The community play as a form of historiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which you have. For this is theatre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A death in the family


On Friday (September 1st) I met Baz Kershaw for the first time at the TaPRA conference in Salford. What I most wanted to know from this most insightful of writers and theorists of community theatre (and explorations of ‘the radical’) was whether or not the play that Medium Fair performed at my primary school, and which I still have some fuzzy pictures of in my head, was The Wizard of Oz. It was. And the year that I saw it, he was able to tell me, was 1975. Soon after this he and Medium Fair became involved in a new idea, a development of the relationship between community and theatre that his company had been exploring, a new idea that was to be pioneered by Ann Jellicoe. Baz told me he was going to see Ann next week.

The day before (Thursday 31st August) I had given a ten minute ‘provocation’ to the Applied and Social Theatre group about the role of the writer in the community play. I had one image to accompany it – that of the cover of Ann’s book – and as soon as it came up it was obvious from the response that it was a text that many people knew and had a fondness for.

The day after getting home I discovered that Ann had died, through an obituary written in The Guardian. It feels like a death in the family; and that is, of course, what it is. As people whose work I know and respect have written of their feelings it is obvious that Ann was a woman whose ideas and work and energy and vision were hugely instrumental in the kind of theatre that they would themselves go on to make in their lives. The word ‘inspirational’ is often used in obituries, but it is only now that I truly understand what it means.

I would like to thank Ann. I first met her when I was twelve or thirteen; and she was a part of my life from then on until I left East Devon to go to university (to study drama, on her insistence). I was very lucky to have been involved not only as a performer in three community plays – The Tide, Colyford Matters, and The Western Women – but also in a small Theatre Games group that she set up. Alongside experimenting with the ideas of Keith Johnstone we were also lucky enough to have an early encounter with Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (although I don’t think it was Boal himself who worked with us), and to work on ideas for The Western Women with Fay Weldon, before Ann took over on writing the script.

My paper at TaPRA was partially a call to reignite the community play movement, because I still believe that it has the potential to create the most incredible and potent theatre, and that the act of making it can also be genuinely radical. Will Weigler responded to my words by saying how in Canada, after a visit by Jon Oram to create a community play with Dale Hamilton in Eramosa (which Jon himself talks about here) the idea quickly spread and many similar projects began to appear all over the country.

What an incredible legacy.

Here’s what I said.


community play image


I’m sure that many of you will recognise this book which was published in 1984 – the year that I went to university to study drama as a result of being in three of these community plays. About five seconds after that photograph was taken, in 1980, I entered the scene and stood just behind Alexandra, whose brother I used to play Subbuteo with.

And I’m aware that maybe my current research is actually all about trying to rectify in some way the fact that I arrived a little too late to be included in the picture.

I’m now a writer of community theatre – a term that I am happy to use – about thirty five plays in all, many of which have followed the Jellicoe model of a geographically bounded community and of a production technique where a writer is either invited or jettisoned into a community to create work with and alongside that community. And I have realised that there is very little discussion and very little in the literature about what the job of such a role entails.

So I’m reading the community plays that the first generation of community playwrights wrote to see what they were up to; although they’re not easy to get hold of. The V&A house the Community Play Archive and Database which contains materials on 215 community theatre projects through to 1999 although only half include the script of the play. Which has led me to contacting, where possible, the writers directly. ‘I’ve got a copy somewhere though I’ve moved house a few times’; ‘I think it’s with my ex-wife’; ‘You do realise this was the pre-Amstrad era so it’s typed up’. But they have been arriving, in jiffy bags, thousands of old pages kept together with rusting staples.

So far I have read around thirty of these scripts as I seek to uncover any generic affiliations that may allow me to unearth a prototype textual form. Most of the plays are set in a historical moment. And this link between the community play as a form and a heritage agenda that it appears to be closely connected to, is important I think in terms of where such plays often find themselves now.

In Theatres of Memory, Raphael Samuel locates the late 1960s as the explosion of do it yourself family and local history, having a particular appeal to the geographically and socially mobile, those who without the aid of history were genealogical orphans. And many of these scripts tap into that newly emerging enthusiasm, originating from a process of community research, often with the intention of identifying real people to base characters on.

Last week I was at a rehearsal of a community play for Barrow Hill written by Kev Fegan, whose first work in this field was with Welfare State. The project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Looking through a database of HLF funding for projects under their ‘First World War: Then and Now’ scheme almost ten per cent stated they were planning to use community theatre in some way.  Yet when I asked a senior member of the Strategy team how they viewed community theatre, given the extent to which they were funding it, I was told that ‘ I wouldn’t say anyone has more than a general view, which is about its usefulness as a way into heritage … we may not have much to say, I fear’.

When Arnold Wesker died last year none of the obituaries mentioned ‘Beorhtel’s Hill’, his community play for Basildon of 1989. By this stage Jon Oram had replaced Ann Jellicoe as the Artistic Director of the Colway Theatre Trust and had, he told me, approached Wesker to write a community play. And that one day, whilst walking through Basildon together Wesker had turned to him and said ‘Jon I can’t write this play … I can’t find one positive thing to say about this dumphole’. And that just as he said this a man came up carrying bin liners stinking of meths, breathed all over Wesker and said ‘the trouble is, when you wake up from the dream, Margaret Thatcher’s still alive’. At which point Wesker said ‘right, I’ve got the first scene, I’ll write it’.

The play features a narrator, who happens to be around 55, the same age as Wesker was when he wrote it. ‘Who are they?’ are his first words as he surveys a chorus of community characters; and the entire text is punctuated by the sense of bewilderment the narrator feels as he at once observes and evokes; with the plays’ final words being one last cry of  ‘who are they? If only I knew who they were’. Wesker has been unable to learn a thing about this community whilst carrying out his work. But he has been completely aware of his exteriority; completely aware of the dangers of what Benjamin calls ‘ideological patronage’.

Now such artistic prerogative does exhibit a rather problematic stance, especially in a field which can, as Grant Kester suggests, fall prey to a ‘fetishization of authenticity in which only those artists who can claim an integral connection to a given community are allowed the ethical mandate to work with or represent it’. At a workshop last year at the ACTA centre in Bristol, which was asking how individual and community ownership of theatre happens, I brought up the question of the role of the writer. One director told me that they don’t use writers, but facilitators; to ensure a democracy of input; and another that in some ways he’d like to ban scripts along with any other artefacts of the event.

But what are we missing by not looking?

Richard Sennett, as Jen Harvie discusses in ‘Fair Play’, evokes the idea of ‘material consciousness’ as a key part of the craftsman’s skill, in which ‘all his or her efforts to do good quality work depend on curiosity about the material at hand’. And, importantly, ‘this curiosity is not simply about material objects but also material relations of production, including the material and social networks between people that the craftsperson engages in’.

