Teaching for a working class theatre.

This post is being written in Blackpool, where I’m about to work with young people from the local FE college. From the hotel room I’ve a clear view of the Tower. Two days ago I was doing the same in Nottingham – from my room I could see the castle lit up, looking for all the world like the image on the old Players’ fag packet. The city of Raleigh bikes; of lace and the Huguenots; of DH Lawrence and coal miners. Tonight the pub quiz was about entertainment, with a few geography questions thrown in for good measure.

If you’d have asked the question in the fifties, those in the know would have said working class drama was about kitchen sink – Arnold Wesker; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; The Knack. Scripts written by aspirational writers, maybe a product of grammar school class mobility, keen to establish an alternative reality; the form of the drama set by precedents going back to GB Shaw or Miss Horniman, and watched by similar. A skilled working class, proud of its craft tradition, resentful of its exploitation in factories and at least one of two world wars, that had taken part in creating nationalised medicine, transport and energy. Plays were asking where were we to go, in effect.

Then these achievements become normalised (or of taken for granted, but that mis-states it). Education allows these working class kids to join the middle classes, but with a folk memory of a different value set. And the world of work changes too – out go the smokestack jobs, whether it be mining, or boilermaking, or cement – many exported overseas. In come the new jobs like retail – 1/8 of the British economy is run by Tesco? Or finance – 1/3 of GDP is created in the Square Mile or thereabouts. Or Creative Industries.

So where is working class drama now? I’ve slightly set it up; because working class drama is probably where it’s always been, not where academia looks for it. It’s in the pantomime, that 90% of the public go to watch. In the variety shows, full of camp and feathers – Blackpool still going strong. In stand-up comedy in so many forms, including bingo callers and quiz league hosts (excepting of course the university school, though even there one can trace influence). In seaside carnival, and processions around the Illuminations. In Gospel choirs, rock concerts and in clubbing, in hiphop, trance and garage, and on occasions stadium rock, as camp as it comes.

This is a theatre of Everyday Life in the sense Alan Read describes. Its rituals are about call-response rather than rapt attention. Audiences participate, usually actively rather than the passive sense that is implied by Peter Brook, when he points out the use in French of the verb assister. It tends to Bakhtin’s sense of carnivalesque; of a world (pretended to be) turned upside down.

The textuality of the fifties (as elsewhere) isn’t as important, it’s a much more visual world now. And it isn’t about content – fun though Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels might be, it’s a rich kid’s pastiche of working class life. It’s more to do with structures, and often with visuals. Where it gets interesting is in the negotiations with young working class people about the culture. Exploring creative process, rather than playtext, so that it becomes about doing – about crafting rather than analysing (except on the sense of reflecting-in-action). So ….

Let’s see if Blackpool rocks!

10 thoughts on “Teaching for a working class theatre.”

  1. My name is Oliver Roberts I am studying at Blackpool the Fylde College He campus studying Performing Arts at HND level in my second year now.
    I am currently working on a project which I tend to go further. It is called-
    If a new style/genre of theatre is created can theatre in Blackpool be regenerated? being a drama student myself and being surrounding by budding actors and enthusiastic tutors who are pushing us in the direction to be innovative as possible, I am currently working on getting are own theatre company “out of sight” to create a new style of theatre by contemporising the artistic traditions stylistically of Blackpool theatre – Vaudeville, Burlesque etc my project also spiders of into a subheading which is-
    If theatre in Blackpool is regenerated can we attract cutting edge Theatre Company’s e.g Complicite, David glass ensemble etc my tutor tony dalnas told me asbout this site and said you would be very passionate about this project so would it be possible to
    arrange some sort of interview. Negative or positive will help me achieve my goal. cheers julian hope to hear from you soon

  2. Hi Ollie

    Sounds like you’ve got some interesting things going on. And I think it’s significant you’ve commented on the post which is about social class. Blackpool was always the place where the millworkers went, and the entertainers either came from that society, or were closely embedded within it.

    I share your instinct that re-interpreting the tradition is the way forward. It’s what Walk the Plank are doing – I understand very successfully – with things like the Switch-on, taking fairly tired traditions and invigorating them by giving them a post-modern twist. One might even deconstruct Funny Girls in the same way, very camp pastiche/parody of the burlesque. Also important not to see this in a purist way – both Vaudeville and burlesque as I understand it are American; we had strip shows, variety and the Windwill.

    Stand-up is another contemporary form which needs looking at. In the comedy clubs down here, you can see the influence of music hall; of the university wits tradition (Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python, both strongly influenced by the Goons, themselves from the services entertainment movement which was a variety form); of the folk clubs, where singers start telling stories; and of course the working men’s clubs, and important part of the ‘scene’ in the North.

    We shouldn’t forget that there are things happening in Europe too. Just come across a book called “Post-dramatic Theatre” – Hans-Thies Liemann. While the avant-garde can get self-indulgent, when it’s combined with a strong social awareness, expressed as community or social class, it gets very exciting. What is clear is that regeneration is unlikely to come from the conventional playhouse, at least on its own. I’m excited, however, in taking the sweep of activity which includes all the things you mention, and more: club culture as a whole; film, rock music, radio, computer and live games, food & drink are all part of a lively scene. Inciidentally, if you check out Charles Landry on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Landry will give you a series of links on Urban regeneration

    I’ve rambled a bit, but I hope it’s useful. I’ll post this on the website too, hope that’s OK.

    Best wishes

  3. Hi, my name is Robert Lea, I’m also studying at Blackpool and Fylde college on my 2nd year of the HND performing arts course. I constantly find myself infused with crazy and imaginitve ideas, but with no medium to explore and experiment, and it’s madness that theatre in Blackpool seems inaccessable when it sprouts from edgy, colourful and exciting genres such as vaudivilee and burlesque.

