The community play as initiation into the public world

20500020He Had Roses in His Heart – a community play for Caunton, 2005

I’m currently reading Richard Sennett’s 1977 book ‘The Fall of Public Man’, a fascinating account and theory of the move from man as a social actor to that of a psychological entity, as he/she moves through the eighteenth century to the present day in the specific milieus of Paris and London.

It’s not an easy read but it is a provocative and stimulating one. At heart Sennett (and I am only half way through) appears to be saying that there is a constant interplay between the public and the private, and that for public man to exist – and by this he means (I think) a mode of discourse in which the individual and the personal are hidden in the background so that the encounter between strangers is free and uninhibited – a whole range of factors need to be brought into play.

For Sennett the great cities of London and Paris, and the fact that these grew at a huge rate in the eighteenth century as people who did not know each other arrived to make their fortune, was the perfect setting to witness the forms of social interaction that were created to allow these places to function, and for meaning to be created amongst this ‘gathering of strangers’.

Throughout the book he refers to the idea of theatrum mundi, the idea going back to the ancient Greeks that all the world really is a stage. This allows him to also analyse what is happening on the public stage during his period of investigation, and to draw conclusions about what this means for his argument. In the mid nineteenth century for example he suggests that the fashion for accurate historical interpretation in costume and set so that ‘what you see on the stage is what the person really is’, is in contrast to the vanishing visual clues that are now a part of city life due to the mass production of cheaper clothes, and also a desire from most individuals to ‘hide’ themselves because of a growing belief in the link between the external and the internal; the fact that your character can be read and interpreted by external clues and that therefore you are constantly in danger of involuntarily revealing yourself.

During this period, ‘(I)n the city, society must depend on art to end mystification, to tell a truth which men and women can otherwise arrive at by an often faulty process of deduction from miniaturised clues. That is to say, the relation between the audience and this art form began to be one of dependence. The theatre was doing for them that which in the modern capital they could not easily do for themselves’.

This has got me thinking a little about the community play. Of course all theatre is, to some extent, like all good art, a way of communicating and revealing a truth that may be slightly out of view and difficult to otherwise pull into focus. But the community play, and community art (as opposed to participatory art which may have no real interest in the social or the communal at all, but simply continue to dig ever deeper into our current ideology of the primacy of the individual) may be doing this very thing that Sennett mentions here – it may be doing for a community, and for the individuals within that community, something that cannot be otherwise done. It may be an act of revelation which cannot be arrived at or communicated in any other form. And this revelation is one that allows the community to be glimpsed, to be perhaps understood, to be more easily entered into.

Of course there is the fact of the community play’s existence, the production process, which plays a part; a community is revealed when it becomes clear that for an objective to be undertaken that collective action is required. But this needn’t be a play. It could be a jumble sale or a darts tournament or a karaoke night. The community play is one in which a representation of a community – past or present (and always because of the fact that it is performed by the living it is a mixture of the two, unless the subject matter is the here and now or an imagined future) – is laid out before an audience, who may or may not be strangers.

Which is why the community play is such a fragile and important form of theatre. And why the writer has to be incredibly sensitive to the specific codes of meaning that exist within the community in which they are working. The audience may be looking at the play for clues as to what it means to be a member of the community in which they live. For those who are new to this community they may be hoping to discover an idea of the traditions and rituals, the social forms and the specificities of language which will help them to enter into this new social arena.

They may in fact be thirsting for this, wanting to find the unique in this local, wanting to discover rules which will allow them, as Sennett’s public man is allowed, to converse and engage freely and uninhibitedly with their new social world. For those who have been in this community for a long time, or throughout their whole life, they may be looking for a play that encapsulates and communicates the unspoken rules that have been established, so that they can continue, so that communal interaction can be at its most healthy and vigorous.

Sennett asks at one point in his book, what a public actor is, and suggests that it is someone whose identity ‘is the meeting point between who a person wants to be and what the world allows him to be. Neither circumstance nor desire alone, it is one’s place in a landscape formed by the intersection of circumstance and desire’. It seems to me that this is a good definition of a community play, because in just about all of those that I have read there is both a historical understanding of the identity of the community (they are defined as a community of shipbuilders or farmworkers or post war families looking for new homes etc.) and also an idealised notion at play of what this community represents, whatever its specific makeup. And this idealised notion is often represented in the gradual move towards a more collective sense of identity throughout the narrative as a (usually) small society made up of many competing forces find themselves facing a challenge that requires them to engage with each other in a more public sense.

This does not mean that at the end of these plays that the community has somehow evolved into some new form where internal tensions have been eradicated; for these internal tensions are inevitable. The local, after all, can never be isolated from the historical forces that surround it. But it does mean that the individuals within these plays – and there are almost always one or two individuals who make a journey of discovery in the potential power of community throughout the narrative – realise that through engaging with the public world that surrounds them that their private lives are also transformed in some small way.

20500001The initiation into Caunton continues

Some years ago Excavate (then Hanby and Barrett) produced a community play for the small village of Caunton in North Nottinghamshire as part of a series of four community plays in four neighbouring villages over four weeks, produced in partnership with New Perspectives (‘The Festival of The Beck’). One of the performers suggested that the play be performed every few years as it would give incoming families a chance to learn something of the village, and that it would be a ‘welcoming thing to do’. I think that what he meant was that this would in some way act as a form of initiation into the village, that through either taking part in or in watching the show that these newcomers would be given an imagined version of ‘Caunton’ that all could relate to and refer to and which, through being made concrete, would perhaps allow for public and social interaction to be more easily facilitated. That a model had been created which could act as an ongoing tool for social engagement. This village was one in which there was already a reasonably large amount of communal activity taking place, with many varied ways to engage with others on offer. But it was this play that the performer settled on as the most effective way of opening up the social world of the community to the stranger.

The community play then, in presenting an easy to see portrait of the public world of the local community, and in the journeys that characters make as they move to a better understanding of their role as social creatures, would seem to offer a useful guide to the interplay between the personal and the communal and through doing so a way into reconnecting with the idea of the public man.

Time for a community theatre of the absurd?

waiting-for-godot1

As I’ve been reading through the texts of the many community plays that have been sent to me one of the most obvious things is that they nearly always have large casts. In many ways this sense of scale, of creating a large cast of characters both to reflect a wide social milieu that can somehow capture the breadth of community, with its many different components and interactions, whilst at the same time creating opportunities for as many people as possible to engage with the process, is at the very heart of what a community play is.

During the eighties and nineties this wasn’t a problem. The community play, as a specific form of theatre, had many cheerleaders and received a good share of arts funding. But such a structure – one that needs a lot of people to engage in it – was always going to be vulnerable if the money started to run out and the rather large organisational costs started to become a little prohibitive. As, it appears, happened.

But there is also a connection between scale and narrative. Organising a very large amount of characters who represent different aspects of the social strata calls for a narrative form which demands clarity, to allow the audience to navigate their way through this mass of humanity. As a result the community plays that I am reading, from the eighties and nineties and into this century, are often full of conflict within and between families, and within and between social classes. There are usually traumas or challenges which families or social groups or whole communities find themselves having to grapple with and which are resolved at the end, often with the characters having learnt something about the larger social world which they inhabit; they have somehow learnt about the role of community in a mirroring of the audiences relationship to the material.

This need for the writer to carefully plot a series of characters journeys through a wider social environment often results in plays that, in terms of their narrative structure, are rather classical and conservative. And coupled with the fact that many are based on historical stories they can appear as though they are the theatrical equivalent of the Victorian novel. It would be difficult to imagine, for instance, a community theatre of the absurd.

The community theatre writer is tasked with balancing agendas and ambitions. As a result of this they have many different jobs and roles (and as I start to interview more writers I will begin to get a sense of what these are). After hearing Gaby Saldanha’s paper ‘Translation as Performance’ at the recent In Dialogue symposium, where she looked at theories of performance and comments by translators to interrogate the performative nature of the art of translation, I have begun to think that one of my jobs as a community theatre writer is a little akin to that of the translator. Of course we have to act as storytellers and dramatists, to construct narrative and plot, but we have a host of other roles to play as well. Chief of which is to somehow translate an evocation of the community – of place, of the local, of some form of collective identity – and to find the right words (and narrative structure) to communicate this.

Alongside this there are the agendas that are brought to the table by the commissioning bodies, and their understandings of what the community theatre playwright is expected to produce. Often these come in the form of explicit social interventions, the idea that the plays are to serve a purpose and that the actual art is really a by-product of a range of interactions  and interventions that take place during the process of creating the finished piece of theatre (interactions which are then evaluated and sent up the shute to someone who can suggest that ‘yes this is all helping’, although it doesn’t really look that way right now).

With the move of much community based theatre into the heritage sector there are other agendas at play still. The social imperative is still there hovering in the background, but these agendas are more about communicating ‘fact’; of unearthing a historical story and re-presenting it rather than using this story as a way to trouble the present. Maybe there is space for work to reflect on current issues, but these usually come in the form of some kind of parallelism – look how what happened then reflects on / can teach us about now. Then there are the agendas and expectations of the community and the participant.

