"Since we are not post modernists we should begin our story from the beginning." So says Bode, a character in Oladipo Agboluaje’s play For One Night Only.
I have been working in theatre for 30 years making work initially in the Theatre in Education movement of the 80s and latterly for community audiences mainly in village halls. And in all that time I have struggled with the same questions: whose stories do we tell and who stands on our stages? I want to make work for a rural audience because I enjoy their informality and localness. But how do you remain local without becoming parochial?
In my early career I worked for a company that mainly toured to rural community centres but once every two years would make a show for an urban – more racially mixed - youth audience. The company would try and tour its youth club show to village halls and vice versa but there were few takers. I never knew if this touring pattern was driven by a belief that the funders wanted ‘something for all’ But it didn’t look like it was working.
Earlier I had made a production of Lisa Evan’s Stamping Shouting and Singing Home based on the writing of Alice Walker. When our arts officer saw the show she asked ‘why didn’t you tell me this show has a black cast? It would have been useful to know’. Presumably she would have wanted to signal that diverse work was being made. It frustrated me that her judgement of the show appeared to be on the cast rather than how good a show it was.
Now I work in the South East, still making work for village halls but also supporting a range of companies to achieve their own ambitions, that debate is still relevant. The villages and market towns of England remain predominantly white - Trevor Philips made the point some years ago that he felt there is a ‘cultural apartheid’ in the countryside – yet we are trying to make theatre for that audience that is not a romanticised view of a rural idyll.
I should say I am not alone in thinking about this. Some years ago Pentabus led a very successful set of short commissions called White Open Spaces and The Theatre Writing Partnership, New Perspectives and Eastern Angles worked with the National Rural Touring Forum to commission six treatments from black writers of ideas for rural audiences that were presented at Decibel. This led to two productions having well received national tours. But I still think that the funding systems well intentioned determination to change the status quo can result in schemes and special initiatives that trumpet the effort rather than the everyday approach that should exist.
Which brings me to Oladipo Agboluaje – universally known as Dipo’s play. The piece had been commissioned by one of our associate companies, Pursued by a Bear, and toured to studio theatres as one half of a double bill. I felt that there was a production to be made that would play with the informality that village halls offer and revisit an existing script from an established writer.
I also had a hunch that it would allow us to produce a piece of theatre that wasn’t ‘for Black History Month’ but a play that said something about how much we have in common. To that end I am indebted to Dipo. He took to the idea of revisiting the script with gusto and completely understood our ambition to make a production that felt less like a play and more like an event.
There were, however, some things that felt new in this production. Partly by luck and partly by design we cast a company of Black African performers: actors who had grown up and trained in Africa – specifically in Nigeria and South Africa – and who were both raised on a tradition of storytelling. I think this made a difference. Not least because one of the actors came from a rural community and recognised the same characters in our village halls.
In marketing the show, we didn’t mention anything about the racial make-up of the company. It was just our next show, ‘a comic tale of friendship and finding one’s way in the world’. Dipo is a mischievous writer. One exchange involves a character questioning the other on why he pretends to be Ghanaian rather than Nigerian. ‘They think all Nigerians are dishonest. Better to lie and later prove them wrong.‘
We performed the show 35 times across England and Wales. Audiences enjoyed it as the good play that it is and were left, in the words of one promoter, with ‘much food for thought’.
We were surprised by the casual ignorance of some. On one occasion a well-intentioned lady asked, having welcomed the company into her house and made them a cup of tea, “is it because you have fewer layers of skin that you can’t swim”. Another good heartedly rubbed an actor’s arm and commented “oh, it doesn’t come off then”.
I am not making light of these incidents but what struck us was that these comments were usually made in an attempt to connect, albeit badly. It felt like ignorance rather than racism and on both occasions the audience member was gently chided. So which is worse? A rather clumsy question about swimming or colour transference, said out of ignorance, possibly embarrassment, but at least an attempt at communication. Or the polite committee who, faced with a menu of choices, choose the next Hardy adaptation rather than the riskier culturally diverse play, because they think others will be put off and they won't get an audience. Personally I'd rather have the honesty of the former than the fear of the second.
I would hope that we can remind our audience that we have as much in common with each other. And that a young man from rural Nigeria could be closer to a young person growing up in Herefordshire than someone from Lagos. As Michael de Montigne far more poetically said ‘There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others.’
I saw Dipo yesterday and asked what he was doing. He said, ‘Oh, I have been commissioned to write a huge play set on a bus for The National’. I hope they produce it.
Gavin Stride is the director of Farnham Malting’s and caravan