Making the Case for Drama

Monday, October 19, 2015 at 04:59PM
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Government has signalled that certain subjects are essential and others out or optional. Drama is not seen as a universal necessity. My local comprehensive, for example, excludes Drama in Years 7 and 8. I have created a 121 slide presentation which can be used to support the case of Drama's curriculum inclusion. Please adapt an use it as you wish and contact me if necessary to discuss things.

Download Making the case for drama.ppt here.

Arguing the case for drama in the school curriculum: The educational and artistic argument for its inclusion, retention and development in schools with suggested paths of advocacy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 08:07AM
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If Drama is to expand in education systems around the world, and retain its position in those countries which currently acknowledge it as part of students’ curriculum entitlement, leading Drama figures have to make the case for Drama.

It is also necessary for the classroom teacher to understand and use the arguments for Drama’s curriculum inclusion. This is of particular importance in the UK where Drama needs to fight for its right to be a vital part of children’s learning experience.

The presentation, compiled in early 2013, is designed as a ready-to-use tool to make the case for Drama in the curriculum. It can be adapted to fit particular needs – for example, by deleting those slides which are not useful in a given context or the addition of slides which give the presentation local relevance.

I would be grateful for any feedback on its use.

John Somers

Download the PowerPoint presentation here.

Community Theatre: a search for identity

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 10:12PM
Tags: theatre, community, community theatre
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According to the 2008 report Changing UK: the way we live now social isolation moves inexorably to create fragmentation in our communities1. The report reveals that the South West of England where I live has the highest levels of ‘anomie’ (a sense of ‘not belonging’) of any English region after London. Individuals appear to be withdrawing into self and family and there is evidence that communal activity is decreasing whilst isolated, individual action increases.

Many people I meet seem to have no obvious need for contact with the community. They have moved to rural Devon and their cars, relatively high incomes, ease of communication – mobile phones, the internet etc – insulates them from community dependence. They could be picked up and dropped anywhere and, apparently, function as self-dependent units.

But if community is to flourish, some form of interdependence must exist. In rural Devon, the days of agricultural co-operation have long gone. Work previously conducted by many hands is now achieved by one worker and huge mechanised implements. One great loss in current rural communities is the knowledge of community stories. They were a major part of the ‘social glue’ which binds individuals together. Residents without access to these, often apparently inconsequential stories therefore lack a ‘sense of place’, a quality which is best achieved through absorbing the layered meanings accreted through centuries of, often oral, storytelling and shared experience.

Community Theatre, a concept and resultant activity of the 60s, aims to animate communities to make original theatre which springs from the community’s seminal stories2. Ann Jellicoe and the Colway Theatre Trust subsequently blazed the way with a number of exciting West Country community plays but, generally, those communities, and similar ones nationally apparently have returned to the round of farces and pantomimes so loved by the amateur thatre world. My adventure began when I was asked by a parish councillor, Alf Boom, if I would make a theatrical event to celebrate the new millennium. The result was ‘Parson Terry’s Dinner’, a promenade production which happened in seven different locations in Payhembury village, East Devon. A millennium book of community stories had been published and I selected seven of those which had dramatic potential. Each scene took place in the location where the original event happened. The audience gathered in the village centre just before the start of the play; there it was divided into seven equal groups, the groups being limited to nineteen to allow each to enter the smallest space, the house kitchen.. Each group was led by a storyteller to visit the seven scenes in an order different from the other six groups, thus ensuring that only one group was present at each scene at any one time. On the journey between scenes the storytellers related additional stories about the village. Individual scenes lasted around ten minutes and the finale twenty. As all audience groups witnessed all scenes, the actors performed each scene seven times a night. The play was performed for three nights to a total of three hundred and eighty nine people.

The scenes comprised:

1. The dragging from the pulpit, as he made his 1650, Christmas Day sermon, of Parson Robert Terry, Rector of the Parish of Payhembury. Cromwellian soldiers who were in the Church objected to the Parson’s support for the Royalist cause. They dragged him to his parsonage where they ate his family’s Christmas dinner in front of them and promised to return at a later date to turn him out of the parish. Performed in the Church and in the parsonage of 1650, now a private house.

2. An inspection in 1920 of the school children by a visiting inspector who tests the children on their basic subjects skills. During the inspection a boy fools around wearing a wolf mask, and is beaten by the headteacher. Performed in the School which was built in 1851.

