‘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.
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.
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, 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 .
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.
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.
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.
 ‘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.
 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.