These curiosities about the relations of production are clearly evident in the plays I have been reading by invited and commissioned writers. And this contextual understanding of their position and role appears to correspond to a range of narrative strategies. The plays are full of strangers who provoke and shatter and antagonise and question and confuse. Full of liminal characters who operate within and between different communal groups. And they constantly exhibit the interplay between the ‘geography’ of the public, as Sennett calls it, and the private domain. They are more often than not very self-reflexive texts, aware that the play they are writing is part of an event that contains a play.

In ‘Come Hell or High Water’ by Rupert Creed and Richard Hayhow, the community play for Bridlington of 1995, there is a conversation between an artist who is painting a seafront scene and a local fisherman:

‘You’ve got them ships dead right. Not sure about the flags though’, says the fisherman.

‘They add more colour. Balances the composition’, says the Artist.

‘They’re still wrong’, replies the fisherman.’ You’ve got them flying in the wrong direction’.

These writers may have been getting many things wrong, but perhaps their struggle to find a voice for a new form of theatre, and their confusion and awareness of their position in a wider social process, proclaiming the right for their individual voice as they also seek the acceptance of the collective, exhibits something of the projective, thrown together, and dissonant understandings of community that have become more recently theorised. As Claire Bishop suggests ‘a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained not erased’. And of course for a playwright conflict is the engine of narrative.

I want to briefly return to the question of heritage, because the community play found itself developing as a form at the same time that Robert Hewison and the heritage baiters, as Samuel calls them, saw heritage begin its ‘inflationary career’ commodifying the past and shoring up a crumbling national identity. And that it, heritage, became in Samuel’s words, ‘one of the principal whipping-boys of Cultural Studies’.

I wonder that if by neglecting to investigate the work that the texts of this first generation of community playwrights was doing that the community play movement allowed the subtleties, and potential of its work to be overlooked, and that the more easily observable signs of its production processes and its cross germination with a heritage discourse was therefore able to take precedence when identifying and codifying its formal qualities. That by remaining partially invisible to itself it was unable to follow Lyotards’ process whereby, ‘art is caught in an eternal treadmill of formal innovation and assimilation’ and instead found itself dissolving into some kind of quasi HLF franchise which has no real interest with, or understanding of, the idea of community theatre as an act of social provocation.

I am aware I may be trying to validate my practice. But the role of the writer in community theatre is a specific form of writing with specific challenges and the methods that writers have used when faced with these challenges – whatever their relationship with the communities they are working with –  should be brought to light to ensure that the community play, as it moves through its second and into its third generation, is able to stand up for itself again as a hugely ambitious social experiment in the introduction of theatre into the public sphere.

And maybe we should love our writers a little more, especially when they fly the flags in the wrong direction.

New Labour, new community theatre


Thorney Beginnings, Marvellous Middles and Moorends – a show by Excavate for the Right Up Our Street programme funded by Creative People and Places

The New Labour administration that began in 1997 is seen as a key moment in the relationship between the by then established community arts movement and the wider social sphere with an arts policy that embraced cultural democracy, increased funding, and was highly aware of the wider social importance of the arts. A dedicated policy group was set up to investigate how to achieve this and in its report to the DCMS advised that the Arts Council had a specific institutional role to play in addressing social exclusion: ‘ACE should explicitly recognise that sustaining cultural diversity and using the arts to combat social exclusion and promote community development are among its basic policy aims.’[1] The Next Stage report that was subsequently produced by the Arts Council in May 2000 reflected this recommendation stating the need to ‘develop the potential for relevant forms of theatre to play a role in tackling social exclusion’.[2]

Whilst it is clear that under New Labour this conjunction of the arts and social exclusion became a new imperative in the arts and funding ecosystem, I think it is worth backtracking a little to a moment that is often overlooked in the rush to identify the Blair government with an increasing instrumentalism of the arts. In 1994 the Conservative government of John Major introduced the National Lottery, which explicitly attached financial support to the arts to the idea of ‘good causes’. Suddenly it was possible to get public funding for arts projects through the Awards For all scheme, which was part funded by the Arts Council but administered through the Communities Fund, simply by showing that these projects had some social impact regardless of the quality of the art form.[3]  And many, myself included, rushed to take advantage of this economic largesse, creating all manner of small scale artistic interventions with community groups across the land.

The state had declared its interest in community art. Not in the art of the community art but in its social impact, in its by-product, or tied together in a package that George Yudice calls ‘culture as resource’, with the production of the work being a method for social and economic development. [4]  And the state was willing to pay because they had a list as long as your arm of the things that they needed help with.

This was not what the idea of cultural democracy that had fired the community arts movement was all about. But after years of tough economic times many community arts organisations, with buildings to support and wages to pay, were willing to engage in this new relationship. After eighteen years of Tory rule they were willing to embrace anything that (New) Labour offered them on the assumption that this was a move in some kind of new direction, and presumably a leftward one, however small that might be.

Perhaps this was always a possibility. As Owen Kelly indicated it had always been difficult to pin down any kind of artistic agenda for community arts leaving the definition to one of process and ‘a behavioural or moral position.’[5]  And the moral position was increasingly being viewed as one in which the aim was to bring as many people as possible into the arts tent, and once they were there to ensure that they were given the chance to participate fully.

Community arts found itself in a double bind. Seeking to confront the state by its culturally democratic imperative to give voice to communities who had little power in the face of the political, social and economic apparatus. And yet now being asked to do this on terms other than their own, a position that Owen Kelly had warned of in which community artists were increasingly positioned as a kind of semi creative social worker, a situation that lets ‘one branch of the state send in a group of people to clear up the mess left by another branch of the state’ and worst still wilfully refusing to accept that this was the case.[6]

But could the work that the state was sending its way be assimilated and developed and re-imagined by the community arts movement or would it actually find itself being neutered by this new partnership? Perhaps the fact that even its name began to change might help to offer a clue into who was coming out on top.

‘The phrase ‘community art’ fell out of favour at the beginning of the 1990s, to be replaced by the seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’ writes Francois Matarasso in his essay ‘All In This Together’: the Depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain 1970-2011’.[7] Matarasso is an interesting voice in this debate, a much quoted voice for the merits of cultural democracy and also for the benefits of participation. In Use or ornament: The social impact of participation in the arts, he asserts that

Art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned;  contributes to social cohesion, benefits environmental renewal and health and injects creativity into organisational planning.[8]

And yet by the time of ‘All In This Together’ he finds himself bemoaning ‘a transition from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds today’.[9]

Matarasso, in searching for the move to ‘participation’ suggests that the term ‘community’, being co-opted by the State ‘to rebrand policies such as the ‘community charge’, ‘community policing’, and ‘care in the community’, became ‘treated with suspicion by academics and radicals alike’.[10]  And that with a recent history of political retreat from the ideals of the left the emergence of the new term ‘participatory arts’ was a much needed shot in the arm. But what was this participation that had crept into the lexicon so that community arts companies found themselves using this term as either an alternative or even a defining term over and above that of ‘community’? How – or did – it differ from what had gone on before?