The headteacher inspects the students’ hands for cleanliness, whilst the inspector hovers behind

3. The reception in 1941 in a village house of three child evacuees from London who were sent to the countryside to avoid Second World War German bombing. The scene examines the upset caused in the host family by the evacuee’s arrival. Performed in the large kitchen of an ancient village house.

4. An old man runs to the street with scalded hands after children drop bricks down his chimney into his cooking pot. This leads to a drunken argument between this and another, older man, in which, fuelled by cider, the latter chops off his thumb. Performed outdoors in front of an old village house.

The doctor refuses to treat the severed thumb without payment

5. A scene set in a cider mill in which the male hierarchy of the community in 1860 is established, prior to the entry of the young wife of one of the workers. She pleads with her husband to leave the cider making to fetch a doctor for their sick child. He is torn between loyalty to an authoritarian employer and his family responsibilities. Performed in a cider mill dating from the 17th century.

Turning the press in the cider mill

6. The arrival of the first car in the village in 1920. There is intense rivalry between the car owner, a prominent local butcher and cattle dealer, and the owner of a horse and wagon who claims to have been cheated by the dealer in the past. Performed in front of a garage which, until 1920 was a carriage-making business.

Farmer and butcher argue about heir forms of transport and an old quarrel about a beef sale

7. The unveiling of the Parish War Memorial in 1921 to commemorate the dead of the First World War, 1914-1918. A family from the Second World War period (1939-1945) arrives at the memorial in a kind of time travel. They learn by War Office telegram of the death of the man of the family in France. Ghosts of the two wars – soldiers and nurses, visit the memorial to ensure they are remembered.

The telegram boy delivers the telegram that tells of the woman’s husband in France

8. The finale. This comprised a specially written song sung by a 14 year-old girl who symbolically, through the gift of a parchment declaration, gives the future of the Parish to the youngest children of the community. She also gives to them the stories we have performed and urges them to live many more in the future. Performed on a raised stage on the village green with a painted panorama of the village as a backdrop. The audience and cast, around 250 people each night, joined in the chorus of the song. Some pyrotechnics and dancing followed. The dance involved the cast and audience linking hands around the village green.

The children are given scrolls and audience and cast join in the chorus of the finale song

The play was a success both artistically and in generating social capital. The community seemed to feel ‘good about itself’ in being able to come together in such an effort which attracted admiration from other communities and theatre professionals.

Tale Valley Community Theatre was established and further original projects followed: a cabaret involving local talent in 2001 and in 2002 a pantomime involving characters from eight different traditional panto stories.

The main character was ‘Smarty’, a postman who, in attempts to deliver a parcel with an indecipherable address, became involved with those characters. Smarty was played by real-life local postman Marty Richards, a fanatical Burnley FC supporter, a strand which found its way into the story when, with his team 15-nil down in the Cup-Final at Wembley, he is whisked to the ground after donning the parcel’s contents - a pair of golden football boots (the Good Fairy meant them for him all along and was testing his perseverance and honesty) - and scores 16 goals in the last minute of the game to win the cup. He is carried from the huge barn in which it was performed by the 120 cast (now Burnley supporters).

Farmers protest at supermarket prices

2003 brought ‘The Living at Hurford’ an Interactive Theatre programme written by me which dealt with issues in farming following the 2002 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak. In this production the story ended at a crisis point and audience members were invited to reflect on how things had reached this state and, after talking to the people in the story, to advise them on how they might take positive routes forward. This production toured to The Tacchi Morris Arts Centre, Taunton and to the Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter.


In 2004, a series of theatre skills workshops was held, covering aspects of music, writing, directing, scene design, technical and marketing. Many good things followed, including a new community play written by first-time playwright Rose Watts. Her promenade play ‘Foresight’ focussed on the real crash of a German Junkers 88 bomber in the Tale Valley on 1941. Extensive research was conducted and verbatim accounts of the crash were collected. Relatives of one of the German airmen (all were killed in the incident and are buried in an Exeter cemetery) attended a performance which happened in a marquee near the spot where one of the airmen fell. At the end of the performance, the Spirit of the River Tale led the audience from the marquee to the spot where the German fell and as the son of the farmer who found the body told the story, a real 2WW aircraft flew over head trailing smoke and disappearing in the direction where the real bomber crashed. We simulated the sound of the crash.

Since then, a series of workshops resulted in 18 New Talking Heads, 15 minute monologues which were performed locally, toured and made into filmic versions in a studio following storyboarding by first-time community artists. We also performed a locally written adaptation of Wind in the Willows in a stand of redwoods, with Toad actually boating on the River Tale. Currently we are planning a Verbatim Theatre production with material from forty interviews with people involved in agriculture and a site specific production in a 15th century house.

