Introduction by Jon Oram
This interview is about about my 35 year work writing and directing Community Plays. Andy Barrett has been undertaking a study of community plays, having initially been in a could of them in Dorset as a young man , when Ann Jellicoe was director. Subsequently Andy has made a career in community theatre. You can find out more and further articles and interviews of comity play writers and directors by clicking… Here
In February of this year I was lucky enough to meet Jon Oram, one of the most important figures in the world of community theatre, at the house of Stephen Lowe as they met to talk about the project they are currently working on together. Jon agreed to let me interview him, for which I’m very grateful.
Q: Can I ask you first of all to tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.
A: I’m Jon Oram; I’m Artistic Director of Claque Theatre which is basically me. I have associate people who I work with on projects, but it’s very small. And I’m a community play theatre director and a playwright. I also run improvisation workshops and do lots around improvisation.
I’m based in Tunbridge Wells and I came to community plays by working with Ann Jellicoe years ago on the Sherborne community play (The Garden by Charles Wood, 1982). I then went down to Cornwall as theatre animateur and did a community play there (The Earth Turned Inside Out by Nick Darke, 1983); and then one in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire (Waves Against The Flames by Jon Oram, 1984). Ann asked me if I would take over the Colway Theatre Trust and I co-directed ‘Entertaining Strangers’ (by David Edgar, 1985) for Dorchester with Ann at that point, and then took over the reins.
There was about two thousand pounds in the bank and a secretary for half a day a week and nothing set up for the future. I did about eight or ten plays in the West Country before moving up to Kent (we changed the name from Colway Theatre Trust to Claque), because Kent is very much the gateway to Europe or could be; and we started doing work across Europe and then taking community plays to Canada and America and kind of broadening it. And although people talk about the Colway model we’ve developed from that; the core of that is still there but we have a much more engaged process I think with the making of the play and the finding of the scripts.
Q: And what are you working on at the moment?
A: I’m now working on a community play in the City of London. I’m seventy this year and the thought of doing another play wasn’t in my mind. We had been turned down for funding for three previous projects so it was getting a little bit tiresome; getting money now for community plays is really difficult. But then I got a phone call from the City of London Director of Housing saying they would like to do a community play in the East side of the City of London, Portsokun; it’s an area that kind of runs parallel to the East End. And that just seemed really interesting. So I went and talked to them and looked around and just thought ‘well yes let’s go for it’.
Q: And you’re not writing this one?
I’m not writing this one, no. I have been chasing Stephen Lowe for years because I knew him in the West Country. We were on the Arts Council board down there. Thankfully he slowed down enough for me to catch him up, and finally he’s said ‘yes’. I’m very pleased about that. So Stephen is writing the play. I didn’t want to do the two; I have often done the two things but I just felt I needed another pair of hands on this one.
Q: What does Claque mean?
A: It goes back to Greek times. The claque were a professional group of audience members, and writers and directors would hire the claque to come to their theatres to cheer things up a bit and to move the thing along. But also writers and directors would hire them to come and visit other shows to give them a bad time. There were various jobs in the claque; my favourite was a group which would invade the stage. And the idea of the audience invading the stage was the inspiration for me calling it Claque. It’s also a French word – slap! – which is like an awakening. So those two things together. When people say they don’t know what it means the description of it helps them to understand what it is we’re trying to do in our work.
Q: How many community plays have you written?
A: I think it’s thirty eight now. Given that each play takes about two years and I didn’t start until my mid thirties that makes me well over a hundred years old.
Q: How did you get into writing them?