nightbainbridge_192Bolsover Bingo – Excavate – for the First Art programme funded by Creative People and Place and Places

At this current moment a large injection of funding has been made available by ACE through the Creative People and Places scheme to ‘cold spots’, areas of the country where ‘involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average’; a scheme driven by the belief that ‘everyone has the right to experience and be inspired by art and culture, so we want to transform the opportunities open to people in those places’.[11] Many of the organisations that are running the programmes funded by this scheme are community arts organisations, and they have spent huge amounts of time setting up mechanisms to ensure that the local voice drives the work that is made, as can be seen as the first evaluation reports begin to come out of the first phase of this work.[12]

The fact that community arts work is largely produced by organisations that are not necessarily art form specific (although different organisations tend to specialise in certain media) has also impacted on the level of conversation and debate around these issues of participation. Only two of the fourteen organisations that make up the forum of the East Midlands Performing Arts Federation (EMPAF) are companies that would describe themselves through their art form – Excavate and Salamanda Tandem [13]– all of the others comprise staff teams who create projects but do not necessarily deliver them, employing outside and associate artists for this purpose. Therefore the questions that they grapple with are not so much those that may concern the individual artist tasked with developing an artistic intervention in, with and/or alongside a community but rather how they can ensure that what is defined as a community project, and which represents that community, is truly shaped and voiced by that community, rather than being used or hijacked by an outside force (as Sheila Yeger suggested that she wanted to do in the writing of her community play as mentioned here). All of which leads, understandably, to the participants increasing involvement in all aspects of the production process. The community play model of Ann Jellicoe can be seen as a move towards this position, a development from the first stage of community theatre where the interaction appeared to be simply one of companies coming out and performing their work to, and in, communities. And surely, if you are searching for an increasingly democratic culture, then a trajectory of increased participation appears to be in line with the original thinking of the community arts movement. But is this participation a social one, or something else?  Did the increasing move into work with defined social impact agendas alter the very notion and relationship between the participants and the art that they were meant to be making together?

The work of Excavate has nearly always been based in communities defined by geography, where contested issues of how that community is defined are a part of the process. It was a strange experience to find ourselves being asked by Nottinghamshire County Council sometime around 2005 to work with a community of teenage girls to create a piece of work that would help reduce levels of teenage pregnancy (we politely refused the offer, although sadly not with the insight shown by Mark Murphy[14] who suggested in a workshop I attended that if he makes a piece of community based theatre work he wants people to be so caught up and excited by the process that he would rather there were more teenage pregnancies). But Excavate were not alone in having such a conversation. From the late nineties community artists found themselves confronting an ever more defined series of communities to which they were asked to ‘provide’ a service, communities that were nearly always defined by deficit, communities not of difference, but of similarity, at least within the definitions of the community that the artist was (and still is) invited to work with.

Whether this is regarded as art or as social work what is clear is that the relationship between the artist and the participant in such a relationship became one in which the process was meant to lead to some form of personal development which may be monitored for funding purposes. The community artist was offering a service, not only to the commissioning body that is working with them in an effort to alleviate some form of social issue, but also with the participants who were aware that they were involved in this work because of this social issue, and that as a result there could, perhaps should, be some individual benefit to this participation.

Training for the community artist became more about issues of care than about the art form. Government regulations insisted upon levels of disclosure and insurance creating subtle shifts of perception of the role of the artist. The funding requirements that allowed this work to happen, and which kept many community arts companies in the black, needed attendance figures and evaluation sheets which tended to ask participants what they had learnt from the process, if they had met new people, what they had most enjoyed by taking part. All of them questions about their individual relationship to the work at hand and rarely prompting debate of the potential for collective action as something that may evolve from this artistic engagement.

As Shannon Jackson has identified

systemic support for the arts paradoxically can use the arts as a vehicle for training citizens to seek ‘individual solutions to systemic problems’ to recall Ulrich Beck. Such artistic palliatives offer therapeutic rehabilitation, temporary pride, or imaginative escape in once-a-week artist visits that are not reciprocally empowered to re-imagine the political economic landscape of participants.[15]

Process and product, social engagement and artistic output, event and play, context and artwork, were all, in the original aims of the community arts movement, to be tied up in a chaotic but ultimately transformative experiment that the community artist was to traverse hand in hand with the community they worked in and alongside. But now, with what Claire Bishop describes as this ‘ethical turn’; judgement was increasingly confined to ‘the degree to which artists supply a good or bad model of collaboration – and to criticise them for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to ‘fully’ represent their subjects (as if such a thing were possible).’[16] Just as Matarasso was concerned that the trend ‘has been from radicalism to remedialism’[17] so Bishop can see this move leaving art entering ‘a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures’.[18]

So what happened to the art? There is no doubt that community arts and community theatre, through their ongoing instrumentalisation, had found that the social impact of the work began to drive the methodology. And this work takes time: ‘What people often see is the tip of the iceberg. For every youth performance that people watch, what they don’t see is the hours of meetings that have gone on before this to make small but important changes to youth service provision to see that happening’.[19] The engagement with the specifically social, as a part of the work of community arts organisations had become increasingly time consuming, moving attention further and further away from the art that was being made. Discussions and debate about the actual work seemed to vanish. Which seemed to brush a rather problematic issue under the table. Because aesthetic quality, as any community artist is aware, ‘forms the most fraught core’ of many debates around the work. [20]

There are many reasons why questions of what is and what is not high quality have been troubling for the community arts movement. From whose standpoint are these judgements being made? If arts organisations begin to strive for artistic ‘quality’ then will they merely begin to mimic dominant forms of culture? And if it is the process of making the work that is seen as being what truly defines the ethos then does it really matter if the finished product is aesthetically efficacious? As the move from ‘community’ to ‘participation’ progressed; the social work that the arts was being asked to do escalated; the evaluation required of this work to prove impact expanded;  the individual’s experience as a ‘recipient’ of an artistic intervention became more important; so the actual debate about what was being made as art began to recede out of view.

But does this matter? If the work that is being made is for and with a very specific community, do we need to be so caught up in the debate about the quality of the artistic work? Maybe struggling with issues of participative democracy rather than artistic quality were the questions that needed to be untangled to allow community art and community theatre to thrive? But what of quality? Does it have to be the case that increased participation and a more democratic form of making work means that the work is less artistically potent?

It is certainly the case, as Bishop argues, that most community arts has ‘no secondary audience: it has no discursive framing nor an elaborated culture of reception to facilitate comparison and analysis with similar projects, because community art is not produced with such a critical audience in mind’.[21]  Except of course the audience with and for whom the work is made. Su Braden makes the point that this audience is one that may be ‘the last in line to respond to artistic innovations’ and that this therefore has the potential to lead to an artistic conservatism.[22]  Playing on Adorno’s question of ‘what do the people want?’ (as Bishop will go on to do) Braden realises the inherent irony of a question which whilst appearing democratic is offering nothing new. For it is only through the production process of making work that new means of expression can arrive. But for this to happen I would suggest that there needs to be a genuine exchange between artists and community in which, as in any exchange, both sets of voices are given equal weight.

