Online Archive  
Issue 12 - May 1973
Community Theatre

Your invitation to me to give an informal talk on any idea I might have which would enable you to relate to the community outside the theatre, makes me consider very carefully your choice of words. By 'the community' I assume you mean some area where you know the percentage of people who attend the theatre to be minute or nil. And it's an unspoken but preconceived notion, that the area with no or little concern for the theatre, are exclusively 'working class' and I think therefore what you mean by community is working class.

This concept of going out into the community sounds a lot like going out into the jungle to tame the savages and tune them into good consumers of 'culture'. This I find presumptuous and arrogant on the one hand and dangerous on the other. Arrogance and presumption are two of the fruits of being well bred, it gives a self-assurance that whatever one says is of infinite relevance to whoever one is saying it to, especially the 'lower orders'. And dangerous, because it smacks of acting as agents of the state, carrying the official line in culture to the masses. This is the fine point where you need to ask; "can we go out until we've gone in?" It would seem obvious that this question needs answering before anything can be done. Surely, "going out into the community with work" is really a symptom of something, and only a symptom. It's that which it's a symptom of, which I'd like to be acquainted with before I could suggest any direction you might investigate.

I have felt for a long time that this theatre didn't really reflect enough of local culture and my instinct is to bring it into the theatre and see what good can be got from it, rather than take out what really amounts to a middle class definition of theatre.

As a writer interested in the theatre (when there is a good one, locally) it's very frustrating there isn't a body of actors available that speak the local language. I mean Alex Glasgow, a notable Tyneside talent, had to restrict the number of characters in his play 'Joe Lives', because there was only one actor capable of the Newcastle speech. Plays, themselves, by the current concept, seem so restricting. 'Close the Coal House Door' seemed to move away from the restrictions which the definition imposes on us. Perhaps only in that it used a local brass band to supply the music (the band also being closely connected with the movement of the play). I think this is an interesting area to explore, to bring in, not only the experience of a particular community, i.e. by writing a play out of them but by evolving a wider form of PLAY within the community itself, using that community's talents energies and man and woman power.

So I would have thought that any going out into a community would be to learn from it, and not to take anything particular to it except humility, energy, your own talents and the desire to create something from the joint effort, if you succeed in establishing a working relationship, that is. But assume a group of actors and a writer or two descend on a willing community and establish a rapport, wouldn't it be frustrating and cripplingly limiting, when through economic commitments the participants had to break off from any headway, because someone or everybody had to go to work. That's where the breakdown occurs. With arts council grants being flung about all over the place these days, it may be the only solution, to give so much money to cover the living expenses of not just the actors and writers for a limited period, but also the people in the community who needed to take time off to play. Their jobs being kept open to them, if they ever finished playing. I feel this is the area which now needs the most thorough thinking out.

The play could have no preconceived shape, it would depend on the skills of the actors to know fully they were playing and that the others were playing at not playing.

However, the worker, owing to the crippling conditions of his life, doesn't feel able to play. It's difficult to maintain the spirit of play when confined to monotonous routines of drudgery of one kind and another. Some workers still play, if they are able to salvage their spirit by gardening, darts, bowls, billiards, pigeon fancying, being part of a band, football and so on. These being, in the main, northern habits. The middle class distract their minds with the theatre and etc. Because you are employed by this city to maintain the theatre I would have thought it proper to have leek shows, brass band competitions and to act host to dozens of other northern cultural and social pursuits as well as to instigate new ones. Why not have a whole lot of pigeon crees round the theatre and run the competitions from there?

What I'm trying to point out all through this, is that you're defeated before you start. The reason you wouldn't hold leek shows in the theatre is because the council and those like them are ashamed of themselves and their image, because some jumped-up business man with a public school accent finds it's distasteful.

It's the same absence of spirit which invites speculators to rip the heart out of Newcastle and replace it with a plastic paradise designed for automatons and mindless consumers.

As far as I'm concerned, theatre is a means of awakening consciousness, exercising a sense of play which is life enhancing, experiencing joy, sadness, fear, terror and bitter passions, in short a consciously constructed mirror of the community in which we can see ourselves clearly reflected, and within which we can evolve new roles to fulfil the demands of our changing lives. It also means the strengthening of community by being big enough and having the talent, to involve and incorporate all that is most potent from all levels itself. To imagine it could be achieved as it now is, is laughable.