The great socialist historian Raphael Samuel once described theatre as being ‘the most public of arts, a second cousin to politics’. Rather than staging works of a political nature, or of politics itself being ‘theatrical’, Samuel argued that theatre anticipates the political. A depiction of the world we wish to build through political struggle may appear on stage before us prior to its manifestation in real life.
Socialists have been using theatre as a tool for political education and agitation throughout the twentieth century, using the affective impact of live performances as a unique form of consciousness-raising. In today’s re-emerging left, our work as Salford Community Theatre (SCT) stands firmly within that tradition. After establishing ourselves in 2014, SCT had the aim of staging an adaptation of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole in its original locations in Salford. The production took place in 2016 with a cast of thirty local people, the vast majority of whom had never performed before. A notable moment of the production was a recreation of the infamous 1931 protest called by the Salford branch of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM), an event which became known as the ‘Battle of Bexley Square’ because of the violence meted out against unemployed workers by the local police; the recreation in Love on the Dole involved arming both actors and audience with red flags and marching on a political demonstration down one of Salford’s arterial routes. Ostensibly this was about a past struggle, but it simultaneously made the audience keenly aware of the present.
Our next production, The Salford Docker, will combine a communal form of theatre-making with a story exploring the relationship between deindustrialisation, neoliberalism, and rise of individual merit over collective endeavour in a working-class community. Beginning with the Salford docks and the dockers’ district of Ordsall from the heyday of workers’ strength in the fifties, the play will continue through to the dock’s eventual demise in the eighties. These events are the background to a story based around the family and relatives of Anna, a radio producer tasked with creating a radio ballad about dock work. By retracing the memories of dockers and other locals in Ordsall, Anna is confronted with an uncomfortable dilemma of how to retell the story of the docks in the face of her own (middle) class position.
Why the Docks?
Situated thirty-five miles inland, Salford is an odd site for a major dock complex. However, at the end of the nineteenth century it was transformed into one of the UK’s busiest ports. Capable of handling ships weighing up to 12,500 tonnes, the docks employed 5,000 people at its peak.
Life on the docks was tough. Gruelling physical labour, long shifts, and unscrupulous bosses created a climate of hard work. The work was precarious, with shifts allocated on a whim by foremen. Dockers would assemble at what was known as the ‘Old Control’ and fight (sometimes physically) to get picked, hoping to meet eyes with a foreman they knew. They would largely work in gangs, normally comprised of families and extended families who all worked at the docks together.
From these conditions an incredible sense of camaraderie and community emerged amongst dockworkers, which translated into industrial organising. Strikes — official or unofficial — were commonplace throughout the history of the Salford docks, and solidarity was vital across sites. It was known for dockworkers to lay down their hooks in Salford in support of fellow workers in Liverpool, Hull, or London; in Salford Docker, we focus on an unofficial strike in 1951 over the unlawful suspension of two Salford dockworkers for refusing overtime.
The docks shut in 1982. Technological changes such as containerisation meant that without major investment Salford’s docks would become obsolete. That investment would never come from Margaret Thatcher, who was determined to destroy the organised bases of the working class. Deindustrialisation saw the curtains close on nearly a century of dock work in Salford, and ended a way of life for an entire community. Whole families had worked on the docks, with jobs having been passed down through generations. The difficult circumstances of the job produced both a pride of work and a fellowship that is difficult in the isolating atmospheres of contemporary workplaces. Dock work was a way of life that has never been replaced.
Just like in London, the docklands of Salford were redeveloped through the process of leveraging public assets. Private developers such as Peel Holdings made huge profits from the docks, as investment was channelled into a cluster of developments now known as MediaCityUK. In place of the docks, a retail, tech, and media hub was built, justified on the promise that thousands of jobs for local people would be created and that the wealth of the high-tech companies would trickle into the surrounding area. This never came to pass, and Ordsall is rarely out of official statistics as one of the five most deprived and impoverished areas of Britain.
During our work with the cast and the wider community, ‘us and them’ is a common utterance — the gap between the poverty and precarity experienced by working-class communities and the neighbouring development that was not intended to include them. The sense of distance is so strong that even the name of their city is being changed, as the moguls of Media City are forcing the word ‘Salford’ out in favour of the global brand of ‘Manchester’. The particularly aggressive logic of neoliberalism could not be clearer on the Salford docks.
Theatre is collaborative and collective in nature. Despite elements of the so-called acting ‘industry’ reflecting dominant ideological values of competition, individual drive, and ‘believing in yourself’, the process of making and performing theatre inherently relies on others. Even in the most formulaic West End hit, a sense of collective responsibility between actors and producers must still exist for the success of a performance.
