What to do with the elephants?

I’ve just booked my ticket for next years ICAF, a tri-annual event in Rotterdam that brings together community arts practitioners and researchers from across the world to share their work and discuss their practice. It’s a glorious and provocative event in a glorious and provocative city. In 2014 I wrote a series of short pieces as I joined a small team as part of EMPAF, who visited the work of a number of Dutch community artists leading up to the festival.

It’s not really writing about writing, but never mind:

I am in Het Hoge Heem, a house for the elderly in Uithoorn. It’s a semi state run place, one of 27 in the region. An older lady has just gone behind a sheet rigged up on some pole to make a shadow puppet theatre screen. She is holding an elephant shadow puppet, which presumably she made in one of the two earlier workshops held here. She is accompanied by a primary age child from a local school who also has an elephant. It’s national puppetry day here in the Netherlands. And also Volunteers Day. There were some folk back at base, where Franz – puppeteer in chief –  lives and where we had lunch, from the pharmaceutical company Bayer, who were putting in their four hours of voluntary service a year in return for a certificate and a 20% off voucher at some department store or another. Some of the puppets they helped with, based, I think, on designs from some of the older people, are being used in this workshop where the young and the old are practising using the puppets behind a large screen for the first time.

Joanne Oussoren, from Droomtheater reads The Carnival of Animals while Saint Saens plays. A local politician is also holding an elephant but hasn’t had a go yet. She may have lost her post in the regional(?) government on Wednesday but deals are being made as we speak and she may be welcomed back in. The state is in retreat she tells me. It’s the same in the U.K. I tell her. Probably worse. (Definitely worse). And there doesn’t seem to be much heard in the way of protest. The same here, she says; it’s strange. Where’s the revolution? Hope she gets back in.

The house where Franz, who is running this project, Carnaval der Dieren, lives is part of a Central Housing project; one of around one hundred in the country. Franz moved here 24 years ago, about a year after it was opened. He got lucky. First in a one bed apartment and then moving to a two bed apartment. There are fifteen in all; of various sizes. And there is – most importantly – a large communal room. When he was first here people ate together twice a week; now it’s once a month. There’s a rota for looking after the chickens, for clearing up the communal room; which is used mainly now for the birthday parties of those that live here, full of relatives rather than housemates (or whatever the collective term for such a thing is). If you ever earn over thirty three thousand euros you have to leave. Many haven’t. When a space becomes free they have a meal and invite people to be communal and sociable and make their case. Some struggle.

Het Hoge Heem has a waiting list. The communal room is large and airy and light and Eric, the activities organiser, is overseeing today’s activity. There are around 130 rooms here. But many of the activities are not well attended. Today there are really only a handful of older people joining in, more women than men, (one looks frighteningly like Ann Widdecombe; another has wonderful shoes). By the time people arrive here, Eric tells me, they have spent five or six years retreating into themselves, learning isolation and loneliness; like many (most?) older people do.

Next Friday there will be one more workshop and then, on the Sunday a performance complete with a six piece brass band. The ‘political woman’ as she’s called, will help to rewrite the story to make it more topical. There is talk about the swans of Uithoorn but nobody is quite sure what to do with the elephants. This project has been crowd funded.

Twenty years ago, when Joanne set up Droomtheater, she was writing plays about Freudian cases; now she’s interested in the notion of the social dream. She works in the Feyenoord area of Rotterdam, a very multicultural area (unlike here). She has discovered that puppetry is a readily accepted artistic form that has many connections with other cultures. Droomtheater have taken work to schools and mosques. They blend live music, story-telling and puppetry. When she went to Iran she couldn’t believe how many puppet companies there were.

And, as she explains, she’s getting older and so is thinking about the kind of community that she wants to live in. A shared space; like the project that Franz is in, this ‘special place’; rather than being alone. It is lovely. There’s a river outside. The rain has stopped and the sun is coming out.

As my and my wife’s parents get older; as my friends talk about setting up a communal living project, (there’s some land identified in Belper, Derbyshire) I wonder if Franz is right. He thinks – hopes – that this social experiment of the sixties may return. Because of this retreating of the state. Because of the need that will arise for people to need more help. It’s cheaper for a health visitor to come and visit a project with five older people in, and who get day to day support from those who live around them, he suggests, then by putting them up in these nursing homes, even with their part funding from charities. And they can have Franz’s puppet shows there too.

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?

The Outsider (Part One)


I’ve just finished reading two community play scripts – The Fens Ablaze by Doc Watson (Boston, 1987) and the Dreaming Pond by Peter Spafford (Upton cum Kexby 1990). The first is a rabble rousing piece that in its introduction draws attention to the links between its subject matter – the fen riots of the 1770’s that were caused by the enclosure acts – and ‘echos (sic) in Britain today’. The second is a very atmospheric and beautifully constructed dream play that has at its heart (and told through a story within a story within a story) a plot that is connected to a time, like Watson’s, of social turmoil; here the English Civil War. There are many similarities between them; not least the battle for and the appropriation of common land.

