I was invited to Montpellier university in the middle of May 2022 to speak at a conference on participatory theatre and community plays. In preparation I wrote these notes
FROM COLWAY TO CLAQUE
In the past few months, I have been focussed on writing my book on community plays, it’s the cathartic experience I always knew it would be, a process that throws up as many questions for me as answers. It’s come at a time too when I have been exploring methods to collaborate and devise with communities at a deeper level and to give people greater collective investment in the process. My approach since Ann Jellicoe wrote her Community Plays and How to Put Them On has changed radically and are still evolving so I can but give you a snapshot of where I am. Each successive project is informed by the lessons of the previous ones, so things are always evolving. So, if you are looking for a method there really isn’t one to be had. I’m not the same person I was yesterday and after today I hope and expect to have new perspective because of all of you. Listening is a great part of working with communities on developing a play. I’m an improviser and listening in improvisation is regarded as a willingness to change. That should be true of life and that’s what I’ll be doing. They say an expert is someone whose made more mistakes in their field of work than most, which is encouraging it means I might be a genius. I took of the directorships of Colway Theatre Trust in December 1985 so I think I should start with saying just a little about Ann.
Ann Jellicoe is universally recognised as the founder of the contemporary community play. The term was first coined in 1979 to describe The Reckoning, a play Ann had just finished directing for her home community, Lyme Regis. Ann was a relative newcomer to Lyme Regis she arrived after more than a decade in London in the 1950’s and 60’s. She had come to fame as the first woman to have a play produced in the main bill at the Royal Court Theatre, the first woman to direct a play at the Royal Court, the first woman literary manager of the English Stage Company. The Sport of My Mad Mother, her first play had a profound impact on British Theatre and paved the way for other women playwrights Her next play The Knack, became a Broadway hit and a film version won the Palme d’Or. She was among the group of leading playwrights of her generation, but by 1976 family was taking a priority she was feeling disenchanted; it seemed to her the same audiences were trotting from theatre to theatre, whilst theatre didn’t seem that important in most other people’s lives.
Less than a year after moving to Dorset she got the idea of writing a play for the school her children were attending. She wanted to base the play on the town’s history so enticed a few local people to help with the research. The story required a lot of adult parts, so decided to involve the parents, which prompted her to write the play with some one hundred characters. performance workshops began drawing in more townspeople she instinctively didn’t want to turn anyone away, so the project became fully inclusive. No-one imagined it would eventually involve hundreds of people.
She persuaded her professional friends to form a small production team, barely paying them their expenses. Exeter University drama department provided a stage management team and lighting equipment for free. The project was affectively growing spontaneously, a response to one decision influencing the next. She worked around setbacks as they occurred or turned them to her advantage. For example, it became obvious that the school stage couldn’t hold the now 90 strong cast, so she reshaped the staging to seat a third of the audience on back of the stage and building stages around the perimeter of the hall leaving an empty space in the centre to accommodate the audience. This established principle of promenade theatre. Decisions emerged as much out of the pressure of natural forces than by design. It was described in one press article in its simplest term as a play for, by and about the people of the community, although the prepositions ‘for’ ‘by’ and ‘about’ can be challenged, but it paved the way for an increasingly democratic approach.
The Reckoning was intended to be a one-off but when Ann realised that she had in fact created a new theatre form, at which point she established the Colway Theatre Trust to develop the form. Between 1980 and 1985 Ann directed three plays and mentored and produced four others The projects began to display recurring features, and her method became more defined. It wasn’t too long before professionals who had been working on Colway play projects began to do their own. I was one of them. Having seen Ann’s third community play I persuaded her to take me on as her assistant director for her fourth. By 1985 I was working on my second independent play when Ann called to tell me that the Regional Arts Council was cutting her regular grant by half, and despite a strong public campaign she had lost the battle and was now going to resign in protest. but not before taking on her most ambitious project to date, David Edgar had written Entertaining Strangers for Dorchester. Ann was asking me if I would co-direct it with her and then take over the helm of Colway Theatre. Following her resignation Ann wrote Community Plays and How to Put Them On describing her discovery and journey into community plays. At the end of the preface, she wrote
“This book seeks to provide a model: you can imitate its practice or create your own… At its simplest the process boils down to credibility: can you deliver and convince others that you can? To discovering how to involve people in creating a work of art, and where to draw the line between the needs of the community and the needs of art.”