Mid Pennine Arts have recently set up their MPA50 project, one of several examples of  community arts organisations using anniversaries to reflect on their history and to try and unearth artefacts from their many years of work (and often funded by the HLF, such as this project marking the fortieth anniversary of Junction Arts). One of the moments that is well documented by MPA is the visit of Welfare State way back in 1971. There is a letter to the Burnley Express that caught my eye, in which the writer says ‘On Saturday evening my two youngest children persuaded my wife and I to take them to see the ‘Welfare State’ performing one of their – I thought meaningless – rituals on Turf Moor Estate’. And although Keith admits that ‘I can’t say I fully understood what it was all about’ he found the event ‘a most pleasurable experience’.

What is so interesting about looking back at the work of Welfare State is how, through the use of image and spectacle and music, they created a blend of carnival and ritual that allowed a real space for interpretation. Obviously for Keith Whalley such a space turned out to be of much more value to him than he was anticipating. Which, I think, is a very useful admission. It always interests me to see the numbers of people who attend the Nottingham Contemporary where the artwork is often difficult to contextualise and where entrance points for understanding the work are not easy. It seems to me that there may be a greater thirst for people to be lost in something that they cannot quite grasp, which is slightly out of reach, than we realise. In a world where interactions are increasingly monetized and graded and graduated perhaps this sense of slight bewilderment and disorientation is a very healthy one.

With community plays, rather than the community performance model of Welfare State, there is much more of a reliance on text, and an interpretative space is perhaps much less easier to create. The narrative structures, as mentioned above, at least in the large community play model, find themselves needing to tie up threads of plot and story, to draw together the social and character conflicts, to offer resolution. Narrative forms which are highly recognisable, being seen daily in film and television.

But what happens when the production process changes, when the possibility of creating such large works vanishes, as has generally been the case over the last fifteen years? How can a smaller cast, a smaller group of people carry out the weight of the work that the community play is meant to be doing? Might it mean moving away from the narrative form that the larger casts, as I am suggesting, imply? Maybe it offers a chance to experiment with form and narrative. Maybe through experimenting with form and narrative the job of ‘translating’ the community may be done in more potent ways. But doing such a thing, of experimenting with form, is no easy task. Because of the production processes that surround the making of the work.

As well as the HLF the other main funder of community theatre is, right now, the Creative People and Places scheme. As it states on its home page – ‘Creative People and Places is about more people choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live’ (note the fact that choice is given priority here over the act of creation). From my own experience, and of many others I have spoken to, there is a real disappointment in the way that this scheme has played out.

Instead of genuine conversations between artists and communities that create spaces that may be troubling, uncertain and genuinely creative in their search for a language and form that responds to the very specific questions and environment that the community is grappling with, more often than not the conversation is a very one sided one. Communities get to ‘choose’ and the artists come and ‘deliver’. For reasons of funding, local politics, community agency, but ultimately perhaps of artistic cowardice, the overriding need is to ‘give people what they want’, thereby closing down any real discussion and experimentation in the reaching instead for forms that are readily understandable. The exact opposite of the situation I mentioned earlier at the Nottingham Contemporary.

Theatre and performance is increasingly finding ways to engage with the social creating work that searches for new forms responding to gaming, digital technology, global networks, amongst many other influences. This could be a hugely liberating moment for community theatre makers, and for community theatre writers. Perhaps it is time that a community theatre of the absurd is initiated. Or at the very least a community theatre that is hungry in its search for new narrative forms.

History or heritage? Thoughts on the HLF (Part One)

20150704_0215 ‘The V.C. Factory’, a community theatre project funded by the HLF

Anyone who has been involved in developing a community theatre project with the HLF knows that it can be a tricky business. The HLF don’t really get theatre; they seem to prefer things that are a bit more tangible and are very keen on websites and digital output. And yet it may be that it is the HLF who are now the main funders of community theatre work.

The recent ACE report ‘Analysis of Theatre in England’ (published 13th September 2016), only mentions ‘community theatre’ a couple of times, both occurring in Appendix 9: The awareness of theatres’ civic and social roles. But this is about the roles of the theatre buildings and their places within the community; the services that they offer as spaces as much as the work that they do. It is not, in any way, connected to the original vision of community theatre workers that Su Braden, in perhaps the earliest theoretical examination of the community arts movement (Artists and People, 1978), saw as growing out of artists ‘spontaneous and gradual understanding of the underlying forces which control culture and access to self-expression’; and which ultimately leads to a genuinely dialogic exchange between artist and community in which the artist who wished to communicate with the community needed to understand and embrace (which is not the same as mimic) the cultural traditions of that community; and that through this a deep engagement in and with this new social context allowed the possibility of new means of artistic expression to develop.

However if you tap ‘Community Theatre’ into the HLF main search box you will get (as of the 18th November 2016) 279 results. Exactly what form of ‘community theatre’ these projects take is difficult to tell, but given the HLF’s funding parameters, and looking through a number of projects, it seems to suggest that the work is both geographically bounded (the community is very often a community of place) and is performed by local people, usually with the support of some outside professional help; a model that has many similarities with the ‘community play’ model of Ann Jellicoe and beyond.

But what happens when the work is funded by an organisation whose opening statement on their About Us page reads:

‘From the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks we love, from precious memories to rare wildlife… we use money raised by National Lottery players to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about’.

Is work that is funded by the organisation work that may find it more difficult to trouble and interrogate history and heritage? Does the actual term ‘heritage’, as Robert Hewison suggests (The Heritage Industry; Britain in a Climate of Decline, 1987) delineate a difference between a fluid and ongoing interrogation and engagement with our history, and a past that is placed in aspic, defined and labelled and rubber stamped with a specifically proscribed meaning that we can then put on a shelf to look at?

These are major questions, and ones which I will return to. But for now I want to look at one project that has been funded by the HLF. I have chosen this project because both the script and a Writers Statement are available online, something that is reasonably rare. And also because it comes through a funding stream that highlights the tensions between creating theatre and the demands of telling the historical story ‘correctly’, the First World War: then and now scheme.

The script is by Louise Gallagher and connects nicely to the HLF programme that funded it in that it is called ‘Then and Now Stories’. At the end of the script Gallagher asserts that it is available ‘for the use of school and community groups in the Kirkby Lonsdale area’, and as I read it I presumed it had been written for a cast of younger performers. But looking at the images from the show (available on the website) it is clear that this was not the case when the script was first performed.

I want to look at this script because it does, I think, tackle head on a number of issues that this tension between theatre and heritage, between imagination and fact, throws up.

First of all some quotes from the writer on the project (from the Programme Notes):

‘I wanted to facilitate the people’s telling of themselves rather than for me to ‘tell’ them … I didn’t think it would be right to dress them up in the point of view of someone who had no experience of what they have been through’.

‘I did some research but really what I was writing was a reflection of my own vision of the world not a representation of others’.

‘This wasn’t about my vision; this was about their collective vision as mediated by me. It feels like quite a responsibility when put like that’.

‘I’ve also learned that verbatim material as and of itself doesn’t necessarily make for engaging theatre. So, having started out wanting everything to be ‘true’ I’ve decided to use facts where they are available, for example the names and addresses of the soldiers included on the KL memorial, and to fictionalise from sources where exact facts were not available e.g. the retelling of the actual death of a conscientious objector. I’ve also tried to imagine the real people we’ve learned about and tried to give them voices which I hope will be authentic as well as engaging’.

‘Throughout this project I’ve really learned about the importance of audience and how as a writer you should have them in the back of your mind consistently as you write’.

There are, it seems to me, contradictions within this statement; but contradictions that are totally understandable and recognisable and which indicate some of the potential tensions that the writer feels when tasked with creating something that is both a document and artefact that serves a heritage purpose (due to the demands of the funders), and one that serves a dramatic purpose.

I think that Gallagher is obviously very aware of these because her text is one that consistently interrogates the role of the writer as a researcher / imaginer and the various purposes at play within the creation of this sort of performance. There is no ‘story’ as such, no recognisable narrative arc in which we engage with character and purpose and conflict. Instead a group of ‘Players’, over 16 scenes, convey information, often through the form of what can almost be seen as games, that ask the audience to think about the purpose of remembering, and the ways in which we are able, or even if we are able, to really penetrate the lives of those caught up in the mass trauma that was the First World War. This is a performance text that plays with being outside of and inside of the characters; that asks questions of what can be known, as well as what should be shown.

It is clear from the opening of the text that Gallagher is aware of the overarching purpose of this piece, that it is an act of memorialisation:

8 of the players freeze in the form of a memorial, whilst four others pose as onlookers.

From the very beginning there is an awareness of the gap between what is known and what may need to be imagined:

Player 1         We knew lots of facts and figures like ten million combatants died.

Player 2         And 60, 000 died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Player 1         But we were more interested in them, the individuals.

Player 2         The real people, the dads and mums and grandmas and granddads.

(…)

Player 2         We didn’t have their actual words.

Player 1         At the moment, you know, before they left.

Player 2         But we did know things about them from Sidney Richardson’s records.

Player 1         And from the stories you told us.

Player 2         And we knew about other people like them.

Player 1         From the diaries on worldwar1.com and the interviews with those affected recorded by the BBC fifty years later.

Player 2         So we imagined…

Player 1         …what they might’ve said.

