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Alan Lane: Volunteers can help theatre connect with our fractured nation

Scenes from Flood, produced by Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Slung Low, in which citizen performers worked alongside a core cast of professionals. Photo: Thomas Arran Scenes from Flood, produced by Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Slung Low, in which citizen performers worked alongside a core cast of professionals. Photo: Thomas Arran
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The companies of both opening ceremonies at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics are great examples of how the UK excels at people’s theatre. Now, says Alan Lane, a correct reading of the current state of the art form is vital

We’ll understand each other better if I tell you that I’m certain the best piece of political theatre ever made was the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Yes, Nicola Miles-Wildin smashing the glass roof of the Olympic stadium, Dave Toole flying high with the most eloquent arms a dancer ever had and Ian McKellen, all radical campaigning knight-wizard of the realm. Yes to all that.

But what made it profound and brilliant, rather than just smart and spectacular, was who did it. The wounded veterans retrained in daredevil circus skills, differently abled performers of all levels of experience, hundreds of volunteers from across the country…

So that when “I’m Spasticus” started to rage around the stadium at the end and members of the live audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats, it wasn’t just because of the provocation of the lyrics but because of who was singing them. The who matters in political theatre. We know this.

My company Slung Low recognises a people’s theatre company as volunteers – citizen performers creating something alongside professionals.

The beautiful companies of both 2012 opening ceremonies are great examples of how this country excels at people’s theatre. But they’re not the only ones. Nor the first. The ever-growing form of performance stands on the shoulders of the recently passed Ann Jellicoe among many other elders and pioneers. And now the big beasts are catching up.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by Erica Whyman in 2015 used a different amateur company of mechanicals in each town it visited. It was a triumph. And the National Theatre announced last week that it has been inspired by New York’s Public Theater initiative Public Works to do a three-night run of Pericles in the Olivier.

If it had saved the airfare and spent some time in old York, it might have been inspired to be even bolder. York Theatre Royal is one of the many non-London venues that is making people’s theatre of huge ambition and impact: its month-long run of Mike Kenny’s York Mystery Plays a few summers ago started a trend for huge marauding shows that delight mainstage audiences while being theatrically daring.

From Edinburgh last year, David Greig’s The Suppliant Women – which had a new chorus of women in every town the show visited – demonstrated that people’s theatre could tour, and tour well.

Manchester is at it, Brighton has a really exciting project in the mix, National Theatre Wales has worked with people’s theatre companies in various shows, most notably The Passion, and most recently Common Wealth’s We’re Still Here. I’ll have forgotten some good ones but the form’s leaders are undeniably Sheffield People’s Theatre out of the Crucible: a brilliantly bold programme that saw a people’s theatre presence in almost every one of the shows in Daniel Evans’ last season in 2015.

At Slung Low, we have just finished James Phillips’ Flood, a four-part epic, and a centrepiece of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. Each part had its own community chorus, including the piece broadcast on BBC2 earlier in the year as part of the Arts Council’s Performance Live series. The whole story was brought together this October in performances of a three-and-a-half-hour omnibus. Those omnibus shows had 80 citizen performers play out the end of the world on a floating, burning set alongside a core cast of professionals.

With a close-to-the-bone discussion about immigration at the heart of the play, performed on a canal basin in a housing estate in the most proudly Brexit of cities, Flood took direct inspiration from the people’s theatre shows before it.

The politics of the piece were made more powerful and more resonant by the performers. Theatre made by, for and with communities: theatre that doesn’t just imagine what those in the country think, bringing their words back to London stages, the meaning lost in the journey south. Rather it places those people and their thoughts at the heart of the audience’s experience.

Sounds chippy? It should. I am endlessly frustrated, if not outright furious, about the large section of the industry that too often fails to discuss the culture and politics of the north. Some of the most ambitious, most political theatre being made in the UK at the moment is people’s theatre made and performed far from the capital.

Part of the reason it’s not as celebrated in the theatre commentary as it might be is because of the lack of resources available to the media to travel.

Even following a year at the heart of the UK City of Culture’s theatre programme, my inbox is full of frustrated emails from PRs that tell me that no matter how much of the show is on fire, no matter its trenchant political resonances, there’s no getting anyone with a pencil out of London.

But it’s too simple to blame this on the reduction of theatre critics’ column inches and travel expenses. It’s more fundamental. New York isn’t just more sexy to the commentariat, it’s familiar in a way that Hull is never going to be.

The majority of those who write the record of the current state of theatre, or choose the direction of our largest cultural institutions, find it as difficult to escape London to the ‘regions’ mentally as they do physically.

And it matters. It matters because a correct reading of the current state of the art form is vital for working out where we go next, what we kick against and what we cherish.

But more than that, we’ve spent a few years wondering how come the political commentariat got so far from the state of the nation’s mind, the public endlessly surprising our thought leaders by having thoughts of its own.

And it feels like the same affliction sits upon many of those that lead our arts industry and those that write the record of it. The distance between parts of our nation and the powerful parts of the capital feels larger than it’s ever been, the connections between us strained and fewer.

I celebrate the National Theatre forming its own people’s theatre – it’s brilliant news, it’s got a great team and I’ll be the first in line for tickets. But the people’s theatre in the nation is already leading the way.

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