at all.

What I love about theatre is that it’s live, it happens, it’s gone. It has the potential to be incredibly beautiful and powerful and then you move onto the next one. So I’m not interested any more in who’s seen it and who hasn’t. I’m interested in the community that has engaged in that piece; what’s it meant for them. And I’m part of that because I’m part of the people that are putting it together

Is there anything that you are aware of that you are doing differently now when you write for community theatre than when you first started?

You have to take into account the make-up of your likely cast. There will be strong performers, there will be weak performers and so how do you create a meaningful experience for the whole cast? And that has to affect the way you write. You have to make a virtue of that.

The things that you can do in community theatre that you can’t do in mainstream theatre, simply because of the cost, are those large casts; and I love writing chorus. I love writing for a large group of people to speak as one voice and then also within that chorus to have individual cameos and individual characters, that step out of the chorus and perform and then step back in. That’s what I mean by making a virtue of it; that’s playing to its strength, when you hear a group of people speaking as one voice, and for me that would usually be in verse. That’s something that you can’t achieve, certainly not in repertory theatre because you can’t have those numbers.

That’s with a big cast, but what if you are writing for smaller ones?

I think all the time you are aware that you have to stretch your cast but not provide them with the impossible; so you probably can’t be as obtuse as you could be with a skilled cast.

How does this inform the style of the play? If you are saying that characters may have to be less complex is there a tendency for them to become more emblematic?

I think it affects the style in which you write. You’re going to avoid heavy naturalism in a community play. Invariably it is more stylised … as you say characters become a bit more representative and you haven’t got the space to create a really subtle three dimensional character or set of characters in the way that you can when you’re dealing with a small professional cast. But I wouldn’t want to say that one way of writing is more skilled than the other; they require different skills.

Does the fact that you know your audience affect the way that you write? Does your relationship with the audience in some way change and does that impact on the script?

I’m not sure what you mean. 

Quite often I find that when I’m writing a community play, and I know the audience … say it’s for the community of Bilborough and I become very aware of who these people are and their experiences of theatre and so I’m trying to find the right language that I think that community will relate to. But also because ultimately it’s a piece about living in this place together I’m trying to tie that up in some way what’s happening on stage … I’m trying to mirror that in some way in the text. Does that make any sense?

Are you talking about one of the dangers of patronising your audience? Of giving them what they want? Because we can quickly identify what will please them and you can give them that if they want, but I find that patronising and I won’t let myself do that. So occasionally I’m fired, occasionally I get sacked … because I won’t … I say to them ‘look I want this to hurt a bit as well. I want it to be joyous but I want it to hurt as well. I don’t want it to be an easy show. I’m not interested in writing easy shows for you’.

But the very fact that you’re saying that suggests on some level that you’re thinking about the audience. And in a way perhaps that is slightly different than you would do if you were writing a play that is going to tour, and the audience is just a collection of people in that theatre.

Yes I am thinking of the audience; without a doubt. I got fired from the Warwick Community Play. Warwick is a very middle class area and the people who were bankrolling the play were chief execs and bankers and business people, and I had a pop in the script at this community in a light-hearted way. It was fun, but I had a pop; and I insist on doing that. The script never got performed. They paid me off and said to me ‘we can’t do this. It offends our middle class values’. They actually said that. And I said ‘look when I work in a working class area I offend working class values’. That’s part of my job. I come in, I identify what makes a community tick and I say ‘what do you reckon to this?’ You have to do it in a way that isn’t exploitative or offensive, but equally isn’t tame.

The important thing for a writer is not to patronise and not to do it the easy way. You can do that but it’s not as enjoyable for you; and you know it won’t be for them.

Does this awareness of the audience give you a focus that you may not feel if you’re not writing for a specific audience? Is it helpful?

It probably is helpful, but I have a base line that I use for any play I write. I imagine myself in the audience and I didn’t want to be there … my friend or my girlfriend or whoever has brought me and I haven’t read the programme and I don’t know the title of the play, I don’t know what it’s about and I didn’t want to be there. And I have to reach that person; I have to engage that person at the simplest level. And then over and above that I’m in the audience and I’m a human being that wants my senses excited, I want my emotions excited, and I want my intellect excited. And when I’m getting all three I’m getting a good deal. And that’s what I try and write, every time.

