The Poor Man's Friend a play by Howard Barker written and produced for Bridport in 1981 was my first experience of a Community Play. It was Ann Jellicoe's third production, after having set up Colway Theatre Trust two years earlier. I had heard about her work from Roddy Maude Roxby who knew Ann from her days at the Royal; Court Theatre. I drove down from Norfolk little knowing that it would change the whole direction of my life. I was to work with Ann on her next play in Sherborne and become director of Colway four years later. Community Plays have been a central part of my life ever since, This year, 40 years on I directed and helped my own community in Rusthall devise a play about Toad Rock just a hundred yards from my front door. It marked my 40th play. I indulged myself somewhat by hiding small moments and lines from previous community plays within the script, most notably lines from the opening scene of The Poor Man;s Friend.. Alan Yentob made an documentary of the play for BBC Arena series called 'A Play for Bridport." I lent my copy of the film to someone years ago. I can't remember who, but it was never returned. I'm pleased to see it has re-emerged on line so I am able to share it with you here.. I hope you enjoy it.
When I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the National Community Play Conference in Dorset I sat down and wrote these extensive notes around which I spoke. The talk was meant to be an hour , so I may not have covered all I’ve written here, but I thought it useful to put it here in full.
THE RISING GENERATION
The work of Ann Jellicoe and beyond
In my research for a play in East Grinstead I listened to the stories of 40 people who remembered the 9th July 1943 in astonishing detail. They remembered the weather / the film that on at the cinema I married a Witch staring Frederick March / they had precise memories of where they were, and what they were doing every minute of that day. Two teenage sisters Dolly and Molly Stiller had bowls of Cherrioats for breakfast / It was Molly’s last meal / she was killed at 5.17 with 102 others / A German Dornier dropped a bomb on the cinema. The two sisters were usherettes. Dolly worked the stalls, and Molly the circle. On some impulse they swap places/ that day / Molly took the full force of the bomb, Dolly survived. Everyone recalled the many tine decisions they made that day that put them out of harms way at precisely 5.17. Millions of apparently minor decisions that day felt to them in hindsight like matters of life or death. Some called it Matters of Chance.
Another matter of Chance emerged - it concerned two men: Edward Blacksell and Neville Blond. Neville was a wealthy businessman was not only funding the burns unit at the Q.V Hospital where Archibald McIndoe was doing pioneering surgery on aircrew burnt in air combat but volunteering his time with a multitude of administrative tasks. Edward Blacksell, was the rehabilitation officer helping men readjust to life with their disabilities. After the war Edward returned to Barnstable. In 1953, he helped launch the Taw and Torridge arts festival and set up a touring theatre Company. To fund the enterprise he approached his old friend Neville Blond, who agreed on condition he leased a London based theatre for them. / The company was the English Stage Company, the theatre was the Royal Court the home of the most influential writers in post war Britain. Including John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, John Arden, and Ann Jellicoe. Twenty years later Ann originated the community play and established Colway Theatre Trust Edward Blacksell was a founder board member. If Neville or Edward had not worked together at the QV Hospital: No Royal Court / No community plays. I wouldn’t be standing here /you wouldn’t be sitting here.
Every decision our parents made, or grandparents stretching back led to you being born. If my father had not agreed to be best man at his friends wedding where he met my mother - Poof I’m not here. Every decision you have made in your life, from the first to the last puts us all here, in that seat or that. A million choices throughout history have brought about this moment. What does this tell us?
We all carry influences and experiences and knowledge about with us that define us and affect the choices we make. So I am to talk about Ann Jellicoe and her influence. So I’ve had to think about how did she get to be such a significant figure in the room? And I’ve thought about my route and my influences and experiences
By a series of thousand of choices out of her control Ann was Born on 15th July 1927 it wasn’t her choice but thankfully she was. She wanted to go into the theatre from the age of four having played the Sleeping Beauty in Kindergarten. It prompted her to join a dance class. She remembered being cast as a raindrop in a dance class. Miffed at not getting star role, she sulked, stopped trying / in a light bulb moment it occurred to her, if she wanted something‘ she’d better work for it. Hard work and determination were ethics she never lost. Neither did she loose the desire to have the staring role.
Her Parents separated, when she was very young and her eyes began to cross. I think the effects of her father leaving were profound. At school she did as much theatre as she could. If theatre wasn’t immediately to hand it was charades. Significantly her father came to a school performance and sent a box of chocolates round to the stage door. She felt it gave her ‘permission’ to be an actor. She had a lot to prove to her father but turned it on herself. She was always ambitious to be a success. She now had the right set experiences, influences, acumen and skills to make the natural step into the central school of speech & drama. Now she was directing and performing to her hearts content. She was inspired by the writing classes she took with Christopher Fry, and the improvisation workshops with Oliver Reynolds. She one several of the schools prizes Despite that when she left she didn’t get work straight away. She put it down to not being pretty. Eventually she got into repertory; some ghastly commercial theatre in Aberystwyth, but at least it was experience, but what followed were a few years of struggle.