This is a recognition by Ann that she was only at the beginning of an evolving process but it’s also an invitation to the next generation to develop it further. What was distinctive about Ann’s approach was the idea that you don’t have to compromise on art because you are working with a community and it’s thanks to Ann that where she ended was a starting point for us. In the 37 years since, the world has changed, and the work has evolved radically as I think she would have wished
No-one can do Community Plays like Ann, so while she invites us to imitate her if we like, none of us can. The kind of the director or writer as an individual practitioner is a big factor in defining what a community play is, equal to the unique qualities and circumstances of the specific community they are working with. Their values fundamentally define the nature of the project’s process. Because community plays are personal and specific it makes it very hard to define generally what a community process is or how democratic they are. I can only talk about community play that are particular to me it might be useful to briefly identify some of the influences. My father was in the Air Force so we were constantly moving every two years This may contribute to the conflict I have toward envying people with roots, who grew up in the community they were born and my contentment with solitude. Basically, I love the idea of community, but I don’t want to live in one.
I retain a deep scepticism about the education system. I believe passionately that we are all born with tremendous natural capacities but lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world. Ironically, the major reason this happens is education. The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and therefor don’t know what they’re capable of achieving. I see the community as a vehicle for self-recognition, and personal growth and undoing some of the damage done.
School at least gave the barest handful of certificates paradoxically to train as a teacher at the Frobel Institute. Froebel believed that a young children learn best in settings that provides a stimulating and prepared environment where they can explore and learn from their own experiences and perspectives. It was at Froebel I was for the first time in the presence of a great teacher Sybil Levy. It wasn’t so much what she taught, but how. I know now that she manipulated our environment and dropped things in front of us like traps for us to discover. I realised to truly grow and find yourself you needed skilled guidance. Whilst there is discomfort, and criticism around the notion of a professional hierarchy, in a community play I believe good leadership paradoxically can help safeguard greater demonocracy and its our job to facilitate that.
I got a teaching job in Sunderland close to where Dorothy Heathcote was teaching a full-time Advanced Diploma course at the University of Newcastle. She was developing revolutionary dramatic inquiry approaches to teaching and learning, using irole-play, as a teaching tool. Basically, giving children simulated life experiences to motivate enquiry. I used it in my own teaching, eventually getting a job as an educational drama advisor teaching teachers to use drama in this way. It’s essential tool now in getting for getting large groups to role play in sessions we call drama searches. They help us collectively ‘find the play’ or inspire the writer.
I got a lucky grounding in improvisation working with Roddy Maude Roxby during late 1970’s and running a course with Keith Johnstone when I first took the helm of Colway. Improvisation has been transformative for me in developing an improvisational mindset in teaching, directing, writing and in life. I now have an improvisation community around me, some of whom who have been working with me for over twelve years, we are now regularly performing fully improvised ‘plays in the moment’.
So, these influences have an important personal bearing on my approach.
A community plays generally start either by my responding to an invitation or by identifying a community. I get to know a community through running a pilot project that also allows me to conduct a study that ascertains whether a play is both suitable and feasible. The projects go under the banner of empty gallery, the same principles of a play apply but the final product is converting an empty shop or other space into community devised exhibition, interactive installation, or immersive performance environment. The projects all involve group collaboration.
The most valuable characteristic of community plays is that most of our work involves people working with groups. I believe groups consist of however many individuals there are in the room plus one, and that one is the group mind. If we can be aware of the group mind, then the characteristics of the group is especially stimulating – it consists of many voices. If an individual were to speak as groups speak, we would think them crazy. Groups can simultaneously take you to different places and engage in a whole host of contradictory activities. Consequently, it disobeys rules, contradicts itself, is restless, delivers the unexpected, is spontaneous, takes you places you wouldn’t normally go – these are qualities you need to be creative. This is not a metaphor for individual creativity - groups have the characteristics of groups and individuals have the characteristics of individuals. A group throws you into being collectively creative in ways you can’t achieve individually. Groups are far less patient than individuals, which is a virtue in developmental terms. Groups are, more impulsive than individuals .
