Two weeks ago acta hosted the kick off meeting for RAPPORT, our new European project, and welcomed partners from Poland, Spain and Sweden. It was a wonderful week, learning about each other’s practice, how we each work with people in our national contexts and encourage them to get involved in making art. International networking is so much a part of acta’s practice and programme these days, but it wasn’t always the case. In fact, it all started in 2003, when I was asked by the Arts Council to attend the second International Festival of Community Theatre in Rotterdam.
If I’m honest, I didn’t have any idea what to expect; community theatre felt like a bit of a lonely place for acta in 2003. We didn’t have a great deal of contact with other national companies making theatre with people, let alone with what was happening across the world. I was in two minds about going; we were so busy at acta and I didn’t want to waste my time. But I needn’t have worried; the whole event was a complete education, and it had a huge influence on my ideas about community theatre, and the direction of the company.
I saw theatre made by people in the outskirts of Lima in Peru, the Bronx in New York, Soweto, and from across Europe, Belgium, Germany, Utrecht, and of course Rotterdam, home of the Rotterdams Wijktheater (RWT) who created and coordinated the festival. I met and made friends with other theatre makers who were passionate about the power of community theatre to change people’s lives, including Eugene van Erven, globe-trotting community theatre expert, and especially Peter van den Hurk and Annelies Spliethof, the Artistic Director and founders of RWT.
What was so inspirational about the work of RWT was the very different model of practice. At the time, acta was working with whole communities on large-scale community plays – in Lawrence Weston, Hartcliffe, Bournville Estate in Weston Super Mare – bringing hundreds of people together to celebrate their communities. Peter’s approach was to work with a small group of people for a year to make a play, then to tour it for a year, with 20, 30, or 40 performances, all across the region. I was fascinated by this idea, and resolved to try it out when I got back to Bristol.
In the meantime, I invited Peter to visit acta in Bristol, and he spent a week with us, delivering training and visiting workshops, and at the end of the week he asked if we’d like to take a show to the next festival in 2005. We were of course, extremely delighted and excited, and it was a great opportunity to try a new approach. We put together a group of six women we’d worked with before, three from Lawrence Weston, and three from Hartcliffe, and with them created a new play, ‘For Love nor Money’, about growing up on a Council Estate – friendship, love and housing.
This was a great play to devise. The six women – Rita, Sam, Karen, Sadie, Nicola and Sarah – had all grown up on council estates (and still lived there), and although from different parts of Bristol, had so much shared experience, so many stories to tell. I remember very clearly the first meeting when we brought them all together; all they knew was that we wanted to create a new play, which would tour around Bristol – and to Rotterdam. We really knew no more than that. In that first meeting, we sat and chatted, told stories, and one of the women talked about meeting an old school friend in town, someone she hadn’t seen for years, who had left the estate to live in a more affluent part of the City. The old school friend had bragged about her life, and the choice she’d made to leave, and had angered our storyteller with her patronising attitude. ‘The thing is’ our storyteller explained, ‘I never wanted to leave; that’s where my family is, where my roots are. Why would I want to leave. But she was trying to make me feel small. Making out she was better than me’.
The story resonated with all the women, and sparked the idea: ‘When living in a challenging neighbourhood, what is best, to get out as quickly as you can, or to stay and try to make a difference’. We soon built the storyline; about best friends at school who make a pact to leave the estate to make better lives through education; then through family loyalty, one stays behind. Years later, the now educated friend returns as a Housing Officer, to update the housing stock in the area, where she comes across her ex-best friend, who has worked all her life as a community activist to improve conditions. On this framework we built a mesh of interlocking stories and characters –from the old women who were living in the houses that were to be demolished, the useless brother, and Denny, another school friend, always on the margins, devoid of choices, who stays because she has nowhere else to go. We devised the show over the autumn and winter, and in March 2005, took it to the Festival in Rotterdam; where it would get its first performance. This decision was probably not the best for our nerves and stress levels, but it was sort of forced on us by circumstances.
It wasn’t that straightforward either; one of the performers told us just before the tour that she didn’t want to perform any more, and eventually admitted it was because she hadn’t been out of the UK before, hadn’t got a passport, and couldn’t afford to get one. This episode ended with Helen picking her up from her home and taking her to the Bristol Registry Office to get a copy of her birth certificate in order to buy her a last minute passport. Then all she had to do was find someone to look after her kids. We finally made the plane, and were met and greeted at the airport by Peter van den Hurk, who whisked us down to Zuidplein Theatre in Rotterdam, where the show was to premier the next day.
We had time for another rehearsal, where the sense of occasion threatened to overwhelm the performers with nerves; and the attending worry threatened to overwhelm us directors. Just before the show began, the performers peeped out from backstage to the empty auditorium. ‘Look at that’, they said, ‘We’ve come all this way, and no-one’s bothering to come and see us’. They didn’t know the audience were all waiting outside, and flooded in as soon as the doors were open. No-one knew what to expect; not the performers, or the audience, nor, to be honest, my good friend Peter, who had booked us on trust, and now was about to see whether this trust would be repaid.
We needn’t have worried; from the very beginning of the show, where the women are on stage dressed as schoolgirls, the audience was with the story, and soon laughing, working out the jokes even through the Bristolian English. By the end, when the whole audience was included in the action as a public meeting to decide the fate of the houses, everyone was with the story and with the performers, who thoroughly deserved the standing ovation they received. After the show, many audience members came up and said how the themes of the show were the same in Rotterdam, particularly the housing issues, and I was struck by the universality of community theatre, how common humanity bridges national divisions, and how important it is to recognise that.
Taking that bunch of extraordinary women on tour to Rotterdam was a real adventure, and it led to many things: a successful tour of Bristol neighbourhoods and a new approach for acta shows which developed more experienced performers, some of whom are still working with us today. It also led to a long, close and very fruitful partnership with RWT, which included them bringing two shows to Bristol, and us taking two further shows to the Festival in 2008 and 2014.
It was the inspiration of the Rotterdam festival which led us to develop our own festival in Bristol, and through funding from Creative Europe we created the COAST Festival in 2012, with partners from Poland, Germany, and of course, our best friends from Rotterdam, RWT. The huge benefits of COAST, and the learning from our partners during the process, encouraged us to do more international work, and further projects followed with acta being involved in six European projects, four of those as project lead and coordinator. (It was the latest of these, RAPPORT, which kicked off two weeks ago).
We’ve also developed partnership with companies in South Korea and USA, and in total have worked with twenty partners from fourteen countries since 2014. The benefits have been, and remain, enormous; both the learning about other people’s work, but also learning about our own practice through their eyes. We all have so much in common, we all share the same vision; of how making theatre can create new possibilities for people, can build confidence, strengthen communities, extend horizons, develop understandings.
(And help to make strong new friendships that can last a lifetime; just this last weekend we had a visit from Peter and Annelies, now retired from RWT, but still contributing to communities, theatre and community theatre, from their new home in Limburg.)