[1] John Hughson and David Inglis, ‘”Creative Industries” and the Arts in Britain: Towards a “Third Way” in Cultural Policy?’, Cultural Policy 7/3 (2001) pp. 457 – 478 (p. 464).

[2] Hughson and Inglis, p. 462.

[3] DCMS, Lottery Grants Information [n.d]  [accessed 26th March 2016].

[4] Louise Owen, ‘The Witness and the Replay’ in Performance and Community: Commentary and Case Studies ed. by Caoimhe McAvinchey (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) pp 155-187 (p. 169).

[5] Kelly, Owen, Community, Art and The State (London, Comedia, 1984 2001), p. 14.

[6] Kelly, p. 188.

[7] Francois Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”: The Depoliticisation of Community Art in Britain, 1970 – 2011 , in Community Arts Power: Essays from ICAF 2011 ed. by Eugene van Erven (Rotterdam, Rotterdams Wijktheater, 2013) pp.214 – 239 (p. 215).

[8] Francois Matarasso, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts (Stroud: Commedia, 1997).

[9] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 216.

[10] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 225.


[12] Such as the Final Evaluation report for Right Up Our Street, written by Dr Leila Jancovich, Leeds Beckett University (as yet unpublished).



[15] Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, (Oxon: Routledge, 2007) p. 27.

[16] Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorshop (London, Verso, 2012), p. 23.

[17] Matarasso, ‘”All In This Together”’ p. 216.

[18] Bishop, p. 23.

[19] Interview with Kevin Ryan, Chief Executive Officer of Charnwood Arts, 22 March 2016.

[20] Bishop, p. 190.

[21] Bishop, p. 190.

[22] Braden, Su, Artists and People (London, Routledge, 1978), p. 72.

Ann Jellicoe, the writer, and the ‘community play’

My introduction to community theatre came through the work of Ann Jellicoe, probably the most influential writer and director working in the field and the woman who is still most closely identified with the notion of the ‘community play’. Indeed Jellicoe’s own book Community Plays: How To Put Them On,  published in 1987 is still the only available text that provides any kind of blue print for the creation of community theatre; (I know three of the people in the photograph on the front of this book – Mr Carlyon was the father of one of my best friends and Mrs Hill still works in a shop in my home town of Colyton. I have always been a little bit frustrated by this cover though – for I was standing just behind Alexandra, and yet somehow missed out on being included in the image).

VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

In many ways Ann Jellicoe and ‘community theatre’ have become synonymous, and her work, which had great success during the eighties and into the nineties, became for many the defining notion of what ‘community theatre’ should be (and, for many, still is). Put very simply it was the idea that the play, a play which was produced by a professional production team and written by a professional writer, would be performed entirely by the community.

The moment of inception of these community plays, of this new theatrical paradigm, coincides almost exactly with the first Thatcher government, the radical shift towards a monetarist policy which has been defined as ‘neoliberal’, and a redefinition in which ‘the values of ‘community’ which informed the 1970s were to be replaced by those of the nuclear family and the individual’.[1]  By the time of ‘Entertaining Strangers’ the tenth play (and the last to be directed by Ann Jellicoe, who was to resign from the company she had formed in protest at a large Arts Council cut), the Miners’ Strike had recently come to an end, the Conservatives were in the middle of their second term of office, and the turmoil in the Labour Party was most clearly shown by Neil Kinnock’s attack on the Militant tendency in his Leader’s speech to the party conference in Bournemouth.[2]  This was a period of economic uncertainty, of industrial unrest (that would soon be used as the excuse for a curb on Trade Union rights), of accelerating social disintegration and of political realignment.

At the same time many of the writers who had been seen as the leading voices of the left and who had cut their teeth in alternative theatre movement from which the origins of community theatre had sprung were being welcomed into the cultural mainstream. Brenton, Hare and Bond were all commissioned by the National Theatre in what could be seen either as an entryist tactic similar to that employed by Militant, or as the dominant culture absorbing emergent ideologies. (Ironically an unofficial strike over pay and work shifts by backstage staff at the National lead to Strife, John Galsworthy’s play about a strike in Wales being ‘staged in limited, or the wrong, decor, since no scenery can be moved without “black-legging”’.[3] The striking workers were eventually dismissed).

As Baz Kershaw, one of the most perceptive analysts of this work asked – how could a series of plays being performed by amateurs of all ages in a series of South Western towns where ‘the contextuality of community theatre rendered it especially sensitive […] as conservatism in local communities was legitimised by the wider socio-political climate’ possibly create work that could in any way be seen as political? [4]  The answer was to lie in the position within the production process of the writer.

Ann Jellicoe has never suggested that the form of community theatre that she created should be seen as political; in fact she stressed the opposite: ‘Politics are divisive. We strongly feel that the humanising effect of our work is far more productive than stirring up political confrontation.’[5]  And it is this commitment to keeping out of trouble that has led some commentators and critics to view this work as inherently reactionary. That whilst it proclaimed to be part of the community arts agenda of challenging the cultural and social hegemony, in reality it reinforced ‘an idealised notion of community as an unchanging unity’.[6]  And if the local community was merely representing in microcosm the wider social sphere, with all of its attendant inequalities and tensions, then it was merely reproducing social norms that were represented in the dominant cultural art forms. Which was not what many in the community arts tradition were aiming for.

And yet many of the writers that Jellicoe chose to write the plays (when she wasn’t doing so herself) were those that most would recognise of being of the left – Howard Barker, David Edgar, Sheila Yeger. Was this because she felt that these writers were more able to deal with material that was about the interaction of the individual and the local with wider social forces? Well if so she didn’t let on, preferring instead to say that ‘It has certainly been my experience that amongst eminent or accomplished writers, the most generous in time and energy relating to ‘ordinary’ people are generally socialist. They take their obligations to a community with great serious and sensitivity.’[7]  Which suggests that it was those writers embrace of the context in which the work was to be made, the idea of this being a conversation, that was what she valued the most. This was not about creating work with a political message inscribed in the text but much nearer to the idea of those community artists who could see the necessity to create new means of expression through social engagement and conversation. As Jellicoe makes clear. For these ‘generally socialist’ writers who she preferred to work with ‘find it a great problem when they are asked not to write a “political” play and a great deal of my time and energy has been spent in talking them through this problem’.[8]

Given that any writer rarely gets an opportunity to create theatre with a cast of over a hundred with its potential for overtly social themes this statement may suggest that the writers found the job slightly frustrating, an opportunity thwarted. But comments by Barker, Edgar and Yeger suggest the opposite. Yeger is particularly interesting in that she very clearly saw the opportunity as one that allowed her to ‘say the things that I always say’, only in an amplified way, and that in the first draft ‘I had aimed a kick at the groin’.[9] But after working with Jellicoe to ‘relinquish some of the things in my first draft’ she created something that she found much more potent and ended with ‘a more subtle and I think, a much more human play’.[10]

Maybe there were other ways for the politically radical to be written into the text. If it could be seen that what may be inherently political in this process was not the specific story that was to be told, but the way in which it was to be told, the way that the relationship between the artist and the social context was to be interrogated, then maybe there was no reason to be frustrated at all, but to be utterly thrilled by the potential that was on offer. And that therefore the writer of these plays, if they truly understood and were responsive to the conversation that was happening between the means of production and their artistic form, would be able to offer something that was truly radical.

