Community Theatre: a search for identity

Written by John Somers on Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 10:12PM
theatre, community, community theatre
Comments: 0

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’.

About the author

John Somers, Honorary Fellow, University of Exeter.
School of Arts Languages and Literatures, Department of Drama, Thornlea, New North Road, Exeter, Devon, EX4 4LA

John Somers works extensively in Britain and internationally and is the 2003 recipient of the American Alliance of Theatre and Education Special Recognition Award. He founded and directed the Exeter University MA Applied Drama and was founder/Artistic Director of Exstream Theatre Company. He makes Interactive Theatre (his production On the Edge won major national awards) and Community Theatre in non-theatre spaces.

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