A death in the family

Ann

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.

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A speech for the launch of Year of the Artist (2000)

As I’ve been sorting through folders on my laptop I’ve come across a speech I gave at the launch of the Year of the Artist in Nottingham, at the Broadway Cinema in 2000. This scheme followed on reasonably quickly from the launch of the National Lottery and, along with the birth of Creative Partnerships in 2003, was for many artists the moment that they were able to start charging some proper fees for their work.

I was invited, along with Jeanie Finlay and Simon Withers, to give a short talk on the value of the scheme from an artist’s perspective. I wanted to be reasonably provocative and think that it did have some useful things to say, which is why I’ve posted it here.

My project ended up being called Sticking A Pin In, and took the form of a residency at BBC Radio Nottingham. Every week I would appear at the radio station with an ordnance survey map of the county, a blindfold and a pin. Every week someone would ring in and tell me to go right a bit and left a bit and wherever the pin landed would be where I would spend the next week travelling to (by public transport). Before I stuck my pin in I would talk about my findings and play excerpts from the audio recordings I had made with my portable minidisc player on my previous journey . These were then turned into a series of radio monologues called The Village.

Year of the Artist, as this BBC news report states ‘took artists out of seemingly elitist venues such as museums and concert halls, and into football grounds, onto public transport, banks and the workplace’, and reached ‘more than 25 million people’.

The images I used in my presentation – some of which I’ve included here – come from a project called ‘Tales From The Robin Hood Line’ from 1999. This involved me travelling to six ex-mining villages to gather stories and create a series of monologues which used digitally manipulated slides (created by Carol Green). It was an incredible experience that I will write about in more depth later.

Good afternoon everybody.

Just over a year ago I was sitting at a bar in Newstead village doing a bout of research for a project that I was doing with the Playhouse which basically involved me visiting a number of ex mining communities and collecting stories from these places for a series of solo shows based on my travels. And I had decided, given the atmosphere in the bar to be cautious in declaring my reasons for being there. Because if you haven’t been to Newstead village do not let your imagination use Newstead Abbey as a template. There are no peacocks in Newstead village. If there were they would be covered in rust or something.

Anyway I had decided to ease myself into the conversation, by just sitting at the end of the bar and hoping that I would be assimilated into the group through osmosis. And after about an hour and a half feeling pretty pleased that my ruse had paid off and that I could now count these men as collaborators, and maybe even put them on my mailing list, I decided that the time was right to talk to them about this valuable community based arts project.

And I told them and they listened and they said “Well it’s all bollocks!” before deciding through some kind of telepathy to totally ignore me just as the landlord finished pouring my sixth pint of Guinness.

peacock

And I had three months of this. Although nothing quite as vitriolic. And after a while I began to think that maybe it was all bollocks and began to sympathise with this antipathy towards anything that was seen as ‘art’ because these places appeared to be laden with arts activities dominated by a subtext that seemed to say ‘look, we can help you’. This isn’t just art this is therapy.

And so in Newstead they had decided to set up a special Mayday celebration replete with Maypole and Maypole dancing in an effort to reinstigate a timetable of public events that would help to give the place some shape, to combat an alarming lack of Jack Straw’s beloved civic responsibility.

But the village had never had a maypole. It had been specifically built to service a pit. Tit and knickers nights and dominoes at the Welfare were the prevalent cultural activities. Pagan celebrations never got a look in.

And this confusion over the means with which to create a sense of identity and community was prevalent wherever I went.

‘We used to be close knit, coal mining, chapel going, labour and co-operative orientated working communities’, was the general gist of it. ‘And now we’re not’. And when I asked people what they did do nowadays they said ‘well most us work in sandwich factories and there’s a lot of new Blues Brothers acts coming through’.

blt2

sandwichqueen

onthebelt

Anyway some months later I found myself in the south of the County, working for Rushcliffe Borough Council where I was doing a not too dissimilar project. And these villages used to be stuffed full of ruddy faced and besmocked villagers, stooking the barley, stodging the brooks, bending the willow, and generally being very rustic with each other.

