Salford Community Theatre: Reinventing the Community Play, Reinvigorating the Left

The community play demonstrates how solidarity and celebration are interconnected and how essential this is to successful collective action.

Britain is at a political and cultural turning point. For the first time in over a generation, the ideas of the radical left are part of mainstream discourse. The changes in the Labour Party brought about by the Corbyn leadership, the result of the 2017 general election, and a strong mass movement from the grassroots are creating more space for political engagement and action. We believe that Salford Community Theatre (SCT) should sit at the heart of this broad cultural and political turn and indeed has the potential to act as a blueprint for locally relevant cultural and political action to support the reinvigoration of the left as a hegemonic force in this country.

Formed in 2014, SCT always had the ambition of bringing the art form of the community play, a form conceived by Ann Jellicoe in Dorset in the 1970s, out of its traditional settings into a working class, urban environment. After two years of community building, our last project culminated in the production of a new version of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole in July 2016. The participants of this production were all people who lived in Salford, many of whom had never performed before, some of whom had never set foot in a theatre before. Salford Trades Union Council financially backed this project as well as Labour-controlled Salford Council, but the play still had to operate on a shoestring budget.

This production was promenade, and took place in some of the real-life locations of Greenwood’s story. The play culminated in a recreation of the National Unemployed Workers Movement’s 1931 demonstration, where the audience marched down Chapel Street to Bexley Square. By drawing on explicit historical parallelism, and a physical overlap of the content of the play, Salford Community Theatre was able to use past struggles to shed light on the current political situation. Through the form of the community play, nostalgia was eschewed and demands were placed on the audience not only to think about now, but also to make the decision to join in a demonstration. By inviting existing activists in the city to the demonstration each night, we declared to the audience that this event was no longer “just a play” but a call for present political action, drawing connections between our work and existing struggle.

The politics of the community play

Since that first production, SCT has developed its organic roots in Salford’s communities, by creating small pieces of new work and continuing its community engagement. These events have been primarily organised by members of our cast; demonstrating their new commitment to politically charged theatre. We began exploring the possibilities of themes for our forthcoming project back in April 2017, when we partnered with the housing campaign group Greater Manchester Housing Action, to hold an open forum at a pub in Ordsall, a working class neighbourhood of Salford that faces an acute lack of affordable housing and the pressures of gentrification. This open forum invited members of the community to share their stories, opinions and experiences of growing up in that community, and how it was being reshaped by luxury developments. The event was facilitated by the director of Love on the Dole, and contained a number of cast members who were from the neighbourhood.

We believe that the community play contains within it the potential for radical political intervention. Since its inception, SCT has sought to depart from the idea of community theatre as heritage, or as simply part of a programme of self-betterment and skills learning. Rather than being primarily concerned with individual advancement, we believe in an idea that has become unfashionable (and difficult to fund): that community based political theatre has the radical potential for engendering collective learning and collective action. This comes from processes of ensemble building that leads to a sense of collective responsibility within the cast. The rehearsal process is the gradual accumulation of responsibility for the production, which moves away from the production team to a shared collective responsibility of all cast and production members. This allows individuals to feel the importance of collective action and collaboration, moving away from neoliberal notions of individuality towards a sense of co-dependence on others to create action and change.

Simultaneously collaborative theatre, both in rehearsals and performance, creates ineffable feelings of joy and pleasure. The sense of collective responsibility that is created in the rehearsal process can therefore be more than an act of political action: it can also be a process of celebration. This is something that is often lacking on the left; perhaps sometimes because there is not much to celebrate, but also because of a dismissal of the more affectatious, aesthetic and pleasurable aspects of collective action and solidarity. The community play demonstrates how solidarity and celebration are interconnected and how essential this is to successful collective action.

Furthermore, the community play - as opposed to other, professional theatre practices - uniquely creates the ‘social actor’, an idea theorised by Jon Oram. The social actor, drawn from the same community as the audience, adopt a unique role: as both actor, and member of said community, they communicate with their audience in a different way to the professional actor. This happens through making political demands of the audience not just as a character in the play, but also on behalf of their shared community. This means that the play is not about the past, but about now, as the actors become political activists in the world of the play, and, potentially, in their own communities. They become the pioneers for the political action in the play, and as this action ceases to be a fictional moment, they are no longer just actors, but activists, in public space.

The process of creating our community plays is inherently political then, not just in form but in content. We used the content of Love on the Dole to explore contemporary issues faced by working class people in Salford, leading to discussion among the cast and their broader networks about politics. The result of both the popular political atmosphere we created, and the solidarity that we believe theatre can produce, was that members of the cast declared new political affiliations, with some going on to act on these as activists. A number of cast members from Love on the Dole went on to campaign for Labour in the 2017 General Election and attend events run by Manchester Momentum, citing the play as the catalyst for a renewed interest in politics.

