- Interview by
- Holly Whiston
At a rehearsal of The Salford Docker, an upcoming play by Salford Community Theatre, a woman stands on a chair, practicing an angry speech about the demolition of the street where her character has lived all her life. Elsewhere, cast members discuss the mix of emotions their characters might feel on hearing this – would they be excited at the prospect of being rehoused or sad at the community they’re losing? One or two are wearing t-shirts with a Salford Community Theatre logo on them, an image of a red sky with the cranes of the docks against it.
The history of Salford is bound up in the history of class struggle and solidarity. Salford Community Theatre, a radical theatre group established in 2014, is a company dedicated to exploring this history and how it can be used to explore issues faced by Salford today. With a cast of non-professional actors taken from the local community, Salford Community Theatre performs politically engaged plays that encourage audiences to connect Salford past and present, looking at the roots of problems like the housing crisis, redevelopment, unemployment and deindustrialisation.
Following the success of their performance of Love on the Dole in 2016, The Salford Docker is a new piece of writing by Sarah Weston, one of the company’s founders. Holly Whiston spoke to Sarah and members of the cast Ash Cox, Liz Hudson and Tom Long about Salford Community Theatre’s model and the experience of developing the new play.
Salford Community Theatre taps into a broader tradition of community theatre on the left. Can you describe that history a bit for us?
Salford Community Theatre is derived from a few related community theatre movements. One is the model of community play-making conceived by the late Ann Jellicoe. The second is the large-scale, carnivalesque community arts projects that first started in the 60s such as Welfare State International. The third is from the explicitly socialist and communist theatre as propaganda (agit-prop) performance that was conducted by the Workers Theatre Movement in the 1920s and 30s, most notably in the work of Salford’s Ewan MacColl. We combine the model and process from Jellicoe, the scale, carnival and joy from Welfare State, and the blatant and unashamed politics from the WTM.
The Salford Docker, which will be performed in July, looks at the history of the Salford docks from their heyday in the ’50s to their closure in the ’80s. Can you tell us a bit more about the play?
The play was written through quite an intense research process that included interviews with old dockers, archival research, and discussion with members of the current community. In line with the Jellicoe model, the play aims to use past struggles to shed light on present political issues. I wanted to use the stories of dockers and their families to help us think about our position in an age of neoliberalism, post-deindustrialisation. Listening to anecdotes from dockers created an imagined nostalgia in me for something that is unrecognisable to many of us now: a local, skilled job with a strong union presence. Though the working conditions on the docks were harsh, difficult and the work precarious, underneath that was clearly a level camaraderie, fun and pride that is absent in the individualising, isolating neoliberal workforce. The play is fundamentally about this shift from the communal to the individual, and what happened to the industry of dockwork and the consequent processes of regeneration is an incredibly powerful way to explain that shift.
My whole family are from Salford and my grandad was a docker so the play feels like part of my family history. In one of the scenes I’m playing a docker, so I’m basically playing my grandad. I’ve nicknamed the character the same nickname my grandad had – which was ‘Rabbit’ because he’d never shut up! As part of rehearsals, we had a research day where we had guest speakers in to talk about the history of Salford and watched archive videos of dockers. I always knew about the community spirit in Salford because my family have talked about how it’s not the same any more. But I had no idea that the lives of dockers could be so happy. Salford was rife with real hardship – with the workload, the poor treatment, strikes and pay issues – but the community spirit and sense of humour still shone through.
All the stuff about dockers strike has been new for me and it’s been great to get a real sense of it. We went on the Salford May Day Parade as a cast and joined in the march, partly as research. Marches and processions are a big part of the play, so that was a cool experience.
How did the cast come to get involved in the play?
About of the third of the cast were from our previous production of Love on the Dole. In order to expand, we employed a local community member in Ordsall to be our community outreach officer, who spent the summer of 2018 recruiting potential cast members. We ran a series of workshops for anyone interested, to helping break down fears about performing and getting people used to how we would work. Anyone who wanted to be involved was welcome, and we made sure everyone had a part in the play.
We started rehearsals in January 2019 and it has been amazing so far. What is so great about a community play is that the process itself is like socialism: the gradual learning of collective responsibility that comes through sharing a common goal. In times of low union membership, particularly in more precarious workplaces, a play is a good training ground in principles of political organising, common struggle and collective care.
The performances are totally professional in terms of standard. But the rehearsals are informal, a space for people to chat and make friends. I was in Love on The Dole and was very pregnant for a lot of rehearsals, then had my son a couple of months into that! I used to bring him along a lot when he was a baby and there’s never been any issue with it, which has been brilliant.
At rehearsals there’s no ego, because everyone’s from different backgrounds and some people don’t have any performance experience. We all just come in, have a laugh and learn together. Everyone nurtures each other and it’s really supportive. I’m 32 in November and the older I’m getting the more awkward I find it to make new friends, because making friends isn’t something you do as you get older. But here I’ve made tons of new friends.
Why do you think this kind of politically-engaged theatre is so important?
Theatre impacts on so many levels. Age 11, I was really shy, bullied at school, had no confidence. My mum took me to a youth theatre and it changed my life. It sounds dramatic, but it boosted my confidence and taught me how to articulate myself creatively.
I also think it’s important for the community to see themselves reflected in performance, in shows. There’s a lot of elitism in theatre and a hell of a lot of commercial stuff that isn’t accessible to working-class communities. I’ve always been proud of being working-class and to do a play about workers and the history of Salford, I think it’s brilliant.
The working-class history aspect of it is important, for both the people in the play and the audience. It’s very interactive – you’re on the marches or you’re in the strike meetings, and you learn about the history in that way. That solidarity in society isn’t really there anymore and it’s becomes difficult to capture the spirit of it. But this is a way of getting an understanding of it, both the hardships and the positives.
A few of us in the cast are involved in the Labour Party, and what this play does is connect this politics to creativity. We want radical politics to transform society. But we also need to couple that with ideas about how we transform ourselves creatively, a new vision of what you can achieve creatively and who you can be creatively. Those two things should go together. Politics is not just about transforming institutions and public services, but about transforming people’s lives.