But for now I want to focus on the outsider.  In Ann Jellicoe’s book ‘Community Plays and How To Put Them On’ she says ‘Organise your villains so that if possible they come from out of town: people whom the community can comfortably unite against’. The impact of the outsider is obviously a potent force in many plays and stories, in fact as Stephen Lowe suggests (in David Edgar’s ‘How Plays Work’) ‘all plays are about people escaping or invading secure communities’.

In both of the plays that I have just read the communities are not secure; they are in flux. In each the outsider serves a different function, both of which offer interesting perspectives on the potency and function of this role within the writing of community theatre.

fensDrainage Mills in the Fens, Croyland, Lincolnshire by John Sell Cotman

‘The Fens Ablaze’ by Doc Watson begins with a number of outsiders. First of all the Grand Sluice Fair, which opens the performance in typical community play fashion, is interrupted by a Visitor calling out ‘Call that a Sluice, sir! That’s nobbut a few planks o’ poor wood strung across yer river’.

The fair is then interrupted further by a Puppet Master who has a play for us ‘fresh from London’, a play that features ‘a large fat caricature of King George III’. This grotesque attack on Royalty begins but is curtailed when Eden Simpson grabs the puppet King and tells the Puppet Master that this play is not wanted here; however well it’s done in London – ‘That’s London, this is Boston’. ‘Boston, Boston, Boston’, taunts the Visitor, ‘Thou hast naught to boast on / But a grand sluice and a High Steeple / A proud conceited ignorant people’.

The first job of the outsider is set up very clearly here. If there is an outsider there must be an insider. And this antagonising  work of the Visitor, by specifically attacking the connection to the place in which the performance is sited and the audience lives, creates a strong bond between the ‘them’ of the play world, and the ‘us’, the audience, of the performance world. It’s an easy trick – witness any pantomime where the villain will assail the shortcomings of the location in which it is taking place – but it is also a very effective and highly useful one.

Following the Sluice Fair we begin to meet a number of characters all of whom gravitate around what will be the main issue of the play –  the enclosure of the Holland Fen which is due to take place. Mrs Wyche makes sure that we realise that ‘This is an important day for our town’, whilst the fact that such an event will lead to winners and losers is made clear as William Smith replies ‘If this bill for Enclosure gets passed – fat riches for us all, eh, Mrs Wyche?’ Richard Kitchen may ask ‘what of the poor folks on that Common Land?’ but for Smith, once the sluice that is being opened does its job and drains the land, this ‘pack of ignorant mud jumpers must move elsewhere’.

Smith, we learn, is not a man who we should feel any sympathy for, swiftly revealed as a heavy drinker, a gambler and a misogynist who has ‘creditors baying at my heels, I need this Enclosure land’. And when Smith is informed that Mr. Charles Anderson Pelham is calling in the mortgage on his house in Swineshead (Hardwick Hall), and is planning to take land (Pelhams Plot) from Smith in lieu of his unpaid mortgage bills, we understand that he is a character who will be vulnerable to temptation.

Away from the world of the fair are the slodgers, the fen people, represented by the Loynham family who on hearing about the proposed drainage do not seem overly concerned with the implications: ‘the fen folk exist above and beyond the law, there is simply no connection between the two …  We’ve bin here fer more years than there’s numbers’. And when, in a later scene, Norris Loynham is told that come Spring the Common Land is to be fenced and that Norris will end up having to work for a living like everyone else, Norris simply refuses to believe this – ‘Nobbody’ll stop me catchin’ a pike or shootin a widgeon when Oi loikes’.

The play then has a series of locals, a series of people who are the insiders and yet are also distinct social groups that are in conflict with each other. We understand and expect this conflict to break out, and that the play will be an examination of this, but – adhering to Jellicoe’s proposition that the villain needs to be an outsider, presumably to assuage the representation of conflict from within a community –  another outsider is now to appear;  this time with much more devastating consequences.

This outsider is called The Stranger and he makes his entrance once the positions around the issue of the enclosure of the Holland Fen have crystalised. There is opposition from the genteel liberal character Mrs Wyche; there is opposition from the radical Robert Chapman; there is opposition from the toft holders who do not appear to be having any say in what is taking place; there is opposition from the slodgers; there is opposition from the butchers and graziers who have been informed by the Corporation that they will now need a permit to trade in the market. Trouble appears to be brewing.

The Stranger approaches William Smith. He has managed to get hold of Smith’s mortgages and offers him a hundred gold sovereigns if he will help him: ‘there’s goin’ to be trouble, Mr Smith – Enclosure trouble – we see it before, we’ll see it again;  it draws trouble-makers like your friends’. Smith is unsure of what to do, but obviously needs the money. He then witnesses a group of men (the Bankers – not those who work in the financial sector, but on the digging of drains) take over a meat stall in the Market in protest at their high prices, much to the delight of the locals. This leads him to suggest to one of Chapman’s colleagues that it appears easy to stir the rabble; that ‘a promise of heaven and they’ll go anywhere’; and that maybe a meeting should be held when the Enclosure Commissioners gather, with Robert Chapman as the main speaker.

