Features Published 14 October 2015

Adding Value: Bringing Theatre to Your Neighbourhood

North-West born theatre-maker Andy Smith reflects on grassroots theatre and working in Lancashire to create his new performance with Fuel.
Andy Smith

f02e6af167354ca973d25d3926f89c66c36cd3e2.960For the last few years I have been wondering how – in the increasingly slippery, fluid and contradictory socio-political landscape we seem to occupy – we might continue to manage to place a sense of the social and the political into the theatre. How we might address shifting and uncertain positions through a work without it becoming didactic or fall into presenting a binary that as an audience we are asked to side with, or how a piece of work and the story it is trying to tell can avoid only preaching to the converted or simplifying the arguments in order to maintain its popularity or dramatic drive.

When I was younger, and I don’t think this unusual, I think I got involved in theatre because I saw or felt that it was a place of change and transformation and transportation. It was place where ideas could slip and shift, a place that was moving and was on the move. A place where you could be somewhere different and do something different, and where things could be imagined or could be imagined differently. A place where all the contradictions and uncertainties and diverse and exciting things about life – a sense of which seems particularly acute or heightened in our teenage years, I think – could co-exist and bump against each other. What I loved about theatre was that it always involved other people. Something I still love about the theatre is that it always involves other people. It was a place where I – or rather we – could recognise and reflect on how complicated things were.

Things are complicated.

For the last year or so, in many places around the country, I’ve been performing work-in-progress versions of a new piece that I have written called The Preston Bill. It’s been created as part of a project by Fuel called New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood. For the last three years, through this project, Fuel have been engaged in thinking about and trying ways to improve a touring network in The UK, and considering how to bring contemporary work to places that perhaps don’t always get it and that in some sense are (I think) perceived to be places that don’t (or wouldn’t) get it. Because I live near, I got the opportunity to do some work for this project in Preston.

I soon found out – after getting to know the city a bit better in conversations with a few of its citizens – Preston seems to have quite a complex about how it is not as cool or vibrant or hip as Manchester to the south, or as picturesque and pastoral as my home town of Lancaster to the north. Preston only actually became a city in 2003 to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Talking to some people there revealed a feeling that culturally it is kind of a poor neighbour, living up to the old adage of life being a bit grim up north. There is a sense that nothing happens here, and that you have to travel a bit if you want to see or hear or do anything good. It’s a frustrating complex that seems difficult to shake. As a response, the temptation seems to be that a wider culture should be emulated, rather than looking at what’s here and what’s different and what it might have already, which might well be plenty.

When this commission came my way a few things seemed to fall into place. For some time I had been thinking about trying to write a sort of epic work in a poetic, even traditional form. This was partly in response to an essay by Walter Benjamin called The Storyteller that I had been reading. Look it up if that’s the sort of thing you like. In it, he talks about the difficulty of telling stories and relating our experience in a more technological age (perhaps for us, now digital). I also had an instinct to explore a broad span of history. In particular I was interested in reflecting a little on the last 80 years, partly because of what I perceive to some pretty huge social shifts in that time.

It’s simplifying things a little, but it seems to me that over this period, following the experience of a couple of pretty catastrophic world wars, there was a noble attempt to build a system for our social security, what we might refer to as a modern welfare state. This has been followed by what feels like a slow attempt – for a number of reasons, mainly economic – to dismantle it. Like many people, I have been pretty disturbed by a shift to the right in our national and international politics over the last few years. At times, like many people I think, I have felt helpless as I watched it happen. My hopeful and small – and some would argue, liberal and middle class – actions of, for example, signing petitions, attending protests, going to lectures or meetings, joining the steering group of my daughters nursery, or even just taking out my recycling, seems to have little visible effect or impact on the wider scheme of things.

Like I said, things are complicated.

There’s always the theatre. A place where – from my potentially liberal and middle class position – I still believe presents us with a good situation and opportunity to get together and think together toward ideas that slip and shift and are uncertain and contradictory and complicated. Just like life.

The opportunity that this commission offered me was the chance to explore some of this. And I have done it by trying to tell the story of a life. I wrote some ideas for a character. One person in a city of many that lives and loves and who in his own way is personally and politically and socially active in this period of time, a man who lives what we might call an ordinary life, or perhaps an extraordinary life. I called him Bill. And because of where all of this came from I called the work The Preston Bill.

Though we never actually see Bill over the course of the story, after many of these work-in-progress performances I have been happy to have conversations with audience members where we have talked about him as if had really did exist. A person who has been alive in the world, engaged in all the contradictions and uncertainties and difficulties as well as all the joyful and happy and incredible things that a life brings. A person who has lived in these interesting times just as we are living in them, perhaps. A person who made a difference, even thought he might not be or want to be aware of it.

I also called him Bill because of the implications of the political that I hope and think exists in that word. He – and I hope in some way the play – is a proposal. A bill in the democratic sense, or what I interpret that word to mean. A bill that might create an opportunity to consider and discuss some ideas and things that affect us, and through that action think together about what we might do about them. I like working on plays that have more than one person on the stage, but I also like it when I return to this simple form of solo theatre. Working in this way serves as a vital reminder that the theatre is a practice that always involves other people, and most of them are the audience. When you work in this way you can think about the audience all the time. It can often feel like it is the most collaborative act of theatre there is.
It’s also, as some commentators have noted, one of the cheapest ways to make theatre. It has been noted that the form, in this age of austerity, and at a time when further cuts to funding and services look like the might be around the corner, is prevalent at present. The fact that my character is called Bill also chimes a bit with this. I’m also interested in thinking about the idea of how much something might cost and what might be enough. I want to think about value in this work. What we might value or think is important, both in the theatre and in our lives. I also want to think about how we choose and value those that lead us through democratic processes and – some would argue – archaic parliamentary systems. I wanted to think a bit about how our elected representatives represent us as well as how we might choose to represent ourselves, and what the cost of these actions might be. It seemed to make sense to try this in the space of representation we call a theatre.

At the time of writing there didn’t seem to be many silver linings. But as always, things are changing. Things are still unequal. Things are still complicated. We have made progress, but we need to continue to make progress. It doesn’t stop. It all takes work. It is our responsibility.

I hope that The Preston Bill, which will open in the city this Wednesday for four nights, and will tour to other places in 2016 (I just had a great time previewing the work in Margate, so I know you don’t have to know Preston in order to enjoy it) will continue to provoke some thought around some of these things as it continues to play, and things continue to change. I also hope that you don’t have to share my politics or opinions to get something out of it. I hope that the piece might be an opportunity for us to engage in something like dialogue. Also, for the four performances in Preston, the tickets are good value. You can pay what you decide, so I hope that the diverse audiences that we want to encourage will feel like they are welcome too.

I hope that the play contains some of these thoughts if an audience wants to look out for them. That’s up to you. At its centre it’s just a story of a life. But I also hope that in some way that it represents some of the story our lives. Where we are still active, and have a choice in shaping and changing and making the things that matter to us. I hope that story isn’t over yet.

The Preston Bill is on at The Continental, Preston on the 14th, 15th, 21st and 22nd of October. Pay what you decide. More information about the New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood project here. The Preston Bill is published by Oberon Books in a volume that also contains two earlier works by Andy Smith: commonwealth and all that is solid melts into air.

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