Community theatre

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Plays

‘I Told My Mum I Was Going on an R.E. Trip …’

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

What do you know about abortion? What do you think about it? Why can we debate it as an idea, but not talk about it as an experience?
With one in three women in the UK having had an abortion I Told My Mum I Was Going on an R.E. Trip . . . explores what seems to be one of society’s last taboos. A play written for a young, multi-talented female ensemble, I Told My Mum I Was Going on an R.E. Trip . . . uses verbatim text, live music, beats and rhyme to portray the stories of real women who’ve experienced pregnancy and abortion. This funny, frank, and moving play is about as far from a run-of-the-mill sexual health lecture as is imaginable.

The Light Burns Blue

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Silva Semerciyan's The Light Burns Blue is a play inspired by the true story of the Cottingley Fairies: the case of two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who in 1917, having purportedly taken photographs of real fairies near their home in Cottingley, Yorkshire, were invited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) to speak at a conference in London about their supernatural encounters.

The play was commissioned by Tonic Theatre in partnership with Nick Hern Books as part of Platform, an initiative comprising a series of big-cast plays with predominantly or all-female casts, written specifically for performance by school, college and youth-theatre groups, with the aim of addressing gender imbalance and inequality in theatre.

The Light Burns Blue was published on 11 June 2015, along with two other plays inaugurating the Platform series: by This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood and Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy.

The play's action takes place over the summer of 1917 in the village of Cottingley and in London. The scenes flash back and forth between Cottingley around the time when the photographs were taken, and the London hotel where excited supporters have gathered to hear for themselves about the supposed evidence for another world. Winifred, a sceptical reporter from a local newspaper, has disguised herself as an adolescent girl in order to infiltrate the Cottingley coterie, and is now about to expose Elsie and Frances as frauds. But as she looks at the facts, she begins to think there's more to Elsie's story than a simple hoax.

The play was first performed at the Bristol Old Vic on 15 April 2015 in a production directed by Lisa Gregan and designed by Max Johns.

The Long Road

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When eighteen-year-old Danny is fatally stabbed in a random attack his family struggles to find meaning and forgiveness. His mother’s determination to understand the atrocity brings her face to face with his killer and forces the family to confront the bitter senselessness of their loss.

The Long Road evolved out of a period of research with prisoners by Synergy Theatre Project, in collaboration with The Forgiveness Project and award-winning playwright Shelagh Stephenson. It premiered at Soho Theatre on 19 May 2008.

A Time to Keep

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

A Time to Keep is large-cast community play written for the Dorchester Community Players by David Edgar and Stephanie Dale. It was first performed at The Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester, on 16 November 2007.

Set in Dorset in the summer of 1804, against the backdrop of the threatened Napoleonic invasion of Britain, A Time to Keep inhabits terrain somewhere between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with its ambitious middle-classes, its garrison of eligible officers, and its impoverished low-lifes. Driving the plot is an unlikely but passionate romance between Mary, a well-born but feisty young woman, and Isaac, the youngest son of a family of notorious smugglers.

The play has a cast list of over 115 names (almost all of them real, historical people), reflecting the nature of a community play. As the authors write in an introduction to the published script, 'The Dorchester Community Plays Association insists that everyone who wants a part in one of its plays gets one. ... Our first draft had a cast of 92; our second draft went down to 84. It’s a tribute to Dorchester’s four previous community plays that we were inundated with volunteers for this one.'

The original production was directed by Jon Oram and designed by Ariane Gastambide.

Lying outside, and usually in opposition to, mainstream theatre, it responds to the concerns and serves the needs of the community in which it is performed.

In the United States, the term refers to a strand of amateur theatre, the core of which at the beginning of the twentieth century was the Little Theatre movement, briefly known also as Civic Theatre. This was seen as having a beneficial effect on the communities in which it flourished. These companies performed in found spaces such as churches, halls or stables, rather than in purpose-built theatres, and were mostly supported by local subscription. They often carried out educational work as well. There were more than 500 by the end of the 1930s, the number rising tenfold in the subsequent three decades. However, some by this Washington, Houston and Cleveland, for example, had been turned into professional theatres, while others had remained only partly amateur and offered full-scale programmes. The National Theater Conference, which emerged in the 1920s and was formally college theatres, but dissatisfaction with its academic representation led to the founding in 1936 of the American Theater Association. In 1958 this became the umbrella organization for the National Association of Community Theaters, which in 1986 gave way to the American Association of Community Theaters. There was also a movement, triggered in the 1920s by work in North Carolina, called outdoor drama, which specializes in celebrating a noteworthy event in a community’s history. The dramas are often repeated annually.