This reference to the specific information source is interesting; both validating the veracity of the research in a very formal way whilst quickly pointing out the shortcomings of being able to construct a play using only this material. The imagination is called for. The creative act of the playwright (and those who were involved in the creation of the script) is validated.

For much of the script the Players are aware of their imaginative recreation of the historical facts, always ready to comment on this. So, Scene Two begins:

 Player 1         We imagined what they might have had with them besides kit. We knew diaries were banned but that lots of soldiers had them, and we knew non- standard issue postcards were banned at the front but that lots nevertheless were sent. We wondered if they’d taken photographs or games or gramophone records, as we knew some people had played them.

At one stage the Players ‘speak as if they are trying to remember a long past dream’. They are stuck between representation and being; between fact and imagination; between presence and non-presence. And perhaps the key moment in the text, that captures this tension best, is the long section that follows, as the performers come forward and tell us who they are / represent. Some are able to give a fair amount of information:

Player 4         Walker, Michael, Royal Scots Fusiliers and I live at 22 Mitchelgate, Kirkby Lonsdale. I’ve already served in the Boer War and in it I lost my brother. Up till now I’ve been working as a stone mason. My wife has just had a little girl; she’s a few weeks old. I’m 34.

But for others there is very little they can say, because very little has been discovered, and that which has been discovered is not clear anyway:

Player 11       Richardson, John W of Main Street, Kirkby Lonsdale. That’s all I know.

(…)

Player 3        Hardacre, Lance Corporal Harold, of Casterton Post Office where I used to live with my dad, step-mum and grandma. Up until now I’ve been making boots. I think I might be 23 but I could be younger.

And, most importantly, these players do not always talk in the first person. Sometimes they begin as though they ‘are’ the characters that they are talking about and then refer to themselves in the third person:

Player 5         Sydney Warwick joining the Border Regiment, I’m seventeen years old and I’m from Cautsfield, Kirkby Lonsdale. That’s all that can be remembered.

This phrase – ‘that’s all that can be remembered’ –  is a phrase that is used several times in this scene; and it is a vital one. The playwright is aware that an act of imagination is needed to tell this story, and yet when it comes to these names – names from the memorial – there is a sense that to imagine, to elaborate, to falsify, is not allowed. That even to take on the role of the individual at this point may be troubling, and that a retreat to a commentary upon the person rather than a fictional inhabitation of them (in however crude a form) may be what is required. That this is an act of memorialisation, and memorialisation has its own ethical boundaries which push up against artistic and creative ones. The result being that all that can be done, the only space for creative interrogation, is in the way that this information is presented. And once you have set out on this memorialisation route then where do you stop?

Player 2         But I want to remember all of them, the ones who didn’t come back; there’s nearly two dozen more.

Player 1:        There are too many. (Places hand on P’s shoulder). About turn.

This interrogation of what exactly these performers are presenting, the balance between the act of the imagination and historical fact continues to the end. There is a scene when we hear the Players reading out lines from the official postcards that the soldiers were given to send home after battles (postcards which had a series of set responses that they were to underline to communicate a basic message) intercut with imagined text that belie these official words:

Player 3         I am going on well.

Player 8         On top of my legs are the legs of three other soldiers.

Player 4         I hope to be discharged soon.

Player 9         I must be getting some sleep because every so often there’s a dreadful tickling sensation on my face or my ear or my arm and I start awake cursing the rat that’s just run over me.

Maybe the act of the imagination then is absolutely necessary when the official documentation, the sources that are available to us, have been through a process of official censorship that mitigates against any accurate and honest reflection on the events of that time. (We know that so many of those who returned never wanted to talk about what had happened to them. It is incredible to think that with around six million men mobilised during World War One that there is actually so little in the way of free and open description of what it was like; which presumably is one of the reasons why the poems of Owen and Sassoon are so heavily leaned upon).

20150704_0146-2‘The V.C. Factory’, a community theatre project funded by the HLF

Ultimately this performance text understands the context in which it is placed and is aware that it is the relationship between the raw material and the audience that is where the power lies. That to intervene too much in the mediation of this information may be a mistake. As shown most clearly in Scene Ten:

Player 1 sits behind desk DSL. Player 2 lays out a ‘Welcome’ mat DSR. As P1 says each address Player 2 who stands by the desk takes the ‘telegram’ and passes it to one other player who comes forward onto the mat and takes the telegram. The scene should keep being replenished as players go off and come on again in other roles until the very end where only one is left.

Music starts very quietly 6-8 lines into this scene and very gradually gets louder; the tune should grow more and more distorted as the scene progresses: Waltzing Matilda.

Player 1         (Behind desk) Mrs Procter, Low Biggins, Kirkby Lonsdale.

Player 2         (Stands) Mrs Procter, Low Biggins, Kirkby Lonsdale.

Player 3 comes forward onto the ‘Welcome’ mat, she takes the telegram, freezes, 4 and 5 come forward to comfort her; 3, 4 and 5 exit.

Player 1:        Mrs Walker, 22 Mitchelgate Kirkby Lonsdale

Player 2:        Mrs Walker, 22 Mitchelgate Kirkby Lonsdale

The scene continues in this pattern as more and more names are read out. I imagine that in performance it could be very moving, but it is also indicative perhaps of the way that certain moments, particularly those around memorialisation, particularly those in which real people who have died and who have left real families behind, create real problems for the writer. It is as though the writer is caught in the headlights of an ongoing and unspoken agreement of how we mark these moments. That we cannot use them as moments to interrogate the past because they are also the present, and as part of our present and our contemporary concern about causing personal offence or upset, we are left with nowhere to go. But of course the writer will always find a way to push out their elbows, however boxed in they may be, even if it is only in the form of a musical accompaniment.

In Scene 11 we move from the stories of ‘Then’ to the stories of ‘Now’; again the process being very clearly marked out:

Player 1         That was Kirkby Lonsdale then.

Player 2         And this is Kirkby Lonsdale now.

Again we are given simple information, memories of relatives garnered from school children; and then, in Scene 14 we are told what these children said when asked ‘why we remember the First World War’. Which gets to the very heart of this act of memorialisation, as yet again the Players come in and out of role, allowing them to comment on the words they are saying:

Player 3         Because of how futile war is, and to remember how many men were sacrificed for the evil of governments, and to think of the soldiers that risked their lives for our country and to remember all the soldiers that died.

Player 2 nods; Player 3 looks uncomfortable

Player 3         Except the ones who don’t want to be remembered.

In this moment Player 2 seems to become a gatekeeper of conscience; perhaps subtly interrogating the HLF’s own function as they ‘protect’ the heritage that we all ‘care about’:

Player 10       Because it was such an awful war and people wanted to remember all the brave people that fought in World War 1. Everyone knew someone who had died or got injured in the war but it did not stop another war.

Player 2 nods vigorously

Player 11       I – I don’t know.

Player 2 tut-tuts

Player 12       Because we won the war.

Player 2 tut-tuts

As the text reaches its end (Scene 15) we return to ‘then’, as information is intercut with first person narratives, almost certainly imagined:

Player 2:        … by April 1918 men up to 51 years old were conscripted.

Player 7         I don’t want to be catching moles all my life. I mean, I don’t mind it, but I’d like to settle down one day back home in Kirkby Lonsdale where I’m from, find a job there that pays and meet a nice girl.

Finally the past and the present, the then and the now, are brought together as:

One by one the players go back to the memorial formation. While they are doing this the others shake cans at audience members saying ‘memorial fund, memorial fund, put your hands in your pockets for the memorial fund’.

Throughout this script then, it appears clear to me, Gallagher is aware of her contested role within the process. She is a writer and one of her main tools is the act of the imagination, and yet, in this instance, she is faced with a situation in which she may feel that the material does not belong to her, and that therefore she needs to represent it as directly and honesty as possible. But as a story teller she wants to interrogate the material that she has at her disposal and so develops a number of strategies to do this which allow the writer and the material and the audience to come together not so much to explore the stories, but the purpose and potential implications of telling these stories.

A fair amount of HLF funding is around anniversaries; it’s a good way to try and draw some funding from them – ‘look it was fifty / seventy five / one hundred years ago that this event happened; surely now (rather than forty nine / seventy seven / one hundred and three years ago) would be the time to bring it to light for and with the local community’. Although not every anniversary is by any means an act of memorialisation (with the attendant dangers of being dragged into the gravitational pull of officially sanctioned tropes) it is a moment of rehydrating the past, of presenting the updated version of the story that can be passed on until the next time it is shared. And so it is in danger of being viewed as something that must be told correctly, that mustn’t veer too far from the ‘truth’ as it is known; that its job, ultimately, is one of heritage and not one where a historical story is used to tell of the here and now.

20150704_0040‘The V.C. Factory’, a community theatre project funded by the HLF

If, as Robert Hewison suggests, ‘the heritage industry only draws a screen between ourselves and our true past’ then how can community theatre funded by the HLF find ways to ensure that the ‘true past’ is brought to life? And how can it do what all history should do – excite and antagonise and interrogate and stimulate the present?

Come read these, you Monsterists

The Vital Spark

The Vital Spark at Moira Furnace, 2000.

I’ve been searching for community theatre plays. For the texts of these plays; for the scripts. And I have been very successful. So far fifty of them have been sent to me, or are on their, way via email and post. The quality of much of what I am reading is impressive. And as I read I realise just how important it is that these scripts don’t disappear out of view.