Have you read any other community theatre texts?

There are so few published. When I worked for Welfare State I would read what Foxy had written for comparable shows so that I could get a sense of how it worked on the page. But plays for community casts that you can read are very few.

Is it a field of work then that requires a lot of self-learning?

Yes, but it doesn’t have to be. Walk The Plank started doing some proper training for National Theatre of Wales for the show they were creating for their millennium, and they were training people up around Wales; emerging artists and experienced artists who wanted to develop their skills for site specific theatre. I know this is separate but there’s a cross over because you often find yourself writing site specific community theatre which is a really fascinating area. I was saying to them ‘did you include a writer in the training?’ and they said no. And I said ‘so to your knowledge there’s never been a time when a playwright who has written a lot of site specific shows has attempted to pass on what they’ve learnt?’. And he said no. But they might include it next time.

One of the big things that I pass on to writers when they ask me about site specific work is – and it’s very simple – is that verse works a lot better outdoors. If you’re doing a show outdoors, back off on prose and up the verse, because heightened language works more outside. It’s mnemonic, especially if you use rhyming verse. Your audience latch onto it; prose just disappears in a way that it doesn’t in a theatre. Rhyming couplets, which aren’t very sophisticated at all in terms of poetry, come into their own in outdoor work. So there’s little tricks like that that I’ve learnt that I pass on to other people.

Without networks around you, and the fact that there is so little to refer back to, how do you think you have been able to move your craft forward?

You do because it’s what experience is; you don’t stop developing your own skills and everything I’ve learnt I will endeavour to take into the next project. And that learning is sometimes about what works but it’s also about what doesn’t work. I’m not going to make that mistake again, because I made that mistake in that play. So it’s that; building up that knowledge based on experience that allows you to walk into a venue or a community or both and say OK I know what will work here … a bit of this and a bit of that.

And have you ever tried to assemble that learning?

No it’s in my head because no-one has ever asked me to put it on paper. It’s important and valid and it should be collected and passed on.

Can I just go back to what happened at Warwick? Do you think that you weren’t as committed to that community in some way perhaps?

I think it exposed me as much as them. Afterwards I thought about it and I thought ‘what prejudice was I taking in to that project?’ And I’m kidding myself if I think I’m not, because I am. We like to think of ourselves as broad minded and tolerant but actually I’m aware that I will struggle with the class system as much as anyone.

When you looked back at the section of the play that offended them did you think ‘I’d gone too far’ or ‘That was fine!’

My original reaction was where’s your sense of humour? It’s funny. It makes me laugh why doesn’t it make you laugh? You’re being over sensitive! But when you think about it more, which you have to do because I don’t want to get the sack, even if they pay me off – which they did – I want the show to be performed. I am culpable certainly … I’m not living in a vacuum am I?

Are you aware that there are things you have learnt from writing for Community Theatre audiences and casts that you to carry over into your other theatre writing?

One example would be I’m very confident and experienced at writing for a group as well as for individual characters. So just as I write huge choruses for community casts I like taking those principles into situations with smaller casts. I want them to be an ensemble, and this is why and this is how they will express themselves as an ensemble. I like those type of plays and that’s a skill I think I’ve learned from one area of theatre that I’ve used in another area of theatre. That’s just one example – there’ll be others. Use of verse would be another one. How to use verse; when and why?

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone writing a community play what would it be?

Respect. Respect that community and that material and get the best out of it. I don’t mean do it for the money; I don’t mean do it because the NT says we want some top writers to work in a community like they do with Connections (a youth theatre scheme). A lot of those plays are crap because the writers aren’t respecting that community of young people. Treat it with the respect it deserves and you will get the most incredible rewards from any community. It’s there to be had; those riches are there to be had, not just for the people involved in it but for the creative team as well.