At the meeting Norris Loynham declares that it’s the Act of Parliament that needs to be defeated, not through parliamentary action but by actually destroying the paper on which it is written – ‘The Act. That’s the evil thing. If we destroy that, then we destroy all their claims’. The first act ends as the mob, roused into action and ready to attack Boston, goes to the house of Edward Draper, the clerk to the commissioners. As the act is handed over and torn to pieces Chapman proclaims that ‘Holland Fen shall never be enclosed or divided’ and the crowd disperse singing ‘Thus the Act has fallen, has fallen, has fallen / Thus the Act has fallen to rise no more!!’ The Stranger, it appears, has been able to act as a reagent, enticing William Smith to act as an agent provocateur and to stir rebellion – but for what end?

The second act begins with the forces of authority now staking their positions. The landowner, John Yerburgh, is adamant that the mob must be faced down; whilst Fydell, a Justice of the Peace, hopes that passions will subside before there is any need for action to be taken. But when a game of football is played on the fen, an action which has precipitated riots elsewhere, the local MP Sir John Cust suggests that examples need to be made of the ringleaders, even if men are to be hanged.

It is time for The Stranger to appear again. The Bankers who took over the meat stall are now being refused a drink in a public house because they cannot pay. They protest that this is because they can’t work the navigation because of the rioters. Urged on by The Stranger, and not withstanding arguments within their ranks, they start to smash up the inn and to burn it down; for which they are arrested. Once again the violence that is taking place has been stirred up by the outsider.

Yerburgh the landowner now offers the Bankers freedom if they will help capture the ringleaders of the mob, which they agree to do; but when they confront the slodgers, who have now armed themselves, they back down. The situation escalates. Charles Pelham has told all of his tenants that they must go to Boston to declare their support for Enclosure or they will be thrown off of the lands. The slodgers are recruiting more men and gathering more weapons. The Reverend Calthorp is adamant of the need to ‘Transport the blackguards – give every man jack of them a taste of the whip – we need the army’. Two hundred soldiers are sent to the town to confront the six hundred rioters who are extorting ‘money, meat and drink from the inhabitants of towns in the Fens’, as well as acquiring  two hundred guns and other arms.

The night before the army arrives Robert Chapman, the radical, is given a letter in which it is stated that he should head to London because that is where the main work for the revolution must be done and that William Smith is to become the leader of the local action as ‘Loinham doesn’t know what to do next. Smith must take command and begin the revolution here’.  Before the letter is passed on to Smith, The Stranger confronts him once again. ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’ Smith asks, receiving no reply to his question, only the orders that as the soldiers on their way it is imperative that ‘the rioters must act now’. Smith replies that he has done enough already for the money he has been promised; but the Stranger insists that he stir the mob into action before he ‘MOVES OFF QUICKLY INTO THE SHADOWS’.

Chapman enters and gives Smith the letter that states that ‘This Act concerning the closing of Holland Fen is one of the most tyrannic and oppressive ever was made in the British Nation since the Norman Conquest’. Smith is aware that the letter, through asking him to seize arms and form an army, is a seditious act punishable by death and rushes off to show it to the magistrates and to try and save himself.

Smith hands the letter to Fydell, a Justice of the Peace, telling him that he received it from Robert Chapman.  Smith is escorted off as ‘STEPPING OUT OF THE SHADOWS IS THE STRANGER’. Smith is brought before the authority figures – Fydell, Calthorp and Cust – and as he reveals the names of the ringleaders the men are pulled out of the crowd. THE STRANGER appears again:

SMITH:                     I need that money, and I need your word to the magistrates.

STRANGER:             I don’t deal with magistrates.

SMITH:                     You work for them.

STRANGER:             I am a stranger in these parts, friend – I merely pass through.

This is the final time that we see The Stranger as the play now moves towards its climactic ending. Yerburgh, the landowner, tells the crowd that ‘Today the Enclosure Commissioners meet for the last time’ and that with the ‘rabble’ having been arrested ‘Within a month the first fences will be put up’. The trial of the men whom Smith has given up is to take place, but ‘FROM THE SHADOWS SOME OF THE CROWD EMERGE WITH SCYTHES’ and the ‘RINGLEADERS ARE FREED OF THEIR CHAINS’. Smith appears to be a changed man, exhorting the crowd to continue the fight as Norris Loynham declares ‘We’m beaten. Oh yes, we can knock their fences down, but they’ll only build them again’. In a rousing finale the cast sing ‘But the gentry must come down / Stand up now, stand up, stand up now / And the poor shall wear the crown’ as William Smith is given the final words of the play – ‘There will be no surrender’.