    I’ve decided to incorporate into my Directing project the ideas of of Ollie, incorporating the traditions of Blackpools history into creating an innovative and contempory piece of theatre. I think theatre needs to be new and “off the wall” but at the same time we can’t avoid that with working class society, this needs to be as accessable as possible.

    The piece i’m directing is Romeo and Juliet. My stimulous is to incorporate the traditions of Blackpool aswell as contemporary mediums in order to make the piece as innovative but accessible as possible. A task which i’m not finding the easiest to achieve, as Shakespeare itself isn’t the most accessible piece of theatre, but I believe it can be.

    I’m incorporating all the things I love about performing arts, incorporating traditions such as circus themes, burlesque “attitudes”, the hole form of showcasing a story rather than performing it. I’m also composing songs that will be written in modern English. Again incorporating wacky circusesque music along side satirical and comical lyrics. The songs will almost be a commentry on the themes that appear within the play.

    I’m extremelly excited about Ollie’s project and have joined the struggle to revive theatre within Blackpool. If at all possible, i’d love to talk to you about how I could approach directing this piece, and maybe discuss the ideas I already have to see if I’m approaching the process in the right way. Sorry about the essay, there’s so much more i’d love to say and discuss. I hope to hear from you. Thanks Julian

  4. Hello Robert, and welcome. Sound like you and Ollie are developing quite an interesting project under the shadow of the Tower. R & J is quite a useful piece, and there is a noble tradition of reclaiming Shakespeare from being an ‘academic’ study. For myself, I love the poetry, the joy of using rich language that you also see in slam poetry, and in the tradition of recitation that used to be part of music hall. It can also be seen in the use of rhyming couplets in panto, which doesn’t happen so much now.

    There’s also another tradition that informs Shakespeare, that of the popular comic. While we know that Juliet would have been played by a boy, Nurse would have been played by a man – and looking at it the part is pure panto Dame. Lady Montague I suspect might well have been played as a slightly acid queen: the Elizabethans were used to many-layered meanings, and a bit of gender-bending would inevitably be one of those layers.

    The problem of producing now is, how to make tap into the concerns of our audience, how to allow them to invest their creative energy as partners in creating meaning. One of the reasons I’m attracted to the work of Augusto Boal, who sadly died yesterday. His work was always about how to share stories, a fair exchange between different cultures. One way of looking at the process of producing theatre: the culture of the company interpreting the culture of the text to the culture of the audience.

    Good luck with the show!

  5. While I love modern theatre Blackpool does have a big problem. As you guys know Blackpool isnt that affluent and as states earlier it is very much working class. The tourists that come in summer are all similar to the locals and as such wont risk spending ‘hard earned brass’ on theatre shows that they havent heard of or dont know any names of the performers. There have been some great shows at the Grand but the actual ticket sales are too low to be viable. I think somehow its teh public that need educating that theatre is a great art. There are too many tv channels showing rubbish. There are way too many ‘reality’ shows that are just cheap filling to go between the adverts.
    People need to be enticed back to the theatre to enjoy real entertainment.
    Maybe cheap tickets are the answer to actually filling the Theatres?
    I wish you guys all the success you deserve. Keep up the great work.

    • Ched271: Thanks for the post: as someone who worked in theatre in the North West, I’m conscious of the place of performance in Blackpool, and of the proud working class traditions of the region. Looking at the programming on blackpooltheatre.com/, it looks as if the main problem is the need to hit lowest common denominator to guarantee turnover. There are some great shows out there, but it’s a case of getting the seats covered.

      One of the issues is what we regard the mode of theatre to be. Do we include circus, burlesque, and street arts in the definition? Does “Heat the Streets” count as part of the ambit? Or “Funny Girls”? I’d love to see blackpooltheatre.com in alliance with things like http://www.showzam.co.uk/. I don’t pretend to be an expert (at least in the sense of doing it), but the impression I’m forming is that transforming communities through theatre is a combination of marketing, programming, artistic vision, and fitting the whole thing into a bigger social/cultural context.

      For example: the conference industry, closely related to the theatre sector and using the same infrastructure, has needs and requirements that aren’t dissimilar. But it needs to be supported by a restaurant sector, that’s quite diverse and caters for a variety of tastes. That in turn is supported by a ‘bohemian’ community that will bring in different influences. It’s something that Brighton is managing reasonably well, and Bournemouth is developing. What I suspect Blackpool is lacking is a stronger university sector that can feed the youth culture, and create a demand for excitement and innovation.

  6. Julian, thanks for that great reply. You show such insight I wish Blackpool Council would hire you as a consultant. You are right a strong University would help immensely. Blackpool Council tried to do just that but after the site was acquired and cleared the Gov pulled the funding!
    Funny Girls is such a great show, but I feel many people feel that its intimidating as its a ‘gay’ show. I bet most of them would really enjoy the show if they put their preconceived ideas to one side for once.
    I am trying to work with the Council and do have other sites that promote more events like heat the streets and showzam( blackpoolevents.co.uk, attractionsblackpool.co.uk and others). The problem I have is every meeting I go to with the Tourism dept they state in their presentations they dont have enough money. Then I ask them to just email me the events, gallery exhibits, sports events and the art exhibitions as soon as they know about them and I will add them to my sites. They are all enthusiastic but never get back to me.
    I have just read that a major national restaurant chain has applied for planning permission to open a restaurant just outside the Winter Gardens so hopefully its a decent upmarket one. Plus the Council now own the Winter gardens are are pledging to invest in it and make it a great conference facility. So things may be looking up. You didn’t have a word with them did you 🙂

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