A: Well the first one was in a hurry. I was asked to do a community play for Gainsborough for the opening of the Gainsborough Arts Centre and it had to be done quickly. So I just did it and I enjoyed the process. I continued asking other writers to write plays and then I went to Canada and did a play in Eramosa. A woman there called Dale Hamilton, a political figure in the community, was concerned that land was being bought up by businessmen in Toronto and development was happening on prime agricultural land and she wanted to do a play to protest it. We set up this thing called ‘soundings’; asking the community to come in and express their feelings about development and to get a sense of where the community was now. We did about twenty of these and the sounding process became a part and policy of the work; a contemporary exploration of where we are and then finding stories in the past that have reverberations with the present. The process of the community doing that play (The Spirit of Shivaree, 1990) led to the community standing against the local township council at the end of the play and taking over the township. So a cast, a community play cast, was now running the township; and over three years they were able to stop the developers. So the political, social implication of doing those soundings was huge. And when I came back here I started asking writers about that process and they got very anxious about it. Writers almost by dint have a voice; they have something that they want to say, so the idea of giving that all up … I just found it hard to find a writer who would go through that process. So I wrote the plays.
Q: Did you feel as you were writing the plays that you were learning more and more? Were they getting better? Was there a moment when you wrote something and you thought ‘this really works as a community play?’ And have there been plays that you think were particularly successful?
A: I think the successful ones are the ones that really seem to echo the contemporary voice, the contemporary concerns, and are quite visible in the piece. When I first came back from Canada I did a play up in Hull with Remould. I wrote it and co-directed it with Rupert Creed; but the subject was decided and they had a very good research team; they were going on the old model as it were and I didn’t want to disturb that. (When I say any of this I’m not against anybody’s way of working).
That was an interesting play because it was within living memory, and that’s rare. It was about the trawlers and safety on trawlers; the men were going out to sea and two vessels had sunk because they didn’t have proper radio communications and the safety conditions of the trawlers was appalling. The men were always at sea so the women started the campaign; and the women who campaigned were still alive and still about and they came and did the workshops with us and the rehearsals with us and some of them were in it. Yvonne Blenkinsop and Christine Smallbone, who lost her brother on one of the ships, helped us a lot in rehearsals and she came to see it. John Prescott was the head of the Dockers union and had assisted the women, and he came to rehearsals. And they were all being represented; so there was somebody playing John Prescott, there was somebody playing Yvonne. Yvonne was also in the play but she couldn’t play herself because she was too old. And that communication between living people and real people was so moving.
I’m just going to tell you one story about Christine Smallbone. We did a depiction of the drowning, a depiction of the trawler going over, and we had the trawlermen on people’s shoulders, on wooden beds that we made that were on people’s shoulders, and they stood on top of that. And we had the real sound effect, the real sound of the last messages coming back from the ship. And I saw Christine standing there watching, just standing underneath where the actor who was playing her brother stood; and I was very concerned. The next scene was her going to the offices of the trawlermen saying enough is enough. I put the word ‘fuck’ in the dialogue and the community said ‘no we can’t have that’. They didn’t want the word but this is what Christine said. And then, this was the first night, the actress who was playing it had obviously spoken to Christine and she got to the word and she went ‘f … f…fuck!’; she actually said it. Which was right. And I just felt a pair of hands come round my waist and it was Christine and she said ‘bless you’. And that was the most … I mean … you know, it’s that human, it’s that human connection. Whether it was a great play I can’t say. I think it was a good play but it was too long; there were too many aspects that were being forced in it.
Q: ‘Vital Spark’?
A: ‘Vital Spark’. It had a profound effect. I don’t know if anything concrete has come out of it but they’re now celebrating the twenty fifth anniversary. Twenty-five years on a community is celebrating a play. I mean that’s quite an achievement for them don’t you think?
Q: Does doing a play about a story within living memory make it more difficult to create because in a way it becomes an act of memorialisation as well?
A: Yes, yes. I think that communities are much more tender about the subjects, so you have to be very careful. And of course if you are writing about people who are living, or people’s parents or grandparents that they have memories of you, have to be really incredibly careful.
