In September 1985, I co-founded acta, and have worked for, and been Artistic Director for the company ever since. In September 2020 – the 35th anniversary – I’m planning to step down, and over the next year I will write 35 stories from my time with the company, using the notebooks I’ve kept throughout my work to remind me what I was up to. They might be stories about people, or projects, or happenings – who knows? I don’t have a particular plan, but I might try to write one story for each year – though I’m not promising to stick to this! So, story number one:
Everything has to start somewhere…
Here’s my scribbling, on 17th September 1985, working out a letter head and logo for acta.
To be honest, we’d come up with the acronym before we worked out what it stood for! In those days, the County of Avon was still in existence, and that’s where I’d been working as a Youth Arts officer, so that was one ‘A’ decided. ‘Community Theatre’ was what we were planning to do – by which we meant, not just ‘youth’ theatre, but involving adults, and other members of the community. The final ‘A’ did give us some problems, though; we finally decided on ‘Agency’; I think because we wanted to be ‘agents’ for change. (It lead to several years of confusion – with actors, stage managers, casting directors knocking on the door looking for work or casts.)
Two weeks previously I’d co-founded acta, together with Caroline Green, and our volunteers Ruth Ware and Erica Teucher. Caroline and I had met when I was working for Bush Telegraph on a large-scale community play, ‘Bread and Blood’. She joined me to lead a youth theatre ‘Kids Theatre’, and we developed and performed a range of devised plays, taking some on tour around the West Country. At the time I was working as a freelance youth arts activity facilitator, (including the work for Avon County) and it was clear there was a real gap in the market – no-one else was doing this sort of work – so setting up a company was a very logical step.
We started with a small smattering of bookings, working in youth clubs in Hartcliffe and Hillfields, and beginning to set up youth theatres in different areas – Lockleaze, Knowle West. And then we were invited to Peasedown St John, to meet a group of local working class women who ‘might be interested’ in doing a play. Of course, what they meant was a panto – after all it was coming up to Christmas – but then they started talking about their village, the history, the lack of facilities, their sense of being left behind and ignored by the local council in Bath. Top of their list of complaints was the lack of a playground for the children. So putting the two things together, the ‘Playground Palaver’ was created, a punchy mix of agit-prop and slapstick comedy, featuring real baddies – The Evil Weevils’, resourceful villagers, and Silly Councillors who could only be reached through the Red tape Forest, and who spent their time doing ridiculous things ‘juggling budgets’ (balls with the word ‘budget’ written on!), balancing books (speaks for itself), wearing different hats (ditto) and going through the Chair (a lot harder than it sounds).
We roped in lots of local people, workers, workers’ husbands, and in mid-December, put the play on in ‘The Red Hut’ – a dilapidated community building with uncertain electrics which didn’t like our stage lights much. The local community turned out in force – mystified as to what their family and friends had been up to, and not knowing what to expect. After all, they expected a pantomime. But the local references, the improvised interplay between the characters, the sheer daftness of the whole play, kept them involved, cheering and booing and celebrating at the end when the Councillors gave in and granted a playground to the village (well, it made some sort of sense at the time).
It probably wasn’t the best play we’ve done with adults, but it was the first, and we learned so much about our approach – what worked, what didn’t, when to listen, when to advise. And we laughed so much. Working together, having fun, and proving that theatre wasn’t such a scary thing after all – pretty much the basis for everything that came after.
Neil Beddow September 2019.