I want to stress that I am very aware, as is everyone who writes for this most collaborative art form of all, that a script is not the performance. But I would argue that the script, as well as being a stage in what will become a performance, is a performance in its own right. It is the performance of the writer completing an idea; of a journey through time of various stages of thinking and craftsmanship,  finally ending with a definitive work of art (at least until rehearsals begin) that is both blueprint for performance and a completed statement from the playwright of what this play should be, if performed solely through the imagination.

The playwright is lucky. We work in an art form that allows us to create two works from one idea. The performance is the one where we can hand over the work and join in with the team; making suggestions, changes, cuts, rewrites, so that the play comes to life in its embodied form, responding to the context of its performance but also the fresh understanding that comes from exploring its physicality and its inner workings anew. A wholly communal and collective effort which is in stark contrast to the initial process, without which the second could not follow (unless you are writing as part of a devising process). But, as most playwrights will tell you, it is usually the moment at the end of the first performance – the completion of the writing of the text – which is the one that gives them the most satisfaction. As the spellings and layout and pagination are carefully checked, and the pages pour out of the printer, the writer is at his most satisfied. The physicality of the text, the heft of the paper, is a work of art in itself, containing as it does a carefully crafted act of imagination expressed through precisely laid out written language. (How much attention is paid to that title page; to the font size, the spacing above and beyond the title).

And now this text will probably change. But hopefully not too much. And not many people outside of those engaged in the production process will see this script; this particular work of art. It may be handed over proudly to a number of family and friends, and at some point it may be used in the future to prove that the writer is able to actually write such plays. Now the script – unless it is published – will no longer, and is inherently unable to, exist in its original form – one where there is the possibility to pause time, to re-read, to flip between pages to investigate what may be a network of metaphors that are perhaps too finely hidden. Now the script exists as something else entirely, as part of a new art form that only exists in a linear fashion and in real time. It is absorbed into the performance.

Once the performance run is over there is still, however, a script. It may have changed now. And maybe the writer will have a copy of this Performance Script, or maybe they won’t. (It’s interesting how when I go through old scripts I seem to have a great deal of Rehearsal Scripts i.e. the final draft, the end of my first performance as a writer; and very few Performance Scripts. These generally exist as hard copy texts covered in writing and crossings out – I have directed a lot of the work I write – and I never seem to go back to the original digital documents to transfer these changes and create what should be the ‘final’ script).

But still it sits there, the script, just as it did before this whole process of actually making theatre began; before the actors and directors and designers and prop makers and technicians picked it up and started using it to make another work of art based on what its pages contain.

Sometimes the writer is lucky. Sometimes the script is published and now the script can exist in the form produced by the original, uncompromised creative act as well as existing as a blueprint. It can be performed in the imagination, an arena from which it sprung; or it can become once again the beginning of an embodied process. Only this time the writer’s involvement may be much less sought after than before. And the resulting piece of art that results from it may delight, surprise or horrify the writer, but at least they are aware that this is an ephemeral moment that will pass whilst the script will live on.

Which brings me to the community play texts that I have been reading. Because they are not printed, they do not become available to be experienced in the imagination or as blueprints for future performances. They are – apart from a very few exceptions – lost.

Many people would wonder why this is a problem. A community play, perhaps more than any other, is written with its performance and its context in mind. The writer usually has to deal with as many practical questions as she is writing it than questions of plot, structure and all of those others that face the playwright as they sit down to work.

I think there are two key reasons why saving these scripts, by having them available to read, by allowing them to exist as texts, is of value.

Firstly imagine that one day, as a writer, you are asked to create a script in which rather than a cast of two, three, four or maybe if you’re lucky (very lucky) ten performers, you can work with a cast of dozens, maybe hundreds. Imagine that you are asked to write a play where the possibilities for bold and inventive visual story telling is encouraged. Where the play itself may be performed in an outdoor space and so can respond to a physicality that is not confined to the dimensions of a theatre. Where you are asked to create characters of all ages and social classes; and where you are tasked with constantly moving between spectacle and intimacy.

This is an exciting brief. Above and beyond the technical challenges just think of the possibilities in this; the social worlds that you are able to construct; the levels of conflict that you can develop; the interconnection between the personal and the political, the individual and the social that are available to you. Of course, the fact that you are aware that you are an outsider and that you have been asked to create something that in many ways represents a community is a position of real responsibility. But maybe this is a liberating thing as well. Maybe having a much more specific audience in your imagination gives you something more concrete to play with and against. Maybe on some level the second work of art that comes from this script – the performance of the play – becomes a little bit more present in the completion of the first work of art; the script. Maybe the grappling with this context brings new ways of thinking and working to your craft. Maybe the scripts that are produced are full of new insight into writing for theatre because of these specific challenges and these specific possibilities.

Which brings me onto my second point. In 2005 a group of playwrights, bemoaning the state of British theatre, declared themselves part of a new movement which they called Monsterist.

In a Guardian article by the playwright David Eldridge, explaining their stance he writes:

“The moment someone decides to write for the stage,” says Roy Williams, “they should be encouraged to believe the limits to what they can achieve are only the limits of their imagination.” But this doesn’t always happen … I increasingly miss the opportunity to write a whole world, with its opportunities for great parts for leading actors and small, gem-like one-scene roles. Newer playwrights have been formed in a democratic culture that encourages equality for all the characters in a narrative and instills the notion that if you employ a performer you ought to give them a good amount to do. Nothing wrong with that but sometimes we want to write a different kind of play.

This dominant mode is reinforced by the critical culture. Script development people and reviewers always seem to note that any small part is “underwritten” – even if … that is a deliberate choice on the part of the playwright. Many argue that the minor characters should be cut – but imagine Macbeth without the Porter. No wonder so many playwrights are frustrated.

The article ends with a manifesto:

Monsterism is a theatre writers’ campaign to promote new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive, forward looking movement that aims to create opportunities for British theatre writers to create large scale plays, for large stages.

The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:

  •  Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
  • The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
  • Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
  • Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
  • The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
  • Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)

Although he is writing specifically about the creation of work for the major stages and buildings in the U.K. it is interesting that what is sought is readily identifiable as the opportunities and challenges offered to the writers of community plays, opportunities and challenges which we should be able to investigate in the many scripts that have been written for this specific theatrical form. Because with theatre budgets increasingly shrinking it’s hard to imagine that the trend of plays with smaller casts will change anytime soon; and so if and when it does there won’t be many other contemporary plays to look at to see how playwrights explored the world they live(d) in, even if these plays are often based on a previous historical period; plays with expansive casts and the panoramic visions that can result from this. But the problem is that these plays are not readily available; they are not published; they are not at hand to learn from.

So I am in a very lucky position. I am reading plays unlike any other that have been written over the last thirty five years; plays that I think the writers who are sending them to me are proud of. Both because of the works of art that were produced in response to them; but also because of the works of art that they represent in themselves, in their sentences and paragraphs and full stops.

The ‘Vital Spark’ – History and Class War in Hull

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I’ve just read the script for the Hull City Play of 1992 by Jon Oram. It’s called ‘Vital Spark’, which was also the name for one of my first community theatre scripts, for Moira in North West Leicestershire in 2000. Hull is a city of around two hundred and fifty thousand people; Moira a small town that grew out of the coal industry that was partly developed to fuel a nineteenth century iron making blast furnace; a wonderful building that had received funding to be renovated as an example of the UK’s rich industrial heritage. Our play was then used to help launch this new tourist attraction.

Part of my thinking about where the community play has moved to is connected to this notion of the play as a tool of the heritage industry. Through looking through a database of projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund through their World War One: Then and Now scheme it is interesting that around twenty per cent of these projects have involved some element of community theatre either as a part of the project, or as the central element of the project. And given that the model of the community play, or at least the Ann Jellicoe version of this, is absolutely about creating work that tells a story that is rooted in the historical reality of a community, with research playing a key part of the process of creating the script, this is understandable. But what problems may this raise for the dramatist of these plays? What agendas may he or she have to confront when the play is commissioned to specifically raise awareness of heritage and history? In some ways I think that the script of ‘Vital Spark’, Jon Oram’s play, sheds some light on the dangers of this.

‘Vital Spark’ was produced by Remould Theatre Company as part of Hull’s 1992 Festival. It had a cast of two hundred people and was directed by Rupert Creed and Jon Oram. I’ve been lent a copy of the script to read, part of a process of reading through as many community theatre texts as I can, and it is this that I am using as a basis for my reflections. I did not see the performance, I have not read any reviews, I have not talked to anyone involved in the production as a participant or as a member of the audience. All I have is a text.

The play starts, in the Colway Theatre tradition, with ‘The Fair’. This fair is set in 1910, full of booths and barkers, and lasts for thirty minutes as a prelude to the play. It is a grotesque and picaresque affair in which we see a ‘FESTIVAL OF FREAKS’, including ‘THE FATTEST MAN IN ENGLAND and GEORGE THE GENTLE GIANT’. A banner proclaiming ‘the wondrous MAN EATING FISH’ leads into a booth in which a ‘portly gentleman devours a plate of haddock and chips’.