So who was The Stranger, the outside force who seems able to stir the blood, to quicken the action, and to bring the combustive elements that exist within the community together so that there is both a riot and also the capture of the ringleaders of this riot (even if they are released at the end by the crowd)? Is this character an agent of the State, helping to bring simmering feelings of discontent to the surface so that the opposition can be violently crushed by the soldiers (which for most of the play he appears to be)? Or is he some kind of revolutionary, genuinely hoping to stir revolt within this community before stirring up similar action elsewhere?

Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps what is more important is the fact that The Stranger seems to personify the outside forces that are bearing down on the community; outside forces which will reshape shape the community through convulsive acts that are inherently bound to cause conflict. The Stranger is a character that cannot be understood, someone who appears to come from nowhere, just as the forces that are confronting the community cannot be clearly understood. In this play these forces are seen as destructive, as reshaping the landscape from a common ownership (of sorts) to a more private one, with all the ramifications that are to follow. The Stranger is the destroyer of community. Even if the community has its own forces within it that are ready to tear it apart, it has taken this figure to bring them into play.


Peter Spafford

Spafford’s play ‘The Dreaming Pond’ is, as the title suggests, a kind of dream play; a ghost story that will largely tell a story from the seventeenth century but which will emerge from another historical period. In this play the role of the outsider is much more central to the action of the play, and is the main force from which all of the other action revolves.

The play begins on New Year’s Eve 1929 at Moors Pond; villagers are skating, music is playing and ‘THE BELLS OF UPTON CHURCH CHIME A BRISK TWELVE THEN A LONG PEAL’. As the villages leave they notice a figure standing and shivering by the pond. This is the young (aged eight) Jimmy Smith who is encouraged to go home but refuses, apparently because:

 GERT WILSON:       He’s in a dream.

JEM WILSON:          Always in a dream, that Jim.

From here we move to the present day, and a couple of ‘reminiscers’ who offer yet another time frame within the play. They tell us that Jimmy died of pneumonia and then begin to talk of Tyson, ‘A HEAVY, BEARDED MAN OF ABOUT 70’, who is described variously as ‘a village-carrier / Bell-ringer / Pig-killer / Grave-digger / And see-er’.

As the bell starts to toll again we are told of how, on St. Marks Eve, Tyson could stand in the church and watch the spirits move. ‘That every year on the eve of April 25th, the spirits of all those in the villages of Upton and Kexby to quit this life that coming year would, on the clap of midnight, enter the church and walk’.

We move back to the pond and Jim who is standing there as ‘THE SOUND OF THE WIND IS THE SOUND OF BREATHING, LIKE A HUNDRED PEOPLE BREATHING IN & OUT IN UNISON, THE LUNGS OF AN ENTIRE COMMUNTY OF PEOPLE LIVING & DEAD. VOICES CALL OUT TO JIM’. And Tyson tells us: ‘this is a deep place, deep like the pond. And as in the graveyard where the bodies of our Upton & Kexby ancestors stash down thick, thick through the ground, so in the air their stories linger, thick, thick – pain & joy, laughter & pain – writ, not in books, but in the mist, in the barks of trees, in the pondweed’.

It’s a slow and fluid introduction to the main story, and an unusual one; which is why I’ve gone through it in some detail. The play’s key character, an outsider, is now to appear, at the opposite side of the pond from Jim; a girl wearing 17th century clothing.

From here on we will return at various stages to the story of Jim and of Tyson, as well as hearing from the reminiscers, but most of the audience’s time is now taken up with story of Anna Blyth; the outsider who will act as a lightning rod for various ideas, desires and conflicts that are to be found in the community. In this way her job is similar to that of The Stranger is The Fens Ablaze, but her function is ultimately a very different one, one that offers much more of a provocation to the audience.

Before we see Anna we have learnt a little more about the villages.  A ‘TORRENT OF WHOOPING, SINGING, INSTRUMENT-PLAYING PEOPLE’ appear wearing ‘MASKS AND STRANGE COSTUMES … IT IS PLOUGH MONDAY, JANUARY 1643 …THE KEXBY PLOUGH JAGS HAVE JUST ARRIVED IN UPTON’. But a new vicar has arrived, Henry Dale, a man who the Constable Robert Lilly informs the revellers, is ‘not used to our country sports. He therefore wishes you to forbear from any further feasting today’.

This sets up one of the main conflicts in the play; between the pre-Christian, pagan festivities and cultural practices of the people of the village, and the authority figures who are connected to the newly emerging religious worldview and a developing economic system in which any notions of communal ownership are increasingly under threat. This is a country that is at war, a country riven by competing philosophies. As the Constable, Lilly suggests ‘There’s civil war in the land … Chaos is a garden gone to bad, where The Devil thrives like bindweed. Peace is all we want. Order. Peace’.

Anna now enters the village of Upton; a young woman with a child, a vagrant who emerges out of the dark and is offered shelter and assistance by Ellen Wilkinson; an arrival which will have a devastating impact on the life of the Wilkinson family and which will lead to tragedy for Anna herself.