But now they’re inhabited by hordes of people with chamois leathers polishing one of their copious cars. And complaining about plans to build houses in the immediate vicinity because it would destroy the soul of the village.

And I came across the Keyworth Quiz. An activity which has been going on for over 20 years and which has become central to a sense of what the village is. Thirty plus teams from all over the village congregating at the village hall over a two month period to contest the celebrated trophy. And the Quizmaster has to write fifteen hundred questions a year to facilitate this activity. And I wrote a piece gently poking fun at this burden of questioning, because it appeared to me that this was a feat of some magnitude. Four questions a day, every day. You have a couple of bad weeks and you’re having to come up with one every waking hour of your life. And this monologue, which was nothing savage, was banned from being performed in the village. Because it was seen as an attack and a threat. And it all became a bit Stepford Wivesy, the Parish Council sitting around making Muttley noises. Which is odd because having been stung with the bollocks thing in Newstead I had decided to go for the jugular in the piece that I made, to tackle the situation head on, hence the peacock image. And the interesting thing was that the ruder I was about their village the more they liked it. And when I performed the monologue, which was called Crashing Through The Boundary, again at the Nottingham Playhouse, the Newstead Regeneration Officer, one of a growing industry, organised a bus trip and everyone that had seen the thing came to see it all over again. In their best suits and outfits.

Although to be fair to Keyworth they have since allowed myself and John Hewitt to make a film about the quiz. Although we’re expecting blood to be spilled when we finally show it.

And this question of the way in which towns and villages across Nottinghamshire identify themselves following the demise of their traditional communities began to really interest me and when this YOTA thing came up I thought that it would be a good chance of taking some time to look at this further and try to reimagine the County and to explore those places where the impetus for new means of identity could come, and who the new figureheads could be so that Robin Hood, and DH Lawrence, and lace and coal and Methodism could be thanked for their services and placed to one side.

slide01

And BBC Radio Nottingham were willing to take me on board which is great because they cover the whole County, serve as a way of cementing locality and community for many people, and loads of lovely equipment to use. And so armed with a minisdisc, and a microphone I will be trying to create a future blueprint for the identity of the County. I’m still reasonably vague about how it will all turn out in the wash, as you’ve probably guessed by me banging on about previous projects, but that’s the plan.

Thank you.

Ther first pin that I stuck in the map took me to Mansey Common and Eakring. Whilst there I met a woman who was a Methodist, the last Methodist in the village. Intriguingly she lived next door to Helen Cresswell, the writer who had created Lizzie Dripping, a programme I used to watch as a child, and who, she told me, had been named by Mary (the Methodist) after Helen had heard her shout out to her daughter as she was going off to play – ‘and you make sure you’re home on time Lizzie Dripping!’

This was the resulting monologue.

Common Ground

Sound of a fire burning, and of dough being worked briskly. A warm feeling to this. Let this play for around ten seconds.

Listen to that. That’s aggression; that’s what that is.

A particularly hard knead.

It’ll be a fine loaf though. Oh yes. You may as well turn bad things into something good. The Manure Theory. No use weeping and wailing all day. If a moper comes knocking on your door you should always make a tidy excuse, as my father told me. There’s those that deserve sympathy and those that ask for it and if you get tangled up and can’t tell the difference then you’re a bigger fool then they are and you may as well go straight ahead and throw every last bit of time you’ve got into a bottomless pit.

The bashing stops.

There. Behold my loaf of devastation.

Or maybe it would be better as rolls.

Oh I don’t care!

I mean it was surprising it lasted as long as it did really. I should stand here and give thanks.

But I still haven’t built up the courage to write to Mr and Mrs Wilkinson. They’ll feel terrible, I know they will. I can see them now, just after the service had ended, and him explaining how they were going up North. And we all looked around the chapel in a kind of slow motion. And a very odd little sound came out from the back of my throat. A bit like a frog when it’s been stepped on.

