Jonathan Cross Pentabus interview

Condensed transcript of interview with Jonathan Cross, August 2015.
Interviewer: Stephen Abbott for Pentabus
Reproduced here courtesy of Jonathan Cross and Pentabus

So, when you joined Pentabus, what was your role?

I got the invite from Sue Dunderdale, I knew Sue from Manchester University, we had done some stuff together.

I wasn’t primarily an actor and I never had been, I was more interested in the writing and directing side. But Sue was the director, so for the first tour, I was the stage manager. I did my best but it wasn’t particularly what I wanted to do. We did three productions for that first tour: two were adult evening stuff and one of them was an outdoor show for kids, and I got to direct that.

After the first tour, we did community work. We were doing some work in Staffordshire, in a mining community, and we put a pantomime together for a Christmas show. That was the time that there was the ‘Pentabus crisis’, when West Midlands Arts toyed with the idea of moving the funding from the company, for various reasons – there were quality issues, all sorts of issues. Actually, that we were doing the work with this mining community had quite an effect, because we said, we will carry on doing the pantomime, but that is probably the end of Pentabus community projects.  And so they sent a delegation to the West Midlands Arts meeting, which I remember distinctly as really good drama, because they were miners’ union guys who didn’t take any shit from anybody!  They presented their case quite forcefully and supported us, and we got a stay of execution.

But there clearly was an awful lot of pressure for the next tour to be very successful, and so Sue and I got together and wrote The Charlie Chaplin Show [1975].  Why Chaplin? Mainly because we had an actor called Kenny who was particularly good at doing Chaplin, and had studied physical theatre and done Lecoq, and so he was ideal for it. It was an immensely successful show, and it just worked on every level. And so that saved the day, really.

Then Sue left the company, and she handed things over to me at that point.  Well, obviously it was agreed by the board of trustees. So, I became artistic director.  Then I stuck with it for about ten years or so, I think. It was the mid-eighties when I left.

So, under your regime, what changed? 

An interesting question!  Nothing changed initially.  I was very keen on the rural community aspect of Pentabus. For me, it was about building up relationships with the villages, identifying people in those villages and setting up a fairly regular pattern.  We were lucky because West Midlands Arts funded us quite well, we were able to employ some actors on a continuous basis and bring in more people as we needed them.  So, there were people who came and went, but there were a good core of people like Andy Andrews, Alun Bond, Alan Rivett, who was a stage manager, and one or two others who formed that kind of basis.

And then I actually was able to go into the villages when we weren’t performing or rehearsing, to work with kids or with adults or older people. So, when the company came round and did the Christmas show, or the spring tour, or the summer work, there was a sense of continuity, and that was quite helpful.

There was quite a lot of pressure on me as a director from some members of the company who were keen to give the company a bigger profile than it would get while remaining a community company.  Essentially if you are local in the community, then, you are not going to be playing the Edinburgh Festival, or going to London.  If you are an actor, you might want that kind of exposure.  It was asking quite a lot of some very talented people to miss out on the opportunities that they might have had if they had been doing stuff wider.  Also, Pentabus was getting quite a good reputation.

After I left Pentabus, I went into education, further education particularly, and I came across companies like Knee High down in Cornwall, and quite a few companies that were working in a similar situation, and the number of times people would say to me: ‘It is so new and innovative what they are doing’. I would look at it and say, ‘But we were doing something very similar at Pentabus ten years ago.’ I think that actually Pentabus was quite cutting edge at the time, in terms of a rural project particularly.  There was one other, called Medium Fair, down in Exeter, who were a sort of sister company, that we exchanged ideas with. But otherwise we were fairly unique, there wasn’t much like it.

A lot of the work was – I wouldn’t say it was ground breaking politically or socially, but in artistic terms. The outdoor work, particularly, which was what interested me perhaps more than anything, I really enjoyed doing the outdoor stuff. We did a lot of fairly spectacular shows. The outdoor work was obviously the summer slot.

What did develop under my directorship, I suppose, was a pattern of work that was repeated. It was trying to reflect the fact that we were working in a rural community where the pattern of work was repeated. It was an attempt to make theatre not a separate thing that you parachuted in, but just part of the cultural event calendar that you would have in any village hall, and it wouldn’t seem that extraordinary. Which is why the first outdoor work that we did we called ‘The Side Show’, because we wanted it to be a side show at the fete, not the thing itself, if you see what I mean.  So it wasn’t deliberately underselling it, it was trying to say, Theatre isn’t this alien thing. Which other companies of course were doing, but that was just the way that we approached it in a rural setting.