In 1949, Ann was commissioned to undertake an investigative study into the relationship between acting and theatre architecture; the finding of this study led her to the Open stage and she established The Cockpit Theatre Club borrowed working actors in-between their shows in London to rehearse and perform on Sundays exploring the possibilities of Open stage. Open stage is thrust stage or audiences on three sides.
1956 The Observer announced it was holding a playwriting competition. Ann writes The Sport Of My Mad Mother. The theatre in the 1950’s was very conventional Two new theatres, one in Stratford East and other in Sloane Square, were causing excitement The Sport of My Mad Mother, bore the marks of the influences of these two theatres, together with the verse rhythms of Christopher Fry, and Oliver Reynolds improvisation at Central School and her love of jazz. 5 scripts were chosen from over 2,000 entrants Ann shared third prizes with NF Simpson’s A Resounding Tinkle. Within 24 hours of receiving the news Ann was having lunch with George Devine, the director of the Royal Court, to discuss producing her play. Sport of My Mad Mother challenged convention. It was ahead of its time. It was described as: wild, rhythmic, confusing, dynamic, strange, intriguing, and unlike anything seen before; Critics either loathed it or raved about. There seemed to be no middle ground. Ann was Marmite. I would say if you are in theatre and haven’t been marmite at some point you’re probably doing it wrong.
But the Royal Court was brave and willing to fail they looked beyond the audience’s expectation, and the critics in search of the next ‘thing’ Ann was instantly adopted at the Court to such a degree that George Devine allowed her to direct her own play, George stood by. Ann said of him. He cherished writers. It was as simple as that.” George Devine gave writers free passes to the all the court's production. And he established The Writer’s Group - it included Ann, John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, Many others passed through. They tested ideas on each other - They played with masks, did improvisations and mime It allowed young promising writers to come to know other writers and the Court directors: Bill Gaskill, Keith Johnstone, Tony Richardson, Michel St Denis. Keith Johnstone was the most influential, and challenging for Ann. Their friendship lasted the whole of Ann’s lifetime. He was very anti-literary, he didn’t like things analysed. A strong personality, he encouraged the group to experiment, to get up on their feet and do things rather than talk. They seldom talked about their own plays but help individuals through blocks by ‘doing’. Ann reciprocated the support she got: Arnold Wesker described Ann as: "… a riot of high spirits, good nature, and frank sexiness I'd not encountered before, she smothered me with encouragement …she had the gift of making one feel interesting.”
Keith’s improvisation work with writer’s group was mostly comedic because of its spontaneity. Ann’s early writing was often improvisational she began with no idea of where it was going next. Her play The Knack certainly began that way, and one scene actually came out of improvisation work in the writer’s group. It had a Royal Court run in 1962, and ran in New York for 18 months; it was made into a film, with screenplay by Charles Wood. It been done all over the world, it’s still done. The Knack is a comedy with four characters, Colin, Tom, Tolen and Nancy; It was a fairly accurate picture of the way Ann’s life at that time. She was living with Roger Mayne who had a house like Colin’s, and he had a lodger like Tom, that was Keith Johnstone. And there was another actor, just like Tolen who had the knack - a way with the women; she kept his identity a secret.
Ann is now writing The Rising Generation for a cast of 900 girls in the Empire Pool Wembley. The Girl Guides had commissioned it. They had never read any of her plays; they thought she wrote interesting plays about teenagers. But they soon found out their mistake. With lines like “William Shakespeare was a Woman, Milton was a woman Robin Hood was a Woman,” and “Men will tear you, eat you, When you’re older you will know.” There were warning signs, she told them ‘teenagers are only interested in sex and jazz’’. They turned it down. But it was successfully done at the Court as truncated version with a cast of 150 teenagers.
Back at the Court following the huge success of the Knack, Ann wrote Shelly. On the opening night Harold Pinter said to her ‘Ann, you’ve got to follow up The Knack.” Ann later regretted she didn’t. Shelley was a different kind of play. Ann has always been interested in history, which is part of the reason for her writing it. She had a very revealing dream when it was in rehearsal of trying to fill a suitcase and she couldn’t get the lid closed. She had such veneration for Shelley but felt she never got free of the facts; which are a dilemma of some community plays. History plays can also be ineffectual if they don’t access, reflect our contemporary life and to some degree I would say challenge it. A play can be educational, ok in it’s way but I want to come out of a play different to how I went in.
1965 Ann is married to Roger and they had Katkin and Tom and were living in Richmond in a house brought from the proceeds of the Knack. Family is taking a priority, though she did write three children’s plays for the ages of Tom and Katkin. Ann’s achievement’s had been astonishing: The first woman to have a play produced in the main bill at the Royal Court, the first woman to direct a play at the court, the first woman literary manager of the English Stage Company. The influences at the Court were boundless. Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot blew her away; she has said she didn’t think she could love anyone who didn’t love Godot. But she was now feeling it was time to move on… she was getting fed up with London. She saw the same audience were trotting from theatre to theatre and the Court was essentially only speaking to the converted. She felt theatre wasn’t important in most people’s lives.