I find individuals are more of a problem than groups. I am genuinely more comfortable working with a group than I am with an individual. I deal with casts of 120 quite happily and can feel sometimes uneasy with a solo actor. Individuals are too emotional; you spend years trying to get them over their habits, blocks, and resistance. The beauty of a group is that there is less resistance, because groups don't behave that way. They are more reckless, less resistant to change, by being reckless the group is more open to transformation. Individuals are much more conservative. And here is the thing: Contrary to this being a denial of the individual the nature of groups challenges and develops the individuals within it, in ways they wouldn’t alone, it’s also an acceptance of individuals as social beings rather than people in isolation. Groups give individuals courage to take bigger risks because, paradoxically, they feel there is safety in numbers
So back to the play we finish the pilot project and if the play looks suitable and feasible. We hold a public meeting after the pilot project has been presented. We present the idea of play and a feasibility report. It may include local advocates, others from precious play projects to say something about their experience. We will hold a vote and if the meeting votes ‘no’ that’s the end of the affair. If they vote ‘yes’, we hand out volunteer forms which explain all the potential activities people can sign up for.
We now form a Steering Committee to help manage and oversee and proactively support the whole project. We have developed a community play board game the covers a large hall floor and the team spends a half day minimum going through a simulated eighteen month play project, solving problems. Creating imaginative initiatives, designing posters, making paper costumes the idea is to finish the game with as many community points as possible, and within budget.
During the pilot project we will have started soundings and will be continuing with them during the set- up of the play project. Soundings are brainstorming, exercise, game-based techniques to help the community identify contemporary issues and select the most potent or pressing and explore its complexities. They will then research to find events from their local history that resonate with the contemporary themes. These will become the focus for developing the play.
We also set up a devising or play development team which replaces the old research team. This team is really two levels, a small group who manage the script development, assess where we are, promote the workshops, set up the rooms gather material we might need. They are practical hands on. The other team are those who attend and participate in the drama searches and devising and development workshops, they are both tasked based.
The Drama Searches are powerful role-playing simulations of an imagined world that can accommodate large groups. We select some time and place in the community’s history. We may start in a large circle with everyone imagining and describing the place and times we want to take ourselves to. I’m relying on the whole group’s knowledge. On the Isle of Sheppey, when we were exploring a famous mutiny, we first imaged the dockside in 1800 then we took up actives of mending nets, gutting fish, dockyard watchmen looking out for trouble. Later we were sailors huddled in cramped, wet and rat invested bays on the lower decks of ship complaining about conditions and I was provoking them in role to mutiny. Participants improvise their roles in the make- believe world and in this way can immerse themselves and experience other people’s lives together I take the role of facilitator to animate the drama guiding or challenging them moment-by-moment or releasing information gradually and indirectly. They must work at solutions, and gain understanding by reflecting on what’s going on, and think about the consequences of the decisions they take; and so find meaning for themselves.
Although the writer is present at the Drama the Search we never talk about the play, the focus is always on the event in hand. The Writer is a vital part of the process and is there to ask questions, participate, suggest an event or a moment to explore improvisationally. If the community identify with people of the past, it inspires them to research between sessions either to prepare the next Drama Search or in response to the previous which has perhaps prompted deeper research, maybe into actual individual characters, or checking historical accuracy.
Devising and Script Development begins as the writer feels the urgency to start writing
Devising takes the material from the Drama the Drama and other various sources and transforms them into the medium of theatre so has a different intention. My aim is not to impose of my ideas but evoke and implement an inclusive collaboration of many contributing minds. Devising’s eclectic and unpredictable nature makes it impossible to reduce it to a fixed method. I may begin with broad plan, but I will expect diversions because I know progression will emerge from moment-to-moment through improvisations, play and conversations. Collaboration can fill the room with a multitude of possibilities that gives us opportunities to move in many different directions and produce a range of creative solutions beyond the scope of an individual. There will an interchange of ideas with the writer with greater focus on plot, creating-characters, genre, the writer giving structure, and incorporating their unique style. The relationship between writer and community is a negotiation based on mutual respect. Neither the revelations of the community in their search should be negated nor the integrity of the writer be disrespected. There will be discussions and experiments about scenes that can show rather than be told
Devising involves same elements that the writer, composer, designer, director employ to do their various jobs: characters and their point of view and objectives, plot or storyline, form, framing devices, audience role and so on. There are really no rules but there are principles such as
First get on your feet
Committing around a common purpose
Doing the Research
Keep an open mind
A willingness to fail is an obligation
Listening to the group as separate identity
Once the play written and read publicly to the town, inclusive casting takes place, if you show up you’ve got a part.