It is specifically in the example of Howard Barker that Baz Kershaw sees how potent this form of community theatre could be.  His appointment as the writer of the second community play ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ was ‘politically audacious because of his iconoclastic socialism […] aesthetically audacious, because of his predilection for subverting conventional theatrical codes’.[11]  In a detailed examination of Barker’s text and of the performance of it Kershaw explains how the playwright was able to construct a script that, as a performance, was both aesthetically and politically efficacious, because of the way that the means of production of the realisation of the script, along with the interplay of the historical context of the story with the specific local tensions within the community, became an integral part of the play and the performance’s reading. This is, of course, no easy task and ‘less skilful writers may fail to animate this type of intertextuality through historical parallelism, so that the event will not be inflected by radicalism’.[12]

This specific theatrical form then, the ‘community play’, had the potential to indicate a potential path for other forms of community and political theatre through ‘a sensitive animation of the relationships between the play and the event of which it is part […] socio-political criticism and community celebration […] analysis and the carnivalesque’ with each responding, informing, questioning and transforming the other. [13] The play was a part of a process that was an event that contained a play. And if the writer was able to investigate the work that the play was doing within this context, as well as the way in which the play sat within and was produced by the event, then perhaps we were beginning to see the development of the theatrical form as a socially and aesthetically conjoined vessel. Contextual animation was and is fundamental.

Barker was an outsider brought in to produce a script for a community who wished to make theatre. Or rather he was brought in to produce a script for a community who were interested in exploring what would happen if theatre was made there. And this partnership between an established writer and a community was highly successful, at the very least in artistic terms.

For a few years following on from ‘A Poor Man’s Friend’, Jellicoe continued to work with writers whose work could also be seen in the established theatre venues, before leaving the company in 1985. Under the guidance of Jon Oram the work continued (and does still, with Stephen Lowe currently writing a play for the City of London[14]) although many of the plays were now written by Oram, albeit with some notable exceptions.  The community play form was copied and produced across the country, as well as being exported to the Netherlands (there are 215 identified community plays that have materials connected to their production currently held in the Community Plays Archive and Database at the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance).[15] But even though community theatre appeared to have become recognised as a valid cultural project bringing artists and communities together, the problems of documentation, or rather the lack of it, along with the fact that these productions, without the involvement of such prestigious names as Howard Barker of David Edgar, seemed to happen without any interest from the wider world. This was exacerbated by the obvious fact that each production was only ever tailored for a specific community and left little in the way of a published trace (and never a script) meaning that it was always operating alongside the dominant theatrical culture and never threatening to impinge on it in any way; not that this position was one to be disparaging of.

But there was always a question nagging away in the background. Whose theatre was this? Did it belong to Barker and the other writers? To the Colway Theatre Trust, or Claque as they were to become? To Ann Jellicoe and the directors that followed in her path? To the people of Bridport and all of the other communities who performed and helped produce the productions? This question of ownership, of power, is one that still lies at the heart of most discussion and contestation within the community theatre and community arts movement. And the working through of these questions, of decisions that have been made in response to them, have meant that there are very few other situations in the history of community theatre where we have seen such established writers as Barker producing community theatre work. For by the mid-nineties community theatre was on the cusp of another key phase of its development; an engagement with the New Labour agenda and of a developing instrumentalism of the community arts movement.

[1] Kershaw, The Politics of Performance. p.168.

[2] ‘I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.  You start with far-fetched resolutions.  They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.  (Applause) I am telling you, no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos – (Continuing applause) – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.’

[3] National Theatre, Welcome to the National Theatre:The history of the National Theatre:Stage by Stage [n.d] [accessed 29th March 2016]

[4] Kershaw, The Politics of Performance, p. 182.

[5] Jellicoe, Ann Community Plays: How to Put Them on (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), p.122.

[6] Woodruff, Graham, Community, Class and Control: a View of Community Plays. New Theatre Quarterly 5/20 (1989).

[7] Jellicoe, pp. 123-124

[8] Ibid., p. 124.

[9] Jellicoe, p123.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kershaw, The Politics of Performance, p. 187.

[12] Ibid., p. 203.

[13] Ibid., p. 201.



Arts in the community as a place-making event


My work with Hanby and Barrett (which became Excavate in 2014) led us to the door of The University of Nottingham where we asked if anyone could help us understand a little more clearly the processes that lay behind the work we were making. Since then our relationship has gone from strength to strength. In 2009 and 2010 we created a series of shows in Bilborough (documented here in a short film) before going on to develop another series of projects around Raleigh (including this rather impressive archive of audio interviews). We’ve since been involved in the Performing Impact project and the last two Being Human festivals, re-staging our community play about the Luddites in the Galleries of Justice, and creating a day long version of B.S Johnson’s ‘The Unfortunates’ across Nottingham (which The Spectator wrote about). And now we’re working on more two projects with them (of which more later).

Below is a chapter for The Routledge International Handbook of Arts and Education that came out of this work.

Arts in the community as a place-making event

Pat Thomson, Andy Barrett, Christine Hall, Julian Hanby and Susan Jones.

Stuart:            Hello everyone, my name’s Stuart, thanks for coming along this evening, it’s good to see you all; especially those of you who have helped me over the last few months, trying to discover the history of this… (unveils tandem) It’s a Raleigh. Someone gave it to me ten years ago. …

On the screen we now see an image of a leaflet – ‘Request for Help. Stuart Bull is trying to discover the history of this bicycle which he has recently taken possession of. If anybody has any information on the bicycle, or would be interested in helping Stuart in any way; then please call him on … or email ….

Stuart:            Many of you will have received one of these with your Raleigh pension cheques; …. and this evening has come about because of the response that I had to these requests for help, just about all from ex Raleigh people, because, as it turned out, this tandem and The Raleigh, the factory, seem to go pretty much hand in hand. Which made sense to me because I used to work there too.