They had an idyllic holiday cottage in Dorset, with roses round the door. They loved it and went down at every opportunity. They moved, sold the London House and eventually brought Colway Manor in Lyme Regis. Ann always assumed she would just go on writing plays. But got the idea of writing a play for the local comprehensive. The headmaster was enthusiastic, it was agreed she would write a play for them. She wrote a lot of adult parts - she didn’t like the idea of children playing adults, so she’d involve the parents that prompted her to write a play on a huge scale.
The Reckoning was based it on the town’s history - The Monmouth rebellion. She got local help with the search. She drew on her contacts. Baz Kershaw and Medium Fair Theatre Company were keen to get involved, so were the Lyme Regis Drama society. The University of Exeter Drama department provided a stage management team; and she’d got little bits of funding. So that’s how it started improvisationally, ideas leading to ideas, responding to new opportunities saying “yes and” to the offers of help, working around setbacks or turning them round. Eventually it involved hundreds of people. Baz Kershaw realised what was happening really before Ann did - and said to her ‘You’ve got to have an interval, because then you will sell coffee and you will involve more people’. I know this was another light bulb moment for Ann, she suddenly realised she was in the business of making jobs because if people help they become involved. After The Reckoning someone approached Ann and asked if she would do a Community Play in Axminster. Now the term Community play was being bestowed on what was now clearly being seen as a “Thing”
So what is this “Thing”?
The Reckoning was a community play, made on the hoof, emerging one decision at a time. It was improvised, created on the spot. Responding to events as they occurred. Every play is like that to an extent. The key point, the thing that gives it you best chance of success is having someone at the helm that has integrity and experience appropriate to the task.
When Ann left Colway she wrote the book. Community Plays and How to Put Them On. She said of it "It has got everything in it I know about community theatre" That’s not true. There are instinctive things she knew that are not in the book. I don't think the book has been kind to her. She has accused of being formulaic. Is it formulaic? It certainly lays down some rules. “The plays should have up beat endings.” “If you have a villain make sure he comes from out of town”. She does say politics is divisive
“If we set out to challenge the basic political feelings of the community we serve, we alienate large sections of them and lose their support” Is that true? Does it matter? These are the common things she’s attacked on. It’s certainly easy to tear it apart but much of it is management manual and its major flaw now is it’s 31 years old, so any advice about such things as funding is now irrelevant.
You will not find and specific answer to what a community play is because I don’t believe there is one. To copy Ann is impossible not only would you be out of step, you would be a pale imitation. Ann was working in a particular place in a particular time over 30 years ago and she responded to events as she saw them, and more to the point, Ann’s is unique. Her work is defined by characteristics, beliefs, influences, situation of the time and the place in which she worked. There is no permanent model; there is no fixed system. Every theatre form once born is mortal. Every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of the influences that surround it.
Ann wrote and directed The Tide for Axminster. Then an invitation came from Bridport. The Poor Man’s Friend by Howard Barker was my first first encounter with a community play. So what was my route to Bridport? What were my influences - what do I bring to the party?
We were an RAF family a result of which I went to 13 different schools. I had a shit education. As a result my spelling isn’t great, I can’t do maths in my head, I can’t speak another language, or play a musical instrument. It was drilled into me by a variety of teachers that I was hopeless so why should I have bothered. Well actually I didn’t, I dreamed. My father died when I was 14 and I was instantly sent to boarding school courtesy of The RAF Benelovent Fund. Cholderton College was a small independent school based on military discipline. I’ll spare you the details - suffice to say there wasn’t a single term in the three years that I wasn’t caned. The head was eventually imprisoned following a national high profile court case where he was found guilty of physical and sexual abuse against dozens of boys. Nevertheless I came away with five O Levels and two A Levels. Cleaver me? No, I was aided and abetted by a corrupt headmaster - For my 2 hour English exam I was given free reign of the library, unsupervised for six hours. For Geography all the boys were told the questions the night before and then had a three-hour evening prep.
I recognise my experience of education is extreme but I have an issue with our education system, generally, I believe, now more than ever it’s not fit for purpose. It’s not the teacher’s, it may be some, it’s the likes of Gove who are making it worse. My granddaughter and niece started school this week bursting with enthusiasm and potential, with a natural instinct to learn, excited about discoveries. I fear adults will kill all that with their standards and tests, and high expectations and ambitions. It’s a thing with me. I tell you this because it has a bearing on my response to community plays. We take on a huge responsibility with community plays. I want to be part of the solution and not the problem. The very least we should do is non-harm. This is why inclusiveness is so important, turn up and you get a part. No rejections. Anyway this is probably perverse - I loathed schools but I decided to be a teacher.
I got a place at FroebeI and took Drama as mains, for one simple and singular reason, the Drama tutor Sybil Levy, was inspirational and the first teacher to see something in me. I realised in Sybil the difference between good teachers and a bad teacher, that they are not doing the same thing to greater or lesser degrees - good teachers give you confidence and expand your horizons, bad teachers break you and limit your potential. It applies to directors. I don’t think it would have mattered what Sybil taught, if it were maths I would have followed her. Thankfully it was Drama. Sybil taught us improvisation; a central tenet of which is “everything you need is in the other person.” A few years later in a workshop with Keith Johnstone said to us “your job is to go on stage to make everyone else look wonderful.” That’s fantastically freeing; because you’re taking the focus off yourself and putting it on your partner. Hard to do, but when you are in that place ‘fear’ evaporates.
