The South Side Sisters
South Bath Community Play, 1995
Following the success of Our Batch, acta was asked to create community plays in different parts of the area, including Southmead, Kingswood, and in South Bath, the subject of this post – as it’s 20 years since we did the show! (I’ll return to Southmead and Kingswood, I promise!)
The South Bath Community Play project kicked off in 1993, with an invitation from Penny Mckissock who had been in Our Batch, and was now working for Whiteway Health Project, and thought a community play would be an ideal way to improve the local communities of South Bath, Whiteway, Twerton, Odd Down. We started with a small show – ‘It’ll Never happen to me’ which looked at issues of safe play, and involved youth centre staff – including the lovely and sadly missed Lyn Lewis as ‘Accident ‘Arry’ (the baddy!)
This led into a raft of smaller projects, involving and engaging lots of local people, and in the meantime I was researching the history of the area, finding out from people what they thought the show should be about. In the end, we involved over a hundred people in the devising sessions, and 150 performers over the two week run.
We again found an exciting, and extraordinarily difficult venue to perform in – the disused (and soon to be bulldozed) Old Bus depot in Twerton. We had a massive task to turn it into a theatre, but were lucky to have lots of volunteers who were happy to knock down walls, put in wiring, build stages and audience seating blocks. We had a few set-backs with vandalism, which led to us putting a caravan onsite, and having a member of staff sleeping there at all times, armed with a huge, early 90’s mobile phone – which only got a signal if you ran out of the building and up the nearest hill!!!
The show was an amazing success, huge audiences and lots of local interest, which has persisted to this day. It’s even possible to see the show on Youtube – www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPxq7hQBjc8
Photo – South Side Sisters workshop at Hayesfield School
I’ve got too many lovely memories of the show to tell them all, but I do remember with great affection Nora Brown, a wonderful old lady who played a central role, as an old lady in 1995 whose memory had been fractured. The story of the show was how she built a relationship with a difficult teenager who was doing community service at her old people’s home, and how between them they teased out the story of her life, and what happened to her and her five sisters. Watch the show!
Finally, I wanted to just quote what I wrote in the programme – it sums up the whole experience, and I think is still (20 years on!) a good description of what acta believes a community play should be.
‘When I was working in an old people’s home, there was this old woman, and they told her she had to go into St martins hospital. And she burst into tears, refused to go, got into a right state. It used to be the workhouse, you see. In her mind, it still was’
‘My mum says there’s an old story about the five sisters of bath, something to do with the five hills. Maybe we could use that’
‘Of course, it’s different now to when I was a girl. But I don’t feel different. I haven’t changed. It’s all changed around me’
Three voices out of a hundred, three idea out of thousands that have gone into the making of this play. People often ask for a definition of a community play, and why it’s so different to say, an amateur production of a musical. The difference, for us, lies in the involvement, in the participation of a community in making the play for themselves. A play that speaks their words, reflects their experiences, honours their memories, celebrates their present, and hopes for their future. A community play is a living thing, a joint creation containing the ideas, imagination and inspiration of many. A community play should seek to involve everyone, and in our play we have made every effort to contact and include people who might normally be excluded from being in a play. There have been no auditions – people fall naturally into parts – most of which they have created for themselves during devising sessions.
For many of us, the play has been central to our lives for the last seven months. I can remember so well the incredible excitement and hilarity the night we created the five sisters, decided their names, their characters and histories; sessions in Odd Down Youth Club where members made up Sarah and her friends; manic workshops at Hayesfield school with 45 girls creating the centre of Bath in 1995; the agonising process of deciding what happens at the end of the play.
All of this, all this contribution, this participation, the care, the interest, the sheer hard work that has gone into the process, all of this is what makes a community play. And that is what you will see tonight. A joint effort. Our Play. We hope that what we have put into it, the fun, the emotion, the joy, comes out to you.
Neil – 1995 and 2015