And, as ex Raleigh people do, we began to share memories; and of course we all had stories from the different shops that we worked in.And after all the talk about the good times and the bad times and the work we did and the nutters we knew, someone suggested that all of this information that I’d gathered from these people about this bicycle should be shared with others; because as I said, in some ways the story of this tandem could be seen to tell the story of the factory itself. And there are people out there – like many of you – who would want to know that story. Because the factory, The Raleigh, was such an important part of all of our lives. Such an important part of Nottingham itself. And so we started talking about the best way to do this, the best way to make something that none of us had ever made before. And we decided that we would have to go about it the Raleigh way; with each of us looking after a part, a component and then finally sending it to Finishing so to speak, where we would put the whole thing together.

(Abridged introduction to A lifetime guarantee: A history of The Raleigh and the people who worked there by Andy Barrett, 2012.)

This is the beginning to a piece of community theatre, developed as part of a project to mark the 125th anniversary of Raleigh bicycles. As it happened, it was performed in the year when Raleigh ceased to be a British brand. The shift to Dutch ownership was the last in a long series of associations between bicycles and the city of Nottingham. The project was developed and put together by an interdisciplinary team consisting of Hanby and Barrett, a community theatre company, and academics from schools of Education, Engineering, English, History and Computing Studies at The University of Nottingham. The university’s newest local campus, named the Jubilee Campus for its opening in 2000, occupies the site of the former Raleigh and Sturmey Archer factories. A Lifetime Guarantee was the culmination of a series of activities designed to remember and mark the ‘place’ that Raleigh had in Nottingham’s history and identity.

This chapter explores arts in the community – that is, activities such as A Lifetime Guarantee – as place-making events through a case study of one community theatre company, Hanby and Barrett. We firstly report three key elements of Hanby and Barrett’s methods when working in communities: an ethnographic approach, an emphasis on recognition and the role of language and narrative. We then consider this as a case of place-making practice and suggest that this approach has much to offer institutional-based education in general, and arts education in particular.

Before we begin it is important to signpost the basis on which this case was produced.

Our partnership

Academics Thomson, Hall and Jones have been working collaboratively with Hanby and Barrett, a community theatre company, for six years. Most often, Jones has worked as an ’extra pair of hands’, both observing and participating in productions, but Thomson and Hall have also attended planning meetings and performances. During that time The University of Nottingham has funded four community theatre productions and associated lead- up activities.

We have been jointly engaged in a community theatre practice which builds networks between the university and a section of the city which is generally known by a series of council estate names, or by sets of statistics which designate the area as one of high unemployment, poverty and deprivation. We have taken a counter-view, an assets-based approach (McKnight, 1995; McKnight & Kretzmann, 1996), which began with the understanding that people who lived in this region had histories, experiences, stories, literacies and arts practices which we were interested in and wanted to know about. While there was no doubt that many households in these neighbourhoods were facing hard times, this did not warrant seeing them as uninterested in the arts, in social activities or in policy and politics, which was how they were usually portrayed in official documents. We all saw community arts in general, and community theatre in particular, as running counter to demeaning and demonising discourses.

We were also interested in understanding better how community theatre ‘worked’ and ‘what it did’. To that end, we engaged in a great deal of documentation of process, and Susan Jones worked as an ethnographer on the first three community productions undertaken in the Bilborough estate (Hall & Thomson, 2010; Jones, Hall, Thomson, Barrett, & Hanby, 2013). We also undertook a desk study to see what kinds of literatures might inform a better understanding of the processes so highly valued by and in community theatre(Thomson, Sanders, Hall, & Bloomfield, 2013, see also This chapter is a further exploration of a key concept we have been working with – that of place.

An ethnographic approach

Hanby and Barrett are usually contracted to work in specific places, material locations boundaried by their postcodes (Cresswell, 2013). Some of the work we discuss here is based in a large post war Nottingham council estate, Bilborough. Like all geographical locations, this is not a homogeneous neighbourhood, but has multiple social and cultural networks and associations within it, and which extend beyond it (Massey, 1995). However we also discuss the production with former Raleigh workers: while most of them live in one region of the city, their association is one brought about working on the same geographical site. The University of Nottingham Jubilee campus where the academic authors work, is strongly associated with the city itself as the site of the former sprawling Raleigh factory. In this instance, the place involved is the site of the factory, not where former workers live.

Place based community artists typically begin their approach in ways not dissimilar to community developers or teachers planning a unit of work. They start by doing some research about the area they are about to enter. Hanby and Barrett began their work in Bilborough and on The Raleigh in the library. They were not looking for official statistics, but rather for documents which told a story – how the council estate was developed, how bicycles were advertised, what the public were told about how they were manufactured, which important people visited the factory. They also searched for current organisational contacts and addresses – sporting clubs, churches, social organisations listed in Bilborough, and retired employee and bicycle-based organisations in the case of Raleigh.

This desk research was followed quickly by person-to-person connections. Hanby and Barrett always seek out places where they can talk with people (Figure 1 details an early stage of their first project in Bilborough, a play based on memories about how one post war working class garden estate was built and occupied).

Teas and breakfasts are ordered and A and J tell me about the meeting they had just had with various people – luckily, one meeting had led to others, when they had bumped into people. They seemed pleased with the reception they had got on their first encounter ‘proper’.  A man who was apparently ‘Mr Bilborough’ had thought the project was a good idea and A and J felt that having such a mover and shaker on board could only be a good thing.  They left with an offer of the community group of which this man was a chair distributing 800 flyers around the community to promote interest in the project (invitations to a meeting).

A and J are buoyed by this interest in the first hour. However, they warn me that there are many issues with a project such as this.  A shows me a LONG list of contacts they have made with various community groups, all of which have to be re-contacted now the work has started.   This is extensive and ranges from social issue agencies funded by local government to Guides and Scouts.  J receives a phone call from someone who is responding to an email.  He invites them to a meeting next week (Local Action Group), of which there are two – one in the eve for families, and one during the day for elderly people ‘who daren’t go out at night’.

A and J then set to work on looking at shop windows for community notices. A and I go to find the church.  We find the church hall, with a notice for Bingo, Karate and Japanese sword classes.  The church is nearby, although closed.  There are two services a week here.  A has been in contact with a local GP who is interested to involve young mums and toddlers in the project.  He decides to write to them, though, rather than drop in today.  The medical centre is right next to the pub, in front of the library – it feels like everything is located in a 200 yard stretch. We go to community centre to look at notices – A continues to list them (there are many) – dance groups, T’ai Chi, toddler craft sessions, youth drop-ins…

Then we head off towards the stadium. On the walk there, we pass many prefab houses, some of which have been externally modernised.  A thought he’d heard that there was a nickname for this area, ‘tintown’, based on the style of houses

(Susan’s field notes. 2nd October, 2008)

Sites for conversation ranged from child care centres, play groups and senior citizen’s centres all the way through to ‘door stopping’ – bringing a lounge chair to the local market and inviting people to stop and talk for example.

sofa 2

(Andy Barrett chats with a local resident at the local market. Julian Hanby is behind the video camera recording the conversation).