In 1964 Dorothy Heathcote started teaching a full-time Advanced Diploma course at Newcastle University and by the time I was at Froebel in 1967 her contentious work was filtering through the colleges; it was instantly attractive to us because it was deeply unpopular idea in traditional schools. We thought it transformative and Sybil encouraged us to use it. Dorothy was developing revolutionary dramatic-inquiry approaches to teaching and learning. That is, using improvisational role-play, as a teaching tool. Basically giving children simulated life experiences to stimulate enquiry.
I had children running a newspaper for half a term; another time we planned and executed an escape from a German prison of war camp, it engaged us all day; the children were inspired rather than forced to learn the skills necessary to accomplish the tasks. What they were learning was also in context so they knew why it was important. Running a paper or organising a prison escape involves maths, social skills, geography, writing, and crafts, research. When we were running the newspaper I took in an old typewriter in: The articles they wrote went up on the wall for collective selection. What amazed me was how the pressure to get things right came from them. They gave and took criticism were prepared to learn from each other. Sometimes the best was no involvement. Children can be incredibly self disciplined and exhibit more creative when they're engaged in an activity and not thinking of themselves as being ‘educated’. Dorothy called it giving them the ‘mantle of the expert’ the responsibility to do the job at hand. It’s sheer brilliance, it’s an answer to our outmoded industrial aged education system, believe me. It’s why children in community plays, in my experience are more self controlled and focussed in that situation.
Sybil Levy also introduced me to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre and The Royal Court I saw plays by Brecht and Samuel Becket, and people I was later to work with: Ann Jellicoe, Peter Terson, Arnold Wesker, David Cregan,- suddenly the world was brighter, richer, sharper. Sybil took me to see the second night of Peter Brook’s legendary Midsummer Nights Dream.
My life at school had been so subject orientated it was suddenly making sense. Life can’t be divided into subject it’s all connected. Everything was now all coming together and melding into some kind of whole, each part of my life informing the other. The things I acquired in my 20’s have informed and been guiding principles of everything I’ve done since. Do you remember being twenty? Wasn’t it great? Didn’t you feel inspired, weren’t you wide open to learning, didn’t you have the best ideas? WOW we want them here in the room. They should be our batteries. How do we make that happen? Talk to them, engage with the, I’d love my twenty year self here - he was probably the best of me. Go and see David Edgar’s one man show. He’s talking to his twenty year old self. It’s a wonderful evening. He was a lovely twenty year old.
I’ll fly through the next 22 years because everything hereafter was simply confirming, practicing and developing the principles of things I’d already embraced: Team teaching in a Victorian School in Battersea / Meeting and training with Marcel Marceau / A nine month world tour performing mime / Back to teaching, this time a post in Newcastle so I could work and rub shoulders with Dorothy Heathcote. I taught for eight years, fighting against the shackles of conformity but could bear the staff room no longer…
So I became a Drama Advisor in Norfolk, teaching teachers to use drama as a teaching tool. What I learned there was just how widespread the pernicious attitude was to teaching children as individuals rather than cloning them. About six of the hundred or so teacher’s I worked with adopted the idea of teaching in-role and it transformed and reinvigorated their teaching, and it seemed to us the children thrived. However within four years five of the six teacher’s left education disenchanted because the schools discouraged and eventually disallowed their teaching methods. The one surviving teacher joined the staff of one of the few ‘Mantle’ Schools that are fully committed to Dorothy’s teaching methods. During this period I met Roddy Maude Roxby who was living near Cromer. I attended his workshops, got him to do workshops in schools; and thrillingly performed with Theatre Machine, Keith Johnstone’s original improvisation company from the Royal Court. It was Roddy who told me about Ann Jellicoe who was doing a ‘community play in Bridport’. I drove down.
The first thing to say about Howard Barker’s Play is it’s a stunning piece of writing. Being in a promenade play surrounded by the community is of itself an extraordinary experience. It was full of so many was startling revelations, but one scene changed everything. The scene was a courtroom. Magistrates behind high desks addressed us as members of the courtroom. The cast pressed round us, muttering dissent at us as if we were court attendees. A judge called for silence. He delivered his sentence of death on a young boy for burning down a flax field. A girl in costume about 8 years old was standing next to me grabbed my hand. We looked at each other. “Why? She asked, and I knew she demanded a response. Her Mother standing close by looked at pressing me to answer her. Here was an eight-year-old girl identifying with an ancestor of her community 200 years ago and pulling me in, implicating me in her world, bringing the past into the present. I can’t remember what I murmured, something like ‘sorry’ I expect. The point is I felt the hurt, anger and impotency to do anything that this community must have felt when this boy was sentenced to death. But I wasn’t just observing events, events were happening to me. It was and remains the most profound moment I experienced in theatre. It changed the direction of my life; I knew this was the theatre I wanted to be working with.