The emphasis in all of this is making theatre in the community not taking theatre into the community. We make use of the local sleeping skills – the storyboard artist lives in the village and works for major film companies and many of the props for Wind in the Willows were painted by a local man who worked with Joan Littlewood. East Devon District Council is open to the idea of introducing cultural animateurs in local communities so let’s hope the approaches described here can be taken up more widely.


  1. The report can be downloaded at:
  2. Not to be confused with the US use of the term which is synonymous with ‘amateur theatre’.

Theatre as communal work

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 09:34PM
Tags: community, theatre, change, narrative, cross-generational, non-theatre spaces
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This article examines theatre’s special function in rural communities which have weakened social coherence and cohesion. It considers theatre-making as a communal activity which crosses class and cultural boundaries, bringing together people in ways which mirror the interdependencies and local focus of past rural living. The author considers the nature of community theatre, the changing nature of communities, the loss of shared story and the concept of theatre as communal work. Four diverse case studies of community theatre are presented.

Neither human existence nor individual liberty can be sustained for long outside the interdependent and over-lapping communities to which we all belong. Nor can any community long survive unless its members dedicate some of their attention, energy and resources to shared projects.
(Etzioni 1997: 23)

What is Community Theatre?

Community theatre has different roots and functions related to its cultural, social and political setting and its purpose in those specific environments. In some cases it may be that community rituals and stories, often deeply embedded in cultural traditions, are performed as an integral part of defining and celebrating a community’s cultural and spiritual identity. Some of the latter date back for many centuries but continue to be performed in spite of the fact that the factors dealt with within the drama have become objects of heritage rather than contemporary life1. Other forms of community theatre have political intent, to inform and energise a community in bringing change or in asserting human rights, Theatre for Development in Africa for example2 or Purna Chandra Rao’s work in Hyderabad, India supporting peasants’ land rights against rapacious landowners.3 It can also be dangerous. Rao’s fellow-countryman, theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, was beaten to death while performing a street play Halla Bol during municipal elections in the Jhandapur Sahibabad area on January 1, 19894.

Alternatively, the exciting work of ‘Z Divadlo’ in the small town of Zeleneč, Slovakia, combines amateur community actors with the expertise of a professional director, Jozef Bednárik to perform original work. In Brazil, the work of Marcia Pompêo Nogueira5 and Beatrice Cabral resonates in communities, some of which are in danger of losing their cultural identify through the arrival of electricity and television. The continuum stretches, therefore, from radical activist theatre to benign celebration. What it excludes is most of the middle-of-the-road amateur dramatics commonly referred to as ‘community theatre’ in the USA.

Radical theatre for change has an extensive history in the UK. Given that most authoritarian governments are of the political extreme right, many such theatre initiatives are situated in confirmed socialist ideology6. John McGrath’s work with 7:84 Theatre Company in Scotland (7% of the world’s population own 84% of the wealth) is typified by the play ‘The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil’ which toured to rural locations in Scotland broadcasting its protest against the exploitation of that country (especially its off-shore oil) by the English7. Such direct political theatre diminished in the UK with the demise of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s, after which radical community theatre seemed to lose its wellspring.

Whatever the source and form of community theatre, it is generally welcomed as a positive sign that a community is prepared to supplement the generally passive reception of stories available in multitude from the print and broadcast media with narratives which are made and performed within, by and to a specific community. In all cases, these forms of community theatre take account of the particular histories and concerns of the communities in which it is made and performed.

In the UK, 'Community Theatre' now generally refers to a particular theatre form. Since Ann Jellicoe’s theatre work in the 1970s which led to the formation of the Colway Theatre Trust in 1979, it has meant the creation of a theatre event that has relevance for the particular community in which it is created and which is performed, predominantly, by members of that community (Jellicoe, 1987). One objective is to extend participation beyond those who would normally be expected to take part in performance events. There is also an element of celebration of what it is to be part of a community. As such it can be seen to differ substantially from the USA definition of ‘Community Theatre’, which can be characterised as the creation of performances, often of well-known plays, by a group of amateur enthusiasts, usually in a traditional style and theatre building. In the UK, this form of theatre is known as ‘Amateur Theatre’ or ‘Amateur Drama’ and it is not what is being discussed here – except that a few amateur theatre companies do have relatively radical policies in originating and staging theatre.

