Like many people impassioned by theatre, director Naomi Alexander also seethes with frustration at the way this potentially radical art form so often reinforces class divides.
“When I go to the theatre, the people sitting around me are not the same as the people sitting around me on the bus on the way to the theatre,” she says. “But theatre is for everyone: we invest in theatres through our taxes, and through our lottery tickets. To me it’s very clear this is a social justice issue.”
In 2015 she set out to challenge this, by building a new theatre company, a People’s Theatre for Brighton, which might rethink at city level “the way that theatre is produced and consumed”. Wanting to make work “with and for the people on the bus”, she set up a series of open workshops for the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project. It started small, with just three people at the first workshop, but numbers steadily grew, as did confidence, and by the end of 2016 the group had presented their first show, Tighten Our Belts, at the Brighton Dome.
Among the people who saw that show was producer Louise Blackwell, a co-founder of Fuel. “I was blown away by the quality of the work,” she says, “but also by the passion of the audience: it was a really exciting audience to be in.” The two women began a conversation about “how we want to have an impact on the world through our work”, and discovered a number of shared impulses. Blackwell, who also lives in Brighton, describes one as wanting to work with “different places and different people that are within my wider local community” (in 2017 she left Fuel to do exactly that). Alexander describes another as wanting to work not on projects but with people, over an extended period of time, forging: “long-term, mutually beneficial creative relationships, where people develop themselves as artists with support from us, and we develop new creative projects with them”.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2019 and Brighton People’s Theatre is set to grow again. Alexander is relaunching the company, with Blackwell now producing, and a Paul Hamlyn Foundation grant to “explore and test our role as a civic theatre for the city”. And Alexander does mean the city: “I don’t think you can call something a People’s Theatre Company and it not be open to everyone,” she says. Although she’s already “working alongside community organisations that have got relationships with people who perhaps have the least access to these sorts of opportunities”, she’s emphatic that the company cross class divides, with the aim that “everyone is treated equally, people are treated as artists and creative agents”, not as representatives of a certain background or experience of marginalisation.
The activity she’s plotted for the the rest of the year builds on the making process she designed for the Tighten Our Belts group. Participants will be invited to pick and choose from an array of activities, including playreadings, weekly workshops, and regular trips to Brighton Dome and the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts to see shows, some followed by post-show discussions (a couple of declarations of interest here: I’ll be hosting some of those discussions, as well as blogging about the explore and test year; this piece is doubling as the first of those blog posts). Alexander has also lined up an array of visiting artists to deliver additional workshops, including Tim Crouch, Victoria Melody, Emily Lim, Selina Thompson, and Slung Low’s Alan Lane. The point of these sessions isn’t “to educate people in what high art or good theatre is”, she says. It’s to introduce participants to as wide an array of theatre-making styles as possible, to inspire and support them in “working out what good theatre means to them”, and developing the shows they want to make.
“I don’t think you can call something a People’s Theatre Company and it not be open to everyone,”
In all of this, the people she’s taking most inspiration from are Company Three, the brilliant youth theatre group based in north London: like them, Alexander hopes to build a membership structure and maintain extended relationships – but whereas Company Three focus on working with people aged 11-19, Alexander intends to work with anyone aged over 18, a relationship that could potentially last decades (as it does for the people aged over 60 who work with the equally brilliant Entelechy Arts). She began her career in community theatre and found the short relationships necessitated by project funding “really problematic. There’s a grieving process that happens for participants: they’re left not necessarily knowing what to do with that experience. And so much is lost: all of the ideas they’ve had, the relationships, the sense of momentum, the sense of aspiration.” Brighton People’s Theatre is designed to challenge that; and takes further inspiration from the years Alexander spent outside theatre, working in community development, which she describes as “a transformative process where you work with people to enable them to realise the power that they have, recognise their agency collectively, and exercise that power in the world”.
It’s a similar but different model that Alan Lane will be following as he works with Slung Low to set up their own People’s Theatre in Leeds. The idea for this company has grown out of two sets of experiences over the past decade. One is making large-scale community work in a variety of settings: at the Lowry in 2009, where Lane directed 250 students from University of Salford, four army trucks and a 10-litre diesel explosion in Beyond the Front Line; in York in 2013, where Lane directed 180 performers (the entire team included 600 volunteers) in Blood and Chocolate; in Sheffield in 2015, where Lane worked with Sheffield People’s Theatre to create Camelot: The Shining City, staged in and around the Crucible with 137 performers and a flame-throwing tank. Each of those works was connected by more than pyrotechnics: they placed “participation at the heart of an artistic act, which also included people who spent their life being artists, and was of interest to a public beyond those who knew the participants,” says Lane – and, crucially, at an industry and civic level there were people “willing to commit proper resources and proper status to the work”.