For me everything I value about theatre, what it can do and what it means is stripped down and compressed in that moment. I think of Peter Brook’s Empty space. Reduce theatre down to it’s bare essentials, strip away the lights, the curtains, the costumes, the writer, the director, none of that’s essential for theatre to happen and we are left with the actor and someone watching. That was the part of the magical quality it was personal between the girl in the Bridport play and me. She is the social actor
I recognised the community play then as art in terms of a community that can touch people to an extent that it adjusts their long-term attitudes and changes their lives because it happened to me. I now know its universally true because I’m constantly receiving letters and meeting people years after their plays that tell me this is so. I believe this is because actors who live and work in the community to whom they perform are uniquely placed to offer something professional actors aren’t generally placed to do.. That young girl, will be 45 now and has no idea the effect of her decision led to me perusing that experience for others through 38 further community plays.
The community play seemed to me to be a vehicle to do all the things I valued. This was pure education on a community scale, presupposing our education never stops and it’s never too late to undo the damage of our education system. If I had my wish a school would abandon their usual curriculum and engage full time in such a projects like this, researching, making costumes, marketing - the whole thing. Then they would get an education grounded in real life, understanding the purpose of maths, history, writing to achieve a collective enterprise. Does that idea give you a buzz. It’s so practical. It’s so obvious. The closest I got to that was in Tunbridge Wells where the play was done in the school and the children and the community did full days of role-plays.
So I call Ann and say I’d like a job. She was as it happened holding interviews for the post of development officer. I applied, she agreed to meet me. The interview clearly didn’t go well, I didn’t get the job. I phoned Ann to ask why and was there some other opportunity? She said she thought I had “no pizzazz” I know Ann is working on a play in Sherborne, so I offer do a workshop there for free. “Free” is Ann’s favourite word and it’s an instant ‘Yes, she wants a mime workshop.
My mistake with the workshop is I try to impress Ann rather than focussing on teaching the people who show up. I rarely prepare if I don’t know who is going to be in the room. I over prepared this one. Afterwards we all go for a drink in the pub. I’m sitting at a table with a group; Ann sits at another table. I’m told that Charles Wood has wrote a first draft of the play but has walked away from the project - Ann is clearly furious with him and he’s wisely disappears and cut his phone off. Ann has admitted she has to dress the play up to disguise a weak script. Someone mentions a ship scene. I describe an image that a Corps de mime could make. Corps de Mime is a group of performers dedicated to the task of creating images. I get ten people up on the pub floor and we create a ship. Ann is overjoyed and invites me to be a movement coach five weeks- £250 plus accommodation. £50 a week but I’m in.
We didn’t get on instantly. I struggled getting visual ideas across to her verbally - she was frustrated by me. Sometimes in rehearsal she’d get stuck and ask me to step in. I would, and when she saw an idea emerging she pushed me aside and took off with it, often taking it off somewhere else. That frustrated me. Then I remembered how, when she ‘saw’ the ship in the pub she got it, so I changed tack. Charles Wood had written an odd scene that included Goebbels with a duel personality talking like two people. I had the idea of him being played by two people, one as a puppet, the other as a puppeteer; the mechanism holding the strings would be a swastika. I took two actors off for an hour and we rehearsed it and then showed it to Ann. It worked. I took a leaf out of Keith’s book and the Writer’s group days - don’t ‘talk’ ‘do’. After that we got on. My time was extended and she credited me assistant director.
Sherborne finished I went off and took a job as South West Arts as Theatre Animator For Cornwall
What is a Theatre Animator - The people who interviewed me knew as much about that as I did, nothing much at all. Those were the days. We decided what it was to be collectively there and then, and I got the job I helped outline. It was all pretty loose but essentially to work with existing theatre companies, offer training, and select one that was worthy of more substantial funding. The problem was there were dozens of them getting little pots of money that wasn’t adequate to anything much. It needed sorting. And somehow a community play snuck in there.
When I got to Cornwall I ran workshops and directed some companies in new plays; I got Bill Gaskill to run weeklong courses with actors. Keith who’d done a workshop in Sherborne came and did one for me. The company I selected to get funding and support was a young vibrant, intelligent Theatre Company run by the son of the County Drama Advisor. They were taking theatre in education into schools and producing regular family shows round village halls. They were called Knee High. We ran devising workshops out of which I wrote Treageagle and a tour was extended beyond Cornwall in theatres across the South East. It was eventually revised and went everywhere. My office was in St Austell Arts Centre where Nick Darke was a patron, I commissioned Nick to write a play for St Austell. The Earth turned Inside Out my first independent community play. Knee High were the production team. Knee High are now, of course a major company, touring world wide with several shows on the road at any one time.
Meanwhile Ann was monitoring two plays with other director under the Colway banner while directing Western Women her second play for Lyme Regis. She commissioned Faye Weldon to write it and got John Fowles to help with the research - he was curating the town’s Museum at the time. There were issues between Ann and Faye. As a director working with another writer Ann would go over their scripts almost like they were first drafts. She was a relentless detective in spotting discrepancies and writers are easily upset. Like Charles Wood, Fay Weldon walked out.