The other thing that the outdoor work did was bring in designers to the company.  We had a working arrangement with Nottingham Trent – University now, it was a Poly at the time, who ran a very good costume design department. And we used to get students on placement with us working with our designers.

I do remember a time when all the work was devised. I say, all the work, but Peter Cann was brought in to do some writing for us, and Andy Andrews did some, and we did get some grants from the Arts Council to support new writing. But seventy, eighty percent of what we did, probably, was devised by the company,  which was quite demanding.  I remember a show called Rubbisch yn Latwegia [1978], which was a spoof on a cultural mission from a then Soviet satellite state.  Those were the times of the Iron Curtain. I remember distinctly we had done a workshop at the Shropshire Youth Centre or Shrewsbury Youth Centre, and we had an outdoor show starting in about two weeks from then, and we hadn’t even discussed ideas for it. I remember actually sitting the company: “Right, we need to just get thinking!”  This idea had come into my head the previous day, I don’t know why. I sold it to the company, and that was one of the most successful shows. It amused a lot of people, and fascinated a lot of people.  I remember watching the first day and I was standing next to a couple of librarians from Shrewsbury Library and they were having a discussion about where Latwegia was, quite seriously!

So, I thought, that has worked then.

They had flowerpots on their heads and looked as outrageous as possible, it was pretty mad.  It had a message in there about Soviet centralism.  Because they were all annihilated at the end: the secret police arrived, in the guise of me and the stage manager, and we worked our way through the crowd as the show went on, and arrested them at the end and piled them off, and then I would do an apology to the audience for the awful stuff that they had seen which in no way represented the official line. And all the while you heard gunshots behind the screen.

Meanwhile, the conceit of it was that none of them could speak English. All the names on the programme were just our names backwards, which worked perfectly well, lots of consonants appearing, and no-one could speak English except the musician. That was interesting because everything had to be interpreted, and he would do the stuff for greetings and would teach the audience the regional greeting, which was: (accented) “You stink and you stink first.”  It was silly stuff, that was designed to appeal to kids, because there would be visual humour in it, and to adults, because it would work on that level as well, we hoped.  There was actually some rude stuff in it, rather in the pantomime tradition, I guess.

But we did do other stuff.  We did an ecology thing, which we called Big City and the Green Man, and there were those big puppets, giant puppets on backpack assembly things, which again, people were doing at that time, but there has been a lot more of it since.  It was a period when there was an interest in mixing live actors with puppets and music and other forms, as multi-form as possible. That was the summer work.

The first Christmas show that we did was a version of Hansel and Gretel: Babes in the Wood [1977-8].  What was interesting about it was working with a bunch of people who had all done their actor training, and had maybe done a bit of work in rep or touring, but hadn’t done a traditional pantomime for a village hall, hadn’t written one, or been involved in writing one.  In a way that naiveté was a strength, I think, rather than a weakness, because you could just go in and do it as you saw it would work. We weren’t really following any particular pattern, beyond a vaguely traditional one.  I think we used dames in that – Alun Bond did definitely play the step-mother in the first one.

Did you do theatre in pubs?

Yes. I didn’t do as much pub work as other people did, I tended not to direct pub work while I was directing the company, because I didn’t direct all the shows, I tried to share it round a little bit.

Also there was increasing amounts of management to do.  We had the board of trustees, and the board was very helpful. But we didn’t have anyone employed to do a separate management job. As the Artistic Director, you had to do all of the fund raising and the business planning and the marketing.  We had an admin assistant, but there wasn’t anyone at the management/directorship level. A company like Pentabus really needs volunteers working for nothing really, if they have got expertise.

By the time I left, one of the pressures was certainly having to work harder and harder to get the funding each year, and having to look for more sources for funding.  When the Regional Arts Association is funding you, you just have to put in an annual bid, it is very straightforward, because it doesn’t alter much from year to year. But increasingly, and for good reason, they wanted us to be supported by the local authorities, who were getting a lot of benefit. And some did: Wyre Forest were very good, South Shropshire, the district councils were very good.

How you would characterise the audiences?

It became fairly clear to us that in villages where we were trying to identify the active support group that would enable the company to come (who would do the marketing, put the posters up, sell the tickets and so on before we arrived, and then support us when we arrived), it did tend to be the newcomers who had moved from the cities.  There was a huge movement from city to country, certainly in the sixties and seventies.

