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