The play then emerges from this chaotic scene (now full of suffragettes, and young lovers and young workers) as a group of itinerant players begin to perform the story of the Flood. ‘A Carnival of ARK ANIMALS are paraded through the audience as masks, banners, hats and puppets. The Fair itself ends and the focus is on the parade … EVERYONE sings’. The birth of Hull erupts from this carnival, as though in a creation myth, as the ‘sound of rain increases, add wind, thunder lightening (sic), developing into a storm’. And ‘lights rise dimly on FIELD WORKERS working to save a dyke from collapse, their clothes are covered in mud, they are themselves like the landscape, water, earth and sky’. Although there is no date given, this is the early thirteenth century, the moment when Hull comes into being as the port and the land is bought by King Edward I for use as a supply base for his military campaigns in Scotland, and founds the borough of Kingston-Upon-Hull, which is, of course, the full and correct title of the city.

From the very beginning of the play then there is a link between water, toil, and between ownership. ‘God made the world Nora just like he made that field. He didn’t make Field for us to take, he loaned it. A field we could work. We’ve hauled great stones and lifted roots outta it. It was secure that field. We only built walls to keep the sea out and the beasts in. An now the Kings took it. The walls they’re building now are ‘bout something else entirely. The walls they’re be different now. You won’t be working for yourself no longer.’

From here the city (‘GOLDEN CITY’) develops as a shadow puppet display and a parade of lantern carriers animates the chronological construction of ‘familiar Hull images’. But at the same time as this highly visual moment occurs ‘EVERYONE’ proclaims ‘In the gloom of mighty cities / ‘Mid the roar of whirring wheels / We are toiling on like chattled slaves of old / And the Masters hope to keep us / Ever thus beneath their heels / And to coin our very life blood into gold’.

Once the city is constructed we arrive in the docks, in the early twentieth century and for the rest of Act One (p13 – p64) this is where we will stay, focussing on the story of the struggle to unionise the Hull dockers, before moving onto the First World War briefly before the interval.

‘Vital Spark’ is a stridently political piece full of scenes of dockers working, of speeches being given as the battle for unionisation proceeds, of the injustices of the hiring system, of families arguing about the need for solidarity, whilst also bringing in a subplot about the schoolchildren strikes of that same year, which originated in Hull (and a godsend for a writer when there are a large number of children to find parts for).

But what is most noticeable in the text (and this may partly be because it is difficult to maintain an understanding of the through line of character when reading a script with many, many parts and so the visual components have the potential to jump through and lodge themselves in the mind more clearly) is the way that the grotesque imagery that was established with the Fair, and which then moved into a rather dreamlike and magical tone with the conjuring up of the into the vision of the ark, is now used in ways that are redolent of agit-prop techniques of theatre from the sixties and seventies.

And so we see ‘A Shipping Federation Dinner’ (the bosses) in which ‘THE FATTEST MAN IN ENGLAND heads a table of huge OWNERS, some Caricature in Grotesque masks though some, those that speak are unmasked more realistic (…) The table is supported on the backs of crouching DOCKERS (…) On another stage a HUGE PUPPET HEAD of an owner opens and closes its mouth whilst DOCKERS shovel food into it like they would with coal into a ships furnace’.

Scene Eighteen is called (all the scenes have titles) ‘Revolution’ and begins with ‘An image of STRIKING DOCKERS and WOMEN with Flags standing in clouds of smoke reminiscent of the French Revolution’. And by Scene Twenty Two, ‘Resolution’, there is victory as the union is recognised and there is a shift in tone as a parade through the audience is accompanied by ‘Calypso music’ and a song which begins ‘It happen rarely, once in a lifetime / The working man he win’.

But rather than ending at this point of victory, the culmination of the story that has taken up most of this first act, we jump forward to 1914, seeing men leaving for war and then a scene that alternates between the trenches in France and back home in Hull. And as the act ends Nora, who we have seen throughout the play, tells us ‘And we vowed it would never happen again. But it did. 1939 Hull and the Blitz had yet to come. We were that North east town you know. London, Coventry and a north east coastal town. The war came home’.

Like the first act, the second act focuses on a specific story in a specific time, here the Hull trawler tragedy of 1968 when three trawlers were sunk and fifty eight crew members died, largely as a result of unsafe working practices. Much of the story is about the women of Hull taking the lead in the industrial action this time, pressing the trawler owners and the government for action whilst many of the men wish that they would be left alone to either fight their own battles or to continue with the situation as it is because ‘if we don’t fish we don’t eat. It’s always been like that, men know the risks’.

There are many scenes that I can imagine were very moving; of women waiting to hear of the fate of their husbands, of the ships sinking, of the ‘MISSION MEN’ coming to break the news and walking through the audience with their bowler hats and briefcases as ‘A Huge Winged black tattered ANGEL suspended overhead is lit’. And there is also a sense that some of this material, particularly the meeting in which John Prescott is a character, is taken directly from material relating to the campaign.

Once more there is a connection back to the Fair, this time as THE MAN EATING FISH now makes a reappearance sitting at a table which ‘drips with seaweed and has at is centre piece a large silver cod trophy. Attached by ropes the table swings left to right like the motion of the sea’. He is joined by ‘TRAWLER OWNERS’ and this is the ‘Trawler Federation Annual Silver Cod Dinner … to honour the skipper who has brought in the largest annual catch’. As past and bountiful glories are recounted the ‘DROWNED’ appear, hanging upside down or standing amongst the owners.

The play ends swiftly after the success of the women’s campaign for greater safety within the industry, as ‘CONTEMPORARY PEOPLE’ reflect on the death of Hull’s fishing industry and the campaigning that it spawned. And it is this memory of campaigning that is vital; that ‘we got memory an we got now. Few years ago I  campaigned for a play street – and we got it’.

In a rather diminuendo ending we see Nora one more time, now an old woman of ninety two, singing to a young child: ‘Incy wincy spider / climbing up the spout / down comes the rain / and wash the spider out / out comes the sunshine / and dries up all the rain / Incy wincy spider / climbs the spout again’. The message is clear; the fight must go on. Battles won in the moment are not battles won for ever. The forces which have been represented so viciously throughout the piece will continue to bear down upon you, upon your communities, upon Hull. Solidarity, organisation, action is the only way to confront them, however exhausting this may be.

This is a hugely enjoyable and fast moving, fluid script that is drenched in detail, particularly in those many scenes that evoke the working environment of the dockers and the trawler men. It is easy to imagine that it was very well received in the city, especially by placing Hull at the centre of a tradition of protest and industrial action. It is full of local reference – place names, nicknames, history and myth. But it is also in this telling of the local that, as a dramatist, I can sense a tension.

As mentioned earlier the first half ends with a First World War scene and an indication of what is to come – the story of the blitz of Hull during World War Two. But Act Two begins on Christmas Day, 1967. We’re given a brief recap of some of the main characters and then, through the playing of a game whereby Nora climbs under a table, we move into a kind of flashback where the characters now move into an air raid shelter as the sounds of war envelop them. This scene, like the First World War scene, is a short one, a prelude to the key action of the second half of the play. And it appears to be there because of a general ignorance about what happened in the city at that time; that ‘the wireless, the newspapers were full of the blitz in Coventry and London, but never nothing about Hull’; and that ‘no-one knows about Hull even now, not even our own’.

The information that the scene imparts is interesting, but that’s what it feels like – information. And the way that the story comes out of a flashback suggests that maybe the writer had some problem with working this into the story, but that as a key part of the history of Hull it should be there.

In performance this section may have found many ways to connect to the main themes of the play, but this does not come through in the script. It feels like an add on; something that should be told because this is a play about Hull and this is something that happened in Hull that not many people are aware of. And given that so many people are going to be coming to see this play, and this play moves from the origins of Hull to the here and now, that this information should be shared.

I mention this because of my contention that community theatre is increasingly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and issues such as this – of getting in all of the history – may be something that writers and producers of community theatre have to grapple with more and more. I know that as someone who has written a number of HLF funded projects that this is a concern of mine.

Finally it’s fascinating to read this play now knowing that next year Hull will be the UK City of Culture. I cannot imagine that if such a play were commissioned now that it would be anywhere near as aggressive in its political stance, and so confrontational in its representation of the class, social and economic system. But of course I may be wrong. Perhaps we are heading towards a new era of theatre where some of the techniques of agit-prop theatre – particularly the cartoonish representations of class archetypes (and maybe the recent success of the revival of John McGrath’s ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil by Dundee Rep points to this) – becomes part of the vocabulary of theatre makers again.

Hunting down the plays

I am attempting to hunt down community play scripts and it is no easy task. My starting point has been a spreadsheet I’ve acquired of the material contained within the Community Plays Archive and Database, held at the V&A. There are 215 community theatre projects listed in all, each having a folder containing various material. And yet only half of these folders contain the scripts for the play; the rest being left with promotional posters, press clippings and other artefacts connected to these projects.

That still leaves over one hundred plays to read (potentially), which would mean a lot of time to be booked in the Reading Room (which is closed for most of August). And so I am on a mission to track down as many of the writers that I can, and to ask if they can send me a copy of the plays that they have written.