John Thompson (2009) argues for applied theatre practitioners to take just such an ethnographic approach. He writes of theatre in trauma and war contexts and argues “for an ethnographic perspective that starts with the knowledges and practices within a community before diagnoses, treatments or performance techniques are assumed to be appropriate”(p. 71).  Listening, hearing and respecting local ways of being and dealing with life militates against incoming theatre practitioners initiating activities that are can lead to more distress and harm, rather than the healing that is intended.

Of course, the residents of Bilborough and the workers from The Raleigh are not in war-ravaged Rwanda or Sri Lanka. Hanby and Barrett are not engaged in theatre as healing. However, council estate residents and factory workers alike have been subject to a range of belittling discourse and antagonistic and/or paternalistic policy agendas. Community theatre runs the risk of perpetuating harm by reproducing stereotypes, or berating residents for failing to mount sustained and effective political opposition, or commiserating with them for being powerless victims of a totalitarian state.

But common to theatre in war contexts and that undertaken in Nottingham is ethnography as a practice of ‘recognition’.


This ethnographic approach continued right through the Hanby and Barrett theatre-making processes. Working in much the same way as good journalists, or good academic ethnographers, Hanby and Barrett focused on the places where people congregated and then asked questions, followed up leads, listened carefully and took copious field notes. They wanted the performances to ‘ring true’ to the people who were involved, and the people who came to see. And they did.

All of us – academics and theatre practitioner alike – have frequently observed how people reacted when they saw their stories re-presented back to them in artistic form. Even if the story was not exactly as they told it, but as a version of it, they almost always responded as if something of the essence of what they had talked about had been successfully captured. They didn’t leave the performance moaning about how ‘they got it wrong’ but rather left talking animatedly to others, using the performance as a way of re-remembering the events and others like them. The performances were also very important to those who were involved.

The Wigman Ladies group have been in every Bilborough production. They have been meeting together since the 1950s. They were important sources of stories for the first Hanby and Barrett production which was based in memories of the area. They starred in a film which recreated their get-togethers from that time. Jones reminisced with the Wigman Ladies about this experience:

Susan: What was it like to be in the film?

JF: It was brilliant.

JW: I’ve never laughed so much in my life.

JF: When I’ve let people see it, they think ‘Oh no’, then when they watch it they say ‘that film’s absolutely brilliant’.

JW: You know when we’re all walking in the door, that’s the funniest bit.  I can remember Daphne – you know Daphne, who died – it was a windy day and her hat blew off!  We was running down somebody’s garden path fetching this hat back.  We kept saying I hope a bus doesn’t go past.

B: And everybody got involved, even the people who couldn’t walk very well, they all got a part to play.

JW: Joan did the money, didn’t she?

JF: Doris worked at – what did she do – worked at Boots?

B: You know when you watch the film back, I’ve got about three jobs – I worked at Boots, I worked at Raleigh and I did something else.  I did everything.   I didn’t realise.

JW: I loved it, when we all watched the film, when we all stood up and sat down.

K: Me and Daphne had to change hats.

JW: It was brilliant. I think they’re (Hanby and Barrett)  very clever people.

JF: How they got it exactly…

As the women got braver, they carried on these re-enactments into further productions.

wigman ladies

(The Wigman Ladies re-enact on the stage).

The concept that seems most to capture ‘how they got it exactly’ is that of recognition, as used in the writings of Nancy Fraser (Fraser, 1995, 1997, 2000). Fraser argues that one of the ways in which people are marginalized and discriminated against is if their identities, languages, choices and ways of life are mis-recognised. This misrecognition then turns into active discrimination and injustice. Fraser argues that a politics of recognition works for justice as a parity of participation – that is the right to participate in society on an equal footing with others. She says:

“According to the norm [of parity of participation], justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers. For participatory parity to be possible, I claim, at least two conditions must be satisfied. First, the distribution of material resources must be such as to ensure participants’ independence and “voice.” I call this the objective condition of participatory parity. … the second condition requires that institutional patterns of cultural value express equal respect for all participants and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social parity. This I shall call the intersubjective condition of participatory parity. … either burdening them with excessive ascribed “difference” or by failing to acknowledge their distinctiveness.”(Fraser & Honneth, 2003, p. 36)

Community theatre does at least some of these things, particularly in relation to respect and voice. We know that many of the community members and school students who participated in Hanby and Barrett’s productions do not experience parity of participation in their everyday interactions with for example, school, the health service and housing authorities. We know that they come from an area of the city which is spoken about in media and government reports as if they are feral and feckless, or quaint relics of a bygone age or simply unimportant places where ‘nothing happens’ (as a local government officer described Bilborough to Hanby, Barrett and Jones). We know from conversations that Jones had with participants in the project that they are often fed up with other people making decisions for them and speaking for them. They often feel that their versions of events do not warrant attention and that the attention they do get is sometimes stigmatizing or misleading (c.f. Peel, 2003; Vincent, 2012).

But the ways in which people interact within the frames of community theatre might offer some redress to this lack of parity. We have seen that community theatre can provide moments and spaces in which stories of everyday life can be told and be valued and respected and held in esteem equal to any other life story. Recognition via parity of participation is one of the processes which leads to community members saying they have valued the experience of participation and of being an audience member, that they have ‘got something out of it’.

Sharing in a performance which ‘recognises’ allows a reinvestment of local meanings in a site which has been largely been taken over with nationally oriented representations of apathetic, social abjection and deprivation (Tyler, 2013). Arjun Appadurai (1996) argues that local neighbourhoods, as a context for human activity, have been under serious duress. Not only are neighbourhoods vastly unequal in income, power and status, but neoliberal governments have sought to turn localities to their own ends, defining them only in relation to national needs and interests. So the council estates in Nottingham and other places are best known by national referents to levels of employment, income, health and education levels, and are discussed in policy in relation to their use of services, capacity to contribute economically, and so on. Projects that seek to work with local understandings of place can thus be seen standing out against the erosion of local meaning-making practices (c.f. Hayden, 1996; Rose, 1997).

In this process, language and narrative played a key part.

Texts of their lives

‘Texts of their lives,’ is a term used by Bob Fecho (2011) in his explication of the dialogical writing classroom. Fecho begins by suggesting that, in school, many students are given assignments and exercises that have no connection with their own lives. They do these dutifully, reluctantly or not at all, and the learning that results is valuable only in terms of test results. Fecho argues for classrooms that not only allow students to gain the skills and scores that count but which also ‘create opportunities for students to use writing to explore who they are becoming and how they relate to the larger culture around them’ through the provision of ‘systematic and intentional means for reflection and action,’ which offer ‘a means for making sense of their lives’ (pp. 4–5). Such a classroom sees the lives of students and their families and communities as valued, key classroom multimodal texts from which to build and extend learning.