I wrote a play for Shillingstone in Dorset (The King’s Shilling, 1987) and we discovered that a woman connected to the story was still alive. I went to see her and and I told her the story and she was very touched by it, and she said ‘this is lovely; I wish I was still in the village’. ‘Well you could be for ten days’, I said, ‘you could be in it’. And she was. I wrote a little speech for her and she sat in the audience and at the end of the play she came forward and said ‘this was my story; I’m Elizabeth’. And the cast on the first night didn’t know that was going to happen. I’d taken one of the actors to work with her; he was going to walk up onto the stage after she’d come forward, say ‘would you have the last dance with me and walk me home’, and then take her down and dance with her on the floor, which is what happened. And the cast was just … it’s being able to touch history and think ‘my God it’s so close’. It’s like the relationship you have with your neighbour; it’s just that they live next door in the past as it were. And if plays can do that, that’s magical. But that’s not about the writing or the goodness of the play; it’s about the human spirit.
Q: There is a lot of emphasis it seems on researching real peoples stories. What’s so important about that? Because on some level you’re still inventing everything aren’t you?
A: Yes, you are. And you don’t know what these people felt or thought. But you’re linking it to the feelings and thoughts of people now. If you find a story that has reverberations to those you can carry those thoughts and feelings back. So instead of starting with a relationship to a character in the past, I’m starting with your feelings and thoughts and finding somebody that might share them; it’s the other way round.
In terms of having real people, or real names, what the community actor can bring to the stage that professionals can’t is their sense of place, their sense of their own history and I think writers need to be aware of this. It’s deeply personal and they feel a huge sense of responsibility to the ancestor that they’re playing. They can go and stand in front of ‘their’ house; they can knock on the door and say ‘hello I’m playing a character that used to live in your house’. A barber came up to me at the end of a play that I did in Tunbridge Wells and said ‘I walk around my house now and I think ‘Elsie touched that door knob’. She’s present. She’s present in my house. And she’s so welcome’.
Q: Presumably a lot of people that are in these shows may only have been there for five or six years; so they haven’t got a rooted sense of the community.
A: No. The people that have arrived, absolutely they don’t. But the people that do infect the people that are new. Everyone has an attitude to where they live, If they’ve chosen to live there or they’ve arrived by circumstance they have an invested interest. Some people come to the plays because they want to meet people; a lot of amateur drama people are not so keen because they’ve only got a small part, they don’t necessarily get the sense of ensemble; so they come and they count the lines that they’ve got and they leave. They don’t get it until they see it and then they think ‘shit I’ve missed a wonderful thing here’.
One story about the connection I was talking about. ‘Entertaining Strangers’, which was for Dorchester, then went to the National Theatre and Judi Dench was in it. It was written down (a reduced cast) and David Edgar had written in the programme that it was hard to meet the limited resources of the National Theatre after working with Colway. Maggie Ansell had played the part that Judi Dench was now going to play, and Judi came down to meet Maggie and came away from that meeting saying ‘that bloody woman’, (who she had enormous respect for but Judi’s a bit of a swearer), ‘I’ve been in the rehearsal room for eight weeks trying to get to the point where she started’. Now that’s recognition of what I’m talking about; a woman who is deeply rooted in the community.
Q: Is it important to have a writer who comes from outside the community?
A: I think so. Well I know so. That’s like saying that’s the only way to do it, which it isn’t, but I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. Dale Hamilton came from her community and she carried agendas. It was just too personal to her. And then you are in danger of going deaf.
Q: The outside writer hasn’t got the rootedness of community that you have been talking about. So what are the benefits of the writer as an outsider?
A: First of all it’s very rare to find a writer of real quality in the community that you are asked to do a play in. I think partly what they bring is ignorance, and I think they bring doubt. And they bring a bit of fear. I think they bring those things that I think are really important. They don’t bring a confidence of ‘I know this place’. It’s like a marriage of two minds. You have this person who is a qualified, a more than competent writer with an enormous amount of curiosity, subject to the people that they’re talking to. And then you’ve got these people who know their community, who know each other, who have sensibility, particularly about what is happening now which is why the soundings are so important. So you’ve got two experts meeting. If you have somebody who is both an expert on what they do and an expert on what they’re writing about I don’t think you’ve got a community play. And the other thing that the writer brings to it is openness and objectivity and new light, new ideas, new thoughts, new interpretations on what it is people are thinking and feeling.