The attack on the villagers’ way of life continues as Robert Lilly stops the brewing of church ale: ‘First the Plough Jags, now the ales. What next? May feast? Midsummer? Christmas?’ Ellen’s brother, Richard, complains. It appears that Lilly has risen to the position of Constable through selling land, land that may not have been his; land that somewhere in the past he has stolen from the Wilkinsons. Ellen and Richard’s mother is concerned about the arrival of Anna in their Kexby home, for if Lilly is to discover that they are looking after her ‘He’ll have us whipped like the others … Before Lilly we took in strangers like any Christians would …  Lilly owns the land we live on. He owns us. Remember that’.

Anna reveals to the Wilkinsons that the father of her child is a volunteer in the Parliamentary army, and lets it be known that she is firmly on the Parliamentary side in the struggle that is taking place. Richard is much taken with Anna, much to the chagrin of Susannah Bighton who is carrying his child and who tells Lilly of Anna’s arrival. Lilly goes to the house, reminds them that no-one is allowed to welcome vagrants, and takes Anna off to be his maid.

As Lilly holds a dinner at this house we learn that the Church Warden, Jacques, is hoping to get his hands on the Wilkinson’s land. Ellen comes to collect Anna to take part in another ritual, one that has yet to be denied the villagers, where ‘the village maids spend the night in the fields gathering blooms which they carry back at dawn for their pole … they smother their faces in dew’. The sexual connotations of the tradition are clear and it is obvious that Lilly has also become smitten by Anna.

Richard is in the meadow and wants Anna to stay with him for the night. ‘You’re a fool because you want me’, she replies; ‘You’re a fool because you can’t beat Lilly. And you’re a fool because, when your bellies are hard and small as stones, all you want’s to dance round a stick’. Anna may be someone who is opposing the authority figures with whom she has been forced to live against her will, but she is also attacking the customs of those villagers who she can see are being outwitted by those with power.

The Kings Men take Gainsborough and enter Kexby. They have a list that Lilly has given them of three men to take as soldiers, one of whom is Richard Wilkinson. Why has Lilly done this? Is it because of his fascination with Anna, his plan to acquire land from the Wilkinson family for Jacques, or both? Whatever the reason, as the Kings soldiers take Richard and assault one of the locals, the villagers now turn to Anna, wondering if her support for the opposing forces and her opinions should be listened to.

Anna becomes locked up at Lilly’s, who tells her that if she leaves he will ‘take a vengeance’. But leave she does, back to the Wilkinsons. As a result Lilly throws the Wilkinsons off of their land and sells it to the Church Warden, which only stirs the villagers resentment further. As Susannah Bighton says, certain that if it wasn’t for Anna that Richard Wilkinson would be by her side, ‘So they’re all with her now, pawing her sleeve like lepers stroking the King … The whole pace is glowing like angry embers. Soon it will burst out’.

And now another stranger arrives. A man with a football who is a friend of Anna’s and who tells the villagers of the riots that are happening in the fen in response to the King and the Dutch trying to ‘drain and carve it up for the lords … Every year the great men slash another strip from the common … lining their own britches’. As the villagers become more interested in what he has to say he tells them that ‘Friends, these are great times. The world’s on fire. It’s upside down! Now is the time for miracles. For what is yours is yours’ and then leaves.

A few days later more troops enter the village, this time the Parliamentarian forces who have now taken the Kings garrison at Gainsborough and who have a prisoner with them, Richard Wilkinson. They ask for provisions and shelter and are sent to Robert Lilly’s where Robert is kept in Lilly’s cellar. As the troops begin to take a heavy toll on the village, as well as desecrating the church, a woman comes to the Wilkinsons (who still appear to have their house even if they have lost their land) to give Anna a ‘message’ from Richard; ‘One dried bloom, picked on the eve of May’. Dorothy, Richard’s mother, asks Anna to go to Lilly’s to beg for her son’s release.

We are now near the end of the play. ‘WE HEAR A HOLLOW DRUM LIKE THE START OF A RITUAL. THEN THE WHISPERS BEGIN FROM ALL ROUND: ‘ANNA BLYTH. ANNA, ANNA BLYTH’. THE AUDIENCE SHOULD FEEL ENCLOSED BY THE WHISPERING’. The villagers are protesting about the losses they have suffered at the hands of the soldiers. Lilly is jeered and cajoled, but as he is accused of sheltering these men he deflects the villagers’ accusations. It is not the soldiers who have destroyed ‘the great new fences on the land’, but others. The villagers admit to this act of sabotage, but only because ‘The fenman agged us on’; and looking to find someone to blame they turn on Anna, for ‘he was her friend’.

The floodgates now open as Anna is accused by everyone of being the devil and of having power over them all. She has taken Richard away from Susannah; she has supported the Parliamentarians who have brought such pain to the village; she has helped in some way to stir them to acts of destruction; she has caused chaos between Lilly and the Wilkinsons.

As Ellen Wilkinson turns to ask Robert Dale, the vicar, ‘Where is God?’ he turns away from her leaving Anna to reply:

‘It’s allright, Elly. I’m not Anna Blyth. In their hearts I’m the stranger again. The stranger comes, the stranger goes. I am no one, a blank. They can make of me whatever they want’.