He’d only just come back from Iona too, doing his lay preaching training. And I was ever so looking forward to him doing his first sermon in front of them all at Ollerton. Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones it was going to be. He did a bit of it in his living room after June had cooked some lovely bacon.

Bread goes into oven.

She opens a door and walks outside. The sound quality changes. Birds etc. (from my Ambient MD)  Again let this play for around ten seconds.

It’s beautiful today. They get better each year you know, these Autumns. There’s a couple of trees down Back Lane that have taken my breath clean away, and I can’t remember them doing that before. Maybe it’s just the gratitude growing.

Sighs. A bird singing.

Two hundred years and that’s that. Shunted into St.Andrews. I know they’ve got the heritage the Anglicans, and they’ve stood the test of time, you can’t deny that. But I’m Methodist stock through and through. Ministers and Lay Preachers that’s what I’m used to. And why they can’t let the vicars write their own prayers if they see fit to do so seems daft to me. I mean surely there’s times when you hunt around in your prayer book for the right thing to say and find that none of them really hits the nail on the head.

And it seems so crowded now. Although ten is hardly what you could call a multitude.

It’ll make a nice house though, that chapel, that’s true enough. Just like the Primitive one. And the old school. And the old smithy. There’s folk after it already I’ve been told. That’s what happens to these places isn’t it? They become lanes full of houses with old in the title. We’ll be called Old Eakring before you know it. Preserved and pickled and all the life sucked out of us. But Methodism isn’t finished yet. Oh no. There’s a good Methodist tradition here, it’s just that there aren’t any Methodists. But some of the other chapels on the circuit are still going strong; it’s not all fingertip stuff. Walesby’s tottering a bit, but they’re still open for services. And I think that one of them have started doing a Songs of Praise type thing – going round the village and asking people for their favourite hymn and then telling them that if they come along on Sunday they’ll be guaranteed to hear it. It’s not a bad idea I suppose but you’re putting your organist under a bit of pressure.

You wonder who will move into it. And it’s upsetting. Because before you know it there’ll be fancy kitchen units and implements where the Minister used to give the sacrament. Not that anybody does any cooking these days. Oh no. They’ve not got the time.

No God and no Time. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s moved into this village that’s got any. They just don’t bring it with them. Which is daft isn’t it. Because that’s what you want in a place like this. I mean look at the clock at St.Andrews. That hasn’t moved forward for years and years and years. If you took that as your guide it would be 6.30 every day, all day. Not that anybody would be able to tell you without looking first. Maybe that’s why they’ve still got the congregation and we haven’t. But they like their clocks don’t they, the Anglicans. Like to make sure everything happens when it’s supposed to.

It’s God’s revenge I think. Every time they shut down another one of his houses he makes Time a little bit shorter. And nobody noticed at first; well you wouldn’t. And then all of a sudden the day’s over before it’s begun and nobody’s got any time to do anything any more. If it was down to me I’d make sure that whoever buys that chapel has some time. I’d want to see it. Come on, empty your pockets. Show me your time.

I mean if Agnes had still been alive then maybe the Wilkinson’s wouldn’t have felt so guilty about leaving me there. She was the staunchest Methodist you’ve ever set eyes on was Agnes. Never bought a Tombola ticket in her life. She had red fingertips when she died from the blackberry picking. A basketful of berries and her lying on the floor of her cottage with deep red fingertips and a sheet white face.

The sound of the dumble now starts and continues underneath this section

I went to the dumble when I found out.

The dumble for about four seconds.

We used to go up there as young girls when we’d fallen in love and be all soppy. She was a good friend was Agnes. Running to the Primitives together so that we could get up to the Balcony and eat our sweets without being spotted. Spying on all the men coming in with their waistcoats and the ladies in their hats.

Dumble for three seconds.