Leeds People’s Theatre is also being formed out of a second, more recent experience: in 2018 Slung Low opened its Community College, offering classes in cooking, woodwork, first aid, and anything people are interested to learn about. “So there is already the beginning of the process of building a People’s Theatre,” says Lane. “We have people coming to a place, feeling comfortable, feeling a sense of authority – they get to decide the courses and talk about the space – so for us it feels like an easy step to asking: who would like to think with us about doing a theatrical adventure? What might that look like, and how do we balance your desires with ours as artists?”
Lane admits that his vision for Leeds People’s Theatre – where the company might perform text written for the occasion by an established playwright, and where the production “does involve thing being on fire: just because it has participation and social awareness, doesn’t mean it can’t also be reckless and loud and difficult” – might not match the standard definition of a community theatre company. But then, as Francois Matarasso, a practitioner and specialist in community practice, writes in the foreward to his new book A Restless Art, “diversity is a characteristic of participatory art”: it varies “in nature, art form, practice and social situation”. During the writing of the book, he blogged extensively about the problem of definitions, reaching the conclusion that participatory work “might be seen as a form of cultural democratisation (or giving people access to the arts)”, while community work “aspires to cultural democracy” – that is, “professional and non-professional artists, co-operating as equals”, in a scenario where “anyone creating art is an artist”. That equality benefits everyone, says Lane. Working in York, he found that: “If you put four performers – people who have dedicated their lives to making theatre – at the heart of a company of 280, everybody gets better at their job. And the people who get better at their job first are the four performers.”
Matarasso begins his book by stating: “participatory art has become normal”. By which he means, it has proliferated and spread, from “the marginal urban and rural spaces it occupied in the 1970s to the centre of cultural power”. Lane offers his own example of that change, comparing Slung Low’s Somme 100, which took place in 2016, with a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme that happened in 1919. The Slung Low version was staged in Manchester’s Heaton Park, and involved “a people’s theatre company of 400 performers” hidden among an audience of 20,000. The 1919 commemoration involved, says Lane, “a cousin of the Queen”. He takes that as a sign of positive progress: “There is an understanding now that you can place participation and a lot of the language of community theatre at the heart of big national moments, and that’s not naff or crap: it’s good, it’s proud.”
Alexander and Lane are committed to the work of the Brighton and Leeds People’s Theatres happening locally and being meaningful to the community from which it grows, but also intend to capture national attention with it. Blackwell sees “a very useful role” for herself with Brighton People’s Theatre, in potentially providing the company access to the buildings with whom she developed relationships while co-directing Fuel. Although now working more locally, she feels “really strongly that it’s important for me to keep being in meetings with the National Theatre Studio, or the Young Vic, or Sadler’s Wells. For my own practice I’m still interested in making work that goes into those spaces – and for the work that goes in to be Brighton People’s Theatre sometimes.” It all depends, says Alexander, on what the people who join the company want to make, and what space – theatre or park, main stage or village hall – might suit it.
Given that you can do more with tanks and fireworks when not confined by a building, Leeds People’s Theatre are definitely more likely to stage work outdoors in their city centre. But Lane has another national ambition: to create a Federation of People’s Theatres, potentially bringing Brighton People’s Theatre, Company Three, Sheffield People’s Theatre, and many others together to build profile and an understanding of best practice. That work has already started too, with an informal network brought together by Slung Low that also included Hull-based Middle Child, Cornwall’s Rogue, and community arts director Lily Einhorn, formerly based at the Young Vic.
Alexander hopes to go further, to build connections between Brighton People’s Theatre and community companies working internationally. Again, there’s a pre-existing network she could tap into, built up since 2001 by the International Community Arts Festival that takes place every three years in Rotterdam. More than 100 artists and companies have already been programmed at the festival; their work takes different forms, but what connects them, ICAF director Eugene van Erven writes on the festival website, is: “the belief that the arts are essential to human life and that everybody should also have the right to create. Because they believe, and we believe, that that is very important for who we are as human beings.”
Which brings us back to Alexander’s sense of theatre’s class divides as a “social justice issue”. She believes that most people have “quiet unspoken creative dreams, but not many people have the means to make them a reality. Art has become so commodified, like everything else in the world, and there are so many reasons people are distanced from it. So how do we enable people to claim the space where they can start to realise that part of themselves? That’s what a civilised society should be.”