Company Name: Pentabus Rural Theatre Company
Founders: Sue Dunderdale /West Midlands Arts Association. Directors: Sue Dunderdale (1974-1976), Jonathan Cross (1976-1985), Peter Cann (1985-1989), No AD (1989-92), Steve Johnstone and Purvin (1992-98), Theresa Heskins (1998-2006), Orla O’Loughlin (2006-2012), Elizabeth Freestone ( 2012- present)
Current status: Still in operation – Pentabus Theatre Company is a rural theatre company, touring locally, nationally and internationally.
Reason: In 1973 West Midlands Arts set up a feasibility study to address the fact that very little live theatre was taking place in the West Midlands region outside the conurbations. They also realised that no arts subsidy was being expended in the rural areas of the West Midlands – a very inequitable situation.
The study would be practical and was led by a young theatre practitioner, Sue Dunderdale. It would not only discover and audit what was happening in the rural areas re: live, new arts but also actually create new work that was aimed directly at rural audiences, not only in style and content but also in form and presentation.
Sue Dunderdale created a small group of practitioners who created and performed new theatre work that was performed in small halls, town squares, pubs and fields.
Right on the deadline for applications, March 1974, Sue Dunderdale presented her findings in a ground breaking plan to W.M.A. and the group was awarded a revenue grant to continue its work. The endeavour was initially called ‘The Pentabus Project ‘(Pent’ referring the five rural counties of the West Midlands and ‘bus’ because they travelled in an old bus). This was soon changed to Pentabus Theatre.
Area of Work: New writing, community theatre
Policy: From the outset in 1974 the company established distinct themes, motifs and practices– some of which continue to the present day. It seems these themes and practices were established, not through any written statement or conscious decision but by drawing on the resources that were already to hand: That the work would be new writing was a given: It must have been natural for the company members to reject the established repertoire, partly because the late 60s and early 70s were times when anything representing the status quo in politics, arts or lifestyle would be rejected or radically and exhaustively challenged and reviewed.
In 1976 it was decided that such a small company could not serve all five rural counties of the West Midlands, so Staffordshire and Warwickshire were dropped, and the company concentrated on Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
In the 1980s, a community arts branch of Pentabus was established, offering communities and community groups sessions in drama, puppetry, video, art and crafts. The aim was to help establish activity groups that would continue under local leadership.
Structure: A Registered Charity with a Board of Trustees. The original structure consisted of an artistic director, a stage manager/designer, an administrator, two actors/grass roots workers (one of whom was also a writer) four other actors and a musician. This has varied over the course of the company’s history and currently there are two co-directors (an artistic director and a managing director) an audience development/marketing officer, a projects producer, a stage manager, a C4 writer in residence and a part time book keeper. Other company members are taken on for each production. Pentabus was formally part of West Midlands Arts until 1983, when it became independent.
Based: Worcestershire, Shropshire and Herefordshire – in the early days the company was based at Kidderminster, and later at Arley Kings near Stourport, both in Worcestershire. In 1983 an Arts Council officer noticed an empty school building in the village of Bromfield, near Ludlow in south Shropshire, and thought it would make a great base for Pentabus. The company eventually moved there in 1989. From 1980-1986, the community arts branch of the project was based in Weobley, then moving to Leominster, both in Herefordshire. The two parts of the organisation formally split in 1992.
Funding: Arts Council England (and a variety of organisations and local authorities over the past 40 years)
Performance venues including: Community Centres, village halls, school halls, town squares, churches, playing fields, pubs, marquees, site specific venues and a wide variety of theatres across the country.
Audiences: Pentabus originally built a loyal audience within the West Midlands and neighbouring counties. The company has always covered a wide audience demographic by developing shows and touring to communities that did not have easy access to theatre. The company has become synonymous with new writing and has developed audiences nationwide through larger tours and increased output of work.
Company work and process:
Sue Dunderdale was the first director of Pentabus, working with the company from 1974-76. The original company was composed of an artistic director, stage manager/designer, administrator, 2 actor/grass root workers, one of whom was a writer, and 4 actors and a musician. The company toured the 5 counties of the West Midlands with the idea that they would change their base from region to region, their first base being Shrewsbury. From the start there was a core emphasis on community work. Productions were performed in village halls where the acting company would bring in and construct their own portable theatre ‘environment’. At the same time grass roots workers would be developing projects within the village communities which ultimately linked up with the main production work. Some shows were devised, others written by company members or through commissions and included commedia-style pieces (The Terry Bull Circus – company devised), children’s plays (The Magic Map by Ginny Hole), pantos and straight plays inspired by local issues (A Cottage in the Country by Joyce Cheeseman). Please link here to an edited transcript taken from an interview with Sue Dunderdale, January 2015.
See the transcript of an interview with Jonathan Cross about his work with Pentabus.
Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Lost in London, 1974, a mid-Victorian melodrama updated with Edwardian music hall songs: ‘The play, a mid-Victorian melodrama, tells the familiar story of the toff who lures an innocent country girl to London and debauches her: it seemed a questionable and slightly patronising choice for a rural theatre group. I cannot easily believe that today’s country dwellers will be much interested in the stereotyped yokels of nineteenth century drama.’ (Birmingham Post, 22/8/74)
The Magic Map, 1974, a play for children: ‘adventures of a fair changeling. There was plenty of audience participation and a good time was had by all.’ (Birmingham Post, 22/8/74)
Working out the end’, 1974: ‘takes place in heaven, where the inmates spend their tea break telling tales of life on earth.’ (Shrewsbury Chronicle, 4/10/74)
‘Reg Stewart’s trousers began to split audibly at a moment when he was miming the drilling of a hole in the road! He had to pretend to crawl under the road to a gas leak and the trousers split a little more as time went on’ (Worcester Evening News, 26/9/74; verbatim in Hereford Times, 4/10/74)
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Interviewee reference: Sue Dunderdale, Jonathan Cross, Peter Cann and Steve Johnstone were interviewed by Stephen Abbott for Pentabus in 2015. If you would like to see edited transcripts or listen to the interviews please contact Pentabus –
Existing archival material: Held by Shropshire Archives, Castle Gates, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY1 2AQ
Shropshire Archive 8872/4/1/1 Press cuttings Apr-Oct 1974
Shropshire Archive 8872/4/1/2 Press cuttings 1984-9
Shropshire Archive 8872/9/2 Duplicate set of programmes 1975-2013
Shropshire Archive 8872/2/59/7 Dragon’s Teeth: booker’s pack
Acknowledgements: This page was constructed primarily by Mike Price with the assistance of Jessica Higgs, Stephen Abbott and Pentabus. Thank you to Sue Dunderdale for her contributions.