This is not the same as an experiential curriculum but is rather, as Fecho puts it, an extended ongoing conversation that brings together the intersections of the personal and academic in ways that help children and young people – and their teachers – build understandings of themselves and their worlds (pp. 7–9). Fecho proposes that teachers take the idea of ‘texts of their lives’ as central to their classroom practice.

Hanby and Barrett worked with ‘texts of their lives’ in all of their projects. We suggest that a key to the recognition that was produced in Hanby and Barrett productions was the practice of deliberately searching out, valuing and using the texts of the lives of Bilborough residents and the former workers at The Raleigh. And of course, these texts were sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes a reminder of what making a life in past times actually meant – the realities of working. Hanby and Barrett did not dodge the unpleasant.

‘I was put on this tool punching holes into wheel hubs. It was a very difficult job; you just couldn’t earn your money. One and threepence a hundred. How they came up with that figure I’ll never know. You may as well have stayed in bed all day for the amount of money you were going to earn. And once you were on it that was that. Nobody was ever going to offer to swap jobs with you. Nobody wanted it. And then this lad who lived over the way from me told me how to get off of the machine, because he’d been stuck on it once. And it was simple really – if you put the wheel hub onto the lathe backwards then the tool would break. And if you broke the tool then you’d get taken off of the job.

It took me a bit of courage to work up to that. They weren’t stupid. That machine had been broken quite a few times. But I thought never mind, it’ll be worth it. But it wasn’t. I was given as right dressing down and they put me on Banding. Even worse. Taking off all the little bits of scrap metal from the screws and nuts that had been drilled and tapped. It sounded easy enough, it always does. ‘You just pick up the screws and touch them on that emery band. That’s it. Three pence a hundred’. But the screws were that small you could hardly pick them up, and as soon as they hit the band, that was going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, they would ping out of your fingers. Terrible’.

(Excerpt from the script A Lifetime Guarantee).

The extract contains expressions familiar in Nottingham and other parts of England – ‘the lad’, ‘a right dressing down’ ‘to moan’. Here is also a narrative of mindless labour, of work that hurts the body, of low wages, of no other option. This was a narrative familiar to very many who worked at The Raleigh – they had either experienced this directly or knew someone who did and thanked the arbitrary employment gods that this wasn’t their lot.

In their ongoing conversations with local people, Hanby and Barrett were always on the lookout for individual stories, local expressions, recurring events and views. The field note extract earlier in the chapter shows Andy already thinking that the expression ‘tintown’ might have some resonance locally. This was something he then proceeded to test out in subsequent conversations. Finding out about the neighbourhood was an iterative process. It was this attention to language that alerted Andy very early to the fact that although most of us knew the bicycle factory as Raleigh, it was known by insiders as The Raleigh. Using this terminology created rapport in interactions, showing Hanby and Barrett to be on the ‘inside’ and also perhaps able to be trusted with further insider information.

Audiences recognised this language, the stories and the events. Some could pick out the exact words that they had spoken. But all of them knew that what they were seeing was ‘true’, as shown in this extract from an interview with residents of a retirement home.

Brenda: They did it true to how people had said, really.  They were using a lot of the words that was in it.

Betty: Perhaps they were the memories that most people had got, you know.

It was these moments of shared recognition, produced by the narratives and specific use of language, developed through taking an ethnographic approach, and their presentation in an artistic form, that constitutes place-making.

While Hanby and Barrett productions were discrete and occurred over a relatively short period of three years, they did change associational patterns in the neighbourhood. New friends were made, and the performance itself became a new shared memory.  A place-making event has these characteristics – the material, geographical location becomes, for those who are involved as either audience or participants, a little more imbued with public meanings – meanings built from the life experiences of those who live there, told in language that is familiar. This stands in contrast to media and political recasting of local experiences into bureaucratic and sensationalising texts (Smith, 1993).

Arts in the community as place-making

Place is not simply a physical location. A location becomes a place by virtue of the meanings that people attribute to it (Casey, 1998; Tuan, 2011). A postcode becomes meaningful through what happens there, the social interactions and networks that are established, the cultural and political actions that are taken and experienced, the memories and stories that are built up about it (Gallagher, 1993). Place as meaningful to people is always in formation. Meanings can be changed over time, as relationships, events and interventions occur (Hiss, 1990; Nast & Pile, 1998). Some places appear to be consolidated in memory, but these memories of place do change – and these memories are what community theatre often works on and with, as is the case with Hanby and Barrett productions.

We are drawn to Massey’s (2005) notion of place as an ‘event’. Rather than place being fixed, it is always in formation, always being made, unmade, and changed. Massey argues that a location becomes special, meaningful to people not because of a ‘romance about a pre-given collective identity’ or coherence. Rather, she suggests place is ‘throwntogether’, the result of ‘the challenge of negotiating a here-and-now… drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres’ (p 140). Massey contends that place, as an on-going act of negotiation requires dealing with multiplicity and this entails a particular, political engagement with human and non human others … ‘the sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot ‘purify’ spaces/places’ (p. 142). If place is always an event, then community arts in general, and community theatre in particular, can be seen as having the possibility of place-making through the processes of bringing people together as performance and audience.

We want to suggest that the notion of place-making goes beyond our case study of Hanby and Barrett; it is one that could be of interest to arts educators.

The notion of place is not unknown in schools of course. There has been a great deal of interest in recent years in place-based education (Gruenewald & Smith, 2008). This approach suggests that school students can learn a lot through a focus on their own local area. They are able to use their own existing knowledge, as well as that of family, peers and residents, to connect to the mandated curriculum. Using local and intergenerational ‘funds of knowledge’ (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) can also create new social networks for young people, allow them to do important identity work, and consolidate understandings about the local, national and global (Thomson, 2006). Some place-based projects are overtly political, seeking to address local issues of pressing significance, such as the conservation of water resources (Comber, Nixon, & Reid, 2007), and the preservation of significant oral histories (Wigginton, 1986).

The notion of place-making however offers a more active role for schools and teachers than simply educating in and about place. The notion of place-making suggests that teachers can be active in producing new social connections and cultural meanings. By adopting the three key elements that we have outlined – an ethnographic approach, recognition, and the use of ‘texts of our lives’ in the form of local language and stories – teachers can encourage students to connect with their wider neighbourhood in acts of place-making.

We propose that arts educators are very well positioned to do this kind of place-making work. The arts can bring people together to engage, as participants and audiences, in acts of shared meaning-making. They offer ways for students and their extended families and friends to build a collective public expression of what it means to be ‘ in this place’. Arts education might be seen as not simply responding to place, but as actively making and remaking what place means to young people, and to the people with whom they interact. When place-making events are put together as a practice and pedagogy, arts education has the capacity to not only offer knowledges, but also an enhanced sense of identity, and a lived experience of ways of living in the world together.


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