The crowd envelop Anna and duck her in the pond, Moors Pond, until she dies.

In Spafford’s play then, the outsider is the moral centre of the community in which she finds herself in, and a device to allow that community to show its frailties. As Anna states in her final words she is a blank, an empty vessel in which all of the uncertainties and confusions that the community is feeling in this changing world can be placed. This seems at odds with Jellicoe’s vision of the villain from out of town, for in this situation the outsider’s role is to shame the community. ‘Here is an outsider’, the play seems to be saying, ‘who this community have blamed for the troubles which they face, troubles which have been caused by other forces – forces which she herself is a victim of and forces which she has no control over’. This is a figure which allows the community to excuse itself from its own behaviour; the outsider is the one who can be blamed. But where does such short sightedness lead? What happens to a community when it is unable or unwilling to look into itself? When it is unwilling to understand itself and to see the violence and conflict which exists at its very heart?

In ‘The Dreaming Pond’ the outsider is ultimately murdered by everyone in the community, as they rally round to expunge this external force. It is Anna, the outsider who stands for the truth, whilst the community becomes the villain.

‘I wish, I wish, I wish I knew who you were’ – Arnold Wesker’s community play for Basildon


Earlier this year Arnold Wesker, one of the most celebrated of Britain’s post war playwrights, died. Amongst the various obituaries I read – such as this one in the Guardian – none mentioned the fact that in 1989 he wrote a community play. For Basildon.

Commissioned by the Colway Theatre Trust, ‘Beorhtel’s Hill’ is one of the few community plays that has been published, although it is now out of print (Wild Spring and Other Plays). It’s a fascinating piece of work; tough, knotty, provocative and one that questions the very role of the writer in such a process. And as such I think it’s worth looking at in some detail.

The play opens (having already informed us that this is not to follow the usual Colway model and that the audience ‘does not promenade’ ) as though it were a Greek tragedy with ‘fifteen figures shrouded in grey, like monks, hooded, faces unseen’. These are the CHORUS who will punctuate the action, along with a Narrator; a group of Kids who will re-appear throughout as they run across the space, marking the chronology of the piece through their costume, getting larger in number every time they appear and always searching for ‘the end of the rainbow’; Brenda, a married woman who has arrived in Basildon in 1964 and is keeping a diary; and Riley, a dishevelled old Cockney who has a recurring nightmare about Margaret Thatcher.

‘All things tire of themselves’, the Chorus declaim, ‘the demagogue of his tongue, the revolutionary of his fervour, the singer of his song, the sower of his seed’. And as they withdraw to reveal ‘a single, magnificent red rose in a beautiful art nouveau vase, and alongside it a fresh plaited loaf of bread’, so Brenda reads from her diary and Basildon is born:

Brenda:         17th August 1964. We have been offered a new house in a new town called Basildon. New house, new town, new life! We will accept but I am terrified.

The chorus begin again with their refrain that all things tire of themselves, and the Narrator, the self-proclaimed community drunk, introduces himself with the question ‘who are they?’

This is to be a key question throughout the play: who exactly are these people who inhabit this world that is being represented? Do their stories, which in this play appear to be based on interviews and transcripts of interviews, ever help us get to the bottom of what drives their actions? The Narrator is an outsider, both through being a drunk but also by being a figure that just does not quite connect with the world that he has been asked to engage with. From the very beginning he is a figure of provocation; someone who has been asked to present a commentary on something that he does not really understand, something that he does not really feel connected to, something that, at times, he appears to feel nothing but contempt for.

Narrator:       … I’m lonely here. There are no – poets here … only makers of money. If I want to feel alive, emotionally charged, inter-bloody-lectually stimulated, I have to escape to the bleedin’ metropolis.

There is much building in the play – literally. But what we see is not so much a community being built as a place, or rather two places over two different times in one location. And this sense of a contested landscape, of the creation of one place built by the state, on top of the creation of another place built by individuals, is at the heart of all of the tension and conflict within the play.

Both of these newly created places are revealed through individual families with their individual stories. The sense of any collective narrative is made up from these fragmented stories of individuals who find themselves following similar impulses to arrive in these two new places; although with different responses to what they will go on to find.

This representation, this action of building is important; because as well as being a play about the building of new places it is also at heart a play about property; about the creation of a community through the individual acquisition of land and the individual building, or the individual ownership, of homes. This issue of land, of property, will be at the heart of a battle between the role of the individual and the state; a classic Wesker preoccupation. It is not long before we are warned what to look out for. To see that the building that first takes place is something that will have implications further down the line.

Narrator:       Freehold! Remember that, dearly beloved. Freehold! Very important principle. There’s a great rumpus gathering on the horizon over that principle.

