Everyone has a story to tell; they just need someone to listen.
Telling untold stories has always been a central thread of acta’s work, all the way back to the early eighties. Many of our plays focus on contemporary life, but many look to the forgotten stories and everyday memories of the people who have lived in the City. In fact, one of my very earliest shows, even before acta was founded, was about evacuees in WW2 – Those Rosy Days are Few – devised and performed by Kids’ Theatre. And in 1986, one of acta’s first shows, Thrupenny Bits, focused on memories we collected from older people about their childhood in the thirties. There were great songs with music written by my long-time friend Robin Grant, and we toured the show to old people’s homes around the City – again with the Kids’ Theatre group.
So many of our projects have used living memories as a focus; valuing the everyday, the fascinating lives of people coping with the challenges and joys of life – loving, living, striving, grieving, celebrating. Our approach to the large-scale, place-based community plays has always been to begin with the stories and experiences of the people who live in the area; celebrating the past, questioning the present; imagining the future. Valuing people, and their stories, is what has helped to engage our participants, to encourage their investment in the projects, to keep them coming – ‘this is our story, and we want people to hear it’.
Over the years we have developed a keen ear for a good story, or for a tale lost in time that needs to be told; Gas Girls, Clippies, Lost not Forgotten, a long list of hidden histories animated by community casts. An audience member at Clippies recently asked: ‘How do you find the stories?’ The truth is that mostly they come when we’re not looking for them. It was that way with Sailors Tales; which began with a sad event, and turned into a celebration.
The idea of Sailors’ Tales came about when myself and Helen attended the funeral of Ernie Rich, a long-time supporter of acta and ex-Merchant Seaman. The church in Shirehampton was packed, and looking around at the hundreds of old sailors and their families we thought about how many stories there must be, what an important part of Bristol history they would tell, and how few people in the City knew about them. Helen was excited about making a play that would attract that audience into a theatre.
We were convinced that this subject would make a great play, and resolved to research and develop the idea.
I began to talk to people who had been involved in the sea-faring life, and soon made contact with Doug May at the Merchant Navy Association, a fantastic organisation which continued to work with us throughout the project; an invaluable partner. A successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and support from the Bristol Port Company gave us the go-ahead, and I began research in summer 2015 – with the help of Doug May and the Merchant Navy Association. Over a period of six months I met many interesting and warm people – both the men who went to sea, and the women and family members who stayed at home – who were all unstintingly generous and honest with their memories.
It was soon clear from the research that the theme of the play was ‘the men who fell in love with the sea… and the women who fell in love with them’, and the play was planned to cover the adventures and day-to-day routine of the sailors, but also the lives of the women who stayed at home, and how they coped with life.
The play was set at the end of the fifties and early sixties, as this is when the men I interviewed were working as Merchant Seamen, and was also a key time for the industry, with the emergence of the first ‘container’ ships which would effectively end the established way of life and work for dockers and seamen. We found out about the life aboard the Vindicatrix training ship in Gloucestershire; the life on board ship and on shore in exotic locations, the impact on personal relationships, and life in Avonmouth Village at that time – including rock and roll dances at the church hall. And, to be honest, many hilarious stories which had no place in a play which was aimed at a family audience!
We gathered a group of 18 enthusiastic performers – some we had worked with on other projects, and some young people from Avonmouth, where we rehearsed every week. Each week we took in new stories from my research, and the participants created characters and scenes based on the stories. Gradually, a number of storylines developed, focusing on a crew of shipmates and their wives and families. From the many improvisations, I created a script for the final piece; which had moments of deep sadness and reflection, but managed to end happily with a wedding and celebration. The play was directed by Ingrid and Rosalie, and it was an intense pleasure for me to go back at the end of the rehearsal process and see the fantastic performance they had created. We performed at the actacentre, and for a week in Avonmouth; crammed into the tiny Community Centre Hall, with packed audiences of local people – most of them with some connection to the Merchant Navy. It was a real community theatre event; a funny, warm and often poignant reminder of how much was owed to the brave sailors – and understanding women – and it struck a chord with the participants, audiences, and the many Merchant seamen who came along to see their stories being told.
We also developed ideas into a schools project, which toured to local primaries, with several of the merchant seamen and wives coming along to tell stories to the children, who then created their own version of the play. A film of the play, and a documentary about the making of it, were posted online, and seen by families of merchant seamen all over the world. Untold stories being heard again.
After one of the performances, one of my interviewees came up to say hello. ‘I reckon you got it just about right’, he said, ‘Didn’t think you would. But you did.’
That’ll do for me.