The CPAD only has material from the 80’s and 90’s and so many of those I am contacting are rather surprised that someone is interested in their work after all these years. ‘I’ve got a copy somewhere though I’ve moved house a few times’; ‘I think it’s with my ex-wife’; ‘this was in the pre-Amstrad era so it’s typed up’ have been the kind of responses that I’ve been getting. But many of the writers are responding very quickly and are keen to send me the scripts and to talk about other community plays that they have written that may not be held at the V&A.

There are very few community plays that have been published.  Some of the plays produced by the Colway Theatre Trust are available. David Edgar’s ‘Entertaining Strangers’, written for Dorchester in 1985 can be read in his reworked version for the National in 1987; Arnold Wesker’s ‘Beorhtel’s Hill’, the 1989 community play for Basildon can be found in an out of print Penguin collection; and Nick Darke’s play for Restormel in 1984 ‘The Earth Turned Inside Out’, was reworked as ‘Ting Tang Mine’, again for the National, in 1987. And ‘A Time To Keep’, the Dorchester community play written by Stephanie Dale and David Edgar is available from Nick Hern Books.

All of these plays are worth reading; and all of them convey the excitement and energy that these large cast plays are able to generate. And the texts communicate a lot. A wonderful sense of fluidity, of experimentation with form, of the blending of family drama with a panoramic social vision; of political persuasion; of writers revelling in the task that they have been set. They make you wish that more of these plays are available to read. And given that the ‘community play’ was such an important theatrical form for the last two decades of the twentieth century it’s a real disappointment that they are just nowhere to be found.

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The first script arrives – The Boston Community Play (1987) by Doc Watson

At the same time as trying to track down these plays I’ve also been looking at a number of recent HLF funded projects. And it is clear that there is a much greater importance placed on documentation for many of these. This is probably because the creation of the play text is seen by the funders, and the producers, as a historical document; a way of holding historical information that can be passed down and accessed in different ways. Which of course creates issues for the writer about the use of historical fact in their work. Is the writer meant to be writing a play, with his or her main responsibility being on evoking a time and a place based on historical research which is the backdrop for imagining and telling a story, a story that is as much about the present as the past? Or has the job become one where the conveying of the historical research is as important, or perhaps more important, than the story that it tells. In fact is the story simply a narrative device to convey historical research?

I am looking forward to seeing the plays that get hunted down in lofts or in the houses of ex-spouses. If I had a lot more time on my hands I’d love to be able to digitise them all so that they could be shared more widely. I’m hoping to discover something about these plays, something that can only be discovered by looking at these scripts. Of course looking at pieces of paper that have been unearthed after all these years isn’t the best way to understand what makes an affective community play. But in the absence of being able to travel back in time to attend what may have only been a handful of performances it must surely be the next best thing.

Some first thoughts on the writing of a community play and why I am writing this blog

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‘Sarah! I say! Are they going to fight? Isn’t this exciting?’

These were the first words that the character of George Whitty said in the community play ‘The Tide’, written by Ann Jellicoe and staged in Seaton in 1980. The script is lying next to me, covered in notes and with pieces of paper stuck in throughout, almost as though I knew that at some stage in my life I would need to return to it. I was thirteen and I played the part of George on alternate nights, (sharing the role with a boy called Nicky Roberts, as I have just discovered by reading one of the stapled in rehearsal schedules). This was the second play that the Colway Theatre Trust staged; the second of what became known as the ‘community play’. A few years later I would take part in another in my (then) home village of Colyford. Baz Kershaw writes fondly of it. All that I really remember is the awful chorus of a song: ‘Colyford’s built by the Coly / that’s where it’s meant to be / it wouldn’t be there by golly / but the river runs down to the sea’.

This show was written by a Colyford resident, Dennis Warner. His wife gave me all of her David Bowie albums during the post-show party. By now I was a bit of a favourite of Ann’s. She asked me to take part in a small group that were playing improvisation games around the work of Keith Johnstone (a kind of forerunner of ‘Give Us A Clue’). And from here we worked on ‘The Western Women’ which Fay Weldon was struggling to write and which Ann completed. Within weeks of that show finishing in 1984 I was heading to Loughborough University to study drama.

And now I have written between thirty and forty community plays, most of which I have also co-directed and produced with Hanby and Barrett and then Excavate. These plays have not rigorously followed the Ann Jellicoe model but they have been heavily influenced by it.

Over these years I have also managed to have some success in writing plays outside of this form; for radio (serial, adaptation, one off plays); for touring theatre companies and also for main stage work. And I have written a lot of solo shows.

But I have written many more theatre scripts for community theatre projects.

There is, it seems to me, a number of crucial differences in my approach to writing a community play in comparison to other forms of theatre (although of course every form has its own challenges). I will now attempt to unpick these.

Context / audience

When I write a non-community based theatre script my two main concerns are always ‘what is the story?’ and ‘how do I tell this story?’ (unless I am lucky enough to be working on an adaptation of someone else’s material when this first question – always the most troublesome one – is dispensed with). When, however, I write a community play I have another question in my head, or rather an extension of the second question: ‘How do I tell this story to this audience in this place?’ A question that can also be rephrased as ‘How do I tell this story to this audience from this place?’ or even ‘How do I tell this story to this audience to this place?’

The most important thing about writing a play for a community audience then is that I am writing a text for a specific place and that this text only operates to its full potential when it is performed in that place (and may probably never be performed anywhere else anyway). The audience, most of whom will be from that place, may not have come to watch the play simply because the subject of the play is connected to where they live. If the show was, for example, an adaptation of Frankenstein they may still come in the same numbers. But my work, following in the footsteps of the Jellicoe community play, as well as being driven by the funding regimes that support this kind of activity, is always about either (usually) a story or stories connected to the history of the place in which the show is being performed; or an investigation into the identity of the place in which it is being performed.

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This creates an interesting link between the audience and the play. What happens on stage tells of something that has happened in the place where they live. This may allow them to re-evaluate this place in some way; either through the simple gaining of additional knowledge, or in the way that the play investigates and questions what it may mean to belong to a community within that place.

Having a reasonably captive audience gives the playwright a position of some power. It gives them the space to convey a set of values; to set out an agenda; to posit theories; and to provoke re-evaluation. And this is, of course, what I try to do. Whereas in some forms of writing this may at times be a more subconscious act, in the writing of the community play this agenda is very much more to the surface, precisely because the community play brings with it, through its production and reception process, the possibility to explore what it means to act collectively.

A lot of those who come to see the play may not be regular theatre goers, or may not go to the theatre at all. Most will know someone in the play. Most will wish it to succeed, (although some may wish it to fail because of internal community conflicts). Some will know a great deal about the history of the place and some will know very little. And most will bring their own experience of what it is like to live in that place with them.

And at the moment of coming together these individuals become a community. Of course all audiences are a community of sorts, but in community theatre, because of the connection between place and performance and story, these individuals who become a temporary community are linked together in a more concrete way. They have a certain amount of shared knowledge which may not be typical of your usual theatre going audience; but more importantly they are aware, however unconsciously, that what is about to transpire (not necessarily the script but the event itself) will, in some way, impinge on their perception of what it is like to be both an individual, and a member of a community, within this place.

I am very aware that the production process of community theatre is where much of the power may lie. The fact of all of these people coming together to create something may create a warm, fuzzy glow of something which is quickly termed ‘community’ because that is a word which is imbued with all sorts of feel good factors. And because these audience members are already enjoying this sense of being together, then anything with some good frocks and a decent lighting rig may satisfy their expectations.

But what would happen if the script began to work against this sense of community that has been created by the audience and performers sharing a space at this moment? What would happen if it drew attention to divisions within the community that were problematic? If it sought to widen gaps that already existed? If through its use of language and subject matter it caused people to argue amongst themselves; to cause an outcry; to realise that this place that for a brief moment they thought of as being everything they had always wished a community to be was in fact rotten to the core. And if a script may be able to cause such damage then surely it also has the power to build on the goodwill that is present, to build on the sense of community that has been created before a word has been said, and to create an event that will allow that audience to truly immerse themselves in the feeling of ‘community’, whilst at the same time investigating, questioning and hopefully seeing the possibilities inherent in collective endeavour. Which is always one of the key things that I want them to take from the experience. And for that to happen I think somehow the context of the performance must be written into the script. It has to find a way to comment on itself as a process.

But how to do this? How to bring the production and performance context into the text? Well, this is the challenge. And there is no easy answer. It has to be faced each time I sit down to write a community play. And this is something different; this is not the main challenge that preoccupies me when I write for other theatrical forms.

What I want to say in very community play that I write is ‘Look! Look at the history of this place. See how dynamic it is. See how it has been shaped, as everything has been shaped, by trends of thought, by systems of social organisation, by economics, by science, by reason. See how national decisions and movements and forces and international decisions and movements and forces are linked to what has happened here to this place, however small and insignificant it may seem. See how at those junctures there may have been moments when decisions could have been taken to create new alternatives and futures. And look at how what was happening then is not too dissimilar to what is happening now.