In the Colway Theatre Trust model, a professional writer and selected members of the community are involved in collecting stories from the community and sifting them for narrative and dramatic potential. A written dramatic text is produced as a starting point for community workshops that give rise to further modifications of the text. A professional director, aided by community members and a professional designer, then transforms the written text into performance. These performances are often ambitious in the numbers of people involved (up to one hundred and fifty), style of performance (many are promenade style in which the audience walks in the performance space and the performance happens amongst them) and performance venue (large, often ‘non-theatrical’ spaces). Almost always, they involve the performance of seminal stories of a community’s past and are aimed at bringing increasingly fragmented populations together to discover and articulate important events which define the community, this giving those who are relative newcomers an insight into the essential character of the place in which they have chosen to live (see the article on ‘Parson Terry’s Dinner and Other Stories’ elsewhere in this book).

The changing nature of communities

In the space of sixty years, the fabric of rural English communities has changed radically. These shifts have occurred due to a number of influences, among them the changed nature of farming leading to fewer people being employed in agriculture; the migration of the working classes to urban environments; ease of transport from rural to urban areas, the move to the countryside by the middle classes8; the decline of many of the rituals of country living which only made sense in a community of shared experience and interdependence; the impact of global cultural values; the impact of television, consumerism and the new technologies; and the growth of excessive individualism (Etzioni, 1997). Some of these influences have had positive effects – young people’s increased awareness of wider educational and occupational opportunities and life styles, for example, and the freeing up of restrictive social conventions which made rural communities uncomfortable for some who failed to ‘conform’. Conversely, the decline of shared work, interdependency and significant celebrations and rituals has led to the social fragmentation of rural communities. There are many fewer opportunities for community members to meet and engage with each other. Physical proximity is not enough; people living in the same place geographically will not necessarily create the circumstances which can produce a ‘community’.

A recent UK report shows that the economic and social background of rural dwellers disadvantages them in comparison with urban dwellers. For example, in rural areas, wages are 5% below the national average whilst house prices are 16% higher. The resulting disadvantage is particularly acute in the less prosperous, indigenous, working class members of the community who tend to move to urban areas where wages are higher and social; housing more plentiful (The State of the Countryside, p35). The work described later in this article was undertaken in South West England, and the report says:

Outside some parts of London the most unaffordable areas are nearly all rural, with the South West showing as the ‘worst’ area for affordability. There is a consistent pattern …. that areas with poor affordability also tend to have higher levels of inward migration and high levels of homes that are sold for cash. (The State of the Countryside, p37)

Thus inward migration of a middle-class nature is occurring in my locality whilst the less well off disappear to the towns. Those of the less well off who remain are subject to a range of disadvantages:

Disadvantage is likely to be multi-dimensional: not just about financial resources, but also about a range of factors that prevent a person from participating fully in society.

The loss of shared story
One significant loss in current rural communities is the knowledge of community stories. This shared understanding can be as slight as knowing why an oak tree has a large gash on its trunk (a lorry crashed into it in 1953 and Farmer Dickson pulled it out of the ditch with his tractor – and the towing chain broke ……) or extend to intimate knowledge of families, who lived where, scandals, achievements and shame9. Residents without access to these, often apparently inconsequential stories therefore lack a ‘sense of place’, a quality which is best achieved through absorbing the layered meanings accreted through centuries of, often oral, storytelling and shared experience.

Such stories have no forum for being shared unless, as Etzioni says, members of a community ‘dedicate some of their attention, energy and resources to shared projects.’ In writing about memory, AC Grayling (2001) states:

…what makes a person the same person through life is the accumulating set of memories he carries with him. When these are lost, he ceases to be that person and becomes someone else, new and as yet unformed.

If we substitute ‘community’ for ‘person’, the statement still holds true, for if a community’s collective memory is lost, it too has to be reformed. Theatre can be an important approach in building this new community identity and can, through its research and performances, ensure its development is based firmly on elements of the past. Such theatre represents a dynamic exploration and presentation of the defining narratives of a community.