Ann rewrote the play but kept the story. I realise now that this is the only time I was around to witness Ann writing. In the early days of writing she sat down and started and saw where it would take her. Ann has said this in an interview
“I created like a blind man creates sculpture. What I mean is that I was sensing all the time that I was getting true to what I wanted to say, but I was never quite sure until I finished. And then I revised the whole thing and I finally knew what it was about. I didn't have a pre-laid plan, not at all.’ Ideas create ideas.”
Because her community plays are by choice historical she starts with a great mass of material. She describes herself sitting in front of a blank pad of paper, trying to find a way in, knowing that at the end of it she had to produce something that could be done. Following the Western Women, Joan Mills directed a play in Ottery St Mary for Colway; The Ballad of Tilly Hake by Shelia Yeger. While it’s in production news came through that South West Arts was cutting her annual grant from £16,000 to £8,000. Ann was enraged but despite a powerful campaign and written support from people like Peggy Ashcroft and Lawrence Oliver. It failed to move the arts council. I had been given £8,000 for a play in Mevagissey from SWA, equivalent to the amount Ann’s grant had been cut; I sent it back with a rather esoteric metaphor “ you can’t take away from the roots in order to feed the branches.” Ann announces that her next play for Dorchester would be her last. She stood on stage every night of The Ballad of Tilly Hake and berated southwest arts and asked the audience’s to sign the petition.
I was in Gainsborough writing and directing Waves Against the Flame when Ann called and told me about resigning. She asked if I would take over Colway. I’m reluctant. I didn’t think her resignation was a great decision. She’d actually only done five plays herself at this point and I knew there was more she wanted to do with them. It was a terrible heart-breaking conversation. She was very hurt, mostly by the lack of esteem and recognition of people in the regional arts council. I think she felt diminished by it. It became clear she was done. Funding these things is the most time consuming, dispiriting activity. I eventually said yes and agreed to work with her in Dorchester, he last play. 32 years on I’m close to the place Ann was then, I’m done, and for the same reasons.
The lost campaign had taken its toll on Ann and there was a period in the rehearsal period when she was quite ill. However the script and the wonderful people of Dorchester kept her buoyant. She told me she “was breathless with excitement. It was a powerhouse of a script, epic in proportion, and the most ambitious I would say. Dorchester was amazing, I know she felt her relationships with the town, and the profound affect the plays have had there was her greatest achievement. The Dorchester Community Play Association has broken all records when it comes the to sustainability. On 31st December 1985 Ann ceased to be Director of Colway. She settled down to write her Book on Community Plays and went onto to do three more plays independently, Dorchester, Denmark and Woking.
I took over on 1st January 1986. In the 32 years since I’ve written and or directed 38 plays. I only want to pinpoint a few prominent memories:
Beaminster 1987 Crackling Angels by David Cregan, another member of the writers group from the Royal Court. David is a seasoned and experienced writer but writing for a community terrified him. David phoned me up in the middle of the night 3am just to say “I feel so responsible” and then hung up. He found it difficult to get started, to commit, because he felt his subject was his audience and his cast. He felt cautious and vulnerable. David’s made me more aware of our responsibility to the community sensibilities.
Thornbury 1988 A Place Called Mars by Nick Darke. The venue was two side-by-side ten-lane bowling alleys. with a 200 seat gallery. We had to work on a huge scale. I instructed Nick to write it as if it was money no object film script. He delivered, with stage directions like “Mum is in the Kitchen, Grandma in the sitting room next door, Dad is shaving in the bathroom upstairs, Amelia is in the attic rooting through trunks.” We built a three-story house with the front wall missing.
“Amelia is on the prow of a ship, she jumps into the sea and is swallowed by a whale, she is blown through the blow hole.” I kid you not. We had an eighty-four foot whale floated through the audience, manipulated inside by 42 cast members (82 feet). It was insane. It has to be the most epic. The budget was no bigger than any other. In theatre anything is possible.
Basildon 1989 Beorththel’s Hill by Arnold Wesker: Arnold is reluctant to write the play, he’s under pressure by his agent and his wife to do it; they think it will do him good. He’s only enamoured by the fact it will be the opening of the Towngate Theatre. He’s read somewhere that Colway refuses to be political and they insist on being celebratory. I try to say it’s not the case, he doesn’t hear. “There’s nothing here in this dreary place to celebrate” he says. “Where does one even start” I say again- “forget celebration, Arnold, but find a ray of optimism, there’s always a chink in the wall.” I ’m showed him around the town that is new to me too, and it is depressing. We end up in the bus station that feels unhelpful. We encounter a drunk carrying bin liners, he stopped and with eyes fixed on us he approaches Arnold, the smaller man. His face is inches from Arnold’. I see Arnold can smell the man’s breath. He shouts, “The trouble is, when you wake up from the dream, Maggie Thatcher’s still alive.” The man passes on. Arnold sighs, “I’ll write the damn thing” he says “I have the opening scene” He also had his optimistic chink in the wall and a rebel without a home.