These freeholders, these first people that we see building, are the plotlanders. Those with a little bit of money who escape from the East End at the weekends to build their bungalows on the cheap plots of land that have been sold off by the railway companies here at ‘Beorhtel’s Hill as it was known in Saxon times’. And we will hear the stories of these settlers, these trail blazers, because as the Narrator tells us:

Narrator:       They’ve all got stories. And they tell them to each other endlessly …. Just little ones, about tiny deeds and small braveries by unextraordinary people.

Nell:                I’m not sure I like your tone.

Narrator:       I’m not sure what I think of your lives!

This is how the community is shown to us; as a series of individuals relaying the details of their individual achievements. You get the sense that Wesker has been sitting in front of a pile of transcripts of interviews from older members of Basildon, taking sentences from here and there:

‘Our four acre field was overgrown with blackberry and hawthorn bushes / there were twelve shipwrights in our road / You’d sit round the Beatrice stove to keep yourself warm.’

What unites all these stories is a pride in self-sufficiency, in entrepreneurialism, in fashioning new beginnings, creating new space; space which is carefully marked out:

Elsie:              We’d come down for the weekends and first thing we always did was to raise the flag and show everyone we were there.

Narrator:       Well, it was their castle, wasn’t it? They were like royalty, weren’t they?

 Jack:              Next thing we did was walk right round our boundary.

Gran:              Your father did that. Right the way round, checking the fences and posts.

This is not, it appears, a play about communal endeavour but a shared history of individualism. And it is excoriatingly honest. It is as though Wesker is working through his own response to being asked to write this play; trying to work out what the point of such a project is; whether the idea of Basildon as a community makes any sense at all; whether he is interested or not; whether it is remotely possible to define it. And if we begin to suspect that the Narrator and Wesker are one and the same, at least in the constant questioning of the identity of the people of whom this play is about and for whom this play is for, then this interrogation becomes even more interesting. The play becomes on one level an interrogation of the very idea of writing a community play

Individuals and families share their fragmented stories of food, work, travel and home improvement as this new place that the plotlanders are building begins ‘mushrooming like some Wild West town’. This is a play about quiet lives. And, the Narrator tells us, ‘People will take anything for a quiet life. Employees will take it from employers, citizens will take it from politicians, wives will take it from their husbands’.  When we do see ‘A SPECTACULAR HAPPENING’ it is the erection of one of these plotland bungalows.  ‘AN AMAZING SIGHT’ is ‘THE BALLET OF STREET GAMES’. The domestic is raised in scale to become the spectacular.

These people aren’t interested in the wider social betterment. When Riley, who has spent the first part of the play reiterating the phrase ‘the worst part of the dream is – that when I wake up, I find that Margaret Thatcher is still alive’, finally finds himself able to talk about something else, his job, in 1937, loading pitch which was sent off ‘to build Adolf’s autobahns’, the Narrator lambasts him and, through association, the rest of these plotlanders and freeholders – ‘Ask him, would he have agreed to sanctions to stop the rise of the Nazi uber alles? … I love the barrack-room lawyer mentality of the working class, don’t you? Heartfelt, deeply felt ignorance! Nothing like it!’ And as another character, Stan, now joins in to recount his experiences guarding a prisoner of war camp in Trieste, the Narrator pushes further: ‘did he protest when the British government turned back refugees fleeing from the Nazi extermination camps? Ask him!’

What is it that is provoking the Narrator so? Why does he seem so antagonistic towards these residents of Basildon? These representatives of the community that are being played by members of the current Basildon community, in front of an audience of that Basildon community. And if this continuing barrage of snide remarks and accusations aren’t enough then the diary entries of Brenda haven’t exactly been much of a cheery antidote either:

‘2nd December 1965. I walked the quiet streets again today. There seems to be no place where life can be watched, no railway sidings, no wharves, no rivers to gaze at’.

‘10th May 1967. I perform all the normal functions of living as if I were still alive, but inside I have died a death. How I wish I had someone to talk to. I am beginning to hate this new, self-contained life in this new, self-contained town. Basildon, Basildon, bloody Basildon!’

Brenda’s final entry of the first act is perhaps the bleakest yet as she recounts dealing with a choking baby, an empty doctor’s surgery, an out of order telephone and an absent neighbour. The Kids – ‘now dressed in the clothes of 1945’ – run across once more, still searching for the end of the rainbow, now an ‘enlarged battalion’. And the Narrator talks to us at a little more length, aware that the audience must be confused by his position to what is being shown:  ‘all he can be is sour … that’s what you’re thinking, aren’t you?’ But there is something here he tells us, something that makes this exploration worthwhile; after all ‘how many people do you know who make things happen?’

There appears to be a grudging admiration for these plotland people, for the fact that they have taken action to improve their lives, even if this is done purely out of self-interest. But still the Narrator is left asking, as the Chorus re-appear, ‘I wish, I wish, I wish I knew who you were’.

Act Two begins in the new post-war world. It is 1946, Churchill has been booted out of office and the Labour party are about to build their new Jerusalem, a promised land that includes, in a list declaimed by the Chorus, ‘The New Towns Act!’