There is evidence that communal activity is decreasing whilst isolated, individual action increases. This is borne out by Robert Putnam’s analysis of the changes in community in the USA:

… the forms of participation that have withered most noticeably reflect organised activities at the community level …. Conversely, the activities … that have declined most slowly are, for the most part, actions that one can undertake as an individual …. In other words, the more that my activities depend on the actions of others, the greater the drop-off in my participation. (p44 - 45)

The concept of theatre as communal work
As previously mentioned, sixty years’ ago, rural English communities were relatively closed and interdependent. At this time, the parish was a site for work. Perhaps 90% of people worked in the community, with only the small number of professionals venturing outside it. Currently, in Payhembury Parish where I live in England, it is probable that 90% of the population of 470 work outside the Parish which is seen simply as a place to ‘live’. Clubs, societies and more informal meeting points in the Parish are largely stratified by age criteria: the young mothers meet at the toddlers group, slightly older ones at the pre-school, older ones still outside the primary school. Between the ages of 11 and 18, students leave the village to attend school in a town and, together with their parents, they may have no visibility on the community. Older community members meet at the ‘lunch club’, principally seen as a once-a-month social activity for widows and widowers. The short mat bowls club attracts the over 55s and the youth club caters for teenagers. I estimate that fewer that 15% of the Parish residents are active in such groups, most of which are small in numbers of adherents.

I decided that the theatre-making should be a challenge; not just dramatically, but in terms of the ‘labour’ needed to make it happen. I wanted to create a communal focus in the Parish, a shared project that would bring the disparate elements of the community together. This was when I arrived at the concept of ‘theatre as communal work’, a shared activity which counters ‘excessive individualism’ and brings disparate people together to discover and articulate the stories of the community within vertical rather than horizontal age-related groupings.

Examples of Community Theatre
This first example does not concern a rural community, but one which is in the suburbs of the city of Exeter, Devon, UK. It also involves work with children, the lifeblood of any community.

1. The school and community

Exwick lies just north-west of Exeter, a city of 110,000 people, separated from the City by the River Exe. It was once geographically, socially and culturally distinct but, with the expansion of both City and village, administratively and in many other ways, it is now seen as part of Exeter. Exwick has expanded forty fold in the last thirty years and the hillsides that overlook the river plain are covered in modern housing developments. Some old buildings remain however, embedded in this enlarged community. I worked here with seven of my university students and 30 school students aged 11-12 years.

The original school was built in 1890. A new school was built above the flood plain in 1971, the old school becoming a community centre, a function it still performs. The village hall and church are nearby, and the old school rubs shoulders with a toll house, built to house those who collected the fees for crossing the Exe using the 'new' bridge built in the 1870s. Until that time, people forded the river in summer or made long treks up or down stream to cross by existing bridges. Exwick lacks many of the facilities that such a large concentration of housing would normally possess but although the City is a short walk away Exwick retains a certain separateness for, although it is poorly served for shops, its pub, community centre, church and school still allow its residents - especially those with young children - to feel part of a, albeit sprawling, community.

Theatre and community

The parents of the school students involved in this project were mostly newcomers to the village and they possessed little knowledge of its history. One of our prime aims was to create opportunities for the school students to discover and understand aspects of Exwick's past, and to articulate that to the community. We wanted to use the performances as a focus to celebrate and broadcast a shared culture.

Communities need community events to continually refresh them. Community drama can be a celebration of community; discovering the nature of a community; articulating it to that community.10

Benedict Nightingale notes theatre’s ability to work within a community to heighten people's awareness of where they live:

Isn't it good that a community should learn more, more about the past that has shaped its present, the roots that have determined its identity? Isn't it good that it should deepen its understanding of itself; entertain itself?11

The aims of the project also coincided with British school curriculum aims. For example:

Material for drama should draw upon local heritage and cultures so that pupils can better understand both how their own community came to be and how it might develop. 12

The model that I chose had to satisfy the needs of the seven university students with whom I was working. They took part in a process that expanded their notion of what drama was for and could achieve. It could also be transferred to professional contexts in which they could find themselves after graduation. I actually made two productions – a live performance and a radio play broadcast on local radio. I describe only the live performance here.

‘When I was a Boy’

This theatre project was based on local, true stories. The two class teachers covered a range of contextual material to do with the Victorian and early 20th Century period under, relating the topic to areas of the students’ normal curriculum. The aim of the history lessons, for example, was to set the local study (which was to throw up the material for the drama), within an effective understanding of national and world events. General curriculum work in the study area was underway for several weeks before the notion of making a play was introduced.

Older people who had lived in Exwick all of their life were invited into the school to share their memories. In their research, pupils and teachers made use of books, videos, slides, maps, local museum collections and field visits, together with a study of original documents in the County Records Office. The community was also told of the study, and documents, artefacts and written testimony came in from its members, mostly as a result of children interrogating parents, grandparents and neighbours. The school students were able to identify a number of former farms, their land-less farmhouses now mostly converted to suit modern urban living. They found one where the retired farmer, his land reduced to just a garden due to housing development, talked to us as he sat with his dog in the old barn.