1990 Eramosa Township, Ontario, Canada. The Spirit of Shivaree by Dale Hamilton.
There was a political issue there concerning a developer who were offering huge amounts of money to the town council who felt they could ill afford the opportunity turn it down so were selling of chunks of the township. Monster estates were being built on prime agricultural land and parks.
The community needed a form of protest, they asked if I would go and talk to them about a play. A local playwright Dale Hamilton had already written the script. I went to see them and agreed to do it if we started again with a process of consolation with the community. We developed ‘Community Soundings’ and workshops in which farmers, community residents old and new developers, township councillors and conservators all came together in one room. They had a number of public meetings like this. Dale wrote the play incorporating more the views of the community at large. I can’t say I loved the script, but we dressed it up and a point was being made. We put it on in the ruins of an old mill by a river. A few days before we were to open the developer threatened to close us down, he’d read the script and though he wasn’t mentioned by name he was clearly recognisable. I went to his house to appeal to him. He wasn’t there but his mother was. I had coffee with her. I explained the extraordinary thing that was happening in the community, what an enriching and bonding experience it was, how it was uniting the community. She got on board. We heard no more.
After the play members of the cast got together and continued the campaign. The stood in the following election and overthrew the council and adopted a more sensible and sensitive development policy. They demanded an Ontario Board Hearing to challenge the present agreement with the developer. A court was set up in the Township Hall with a high court judge and they had three weeks of hearings I was called a character witness for the township and miraculously the judge allowed an hour session when the community in costume spoke as characters from the play about their history. The agreements were overturned and the Developer left town
West Somerset 1997 The Sailors Horse by Peter Terson
After I moved to Kent Ann didn’t see many of my plays but she did come to see the Sailors Horse because it was near enough. This is the story of the greatest compliment Ann ever paid me. There was a scene in the play, the one before the interval, always a high point, that told the story of the Lynmouth lifeboat 1899. A three-masted ship was in difficulty off Porlock in one of the severest storms ever. It was quickly ascertained the lifeboat couldn’t be launched so men and horses dragged it over Porlock Hill to launch it at Porlock.
We had built a concertinaed ship the front of which blended into the wall so wasn’t too apparent. Men wearing heeled boots and wearing horses masked were harnessed to it and as the walked forward the ship opened out. It was life sized with high sides. Barrels joined by planks with ramps either end were laid out in two lines. The Horses walked up the ramps an along the planks while the lifeboat slide between. The cast were singing full throttle. I was in the best viewing spot and Ann, as a seasoned promenader had spotted it too and was standing behind me. The image went off the music faded and in the dramatic pause before the lights came up Ann said in a rather loud voice. “You fucking bastard”.
I visited Dorchester’s sixth Community Play at the weekend. Written and directed by Rupert Creed, it is built around the tale of Thomas Hardy’s poem. Drummer Hodge is an overtly political debate about Britain’s foreign wars. It flies in the face of the idea that community plays should not be political on the grounds that politics is divisive, and community plays should be uniting. I’ve never believed that. It’s especially evident with Drummer Hodge, that here is a left wing view being expressed strongly in a right wing town; a risky move? Maybe, but I heard nor saw anything in the passion with which the cast presented the play that even verged on division. In the second half of the play, we see an act of kindness by Drummer Hodge towards civilian Boer prisoners, which ultimately leads to his death; it throws up questions about our shared humanity. The messages are so relevant and transferable to today. It points to how the simplistic and ill-concieved demonisation of others can be used to convince us to enter into and support unnecessary wars. It demonstrates how history can inform us and challenge our perceptions about contemporary issues.
On a personal level I found the evening very moving. There was a much loved line from David Edgar’s play Entertaining Strangers, that I’ve remembered, often quoted and, I think, even stolen : “Tis not so much the matter, as the manner…sir” It’s a great line and an object lesson worth remembering. After the show a man in his late forties approached and asked if I remembered him, No I didn’t…then he quoted the line and I knew directly. Paul, now 48 was 19 when he spoke the lines as a disgruntled younger member of a the gallery musicians sacked unsympathetically by the Reverend Moule. Maybe I can be forgiven for not recognising him, but I remember him. I was reunited with people from as far back as 29 years. In the audience were past cast members from Entertaining Strangers (Dorchester 1985); Out of the Blue (1989) Listenstone (1991); Vital Spark (1992); On the Green Rock (2000); Time to Keep (2007). It’s gratifying to see just how large the community play family has got. The feelings of the experience are sustained for years, and being involved in one play connects us to the others. A vivid memory I’ll come away with from Dorchester’s present play is seeing three generations of one family on stage together, some of whom were in Time to Keep that I directed seven years ago. The story is best picked up by Fran Samson who posted it on the Dorchester Community Play website below:
The Sansom Family
FRAN SANSOM who with husband Rob and daughter Maisie were members of the smuggling fraternity in the last community play while daughter Kitty cheered up her fellow prisoners; recounts the impact which the Dorchester Community Plays have had on her life and that of the whole family. Since the last play another member for a future cast has made her appearance.