It is now, after a rather impressionistic first act, that the conflict really begins. Conflict over property. Conflict over the two historical developments of the land of Beorhtel’s Hill. For the plotlanders that we have spent so much time with are now to be bought out so that the new town of Basildon can arrive. Now, finally, something resembling a community begins to take shape; these are no longer individuals sharing their settler stories but groups of protesters in the form of Residents Associations. These people ‘fought for England, now we fight for freeholds’. The money on offer for their plots, their homes, is not enough. And why should they kowtow to the state when ‘By our thrift and self-sacrifice we have placed ourselves beyond the need of the state’s assistance’?

A mini revolution takes place – and succeeds – in the form of Mr Birch who stands on the roof of his bungalow with a rifle. The corporation keep upping their financial offer, the protesters continue to chant: ‘Beorhtel’s hill sax-on / we don’t want no Basildon’. Birch stands his ground until the price is right. The Narrator – Wesker? – revels in the irony of it all:

‘So, we applaud! The hero! The individual who stood up for his rights, defended his castle, got the right price for his property. The state didn’t understand and had to be taught – think about it – with a gun! And we approve! We applaud! Think about that, dearly beloved’.

A mini violent revolution has presaged the birth of this new place, as a choir of twenty angels sing and the new town of Basildon is constructed – more building –  in front of us. Only for the first words to be uttered, once its dramatic construction is completed, by Brenda:

‘The 24th May, 1968. This town has no continuity … The sheer power of its newness and creation has overwhelmed any character that it might have built on’.

It starts to ‘Rain again, Rain, rain, rain’. An Asian family that we saw enter at the very beginning of the play do so again as fragments of individual stories once more ring out, told by people pushing prams and supermarket trolleys. ‘The first house was completed in 1951, the thousandth house in 1955’. But as the town grows Brenda, whose diary entries have largely bemoaned her loneliness, asks ‘how difficult it is to welcome the stranger into your midst, but welcome them we must or die’.

And then – just as in the first act where the outside world, in the form of Nazi Germany, intruded through the many descriptions of the specifically local – this insularity is cracked open as the Asian family tell their story of being forcefully expelled from Uganda; of the violence and torture endemic in Amin’s regime; of the need, the promise, to be resettled. Surely, the Narrator explains, this must be the place: ‘A town built for the disinherited, the slum-dwellers, the bombed out! Basildon! A phoenix from the ashes! A town of pity and dreams! And what happened?’

What happens is a pretty squalid episode and takes us back to the Narrator’s attack on Riley, Neil and Stan when he accused them of standing by in the face of appalling injustice and violence. In a battle between local political parties and within the Labour party, and spurred on by ‘the people of Basildon’, the council agrees to house five Ugandan families as requested by the national government, but only ‘after one year’s residence in the United Kingdom’. Wesker has been asked to write a play about Basildon and has chosen to confront Basildon head on with its own ignoble actions. A brave decision.

And that’s it. This is where we end – almost. For here come the Kids again, still searching for the end of the rainbow, now ‘dressed in the style of 1989’ and Riley’s dream has finally moved on for now ‘the best part of the dream is that when I wake up I can see flowers in my garden. Masses of them. I grow flowers, y’see. Always have done’.

The play opened with the reveal of a single red rose, and now we have built to:

‘… the most extraordinary image of the evening. From every part of the theatre, the people of Basildon appear with flowers from their gardens. Not a few bunches but in vases. Not a few dozen. But hundreds. Vases full of cut flowers. Pot plants. All shapes. All colours. The floor is covered, every inch.’

The cast join in for one final chorus:

‘And this was the dream / Which every citizen could boast / And all the world would marvel at / Sing Art / Sing Industry / Sing sweet contentment / And this was the dream.’

Is this the dream, or is this the reality? From the single flower at the beginning we now have a theatre full of them. What does this represent? The growth of the town, with echoes of the original plotlanders escape to the bucolic? Does it suggest that when these individuals, with their individual stories, come together that it is possible to create these moments of beauty? After all they are doing it; right now, in the construction of this play. This play that has spent a large part of its time interrogating the impulses of many of those who have been part of the development of this community.

Does this moment where the real people of Basildon, playing the people of Basildon, confront their past offer some salve? Is it a heroic image? Or is it an ironic one? Of the taming of nature for the dressing of individual homes, and the danger that this emphasis on the domestic threatens; as shown by the willingness of these residents to avoid addressing the real concerns of those outside of their doors who urgently need help?

There is still time, before the lights go down, for the Narrator to end the play still no wiser than at the beginning – ‘Who are they? If only I knew who they were.’

I have quoted the play in length but I hope that it is clear from this description, and from the many excerpts from Wesker’s script, that this community play – of which I can discover hardly any information –  is an incredibly self-reflective piece of work. As such it deserves to find its way into any future analyses of the body of work of one of Britain’s most important post war writers.

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

Hull poster

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.

VLUU P1200  / Samsung P1200

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.