Developing the Drama

Once the curriculum work was established, the notion of the play was introduced. This involved inferring story and the detail of human existence from the intriguingly sparse descriptions of events contained in the school’s log-book (the headteacher of each UK school keeps a daily record of events. Some of these logs go back over 200 years). Entries from the Exwick log books, dating from 1892 to 1924 (all made by the same headteacher, Mr Adolphus Rousham), were scanned to identify significant comments that had potential for dramatisation. The selection was presented to the students in booklet form. Students were organised into five groups and each group, aided by university students and teachers selected an entry as a starting point for dramatic exploration. This exploration was informed by the contextual curriculum work already done. One such log-book entry read:

Aug. 30th.
Edith Cornall, Standard 111, aged 10 yrs, was drowned in the river during the dinner hour today. She was present at School this morning.

An enlarged copy was glued to the centre of a large sheet of card. The school students then identified key questions raised by the entry. We hoped that speculation about the answers would provide convincing detail about the incident and the people involved in it. The drowning entry prompted such questions as:

  • Who was Edith?
  • Where did she live and in what sort of family?
  • What was she doing down by the river?
  • Who was with her?
  • How did the teachers find out about the incident?
  • Who told the family?
  • What was said to other pupils following Edith’s death?
  • Who found Edith’s body?
  • Were new school rules established following her death?

Each question was explored through discussion and dramatic improvisation. The events they created within the drama had power even from the first improvisation where the scene that resulted found its way into the finished production.

The authenticity of the material we were dealing with was an important aspect of the work. An evaluation of the project revealed:

The school logbook, in itself prosaic in tone and giving little away, nevertheless was a talisman which conferred historical authenticity on the events which were shaped in the drama. Being able to perform in the old school room and to visit the river, the site of the old mill, the war memorial, the graveyard, all these experiences added to the authenticity and to the children’s growing realisation that they could identify closely with the children they were portraying because they were, in a sense, living parallel lives to their own.13

The performance was created by joining the resulting seven scenes together to form a play. The linking device was the portrayal of a modern group of children who were doing local history research. They visit an aged ex-pupil of the school who, in the course of telling the children of his memories, triggers flash-back scenes in the play. Tickets for the performances took the form of a 16-page programme that contained additional information useful to the audience as context for the drama. Our audience was encouraged to read this before coming to the performance n preparation for the drama.

On performance nights we mounted exhibitions of artefacts, photographs, posters and children’s work in rooms surrounding the old schoolroom. Live and taped music and sound effects and recordings of residents’ memories were played as people viewed the exhibition. Children in character enacted incidents around the old school and in the playground as the audience arrived. The exhibition formed the focus for reminiscence by audience members. These memories were collected and added to the other material that now formed part of the school’s permanent archive. Added piquancy was derived from the fact that the play was performed in the community centre - the old school in which all of the incidents referred to in the log book took place.

The barn

2. The Living at Hurford

This play was created in a deeply rural area of Devon, England. It was an attempt to address two things – the difficulty small family farms are experiencing in the current economic/agricultural climate and the effect of foot and mouth disease which so devastated parts of rural England in 2002. A group of community psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, agricultural experts and arts therapists commissioned me to intervene through theatre in a rural community that had experienced foot and mouth disease. They told of a farming community laced with trauma. I wrote The Living at Hurford, an interactive play that focuses on the life of a typical Devon farming family struggling to stay in business. The play allowed audience members to explore and validate their life realities. It was performed in a barn on a farm that had lost its animals to foot and mouth disease.

The contents of the envelope

When buying a ticket, audience members received an envelope containing material which gave them insight into the personal, financial and agricultural world of a farming family. This includes a map of Hurford Farm, a set of farm accounts, photographs of farm buildings, an obituary from a local paper for Henry Chaplin, a solicitor's letter offering additional land, a school report on Sally, a birthday card from Alan to his mother and a family-tree diagram - presumably drawn by Janet. The purpose of this pack is to:

  • orientate the audience to the story;
  • give contextual information that will aid understanding of the story and;
  • carry factual information, thus taking from the performance the responsibility to provide all information.

Story synopsis
Hurford Farm is owned by Janet Chaplain who was left it by her recently deceased father, Henry Daniel. She is married to a clinically depressed husband, Mike, who is deeply affected by the difficulties of making a living from the farm. To supplement the family income, he drives a milk collection lorry. They have two children - Alan, eighteen years old with a successful Army career, and Sally, twenty, studying Business and Economics at university. Information audience members had gained from the pre-pack was expanded through a performance which ended in crisis. Janet must choose what to do. The audience is invited to help her make that decision and, following a range of interactive theatre approaches, they watch the consequences of their decision as actors play it out. The script used local dialect terms and contained many local references - agricultural agents, local markets, and in the obituary the real name of the local vicar and his church, for example.