Q: Is the writer trying to understand the codes of that community in some way?
A: The archetypal writer is someone who has something to say and that can cause problems; because they can come with their own agendas in terms of what really sparks them off. So you have to say to the writer ‘try and be open’. And you have to say to the community ‘try not to tell them things you don’t want the play to be about’; there’s a kind of censorship. I tend to work with the community and a research team about three months before they meet the writer, because the writer’s going to arrive thinking ‘oh shit what am I going to write this play about’. And invariably very early on they’ll grab stuff and cling on to it because it’s like a security blanket. (David Cregan who died recently did a few plays for me and the first one was in Beaminster (Crackling Angel, 1987). I got a phone call about three o clock in the morning and it was David, who was sitting up presumably burning the midnight oil, and he said ‘shit Jon I feel so responsible’ and hung up again.) He got me out of bed to tell me this! He just needed to tell somebody. You ask the community to hold things back and to enthuse and excite the writer, because at the end of the day you can’t tell the writer exactly what to write. If you’ve chosen that writer it’s because of what they bring to it; their passions. So you’ve got to find something that sparks them.
Q: And what are the things that you most often end up saying to a writer who may be working on their first community play?
A: It’s writing for the form. The canvas is huge. You can have up to 130 – 150 people in the cast and there are tricks that have been developed over the years. Ann Jellicoe came up with an early trick that she called ‘baskets’. How do you write a play for say eighty people? Well you have eight protagonists; you have eight central people, which is about as much as an audience can carry. And each of those characters have a family around them: a mother, father, brother, sister, wife, children, neighbour and that’s ten people. Those eight people with ten people around them make up your eighty people. And you can see ‘that’s the Fell family, that’s the Smith family, that’s the council, those are the Suffragettes’, whatever the grouping is you understand the uniform. In terms of design we try and make it so that you can identify the groups in some way so that you try and make it simple for the audience to follow. So this discussion around what I’ve learnt about promenade theatre is quite an important one to have. And when the script starts evolving I’m saying ‘don’t forget that for every scene you’ve got 120 people who could be contributing in some way. Let’s keep them busy. Let’s use this wonderful facility’. So the numbers; the numbers game is huge.
And then there’s staging itself. You have scenes that are quite short, and you can move from a stage up in the north and the audience turns round to a stage in the south. I don’t know why we’ve done this but we name our stages geographically. We have the north, south, east and west stages. We have stages that break up so that they can then move around. So you might have an 8 foot by 8 foot stage but actually it’s made up of four smaller stages which can then truck through the audience. We say ‘keep the audience moving; keep them turning’. We’re learning about that the whole time and those things are really important for the writer; the fact that the space is so flexible; and that the audience needs to be present in what is happening.
Q: Is the audience more of an implicit character in community theatre?
A: Yes. In Stephen’s play that he’s currently writing, which has the working title of ‘Sanctuary’, there’s going to be a march of the unemployed, and there’s going to be a recruiting of people to join the skeleton army, and there’s going to be Salvationists; so there are moments when people are making street speeches, and instead of having one speaker you can have ten; people on step ladders, or sitting on people’s shoulders, or standing on a chair. And they can be planted throughout the audience and gather people around them. First of all this gives ten people a speech, and to a certain extent you have to think about the experience of the performers; for example if there is somebody who can’t project very well you can give them a speech like this. But also in the interval the audience can talk about the different speeches that they heard. You’ve been at a social event. You’ve got something to tell somebody that you’ve come with who you got split up from. That’s important. You can try and promenade together and stay together as much as you can but then a parade comes through the middle, or there’s a riot you’ll get split up; you loose each other for a while. I think that’s really healthy. Something for the writer to think about is ‘how can we split the audience up?’ How can we get them to share different experiences from one another? How can we implicate them in the drama? How can we get them to hold a banner and march with the unemployed? How can we set up situations where you can be standing next to a character that, while a scene is going on, turns to an individual in the audience and asks them a question?