It’s been there since time began that has. Well at least since somebody started making a note of it. And it’ll be there until the next ice age. Because the farmers can’t use that. They can pull down the hedges and put them up again as many times as they like, but the dumble will keep going; digging deeper and deeper into the earth.

There’s hedges standing there that are five or six hundred years old. Folk going back generations would have picked berries from those as they took their beast to graze up Mansey Common. Hardly anybody knows where it is nowadays. And it’s one of the most beautiful things. Most of the commoners are Doctors and Architects.

The dumble fades into the sound of the Methodist church door opening and suddenly Mary is in the church and the sound quality has changed utterly.

I don’t know who was more nervous that first Sunday after Mr and Mrs Wilkinson had left. But it was our turn for the Minister and I could picture him getting ready over in Ollerton. Putting on his dog collar and running out to his car as the rain splattered down. Wondering if it was still worth it. But when he arrived he was wonderful.

And it had such a warm feel that chapel, what with all the oak. The panelling and the pews and the communion rail. And Eakring means a ring of oaks you see, so it all made sense. And his voice seemed to fit that deep colour just right.

It was a lovely sermon; although you felt you had to concentrate all the while. ‘I think the Lord may be trying to tell you something’, he said, ‘maybe you need extra guidance’.

I wonder if he thought it was special like I did.

Oh but it was thriving here it was. It really was. With all the farmers and the men who worked on the fields. The Sunday School and the Women’s group and people coming to read passages from the bible or talk about their own lives. And the anniversary in the second week in May when all the circuit came and the supper afterwards was known as the best Methodist supper in the whole of Nottinghamshire.

You wonder what will come to take it’s place. Because if there’s a space something usually takes root and has a go. Just look at the hedges.

A sudden noise of crowds which carries on underneath this:

I went into Mansfield a couple of weeks ago, to one of the chapels there. And as we were going in on the bus I saw an old man crossing the road. And he had a drink from McDonalds in his hand, you could tell because it had that big M on it. And he was trying to race across because of all the traffic, and the drink was spilling everywhere, splashing onto the road. And it looked for a moment as if he was bleeding, and it was his blood that was splashing all over the ground. And he was holding onto this thing, this throw away cup, for dear life. It upset me very much that did. And I thought I wouldn’t go back there for a good while.

The noise of crowds now moves into the sound of a helicopter flying overhead.

There they go again. Sweeping round the village to keep an eye on those students clambering up the pretend electricity pylons. You’d never believe it would you. A load of massive great pylons built in the village and not one of them producing the tiniest hint of power. But they’ve got to practice somewhere I suppose. Just like the lay preachers. It’s no good going out into the world to do your job and finding that you’re scared stiff of heights or haven’t got a single sensible word sitting anywhere in your head.

That’s where I met Mr Wilkinson and introduced him to Methodism. When National grid used to be BP. The second world wars best kept secret that was, and we were sitting right on top of it. Oklahoma oilmen moving in, wells springing up all over the woods, and work found for a lot of folk. Two million barrels for the war effort.

You wonder if they’ll ever want to try and get at it again. They said it was unviable in the end. But you don’t know how desperate they’re going to get though, do you?

But if they do it won’t be with those old nodding donkeys.

That’s what I was; unviable. Two hundred years and it comes down to the Minister in the pulpit turning the pages of that great big old bible, and me, just me, in the congregation. It’s difficult to avert your gaze in that situation, for the pair of you.

Can you imagine Christ sitting at the table for the Last Supper and seeing that only half of the disciples have turned up because the others were too busy, or couldn’t really be bothered. Getting up to announce that ‘One of you shall betray me’ and realising that nobody is paying the blindest bit of attention.

Sound of congregation singing ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’, (a whole chorus of).

I do miss it you know. My one to one tuition. And I often wonder how the Minister is. We’d begun to work some lovely harmonies.

The sound of the congregation fades into a duet with a one or two harmonies.

 

Copyright Andy Barrett 2000