Features Published 27 June 2014

Writing the Rural

Elizabeth Freestone, Artistic Director of rural theatre company Pentabus, discusses their forthcoming Young Writers Festival, while below playwright Tom Wentworth, one of the writers in question, explores what it means to have his work showcased by the company.
Elizabeth Freestone

Elizabeth Freestone: We’re about to produce a theatre marathon. Eight new plays written by eight new writers. Four directors working on two plays each. An ensemble cast of ten actors. Three designers, two stage managers, numerous volunteers. Rehearsals are underway. The fridge is stocked with milk and the biscuit tin is overflowing. Someone’s even bringing their dog.

Two things are unusual about all this. One is that we’re a small theatre company with just three permanent members of staff. We normally produce two or three plays a year, so to do eight in one go (as well as our three other productions) is pretty epic. The second is that these eight plays are written by playwrights aged between 16 and 25.

Last summer I did free playwriting workshops in schools and colleges all over Shropshire. I met over 100 potential young writers. From these we put together a core group of eight who became the company’s first ever Young Writers Group. Since then, they’ve met regularly and had workshops with Simon Longman, our playwright in residence, as well as working with actors, directors and guest tutors such as Phil Porter and Francesca Millican-Slater. During this time they’ve also been writing their own plays.

I’ll be honest – we didn’t expect to put them all on. We thought there might be one or two that would be good. We thought a couple of writers might not deliver. We thought we might do a weekend of readings, perhaps produce a short piece or two and that would be that.But as we got to know the writers it became clear that not only could they construct a scene pretty well, they also had a lot to say about the world. We realised they were all going to write something and that that something was going to be important. So whatever we did at the end couldn’t be a soft offer without a culminating moment. The writers were willing to take the risk. The plays demanded an audience. So it was up to us to match the commitment.

These writers are an unheard generation. Growing up in a largely rural county. Lacking access and opportunities. Frustrated by poor transport and sluggish broadband. Watching major cultural events from afar. Bombarded with urban iconography. Not seeing their lives represented on screen, in music or on stage. Broke. They’re also witty and intelligent. Comfortable with big skies and big thoughts. Mature and unselfconscious. Easy with meaningful friendships built on profound solidarity. Straightforwardly funny, untroubled by self-censoring irony. With big imaginations and playful instincts. Strong in their skins. Unafraid of the night. Self-reliant.

So they’ve come out fighting. Their plays are bold, funny, strange, sad. Their writing is about friendship, fuel poverty, love, unemployment. They examine what happens in small towns when one friend escapes to university and one stays behind. They write about what’s it’s like to declare your sexuality when you live in a small community. They are honest about what you resort to when you can’t find a job. They tackle the huge problem of drugs in rural towns and talk about ways of escape. They acknowledge beauty in all its forms. They confess what they dream of and how they might make it happen.

In doing this they are unwittingly continuing a proud tradition of radical ruralism, built on the foundations of the Peasants Revolt, the Diggers, the Reformers. They are instinctively political because they grew up in an environment which naturally positions them as outsiders. They are underdogs, separated from the city elite whose decision making influences their lives. But they are also emboldened by a sea change happening in the creative world, where all kinds of artists are realising that making work outside of urban centres is creatively liberating. The countryside is fascinating, troubled, unpredictable, inspiring. Urbanism (whisper it) is proving to be a cultural dead end, a repeated aesthetic, a peer group talking only to itself. Bands recording on farms, writers on retreat, rural touring all over the county, visual artists making large scale earthworks – there is a vibrant and growing rural arts scene built on genuine ingenuity and experimentation with form. Most excitingly, the work is made for real audiences – sophisticated, politically aware, living the recession in a way that urban audiences are protected from it – who are hungry for more. Shropshire really is more interesting than Shoreditch.

Our young writers – Rory Boar, Jade Edwards, Jack Purkis, David Scotswood, Cara Squires, Nat Vaughan, Tom Wentworth and Michael Wild – represent the daring new voice of dissent coming from the countryside. They are proud of where they’re from, un-blinkered about its problems. They look at images of the rural world in the mass media and they don’t recognise what they see – The Archers, Emmerdale, the Chipping Norton set, Escape to the Country. That’s not the world they know; it’s what cities have imagined for them. They see beauty alongside isolation, green alongside pollution, space alongside poverty. So they’ve seized the opportunity to write the truth, to give their experiences cultural worth.

Tom Wentworth: The countryside can get forgotten when it comes to the arts. Rural towns and villages lose out to cities. Opportunities in rural areas for young people to explore the world around them can be severely lacking. This is why Pentabus’s Young Writers’ group has been such an innovation. Elizabeth Freestone invited us to come to Bromfield (just outside Ludlow in Shropshire where Pentabus is based on a farm) and spend two hours every three weeks talking about writing, whilst receiving workshops from tutor Simon Longman and various guests too. This would culminate in writing a full length play. It wasn’t an opportunity I was going to turn down.

Growing up in Shropshire I was aware of the impact that Pentabus’ work has on its audiences; I knew they were a company who were willing to take risks. There was no brief other than to explore the things that really mattered to each of the writers. This has created a diverse and unusual set of pieces, ranging from comedy about not being able to find work, to an exploration of coming out at school. They are all different in style but are connected by their shared focus on contemporary rural society and what it means to be young in Britain today.

Tom Wentworth and Phil Porter

Tom Wentworth and Phil Porter

I can’t quite believe that, as I write, that we’re coming to the end of the rehearsal period. It seems only five minutes since I first pitched my idea to Elizabeth. In the case of my play – Windy Old Fossils –  I knew that I wanted to write a play about what it was like to be elderly and isolated in the countryside. I also wanted to write about renewable energy – and try and make it funny at the same time.

Elizabeth and Simon’s initial notes were slightly daunting. They felt that I was underselling the idea, and suggested I might take my comedy, with its cast of four, and turn into a two-hander with a darker edge. Now I had to take a risk of my own.  But I was delighted by the challenge and thrilled that they believed so much in two of my characters, brother and sister Ted and Lizzie. Two weeks later I handed in a completely new play, which is when Windy Old Fossils was really born. Further drafts followed, a few more tweaks, and then, Elizabeth came on board as my director and was able to bring her own thoughts, feelings and emotions to the piece. It has been an amazing process. The performers, Joanna Bacon and Ian Barritt, bring so much life – and humour – to Lizzie and Ted and they and Elizabeth continue to find new things in the play that surprise me.

To my mind Pentabus is making great and significant strides in ensuring that rural audiences get access to work that shows their lives on stage, while also allowing artists from these areas the chance to make this work in a safe and creative environment.

The Pentabus Young Writers Festival takes place from 1st-5th July 2014. For further details visit the Pentabus website.

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Elizabeth Freestone is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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