At casting everyone is measured for their costume, they fill in an availability form so their rehearsal schedule can be designed to suit their lifestyle, no easy task.
Around thirteen weeks before the performance date a professional theatre team become resident in the town. The size of the team and the length of rehearsal time are determined by the budget and community needs. The production team mostly consists of a Director/Writer Project Coordinator, Designer, Design Assistant, Production Manager, and a Musical Director. But other roles may be required
Twelve-week rehearsal period begins, we may have as many as four spaces in different parts of the town of various sizes, and the performance may be in a school hall, a church, an industrial warehouse a tent whatever is available. The play office opens to the public. A Design Studio opens in an empty industrial warehouse, or an empty shop in the town centre. It’s open to public six days a week, where they can arrange to work with the designer on specific projects or drop in ad hoc. The community is invited to help build sets, props, and costumes with the guidance of designers and production manager. Workshops are taken into schools and other establishments. Small scene rehearsals happen nightly and on alternate Sundays the whole cast gather, and the fragmented scenes are linked together. Two weeks before opening night, we start building the scaffolding stages and rigging lights. A week before we hold full cast rehearsals every night.
The performances run for twelve consecutive nights. The productions is presented in promenade style. The space, a school hall, is transformed with a series of stages around the circumference. There’s limited seating for disabled and elderly audience members who need to sit down at the back of the school stage, but the majority are expected to stand with the cast in the central area. The action of the play, with casts, of over a hundred and twenty swirls all around and through the standing audience.
We put the audience and performers in a shared space, so the audience are no longer silent witnesses in the dark but become a major scenic element as much in evidence as the performers, the become part of the world of the play. Entirely new relationships are possible, there can be face to face social contact between performers and audience; voice levels and acting intensities can be varied, the sense of a shared experience is felt. In a promenade play we find that the audience quite naturally press in close during intimate scenes and moves away when the action becomes broad. Usually, they willingly give way to the performers and re occupy areas after the actions pass through. This does not result in chaos; rules are not done away with they are simply changed. The audience are participating in the shaping of the spaces.
initially the audience may be nervous. One way of breaking down barriers is to have performers staff the box-office, play host and greet the audience socialise and advise them on where best to see the show. The audience need help in making the connection between their experiences at other popular entertainments, religious observance, and festivals. They are knowledgeable about what to do they just don’t know it. Sometimes we achieve this by holding a real fair at the start, so the audience are clear about ‘how to behave’. The difference between the community actor and audience is clear because of costume, but no attempt is made to hide the non-performing life of the actors. The audience and performers collectively form the community.
To emphasise our belief that individually and collectively people can make a difference we implicate the audience in the action of the play where we can. Implicating techniques includes treating the audience as 'other'; giving the audience another roll or identity; taking part physically; Moving them away from spectator into witness. In the Minneapolis play ‘Flying Crooked’ a play that explored class in America depending on which door they entered through the audience were treated either as a guest at a society function or destitute street people under the rail arches. A fence divided the space in half it was noticeable how this opening experience altered their points of view to the events in the drama.
Implication is not only more powerful than preaching but helps us avoid taking the moral high ground. Implicating should lead to the audience toward making choices not ultimatums. The moments where we implicate the audience directly is no longer acting for, but in a confrontation with the audience. In Out of the Blue, a character speaks to the audience as if they were fellow villagers and invites them to adopt three orphan girls and save them the horrors of the workhouse. Actors were briefed to withhold volunteering and await audience intervention. Participation can disrupt the prepared rhythm or even line of a scene and its uncertainty can be quite frightening for the cast, they resist events that disrupt prepared rhythms. Once we involve them at this ‘higher level’ we try not to let the audience off the hook.
For me the final and greatest achievement are those nights produces the feeling that cast, and audience have created a performance together as one community.