LUDS

The ending

It is usually at the end of the play that the moment of bringing the place, the story, the context and the audience into the heart of the text is at its most potent. This is the culmination both of the story we have witnessed, and the moment at which the collective is about to disperse. Surely the latter cannot be allowed to happen without some comment? For the members of the audience are all aware of the nature of this performance as an event. This is not a usual occurrence; it has been a moment of some significance and this is worthy of being marked. But if this is done in a simplistic way, a kind of feel good coda, rather than something that evolves from the text, then this will not be satisfying. It will create a division between the text and the event; it will make the audience self-conscious in a way that will weaken all that has gone before it. So it has to be done with care. The audience must remain fixed on the story, on their involvement in character and plot; but they must be allowed to bring into this an understanding that what is happening on the stage right now at that point is also an interpolation of their gathering together and the possibilities inherent in that. And when this is done correctly it creates real theatrical power.

I have tried to do this in some of my other work, to find ways to bring the performance and its context together in some way; ending ‘Garage Band’, a main stage commission for the Nottingham Playhouse, for instance with the lines ‘you can get up and dance if you like. Fuck the management!’ so that the song that was about to be played became simultaneously a performance in the stage world but also a performance in the Playhouse. And the great thing was that there were those who got up and danced. But generally the end of a play outside of my community theatre work does not do these things.

And the end of every community play that I write is the same. ‘Yes, we have made a play about this moment in this place to you people. But why have we done that? If this place has developed, changed, been shaped by forces that you have just been witness to[1], forces that are interesting, forces that hopefully will make you think – if only slightly – about those things that lie under the surface of relationships and decisions, then you may engage with this place in a different way. The place may become imbued not just by the ghosts and energy of the performance process, but by the text that has re-informed your understanding of this community. And you are now part of an ongoing process, just as this play has been. This play which has somehow marked that moment; halted the flow of time, let us all reflect on this place and its meaning and therefore potentially its possible future meanings. And although the forces that have shaped this place may be very powerful ones, we have seen in the text how individuals have been able to influence in some ways the development of ideas, or have battled against forces which have been destructive to this community in the past (even if they were not successful); and so there must be the possibly of individual agency as well as collective action. That each of you can make a difference.

What a hopelessly romantic and idealistic thought. But this is an audience who will see parts of itself the next day in the streets and shops. This is an audience whose dissipation will be less scattered. This is an audience who may be able to reflect a little more on what they have seen. And so maybe there is something in this romantic notion. Maybe.

The play must therefore astound them so that they talk about it in ways that they weren’t expecting to talk about it. You must hide the inexpertise of the performers by giving them really strong text that can be as difficult or poetic as anything you would write for professional actors. Make the audience listen to what the performers are saying and never give them time to reflect on whether or not their Aunty Maggie is up to the job or better than they thought she would be. That can all come at the end; when the truth of collective action has been revealed, maybe through the text but definitely through the production – that together we are all much more than the sum of our parts (and if you write or produce a community play where the event is somehow less than the sum of its parts, as much community art sadly is, then you really should go and do something else).

You must write with the same passion and power and integrity as you would do if you were expecting to get a review in The Guardian. This matters more than a review in the Guardian. The script must follow all those rules that scripts must follow. The audience must be engaged, provoked, challenged, surprised. They must become so caught up in the story that the idea that this is an amateur production is lost to them. It is vital that they see that something incredible has sprung out of where they live. It shows what can be achieved.

But all of this, of course, can be applied to my other writing. I never set out to underwhelm however often I may achieve it. In community theatre I am constantly looking for ways to place the audience in the text; to make them aware of their absolute connection to the script. I try and draw the audience into a collective, by talking directly to them; by making the space and the place present. By never trying to pretend we’re anywhere but where we are. This is a journey that we will make together.

Entry points / frames / form

These plays are for the community. For people of all ages. This can frighten some writers. They may think that they have to write for a family audience (which is a subtle but a different proposition altogether, for a family audience suggests a series of mini communities with their own interconnections which the text must respond to); or they may decide to dumb down and to make the language easy to understand for the youngest person. I think this is a mistake. You have an advantage over the writer of a family show for a mainstream theatre as those words ‘for all the family’ come with an unspoken agenda. That there will be comedy, visual impact and no sex or swearing. This is of course also true for the community play. But what the community play has is the sense of the occasion, the event. The fact that the child is present at the moment of this marking of a community is of value in itself. You do not have to do much more. Of course you may want to – and given the fact that such plays usually have large casts – you have the ability to do so; to create large scale visual moments that can excite younger members of the audience. But you do not need to pamper to age in the text.

The language of the play must also serve an additional purpose in community theatre; and that is to help evoke and engender a sense of place. This means that you are continually looking for reference points and metaphors that have a potency to the location in which the play is being performed [2].

You have to get the audience on your side; for you are a stranger and although there will be more good than ill will in the bank this coming together to mark a community is fraught with risk. The audience must identify the place that it calls home with the place that you create in the text. And the community audience is a highly sensitive beast. Any mistake will be leapt on and the outsider will be revealed for the interloper that they are (which of course is another thing that can be played with; the outsider is a very important character in the community play, and one that helps to bind together the audience as insiders). And so I litter my plays early on with proof that I will get this right. That this play is authentic and therefore must be taken seriously. That as a guest I am aware that the host calls the shots. And once this is done, once my foot is in the door, then I can get to work.

The fact that the audience has not made a decision to come to the theatre but has instead made a decision to see an event take place inside their community offers a huge sense of freedom that is not usually present in the theatre. It is very difficult to frame a performance in a theatre as anything other than a performance in a theatre. We buy the idea of the frame but we understand that it is a frame. However with a community play – or performance – there is the real possibility of creating a frame which may be unexpected and unquestioned and accepted at face value. This is something that I often play with (and which does not really fit in with the Jellicoe model). The freedom is intoxicating and when it works, when the audience cannot see the game that is being played, the results can be very powerful. At times however the results have been problematic.  In the script for ‘The Future Is Now’, when the audience had no clear idea of the type of event they were coming to, there was a sense of confusion over was happening that lead to a sense of anger that was palpable. Because the audience (a large one) could not place what was happening to them within any other model of experience they became restless and antagonised. The moment that they realised that they were involved in a form of theatrical game was one of intense liberation for them and one which – apparently – had huge impact, with the show being talked about for a long time afterwards. It is a fine balance. You must give clues within the script that this framing is a game – so that when the audience look back they can re-interpret the earlier signs and hopefully realise that the deceit (for want of a better word) had a purpose.

At times I think there are ethical boundaries which I may have overstepped. At what point should the audience become aware that this is a game, pretence, an illusion, and therefore an invitation to join in (and this invitation to join in, to participate in a group deception is also a vital and different element to much theatre writing)? In ‘A Lifetime Guarantee’, a play about the history of the Raleigh factory and the people who worked there, I set up a very carefully constructed set of framing devices that positioned the text in an authentic world so that what we were seeing was apparently a kind of docu-drama. I had to work very hard to make sure that this continued; even when there were moments that were faintly ridiculous. But hardly anyone that saw it unpicked the clues. Everyone, or at least everyone that I spoke to, thought that it was absolutely real. Which led to the ridiculous situation where people who had worked at Raleigh all of their lives were coming up during the interval to look approvingly at a tandem that they thought came from 1897, when in fact it was something that had been bought off of ebay and then had an old Raleigh badge stuck on it with blue tac.

BIKE

There is always then a little more space in which to play with form when I am writing community plays. Sometimes this is about positioning them in the drama and allocating them a role, an act which can only help to cement a sense of community. In the play ‘The Cries of Silent Men’ the audience were welcomed as though at a secret meeting with the sense of danger outside of this event being continually made present, thus putting them in a position of collusion with the monks who had gathered to tell the story they had discovered of the dissolution of their monastery and the execution of their prior.

I am not particularly interested in playing around with popular forms unless they are an effective way of providing entry points into the text for specific groups in the audience, or can be used as a kind of ironic commentary or a narrative device. I think that by reaching for readily identifiable forms you are actually working against the idea of uniqueness which is vital to a sense of community of place. If the performance tells a unique story that can only be about this place (even as it shows its connections with other places and times) then it must be helpful to find a form to convey that story that is organic and which has grown out of this unique story, rather than smothering it with a homogenous form borrowed from popular culture.

And this reminds me that the audience want to be reminded, want to be shown, want to be given the evidence that this place is unique. And if it is, and if this play can show this (even as it shows its connections with other places and times and movements) then it creates a stronger bond between the individuals in the audience. Because the club in which they are members is one that cannot easily be joined. And it is therefore a precious thing that must be taken care of.

This search for the right form in which to tell the story can be difficult. Having written so many shows now it is easy to take one from the shelf and when I have done that the work has suffered. The form must grow out of both the story and the context of the performance. And generally I like to try and create narrative forms that allow for bold interventions; for time to move around, for contextualisation and commentary to happen.

Irony / laughter

A collective understanding or knowledge is also incredibly useful for generating laughter. And generating laughter is an incredibly useful way of cementing the notion of the audience as community. It is at its most obvious when an audience of strangers laughs at something together before a joke has been told because they know what is about to happen (the recent Monty Python reunion tour was a good example of this). In community theatre I am always looking for places where I can potentially make the audience laugh because of specific community knowledge; information that it holds that another audience does not. Which reinforces the idea that this place is unique, and that to belong to this place is a privilege.

