"What happens after the play is the point of the play". A new wave of "people's theatres" generating civic power

From Company Three’s  The Best Day Ever!

From Company Three’s The Best Day Ever!

In conversation this week with co-founder of Dark Mountain Dougald Hine, and also with the brilliant theatre-thinker Maddy Costa, we have come across a series of drama companies who are thinking (and creating) about how they can respond to our contemporary crises - political, technological, environmental.

In our A/UK work with communities, aiming to amplify all the powers and resources they possess (more than just socio-economic), drama, role-play and story is a crucial element in reviving a sense of civic ambition and vision. To “occupy your own future” can be, at first, an imaginative exercise. And it’s exciting to see a wave of drama-makers getting stuck into to this challenge. We’re happy to talk to you all!

The “People’s Theatres” Are On The Rise

This article from Maddy Costa in Exeunt opens up a whole new movement of what is being self-described as “People’s Theatres”. It begins with the Brighton People’s Theatre, kicked off in 2015 by Naomi Alexander:

“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,” Naomi 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.

Now funded by the Paul Hamyln Foundation, The Brighton People’s Theatre has an agenda which biases towards participation - they have theatre clubs which encourage people to see drama; a Reading Group for plays; Tours of Brighton’s theatres; weekly Theatre Workshops and monthly Guest Workshops; and Inspiration Meetings - in which, if you’ve been involved in one of the preceding, you can help devise a whole new show.

As Maddy reports, the BPT is part of a wave. The Slung Low company in Leeds runs a community college each year, and operates from the oldest social club in Britain (and has plans for its own People’s Theatre). Sheffield People’s Theatre also explicitly opens out its doors (and its skills) to anyone over 12. Middle Child in Hull is developing something called “Gig Theatre”, which tries to combine the dynamic of a music gig with the direct address of drama, in the pursuit of “bringing people together for a good night out with big ideas”. Company Three, a youth theatre in London, are also worth watching.

The Gate Theatre’s Manifesto For Our Future

A good example of how self-consciously civic and engaged UK theatre is becoming comes from this manifesto from London’s Gate Theatre:

There are so many reasons to radically reimagine how and why we make theatre in 2019 – relating to the climate crisis, an unstable global political landscape, the necessity of making work that is accessible to everyone and representational of the world we live in (more here)

Their manifesto - reproduced below - is notable for phrases like “what happens after the play is the point of the play” and “there must be space to come together and talk”. What is to stop other companies taking this as a departure point for their own manifestos?

More from Maddy Costa on Twitter, and in Exeunt magazine.