In Britain, community theatre may be defined either geographically or in terms of a ‘constituency of interest’ (e.g. the working class, an ethnic group, women, the elderly, etc.). Historically, it may be seen as a more radical development from the drive in the 1960s to develop indigenous theatre away from the centre of the metropolis, a development marked by the building of new subsidized regional theatres, and artistically most successful in Theatre Workshop, east London, and the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.

Although its roots can be traced back to the work of political groups that originated before the Second World War, such as Unity Theatre, and later initiatives like Centre 42, community theatre itself originated in the mid-1970s with theatre companies like the Half Moon, Common Stock and the Combination at the Albany Empire in London; Pentabus and Theatre Foundry in the West Midlands; Perspectives in the East Midlands, Pit Prop in Lancashire, DAC in Yorkshire; Solent People’s Theatre in Southampton, Avon Touring in the South-West; Bruvvers in the North-East; and others. Most of these companies’ work was performed in local halls, arts centres, clubs, pubs and studio theatres. The very existence and aims of such companies encouraged arts funding bodies like the Arts Council, regional arts associations and, much later, some local authorities to establish an administrative structure through which the work of these companies could be brought to their target audiences. The role of local arts officers became much enhanced in this process, and they, along with the general administrative restructuring which took place, comprise some of the more enduring legacies of this period.

Seeking more to relate the content of their work and a democratic method of organization to perceived community concerns than to aim for a specific aesthetic model, different companies brought widely varying artistic approaches to their productions. Radicalism was both aesthetic and organizational. Most companies called themselves collectives or ‘co-operatives’ and, following the ‘arts lab’ movement of the late 1960s, the wave of happenings and visits by American companies like La Mama and the Living Theater, companies talked of ‘shows’ rather than ‘plays’. Much of the emphasis was on vivid, physical, non-naturalistic works, often with music and song and various forms of audience participation. Brecht, Grotowski, Meyerhold and Commedia dell’Arte were all cited as influences at different times, and to these were added (towards the end of the 1970s) the more indigenous traditions of music hall and stand-up comedy. The latter was aided by the arrival of the Comedy Store in London, giving actors the opportunity to work and sharpen their skills between engagements with the touring companies. Significantly, at this time, actors began to call themselves ‘performers’.

An important distinction organizationally was that companies were often performer-led. Instead of seeing themselves as responsible for only their own performances, actors took on responsibility for the content of their work. This led inevitably to their running companies collectively, often devising shows themselves or commissioning writers and hiring directors to fulfil a company ‘brief’. Although this brought a greater commitment in performance, it also led increasingly to shows based on generalized issues. The inherent problem of separating collective organization and policy from the need for a unified artistic vision was rarely overcome and generally led to less satisfying work artistically for both actors and playwrights.

Most British community groups were touring companies, though venues which have housed community-orientated theatre (beyond those mentioned above) include Chapter Arts in Cardiff, Phoenix Arts in Leicester, the Tron in Glasgow, Croydon Warehouse and the Leadmill in Sheffield. Examples of plays include Taking Our Time (1978) by Red Ladder, My Mother Says I Never Should (1975) by the Women’s Theatre Group, the plays of Les Miller for Inner City (including Finger in the Pie, 1985, and Hot Stuff, 1987); the plays of John McGrath for 7:84 and the Liverpool Everyman, and the plays Steve Gooch at the Half Moon.

In both its organizational and artistic concerns, British community theatre shared much common ground with radical touring theatre (7:84, Foco Novo, Belt & Braces), and feminist theatre (the Women’s Theatre Group and Monstrous Regiment), as well as with Theatre in Education and Young People’s Theatre; many companies provided both ‘community’ and ‘young people’s’ productions, and many actors moved freely between the companies. Always a form of professional theatre, it has less in common with the Community Play, a term for the production model established by Ann Jellicoe’s Colway Theatre Trust, employing professional directors and playwrights (Howard Barker, Nick Darke, David Edgar, Arnold Wesker) to work with large numbers of amateur performers drawn from the local (usually rural) community, to which the play (usually on a local historical subject) is also performed.

Community theatre offers a vision of a radically different experience for the audience. It seeks to expand that audience in terms of class, age and other social distinctions. It also seeks to expand the aesthetic range of British theatre away from its traditionally realist, verbal, middle-class ‘well-made plays’. Requiring as it did huge organizational effort to establish both alternative performing spaces and proper conditions of employment, as well as a new way of seeing theatre, its vision was one of the first casualties of the diminishing real-terms arts subsidy effective in Britain from the late 1970s on. But many of its structural initiatives survived.

from Steve Gooch, Charles London, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, Colin Chambers, ed. (London, 2002)