Drama out of a crisis

People’s stories reflect the lives they lead, their personal experiences, and within those are contained the stories of the world.

Sitting at my desk as the UK enters lockdown from Coronavirus, I can’t help thinking of how everyone’s personal stories from now will reflect this crisis; how our personal narratives will form part of the national history. And of course, through acta’s process of making theatre, these stories will emerge and push their way into new plays. When these plays will be made I can’t say; nor what the stories they tell will be; desperate crowds fighting in supermarkets, anxious parents struggling to cope with restless children, fear and anxiety over loved ones, stricken families trying to make ends meet. I’m sure this will be there. But more likely it will be the stories of kindness, unselfish acts to neighbours and strangers that will be recalled and celebrated; the warm, caring and unselfish responses to community crisis. Or maybe just the small, seemingly trivial, but somehow indelible incidents that stick in our minds.

Over the years, acta has created many plays based on people’s memories of national crisis; talking to people who lived through extraordinary times has been one of the many delights of my job at acta over the years. I’ve always been struck by how people downplay the drama, how easily they take the unexpected and unprecedented in their stride, and get on with life.

I remember in 1988, not long after acta started, we were commissioned by Wansdyke Arts Council in the area around Radstock and Midsomer Norton to create a large-scale community play to tell and celebrate the rich history of the area. I was researcher and writer, and soon got interested in the story of the carting boys strike in 1908, when local miners downed their tools for improved pay. I asked around for stories and details, and was astonished to be directed to a local nursing home in Peasedown St John, where an elderly resident was amusing (and I think exasperating) the care staff by constantly singing a song from the strike, ‘The Dunkerton Carting Boys’.

I went along to meet and interview the man, Bill, well into his 90s, and he told me how, as a boy of 10 he had been involved in the strike, and how he and the other miners would walk from village to village, singing songs to raise money to feed their families during the long strike. I learned so much from him, my notebook was full of stories and snippets of his conversation.

It must have been hard times’, I said, as the interview ended.

‘it wasn’t so bad’, he replied, ‘Not as bad as the war.’

And it suddenly clicked; that of course, at his age, he would have been fighting in the Great War. It was a rare opportunity to speak to someone who had been there, who had experienced it all. I asked him more questions, but he was slow to reply.

I’ll tell you what though’, he said eventually, ‘I didn’t like the jam they give us.’

I’m sure he was just trying to put off the over-eager interviewer; that there were lots of memories he didn’t want to share; but I can’t help thinking that of all the things he remembered, all the horror and suffering, it was the quality of the jam that sprung to his mind.

I’m sure it will be the same for us, for the plays to come about how we coped with Coronavirus, how people helped each other, fell out with each other, found new ways to cope. We’ll all have our own stories to tell, and I’m sure we’ll normalise the extraordinary events of 2020 to tell the researchers of the future.

There’s one thing more; when the interview was over, and I was taking my leave, Bill shook my hand and said, ‘There’s one thing more’. I waited, thinking now I’d get the whole story, but he just said very gently, ‘I were glad when it was over.’

Amen to that.