This collectivity can be harnessed and made the focus of the theatre process, and we believe that community theatre, which has had a long association with the Left in Britain, can do this. From the explicitly communist Workers’ Theatre Movement of the twenties and thirties, to alternative theatre companies in the sixties and seventies such as Welfare State International, 7:84, or Red Ladder, theatre was created by working-class people as a tool of education, encouragement, and struggle.
However, the community play that we refer to has quite a different history. Initiated by Ann Jellicoe, the community play movement came into prominence in small prosperous towns in the south-west of England in the 1980s. Jellicoe’s model originated in Lyme Regis when she was directing a school play and invited the parents to also be involved. From this, she created a model where community actors would perform a new play that examined a period in the town’s history. Anyone from the town who wanted to be involved could be. Jellicoe saw the role of the play as a community unifier, bringing a community cast together with a professional production team. Community plays have been written by many prominent socialist playwrights such as David Edgar, Howard Barker, and Arnold Wesker.
Jellicoe’s model combines traditional plot structures and character development with more alternative staging practices. The play is performed promenade: the action moves all around the space throughout the performance. The actors are constantly onstage, inhabiting the same space as the audience who stand and move with the action. The audience is integrated into the performance, particularly in large group scenes where they often find themselves part of the crowd. One of the main jobs of the community actor is to integrate the audience; because of this, community play director Jon Oram gives the performer in the community play the specific title of ‘social actor’.
The social actor has a unique role to play because of their double position as both a performer and member of the community. They are from the same community as the audience, so can uniquely communicate to the audience both as the character and as a member of the community. They invite the audience into the play’s world in ways that a professional actor never could.
It is in this relationship that the political potential of the community play lies: a play that is seemingly about a past event is made directly applicable to the present. The social actor’s political role relies on theatre being inherently collective. A rehearsal process for a community play is always more than creating theatre: it is a process of collective responsibility. Rehearsals are a process of rejecting individualism and relearning collectivity. If a scene falls apart because a social actor forgets her lines, it is the duty of everyone in that scene to keep it going so that no individual is in any danger of looking like they made a mistake. The problem is not solved by finding fault with an individual, but by everyone involved taking responsibility for what happens next. Building this level of trust and collective responsibility is a form of solidarity that is shared with the audience in the moment of performance. In this way, community plays are a performance of socialist ethics.
Why the Left?
We believe that this project is of relevance to a left emerging from the wreckage of historic defeat. Our task is huge: to overturn forty years of capitalist indulgence that has wrought economic and ecological catastrophe, the evisceration of the public sphere, and the widespread encouragement of a callous individualism.
It will not be easy. Neoliberalism wants us to experience the world in such a way that the only joy we know is in private consumption. To counter the apathy and individualisation that the current order relies upon, we must strive to make politics normal and the normal political. To achieve this, our movement will need every tool at its disposal, and we believe theatre has a powerful role to play. To build a left strong enough to take on capital and win, bottom-up popular political education will be key. Here, theatre can provide an essential service in offering ways to understand and criticise what exists. If done well, the power of the form can be far more engaging and immediately understandable than any standard panel discussion, seminar, or verbose pamphlet.
The ideas can be felt as well as discussed. Theatre can bring a world to life, creating the space to explore a range of utopian possibilities. Raphael Samuel lists many of the political events that have manifested on stage before their social realisation: Nora in A Doll’s House before the women’s emancipation movement, Irish republicanism discussed on the stage of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre before the Easter Rising, or even, in terms of theatrical convention, the abolition of the proscenium arch for an open, immersive space, which Samuel suggests provided an imaginative model for the radicals of 1968.
Beyond this, we hope our plays will build a space for education through practice and activity. The collective endeavour of being in and putting on the play means we flourish when working together. This provides real, living examples of how we can work together towards a common goal. Being in a play ranges from the fun to the outright hilarious, and offers participants an outlet for the innate natural creativity that lives within every human being. At root, rehearsals forge a space for people to express their humanity, and claw back space from the deadening alienation of contemporary society.
Seeking to build these kinds of collective, joyful experiences into our movement strengthens us. We believe that the Left should place community theatre and other cultural projects at the heart of our movement, because it gives us a glimpse of a world where creativity and togetherness is cherished, defended, and given the space to grow. They offer our movement a profound example of the world we wish to build, and strengthen our resolve in the political struggle that will be necessary to build it. In short, they teach us that socialism is in the end, worth it.