The first community play I saw was Howard Barker’s ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ in Bridport (1981). In it a boy has been accused of setting fire to a flax field and the Judge is going to condemn him to death as an example to the community. There’s a wonderful speech in which he says ‘On Monday England was very calm and on Friday very wild; and today I suggest is Friday, so we have to make an example of you in these wild times’. And a little girl is standing next to me in costume, and she pulls on my trouser leg and I look down, and her mum is standing next to her in costume, and this little girl says ‘I don’t understand. Why are they hanging Sylvester?’ And she’s looking at me, and I’m looking at the mother, and they’re waiting for an answer. There’s a six-year-old girl dragging me reluctantly into the past, identifying with this boy two hundred years ago who was murdered unjustly in her community. So the writer needs to be aware of those possibilities.
Q: And is there, with this notion that the play wants to make the audience implicit / complicit with the drama, something that says, at the end of the play, ‘we’ve all been together in this room?’ Does an awareness of the moment of the social event and the awareness of the play need to come together? Does that make sense?
A: It can. It does make sense. I mean I’ve been doing this now for thirty , closer to forty years and I know I’m just scratching the surface. And yet the notion of community plays, the actuality of community plays happening is vanishing. Yet it’s such an extraordinary concept. I’m going to be very sad to leave them.
Q: Is there an impetus and a trajectory – which is a dramatic one because you’ve got all these people – that leads to an awareness of collective power? Is that generally what happens in these plays?
A: You can’t really define how you end any play. I mean it’s theatre right so you can’t put those rules on to it. What I find galling is a play that ends in a celebration that hasn’t earned that celebration in its storyline; that has not been a journey of struggle and thought, or when the thing that we’re celebrating is so small and shallow or untrue. That we must end on a celebration. Howard Barker’s play ended on a celebration of the hanging of Sylvester, because it was ‘well done’; he had a hangman with a heart who wanted to break the young boys neck quickly and cleanly so he would leave this world with the least suffering. That’s a challenging celebration; that’s a very thoughtful celebration. The cast carried him round on their shoulders and the audience followed, and we were singing ‘it was well done, it was very well done, lucky old Sylvester’.
Q: Extraordinary. How many drafts does a community play go through generally? Is it a lot?
A: It can be. I asked August Wilson and Sam Shepherd, the America writer/actor, if they would write a play for Minneapolis and they both said ‘what a wonderful idea, what an extraordinary process, but no’. I was talking about the process of soundings and Sam Shepherd said “opinions in America are like arseholes, everybody’s got one. And they won’t tell you what to write about. And they won’t tell you what not to write about. And they will criticise your play”. So I ended up writing it (Flying Crooked, 1990). And Sam was right. Minneapolis is a theatre town; you can’t afford to go bums up there. So I was very careful. I ended up writing that play sitting on the pile of the drafts. It was chair high, and I sat on it and typed the last draft.
Q: And is there a general move that you can see – obviously you’re trying to get deeper into the story – in terms of the form?
A: There’s a draft of all the stories that you’ve got from the research material. Then you’ve got three or four synopses, which you’re presenting. You’ve then got the first draft of the first half, the first draft of the second half, the rewrites based on the following conversations with the research team and then we might look at some scenes that has been written and play around with it improvisationally. You then do a public play reading and get feedback from that before the next draft. Then we do the casting and you find you have a proportion of women and a proportion of men and a proportion of children that doesn’t match the numbers of characters in and so you have to rewrite the play to suit the collective of people that you’ve got. Then there’s people coming forward in casting and you think ‘Oh God I’ve got to write something specially for him or her’. So there’s that draft. Then you go into rehearsal and all of that is tweaked and you arrive at the production draft.