The five Dorchester Community Plays have been part of my growing up and a part of our family life. My mother was involved from the start with roles in the plays and involvement in the trusts and committees bringing the plays to fruition; so I had an idea what a huge project a community play was from the outset, and the difference it could make to people’s lives. In 1984 our first play was “Entertaining Strangers” and my brother and I were in the band. I became friendly with the lad playing my mother’s son in the production. Twenty eight years, a wedding and three children later, and we are “friendlier” than ever.
Community Plays are greater than the sum of their parts. They are confidence enhancing, skill revealing, friendship forming, and life-changing events. Everyone has a place in them whatever skills you may have – and if you think you have none, then a Community play will show you otherwise. The opportunity to be involved at so many levels; fund raising, publicity, costume making and construction, and, of course acting and music, make you feel like you own this play in a way you never can with a regular production. As a family we have been involved in just about every aspect of the last five plays, at one time or another. And that’s the best thing; we have done it as a family; first as a teenager with my mum and brother, then with my husband, and in 2008, as a family with our two small daughters.
The play was “A Time to Keep” and had a cast of over a hundred. The stages were many, large and made of scaffolding; the rehearsals often long with time spent just waiting, and there was a lot to learn. We had a fabulous time. Our daughters were then 7 and 4.
It may surprise you to know that Kitty, the elder, was not a smuggler with the three of us, but a prisoner, working with children and adults that she had not previously known; and she flourished. She felt safe and supported, said lines and sang a song, and blossomed among new friends. At only 7 she found a new confidence and new skills.
It may also surprise you to learn that Maisie has Downs Syndrome and, particularly at 4, had little sense of danger, scant regard for personal space, and liked to take centre stage. We never felt that she was anything less than totally accepted, and there was a great sense of protection and affection for her. If ever we lost track of her, someone else always knew where she was. When the older children played under the stage, they helped her join in. When she stood next to the director and helped to dramatically illustrate his direction, it was accepted with tolerance and remarkable good humour.
At a difficult time in our lives; my lovely Dad died as we were starting rehearsals, A Time to Keep gave Rob and me, our daughters and my mum, a positive focus, a wonderful experience, and some fabulous memories. Community plays are important. They are inclusive, empowering, and family friendly. What more could you ask for?
Fran & Rob Sansom
I’m fond of telling the story of a particular moment that won me over to the idea of the community play
In 1981 I had travelled down from Norfolk to Dorset to see a new phenomenon I’d been hearing so much about, Ann Jellicoe’s third community play, The Poor Man’s Friend written for Bridport by Howard Barker. It was not only the first community play I’d seen, it was the first promenade performance. I stood in the hall of the Colfox School with stages on three sides surrounded by cast and audience. Scenes happened all round and in our midst. Howard had written a play around a simple fact he’d been given about a local Bridport boy of 14 in the 18th century who had been hung for setting fire to field of flax.
The moment came when the judge passed sentence.
“Sylvester Wilkins, you have been found guilty of the crime of arson. To see one so young and so cruelly misled as to attack the law of property is to know the breadth of the current delinquency. My only duty is to pass the sentence which the law awards.”
As he put the black cap on and pronounced the boy’s execution the cast around me became restless. A young girl of about eight and her mother, both in eighteenth century costume, were standing beside me. The girl tugged at my sleeve.
“Why?” “Why would they do that?”
I didn’t know if I should respond. A choir sang:
“Sylvester they didn’t want to do it, but old England says your dying, will make sure no one does it again.”
The girl asked more insistently
“Is that true, why does he have to die?”
She was now clearly demanding an answer. I looked to her mother for help, it wasn’t there; only a look that said “Well answer her.”
I can’t remember what I said, probably something like: “No, it’s not just”
What I do remember was an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. I felt implicated in the drama, I felt that I should somehow be doing something.
I tell the story often and keep coming back it because; it seems to me, everything potent about the community play is there in that one moment. What was exceptional about the experience was that she was asking me not just to respond imaginatively, but creatively.
Almost all of us have this power of imagination, by which I mean the ability of seeing in our mind’s eye. Through imagination we can all call to mind people, events, feelings and experiences that are not present here and now.
Some people argue that imagination is what separates us from other animals but as I don’t know what goes on in the minds of animals, I wouldn’t want to say; my instincts tell me they can imagine, who hasn’t seen a seen dog apparently chasing cats in their sleep?
But creativity is a step further. Imagination can be an entirely private process, you can close your eyes and be in a fever of imagination and no one would know it. Creativity is different; it requires action and has an impact on the outside world. Normally when I go and see a play I respond imaginatively, but in the instance of the Bridport play the young girl was asking me to act, to take part. It opens up the possibility of the audience becoming performers.
This apparent tiny act of a member of the community playing a character and treating an audience member as a character in her dramatic world has repercussions and throws up a huge array of possibilities. Add the fact that audience and cast are mostly from the same community and it goes to the heart of what makes these plays so extraordinary. It’s the implication of that moment and hundreds of other similar moments since that I want to start exploring over the coming weeks.
I’d like to have your thoughts and experiences too. Have there been moments in theatre when you’ve felt implicated, responsible for the outcome of the drama you were watching or felt the impulse to take part and what was it that provoked it?