SCT’s next steps: The Salford Docker

Earlier this year SCT was awarded funding from the Future’s Venture Foundation to put on a second production, with the working title ‘The Salford Docker’. Future’s Venture is a radical and independent arts fund that supports politicised art that would otherwise find it difficult to obtain funding. This funding has enabled us to raise our ambitions, providing us with the springboard to secure funding from Arts Council England to commission brand new writing to be performed as the play.

Our subject will be the Salford and Manchester docks’ past and the communities that surrounded them. The play will be staged and set in Ordsall and will explore histories of work, community and struggle of the families connected to the docks. Presenting the docks through their history in the 20th century, from their heyday in the 1950s through to their closure in the ‘80s, the play will draw on the past to shed light on the present: the continued development and regeneration of Ordsall and the political effect of this process on the community. As part of her writing process, the play’s author Sarah Weston is speaking to both past and present residents of the area, discussing memories of the docks and learning about present concerns. The play will be performed by a cast of local people of all ages in July 2019.

We believe that the themes of work, family, community, globalisation and the impact of deindustrialisation that will emerge from this script will provide ample opportunity for political discussion and education. The closure of Salford’s docks and their replacement with MediaCityUK - a complex of offices, retail and leisure facilities anchored by the BBC - is a good example of the nature and direction of economic development in the UK since the 1970s. Too often working class communities have been locked out from jobs in this new economy, or found that the only opportunities for work are in low-paid, insecure service-sector jobs. In Salford this is acute - in 2012 it was revealed that of the 3,172 local people who applied to work at MediaCity, only 24 were hired. As well as the impact on the jobs market, these economic changes exert strong pressures on land value and the availability of affordable housing - particularly marked in a working class community like Ordsall. Exploring these issues in the script will allow us to prompt discussions about the wider economic forces that bring about such change and how we might organise society differently to ensure equality and the fair distribution of wealth to all.

Our play will use the city’s radical past and our connections with current political movements to draw attention to ongoing political struggle, and to strengthen a burgeoning cultural movement on the left. We view the processes of rehearsal and performance themselves as political processes, with the potential to foster solidarity and propel action that is rooted in socialism. We want this project to continue to build the company’s links - both intellectually and organisationally - with the wider radical left, which is in the ascendent in Salford and the UK as a whole. The objective is to create a lasting legacy of political theatre and activists engaged in this and other related forms.

Community-based political theatre and the revival of the left

SCT predates Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party, and grew out of political currents that were already being expressed in Manchester and Salford – in particular the Manchester Spring series of public political discussions. Central to this current of thought was the sense that for the left to regain political power it had to harness cultural forms to become normalised and popular. Left ideas would have to re-enter everyday consciousness as something that was understood as common sense. These ideas sit at the core of the political and intellectual project for building new forms of cultural engagement.

We therefore situate ourselves within a wider debate that is going on within Labour and beyond at the moment, about the ways in which the Party and wider movement can take culture seriously and lead a grassroots cultural renewal grounded in working-class and marginalised communities. We have taken inspiration from the writings of Jeremy Gilbert, Tom Blackburn’s writing in this publication, in particular ‘Corbynism from Below?’, and recent developments in Young Labour spearheaded by Max Shanly, which aim to create new political environments in order make the party a place to “make, train and keep” socialists. We wish to add to this debate not only through words but actions, offering up Salford Community Theatre as a prototype for the kind of projects and work that will be necessary to build this new left.

As Marcus Barnett powerfully showed in a recent article, the British labour movement has a rich heritage of creating a ‘world within a world’; spaces for the cultural enrichment and democratic participation of working people. We can learn from this heritage, and create new ways for a socialist culture to take root in the 21st century. With over half a million members the Labour Party today stands able to provide the infrastructural and financial support that will be necessary for projects like SCT to take root in communities across the land. The signs are there that the leadership supports this - projects like The World Transformed and Labour Live represent a good start and a step in the right direction - but for the Party’s engagement in culture to be truly transformative, its support for projects like SCT which are locally rooted, long-term and sustained will be required. Indeed, the critical juncture we find ourselves in demands nothing less.


Sarah Weston (@sarahwezzo)

Sarah is a playwright and theatre practitioner specifically interested in political community theatre. She is a doctoral student researching the political voice with young women at the University of Leeds. Sarah is also a political activist and trade unionist.

Isaac Rose (@wouldntdaremate)

Isaac is a producer and political organiser living in Manchester. He has put on a number of grassroots arts events at Islington Mill and Partisan and has recently completed a programme at Contact Theatre where he produced ‘Temporary Monument: Permanent Protest’, a photographic restaging of the anti-Section 28 demo in Manchester in 1988. Additionally, he is active within Momentum and the Labour Party, as well as being a co-ordinator of Greater Manchester Housing Action.