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The Rabble Across The River

Writing for community theatre

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

For a playwright, the opportunity to write a Community Play may arise only once in a career. Mine came in 1995, when I was hired to write the play which became The Wrestling Field. By the time it was performed I felt I had undergone a life-affirming, if not a life-changing, experience.

The project was launched by the Exeter and Devon Arts Centre, with the working title The St Thomas Mystery Play, echoing the medieval Mystery Plays which were performed by non-professional townspeople. The suburb of St Thomas, outside the now-demolished walls of Exeter, was once a separate village across the River Exe, a place where the city sent its unwanted. There was a workhouse, a debtor’s prison and an asylum, and a population largely of manual workers, small shopkeepers and agricultural labourers. The writer’s brief, open to approaches from West Country playwrights, was to ‘create a script which reflects the stories, history, characters and community of St Thomas’.

The key word here, now over-familiar, is ‘community.’ Though there were earlier ventures into forms of community theatre, the Community Play as we know it more or less began with the late Ann Jellicoe in the nineteen seventies. From her Dorset home she founded the Colway Theatre Trust (now The Claque Theatre), which helped groups of people put on a play relevant to their town or village, guided by a professional director and production team. The phenomenon grew to the point where such plays are performed across the country as well as overseas. Usually a professional writer is commissioned to write and develop the piece, which is where I came in.

Looking at the history of St Thomas, it struck me that one of the most dramatic changes of recent times had been the coming of the railway, which cut a swathe through the village. The famous engineer I. K. Brunel’s Bristol and Exeter Railway had extended as far as St David’s Station in Exeter by May 1844. Now the South Devon Railway was to be built, to Plymouth and eventually beyond it, which meant houses had to be demolished. People were evicted, at what seemed to me very short notice. There were other hardships in those years, like floods, famine and cholera. But there was also, I learned, an open field where working men wrestled, before large crowds, for huge prizes of up to a hundred sovereigns. All of this made for an intriguing mixture, ripe for dramatization. To my delight my proposal was accepted, whereupon terror set in. It was the biggest project I had faced, and it would take over my life.

First came the research. Early in the development process we formed a small team who were given specific areas to investigate: costumes of the eighteen forties, agricultural life, how the wrestling was organised. I undertook further research, for example on Brunel and his associates (discovering that the great man was only five feet tall was an interesting pointer). Meanwhile the designer consulted old photographs and focussed on the look of the Victorian village and its inhabitants. The play would be performed on a multiple set in a church hall, in the heart of St Thomas itself. I used the 1841 Census, in the West Country Studies Library, to locate the actual residents of the main street, revealing some splendid Devonshire names: Lammacraft, Hannaford, Connibeer. Here the railway ploughed through, necessitating the clearing of poor housing and the erection of a 501-yard-long viaduct. Understandably there had been opposition, not least over the loss of an inn and a cider shop. Brunel may have provided work for labourers, but many of those were outsiders, itinerant navvies who followed the railway-building with their families. Hence there was no shortage of conflict, and I would eventually include a riot scene where the demolition men are confronted by angry residents, which the performers relished.

The writing itself was probably the most daunting I have undertaken, especially when I realized I was faced with a cast of around fifty people. I took advice from other playwrights when I could. One told me to give every character a name (instead of titles like ‘First Villager’). Another urged me to write as many large action scenes as possible, to include those who were nervous about delivering lines. This technique of using ‘baskets of people’ – groups of indeterminate number – was developed by the Colway Theatre Trust, allowing newcomers of all types to be allotted roles, at almost any stage of the production process. The whole ethos of a Community Play should be, and usually is, that anyone who wants a part can have one.

It seemed to me that, in its structure, the play needed fairly broad brush-strokes. There was scope for interweaving personal stories (for example, a fateful romance between a railway surveyor and a local girl), but how the village responded to the railway’s arrival was the theme. To personify it, I chose to follow four St Thomas families through this time of change. Along the way I took some licence in depicting Brunel and his business associates as city toffs, fairly indifferent to the lives and livelihoods of the locals. This may be an exaggeration, but Brunel was not a man to let a small village get in the way of his railway. If I bent the truth a little, it was to sharpen the drama and give this piece of local history an edge.

Inevitably, of course, there were problems. Initial workshops were challenging, as potential cast members, responding to the invitations put out by the Arts Centre, showed shyness and nervousness. As time went by some would drop out, but a strong core of committed people began to form. It was both moving and humbling to find that they appreciated the fact of a new play being written especially for them, about people they could relate to (some of the characters were even their ancestors). Over months of rehearsals, flaws in the performances were ironed out as people grew in confidence, pleased to announce that they were in The Wrestling Field, as it was now titled.

Naturally there was a wide variation in abilities, most of the cast never having acted before. Some had amateur experience and could handle quite demanding roles, while others struggled, but they could all be accommodated (for example, among the travelling navvy families). The youngest performer was aged seven, the oldest eighty-two. Among them were unemployed people, one of whom told me he was ‘on the scrap heap’, but who turned in one of the most convincing and moving performances. It was a great credit to all the cast as well as the two directors, the designer, stage manager and crew that, when the play finally went on for one week in the Exeter Festival of 1996, there were no serious hiccups. One reviewer called it ‘a triumph’, adding that, if at times ‘the ensemble work gets a bit ragged’, then ‘the earnest enthusiasm of the cast, for many their first time on stage, disarms criticism’.

It was clear from the start that, for a project like this, the writer needs to be hands-on, attending rehearsals and being available to talk to the cast, answer questions and so on. I also had to adapt scenes to changing circumstances, rewriting and cutting where necessary. Central to the play was the wrestling, which involved fight training and movement work. To our satisfaction the younger men threw themselves energetically into it, presided over by a convincingly stern umpire and cheered on by the whole company. We learned the basic rules, moves and terminology of West Country wrestling to the extent that, I like to think, the wrestlers staged bouts their Victorian forebears would have been proud of.

The songs, as with most Community Plays, were an essential component. I provided lyrics which were set to music by the music director/composer. He formed a small brass band from local musicians, some of whom had not dusted off their instruments in years, to be onstage in costume for grand occasions such as the opening of the railway station. There was also a six-piece orchestra to accompany the singing (often led by the superb female vocalist from the Devon Youth Jazz Orchestra, another St Thomas resident). Rousing choruses of ‘Harvest Home’ punctuated the play, and also provided the finale: despite the hardships people had endured, there was still a harvest; their village had changed, but life would go on.

There is a line in the play, where one of Brunel’s people calls the St Thomas folk ‘the rabble across the river’. It became part of the ‘Song of St Thomas’, sung by defiant villagers, and was how the cast signed the card they gave me at the after-show party. I still have it, and almost twenty-five years on I can still hear them sing it.

Creating the St Thomas play was at times exhausting, at other times glorious, but ultimately heart-warming. I was privileged to be a part of it. I can only hope that, given the world we live in now, the Community Play does not become a thing of the past.

John Pilkington has written plays for radio and theatre, television scripts for the BBC and numerous works of historical fiction for both adults and children. His latest venture is a Restoration-era mystery series featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand. He is now at work on a new historical novel.

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