Q: So how long is that in total? Around eighteen months to a two year process?
A: Eighteen months minimum.
Q: And do you think some writers may not engage with the process because it’s a heck of a lot of work for what might only be a handful of performances?
A: Twelve performances, usually. Yes But they do write them. I asked Arnold Wesker to write a play for Basildon. I’d asked him to come along to Thornbury near Bristol to see a community play that I did there that Nick Darke had written (A Place Called Mars, 1988). I’d said to Nick ‘don’t think of it as a play, think of it as a film. Don’t ever question ‘is that possible?’ We’ll make it possible’. We were working in an empty ten-pin bowling alley; it had balconies where people could sit, it was huge. On one stage was a house, another was a big raked stage with a village square. And Nick wrote a stage direction like: ‘Amelia sails to America’. So we need a big sailing ship. And then it says ‘she is blown off the ship in a gale, and she’s swallowed by a whale and she’s blown through the blowhole’. Directions you could realise in film. . So we had a life-sized whale, because we could, and was blown into the sea, and the whale did swallow her. She crawled out of the blowhole and stood on its back while it swam through the audience. It was amazing. And at the end of act his huge tail comes up and about three hundred blue paper plates went flying across the audiences. And Arnold, who refused to promenade, was sitting almost alone in the gallery upstairs and afterwards he said ‘if I’m going to write this play it won’t be a promenade. No focus’.
He came to Basildon, very dubious about this awful thing that he’d seen, but he loved the Towngate theatre. The community play was going to be the opening, production. Theatres aren’t conducive to promenade anyway, but he was very clear: ‘right, nothing like promenade here’. Then he walked round the town and said ‘I can’t write this play. I can’t find one positive thing to say. You talk about celebration you must be kidding’. I don’t know what induced me but I took him to the local bus station for beans on toast and as we came out a guy came up to us carrying bin liners and stinking of meths, breathed all over Arnold and said ‘the trouble is, when you wake up from the dream, Margaret Thatcher’s still alive’. And he looked at me and said ‘right, I’ve got the first scene, I’ll write it’. (Beorthel’s Hill, 1989)
Q: It seems to me that the Basildon play is partly about the writer wondering what to write about. There is a constant refrain ‘I wish I knew who these people were’.
A: It’s interesting you should say that because I pointed that out to him. I worked with him for three days on the final draft. He sat and read it to me and then he read it again before I was allowed to say a word. I said nothing to him about what to write but at the end I had this thing burning away inside me that I wanted to say: ‘I think you’re wrong’. And I said ‘you express that you feel that you don’t know these people, but I think there is a line in this play that shows that you don’t. And it’s not for me to tell you what to write but you said there are no poets in Basildon. I think you’ll be proved wrong. Because I think you have a group of people who are going to do your play better than you ever expected; and you’ll be moved by it’. And he said ‘you’re right, you don’t have a right to tell me what to write’. On the first night I had Dusty Wesker on my left and Arnold on my right and the play started and the narrator comes to this line and he says ‘there are no poets in Basildon. Well one or two, there’s always one or two’. Arnold had spoken to him. Dusty said to me ‘I’ve never known Arnold make a concession’.
Q: I think there’s something interesting about those plays, plays about those types of places, plays where you’re not doing a history play because they’re new towns, and actually the play is partly about trying to find what the community is, about groups of individuals coming together.
A: Yes. Well Arnold was given somebody’s diary and that was the centre of his play.
Q: Was it well received? Because it is quite a knotty, tricky thing.
A: Well, you know the story. The town refused to take refugees who had fled the rule of Idi Amin, and the children went to the airport with flowers because they were so shocked by their parents and by the council that had turned away these people. We had all these flowers dropping and the kids running on the spot; beautiful, it was a lovely ending.
Q: What do you think a good community script needs to do? And do you give advice to writers or generally just let them get on with it?