Janet and Greg argue about the farm

Janet's brother, Greg, left home at sixteen for an engineering apprenticeship and, although he was expected to take over the farm, never returned. Janet had her own career planned, but agreed to a delay until Greg returned. She is now resentful of Greg's actions and feels stressed by the farm's financial difficulties and her husband's impaired mental state. After attending his father's funeral (which took place a few weeks before the time period of the play) Greg announces to his sister that he wants to 'come home' and help the farm out of its difficulties by investing his redundancy money in it.

The 'now' story takes place in the kitchen of Hurford Farm. The kitchen scenes are interspersed with flashbacks which show:

  • Henry first coming to look at the farm with his fiancée, Betty, in the 1940s;
  • a harvest scene from the 1950s;
  • a protest scene in which farmers march against the low prices they receive from the supermarkets and;
  • a Christmas scene in which Janet warns off her son and daughter from coming back to work on Hurford Farm.
Henry and Betty

There are two monologues from which we learn something of the internal tensions in the lives of Mike and Janet. Projected imaged were used - of the farmhouse that precede the first kitchen scene, a Henry and Betty wedding photograph, media shots of a real farmers' protest, shots of 1950s harvest scenes, and a landscape of 'Hurford', for example.14

The fifty-minute performance ends at a point where Janet tells her brother Greg that she needs time to think about his offer and warns that he must say nothing to her husband Mike. Janet exits and Greg looks at the laptop computer in which Janet stores the farm accounts. At this point a facilitator invites the audience members to consider the options open to Janet. Among these are:

  • Accept Greg's offer and bring him in as a partner in the farm business;
  • Sell part of the farm to Greg and allow him to develop his own business - converting some redundant buildings into holiday cottages, for example;
  • Refuse Greg's offer and expand the farm (she has been offered land by a neighbouring farmer);
  • Sell part of the land to clear the bank overdraft and farm the remainder to fit a 'niche market';
  • Sell the land, retain the house and a few acres then get a job;
  • Sell up and move elsewhere.
Janet is hotseated

After some discussion with neighbouring audience members, the audience is able to question characters of their choice in a process called 'hotseating.'

After a refreshment break, and led by the facilitator, the whole audience discusses the course of action Janet should take. When the audience has decided this, the actors play an improvised scene based on the audience's wishes. Although the audience has decided what Janet should do, it cannot dictate the outcome of that decision. Cards are distributed giving audience members information about telephone help lines. A full evaluation of this project was undertaken.

The location of Payhembury

3. A seminal community story: Foresight.
Foresight’ which I directed, focuses on a real story of a German Junkers 88 bomber which crashed in May 1941in the River Tale Valley where I live.

It was performed in a marquee in a field close to where one of the four German crew fell dead after the Junkers was shot down by a British Bristol Beaufighter. This is a story well known to the residents of this rural area who were alive at the time. During our research of the incident, some of these people revealed photographs and artefacts which relate to the crash, including a Luftwaffe belt buckle taken from the body of one of the airmen.15

The Luftwaffe buckle

The play resulted from a Community Theatre School I organised in 2004. This comprised three Saturday morning workshops, each of three-hours, on writing theatre, directing, acting, scenic design, technical aspects of theatre, music and marketing. The writing sessions focused on participants writing short scenes which were then acted out. Subsequently, I worked over two years with a female, first time playwright Rose Watts to bring ‘Foresight’ to production quality.

The farmer addresses the audience

Two hundred and thirty people of all ages were involved in staging this play - sandwich cutters, parking attendants, actors, technical staff and many others. Original music was written, and instrumental and singing workshops were held. Scenic design workshops were held to design the set and the play was performed in a huge marquee. It was a promenade production so the audience moved and scenes took place on five stages and also amongst the standing audience.

Each night at the end of the performance, the audience was led from the marquee to a place near to where one of the Germans fell dead. Here, lit by blazing torches, the son of the farmer who found the body told his father’s story; as he did so, a Second World War bomber flew over the audience and on up the valley, echoing the final journey of the Junkers 88 in 1941. We simulated the crash further up the valley.

The bomber passes over, trailing smoke

Extensive research was conducted on the incident and a large exhibition was displayed in one section of the marquee. Post production, much of this material was lodged in the local museum so that all may have access to the material in the future. Audience members were brought from the village in 1940s vintage buses and as they approached the marquee they experienced a Second World War vehicle display.