Ironic laughter is another powerful weapon which I try to use whenever I can; and which comes from my position as an outsider. Because I am a stranger, a visitor, I have some licence to provoke, to poke fun, to undermine, (as long as I have established my credentials through proving that I know what I am talking about, that I ‘get’ this place). I think that there is a huge danger in community theatre and community arts generally, that representations and interventions within communities must always be positive and project a good and healthy image. But people won’t buy such a portrayal if they know that this is not true, because they can spot inauthenticity a mile off. Instead this will be seen as simply part of a service industry designed to make people feel better about things when things may actually be getting worse. The portrayal shown in the play must be truthful, but should also be imbued with a sense of possibility, or reinvention, of the power of collective action.

At times I have come very close to the mark but I think there have been many occasions when there has been an almost audible sense of ‘I can’t believe they’ve said that; but it’s true’.

To use irony effectively you have to gauge what the audience will accept, and also need to understand the way that a community sees itself at the moment of writing the play. Obviously there is no simple group perception, but there are often particular currents of thought bubbling away that I need to tune into.

And you must always, always be aware that the audience knows more than you do and that if you start to preach then your status as an outsider will become problematic. When I wrote the community play for Kirkby in Ashfield about the Luddite rebellions, there was no need to draw parallels with the position that many families in the town were going through, for the simple reason that the current economic difficulties that the town was facing were so obvious to all. Starting to draw political parallels would have possibly created divisions within the audience as current political sympathies and tensions would start to be present in the room and would begin to fragment the collective identity of the audience who were investigating a shared past that contained within it all of the divisions that may currently still exist.

Some practical stuff

Writing a commissioned play always comes with constraints. These are usually connected to the size of the cast and the length of the piece. There are other constraints around space and the number of intervals you may have (so for instance I had to make my adaptation of ‘The League of Youth’, a five act play, fit into two acts with only one interval).

A community play has many practical issues around it that I don’t really want to investigate here in too much detail as although they raise specific questions and require specific strategies they do not sit at heart of the fundamental difference that I hope I have illuminated.

So, in brief, these practical issues (I’m sure I have forgotten some) are:

  • You need a lot of characters
  • You will probably need more female parts than male parts (because of the production process)
  • You may need to be able to change characters from one sex to the other during rehearsal, or write additional characters, or lose characters altogether without the play losing any of its power.
  • You may need to write family groups to accommodate children who want to take part.
  • You cannot write too many large parts.
  • You may need (because of issues of voice projection) characters to spend some (or all) of the time speaking directly to the audience.
  • You shouldn’t swear.

And then there is the question of the space in which the play is to be performed. Again I don’t really want to go into too much detail as thinking about how the limitations of site specific space interact with narrative could quite possibly lead to a thesis all of its own. But the fact of the matter is that in a lot of work that Hanby and Barrett has done – which has been site specific and outdoors rather than indoors – this has had a real impact on the way that the text is constructed. There are simple reasons such as the fact that because of the potential sound issues that performers need to speak outwards to an audience; there are issues of being led from one scene to the next which may necessitate the use of a guide and if there is a guide surely it is better if they are part of the performance. And if they are part of the performance then by default they become a kind of narrator. Some locations may be suitable for large visual scenes which, because of their place in the physical journey may mean that you have to place a key moment in the script somewhere other than you would otherwise have done and will then need to work back from this. Some locations may require the audience to be split up into groups to allow them to visit all of the different performance spaces which means that the script must find a way for a set of scenes to be shown in any order.

A few scattered thoughts

Whenever I sit down to write I am thinking of character, of jeopardy, of stakes, and of the architecture and movement of the piece. I am always aware of the audience and in the way that I am asking them to help construct meaning in the play, or to find ways to provide moments of reflection. I worry about every line and the purpose it serves in doing a number of things: conveying information about the character that says it and the characters that it is talking about; driving the plot forward; and constructing a network of metaphors and references that allow – maybe only on reflection – a deeper poetic undercurrent. With the community play I am also doing all of this but I am less bothered about character, or rather I am less concerned about psychological truth. The characters inner struggles are important but are not what really drives the play forward. The characters are much more representative of social positions and relationships and power. Of course this approach is not necessarily a community theatre one and I could write all of my plays like this if I wanted. It has much to do with the sheer number of characters that a community play usually needs. The community play needs to show the community; the entire social world that exists within the framework of the story and the time. This is one of the key ways of drawing parallels between the past and the present. For there are, of course, always equivalences when it comes to power struggles and status based confrontation.

All plays take place in an internal and in an external landscape. In my community theatre scripts the external is always foregrounded and I am constantly using language and metaphors that have a connection with the place to help convey the characters inner thoughts.

Because the sense of place is so important there is a need to locate the play specifically through street names and areas. The world of the play can be vast in terms of the themes it is dealing with, but the geography in which this happens should be very specific. And it is much better if these places still exist so that the past and the present can collide. Once this happens then the place – however small – becomes the receptacle of something far greater than potentially previously envisaged.

The angel is in the details. It is the constant interplay between the personal moments and the larger world. This interplay is vital. It ties the audience member as an individual into the community as a whole and allows them to realise that their experience is at once valid and yet also indicative. In ‘Road to Bilborough’ I had a character tell a story of coming home in the fog and because he couldn’t see the numbers on the houses of the new street that he had moved into that he realised he needed to look for the house with pink curtains. Only ‘they all had pink curtains’. The response to this was always wonderful. It was a group of individuals having an individual memory which then rippled out into a collective one. Or perhaps at that moment it moved from being an individual memory and became a collective one. Which surely means that the text was helping to construct the rules of membership of that community in some way.

JIM

I am far more sentimental and far looser with form when I write community theatre texts. The former is easily done and is a weakness.

I feel responsible to the community for whom I am writing a text. I am aware that the production of what I have written may be both demanding and also a moment of some importance for those who take part and those who watch. But for some reason I am much more relaxed with this pressure than in my other theatre work. I nearly always struggle when I am creating a story out of thin air, which is often the case with my professionally commissioned work. I am painfully aware that during the writing process there is a strangely random quality to the whole endeavour and I am often at a loss to work out why I have made one choice over another one and this troubles me. In some ways I view writing a community play as adapting a story that already exists. It is the form of the telling that I have to put my mind and my experience to. And I have to capture the truth of that community somehow in the telling, just as I have to capture the essence of a book in its adaptation. Although it is always a balancing act and I am aware that my footprints will always be all over what I write. I just try and make sure that they’re rather dainty ones.

The world of non-community theatre is inhabited by critics and peers and your work is being judged, assessed, and compared against similar plays. You have to prove your worth over and over again to people that you may not know or care about. This is tiring. When you write a play for a specific community you are aware of the stakes, the need to get it right; the fact that this event may have a power above and beyond that which is usually available in the theatre. But at the same time you know that this script is being judged against exactly the same criteria on which you are judging it.

What makes a good community theatre script then?

A community theatre script has to be aware of the power that it has. It may be one of the few moments where people in a specific geographical location come together to share in a portrayal and investigation of the history of that location. As a writer you bring your values and your politics to the script. You find stories that support your worldview and you stress these. You must be careful. You must show these ideas through the real world of the characters and location (which is, in effect, a character in itself). Given the importance of this moment it must be undertaken with huge care. There are times when I have rushed. There are times when I have been at a loss. There have been times when the work that we have done has been flippant. The text, as with any theatre, is the key element from which all else springs. And the script should have an awareness and a flexibility and a lightness of touch to always be playing with its context, to always be aware of its audience, to always be aware of the specific location in which it is being performed. The script belongs here and only here and everyone is aware of that. It would be impossible for it to happen anywhere else as it would have no currency. And therefore the quality of the script and the performance is a kind of commentary on the ‘quality’ of the community in which it is based.

And this event is ephemeral. Which makes the form vulnerable. Because if there is little money to pay the writer a proper wage; if there is little thirst from playwrights to engage in a process where a script may only happen once or twice (and potentially never be performed to the level anticipated by the cast, or be prone to the usual derailing issues of live performance) then what is a potentially very important moment in the marking of a community could be lost.

This is why I suggest that there is much to be gained by speaking to those who write such plays to see if we can unpick the skills that are essential. This is why I wonder if there are specific strategies that should always be brought into play to help make the community play as effective as possible.

[1] ‘All towns have a history. And all histories have connections with other histories. It’s the way it is. A weave. And sometimes it is the turn of your town, the place where you live, where your children were born, where your parents were buried; to be placed at the centre of events. For the pattern of national concerns to be most clearly shown here, right here, in the centre of your town, at the end of your street, just outside your front door.

And if you look into the history of where you live you will see that story. It may be hidden away in the street names; in the graveyards, underneath the paving slabs and in the lines of the distant trees. But it is there. And when it begins to get dark, if you squint your eyes and try and catch the stillness in those fleeting moments when it calls, then maybe you will see the story begin, just over two hundred years ago; in the autumn of eighteen hundred and eleven. The year of the comet’. The opening of The Hammer of Defiance, a community play in Kirkby in Ashfield.

[2] You see the thing about a lug is that it’s designed to make sure that everything fits together, just so. That everything slots into place. And the factory had a place Stuart. At the heart of Nottingham. It was where we made things. Where Nottingham made things that were used all over the world. I’d go to London on our trips and me and my workmates would point, every time we saw someone ride past on a Raleigh; ‘look’ we’d say, ‘that’s one of ours – that’s one of bloody ours’. And I felt proud. We all did. Proud of those bicycles.