A: Listen. I think the writer does need to bring their own voice, and in order to do that you need to listen and observe and ensure that the issues of the day are addressed in some way, and that they are clear. You also need to create something which the audience can enjoy because for lots of them this will be their first experience of theatre. So I think enjoyment is important. I think music is very important not just in the mood it creates but technically it gives the untrained actors a break and it’s a breathing exercise to remind them to keep the volumes up. And the audience should go away feeling that they’ve participated in something, that they feel implicated; that they feel that they could have done something. If they feel they could have done something in the drama then they might actually do something now about the issues in the real world they live in. I want them going away feeling slightly energised about the potential to change things.
Q: So you’ve given them a sense of agency through a kind of fictionalised agency in the past?
A: Yes, I think so. Is that too much? People come away and they’ve made the connection. If I was to write a play now in Tunbridge Wells, who voted to stay in (during the Brexit referendum) I think I’d try and emphasize the fact that they did that and that the battle is not over. We’d find a story in the past associated with being ungracious; when a group of people in Tunbridge Wells was ungracious about accepting people in the community, a past example of when a group of people in Tunbridge Wells fought that attitude and won. Or fought it and lost and then won. You find a story that has reverberations.
Q: Because it’s so difficult to get funding for community plays I would suggest that smaller versions of the community play are being done with heritage funding. The danger is perhaps that you are creating a chasm between the present and the past. It also keeps the past in the past, and we can’t affect the past but the past can affect us.
A: One of my favourite lines is ‘you may be done with the past but the past is not done with you’. So the past is great if you’re going to draw from it. And if you’ve got historians reading and doing the research they can get very twitchy about what’s false and what’s true. With plays I think you have to bend what is true to get to truth; you have to bend the facts sometimes a little bit in order to get to a deeper truth about now. But if the plays don’t relate to now you’re going to see a history lesson.
I did the first Dorchester community play with Ann, and then David Edgar and I talked about doing a second one and he brought Stephane Dale in to write it with him, ‘A Time to Keep’, the fifth one. And afterwards they asked me if I would write a play and I said ‘yes but I want to go through this process of soundings, and getting the voice of this community’ and they said ‘we want it set in this particular period of time because we haven’t done that period’. And I said ‘no thank you very much’. I love them, Dorchester, they do great things and they’re great to see but I don’t want to go back to what they now call the Colway model. I fundamentally believe I’ve had more success with communities in terms of their sense of the plays afterwards when the subject has come from where we are now and then searching back.
Q: Are there any community plays that you’ve not been involved with that you particularly admire?
A: Well the Howard Barker play was … I’ve never got anything close to that; a phenomenal piece of work. He won’t touch them now; I don’t think he’s interested in that kind of narrative anymore. And I think he really resented Ann trying to depoliticise the work. Ann was a pioneer, extraordinary, but there were certain things she believed in like ‘politics is divisive’, even though every single writer she asked was a rabid socialist. David Edgar put a Marxist speech in the mouth of a Victorian Minister in Entertaining Strangers. And ‘if there are any baddies make sure they come from out of town’. Politics is only divisive because we don’t talk freely about it. The sounding process is where you talk about that and you try to come to some understanding if not a consensus. Consensus isn’t everything but understanding is. And you then present a series of voices; I think it’s imperative actually. The only story a community has got to say is political because it’s about the collective.
Stephen Lowe eventually didn’t complete the City Play script due to illness. I took over the writing and based the play The secret of Happiness on the research and some some of the ideas from Stephen’s original concept. The City Play was subsequently postponed as that building of the Aldate Square, set to be it’s venue and the point of the plays celebration, was delayed by almost three years; the community momentum was difficult to sustain. However the two year work in the City of London was not wasted. They now have a voluntary community organisation Aldgate Community Events (ACE) that is managing and overseeing cultural projects, not least a community festival in June this year that will feature performances based on the script and research of the play. The script is available whenever that feel the time is right to resume that project.