Vintage bus for audience travel

Television monitors played interviews with those who witnessed the incident. At the end of the play, after the aircraft had passed overhead, audience members came back to the marquee for drinks and supper whilst they talk to actors and one another. A relative of one of the German air crew came from Germany to see the play and stay in a participant’s home.

The aircrew planning their bombing raid

Each of the case studies demonstrate how theatre was used in disparate contexts to bring people together to explore and sometimes celebrate aspects of a shared community. The performances in case studies 1 and 3 grew from written stories which became performances through a devising process. Both dealt with the past and ways of revealing the community stories and the wisdom embedded in them. The play in case study 2 was written by me following extensive research. It acted as a validation of the experience of the many country people involved in agriculture who might never visit a theatre but who would come to a barn on a farm they know well. One farmer said ‘I don’t know what you know about farming boy16, but how you wrote it is how it is’, whilst another said ‘That’s my life you put up there tonight’, confirming that they found the story authentic.

They each represent ‘theatre making as communal work’, strengthening the social bonding between potentially isolated sectors of a community. I present them to you as examples of theatre-making which is founded on attempts to balance social efficacy and aesthetic quality. They are each rooted in narratives which give shared meaning about what it is to live in a specific place.

Putnam maintains that his research shows that:

.. art is especially useful in transcending conventional social barriers. Moreover, social capital is often a valuable by-product of cultural activities whose main purpose is purely aesthetic. (p 411)

Socially fragmented communities can find a focus in community theatre of the kind I describe here. The fact that the stories are rooted in the community in which they are performed give this work a special power.

Stories shape identity, and social cohesion depends on shared identity …………. [We share] not just a land and language, but also memories and hopes, aspirations and ideals. There are lots of stories to do with places, regions, institutions and nations, and often we don't need to know them. But when cohesion is a problem, we do ................ sharing a story is the best way of creating shared identity and a sense of the common good. (Sacks, 2007)

Author’s note: this article is based on another published in Polish in: Drama stosowana jako narzędzie społecznej interwentcji (2007) Warsaw: Stop Klatka.

Works cited

Commission for Rural Communities (2008) The State of the Countryside, Cheltenham: accessed 12 December 2008.
Etzioni, A. (1997) The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, New York: Basic Books.
Jellicoe Ann, (1987) Community Plays and How to Make Them, London: Methuen.
Putnam R (2000) Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community, Simon & Schuster: New York.
Sacks Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan, Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 7.45am, 15 June 2007


  1. For example, the York Mystery Cycle which originated in the 10th Century or the Oberammegau Passion Play first performed in 1633.
  2. For example, see: African Theatre for Development: Art for Self-determination (1998)
    Kamal Salhi & Nguigi Wa Thiong'o (Eds) Bristol: Intellect.
  3. See
  4. Personal conversation with Swati Pal, University of Delhi, April 2008. Also see
  5. See ‘Taught only by reality, can reality be changed?’ Marcia Pompeo Nogueira, in Drama as Social Intervention (2006) Balforu M, Somers J, North York: Captus Press.
  6. See ‘Theatre, resistance and community – some reflections on ‘hard’ interventionary theatre’ Bill McDonnell in Drama as Social Intervention (2006) Balfour M, Somers J, North York: Captus Press.
  7. For more see and A Good Night Out (1981) John McGrath, London: Methuen.
  8. David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation said in a press release: 
"Unless we act now, we will create a rural theme park, where only the very wealthy can live” (NHF: ‘Rural housing crisis forces unprecedented alliance’, Tuesday, 25 Jul 2006 11:07: see website.
  9. Just recently, a man in my parish in Devon, knowing that I was directing a new community play which focuses on the crash of a German bomber in 1941, urged me to look in a field outside the village which still bore the groove of a roadway used to move Spitfire fighter planes which were brought out of Exeter Airfield to protect them from attack during WW2.
  10. Ann Jellicoe, Community Plays and How to Make Them, (London: Methuen, 1987).
  11. Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman, (London: 9/10/85).
  12. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI), (1991) Drama fro 5 to 16, HMSO, London.
  13. Fox, R., Evaluation of the Exwick Project, unpublished paper.
  14. A copy of the script and pre-pack can be obtained cost price from the author by e-mailing John Somers. A video is also available.
  15. For more about ‘Foresight’ and Tale Valley Community Theatre, click here.
  16. The term ‘boy’ is used in Devon by locals when addressing a man if any age.