But some of these villages were still very traditional.  I was still very surprised at the ‘ruralness’ if that is the right word, of parts of Shropshire. There was still a lot of people whose living was agriculture then. There was a balance, we had Eric Clapton living down the road and playing the guitar now and again.  And there was certainly some real rural poverty which at that age and at that time I didn’t expect to see.  People had been living in fairly inadequate premises for years and years and years. But that kind of traditional agriculture where the kids were taken out of school for example, to do the harvest, that was on its way out.

So it was a mix.  On the whole, the people that were most useful to us were the middle class and professional people that had moved into the villages. Partly because they were very keen to establish their identity and routes in to a village community, so they wanted to get involved; and getting involved very often meant joining the committee to organise the summer fete, or the Christmas show. The danger was being monopolised by any particular group in a village, and that was something that one needed to be aware of. Because like any other communities, some are very united and some are quite divided.  The closer that you get to working in a community, the more danger of being partisan.

I can remember distinctly one Christmas show we did somewhere, the snow had fallen, and no-one could actually bring their cars to the village hall – a local farmer arranged a tractor shuttle to get people in!  So, there was a sense in which that agricultural connection was quite important.

More than anything else, I didn’t want us to be just a touring company such as might appear at your local arts centre. I wanted it to be something that people actually bought in themselves. They did book it, they did commit themselves to a fee.

We wanted it to be accessible. We did slip into the mix of pantomime shows and open air shows and spectaculars and all the rest of it, we slipped in shows about rural life and rural politics and rural history. I can remember being invited to doing a show for the local hunt, and having very lively company meetings about whether that was part of our brief or not, or whether we could say no.

Can I ask what sort of things that you did in the community work?

We employed a couple of people more or less continuously as project workers, based down in Herefordshire, Weobley.  One was a guy called Nick Millington. He is still working and he has still got a company. Then he was young, developing his work, and you could see that he was going to go places.  Most of his work was video projects, that was the early days of community video work, before everybody had a video camera on their phone. So it was giving access to, particularly, young people.  His interest was working with the youngsters, teenagers stranded sometimes quite frustratingly in rural communities, not necessarily with that much stimulation for them in the way that they might get if they were in a city.

And we had a woman, Barbara Allen, who was a designer and puppeteer.  She did a lot of puppet work, again with kids mainly, but with adults as well.

The other woman was Heather Manridge, she did singing and music, and quite a lot of drama work.  I ran a drama workshop in Shrewsbury here for years and years and years.

And you got funding for that work?

Yes, when we put our annual bid for revenue funding, that was very much part of it.  From Sue’s day onwards, the original blueprint for the company always had this term ‘grass roots work’, which was community arts, ‘outreach’, that was always part of it.

How much the link between the theatre work and the community work was successful? I was still thinking of strategies and tactics when I left, that was not necessarily an easy thing to do.  It sometimes felt like there was a division, partly because the community work was going on in Herefordshire. When the company worked in that area, there was a combined effort, but the rest of the time, the two teams were fairly separate, with me desperately trying to link them by doing an awful lot of driving around.

But then they did actually split up in the nineties?

Yes, certainly the video work became separate. That was logical, because it was hard to integrate the two over such a big area. If you are working in a town or a city, you could do that, couldn’t you?  If the company is rehearsing and putting on shows in the venue where the community work is going on, you get those links and crossovers, young people working with company, or volunteering, or doing bits in shows. And it wasn’t as easy to do that.

Were you still working over five counties?

No, we had reduced it to three counties, and effectively it became two counties because Hereford and Worcester became one.  It was a vast area to cover, and we realised very quickly that if we were going to be a ‘community’ company’, as opposed to just a ‘touring theatre’ company, then we had to get to villages and communities a bit more often than once every five years, which is probably what would have happened.

We dropped Staffordshire and Warwickshire. Staffordshire; the logic for was that Staffordshire was much closer to the West Midlands centres, and so access to theatre was more possible.  Worcestershire seemed much more on a limb than it is now, and Warwickshire – well, ‘they have got Stratford on Avon, they can just go there’!

Sometimes the people who were in the business of arts funding or criticism would say, ‘Well, what you are doing is feeding second rate theatre’.  Which is why The Charlie Chaplin Show was very important, because it had to work in the communities but it also had to convince other people that it was good work. It was a good show, and Sue revived it at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, so that show itself got a much bigger profile for Pentabus. So it satisfied the two things.

But that it is difficult line to walk. You don’t want actors to feel that they are doing community shows because they are not equipped to do better work, or more important work. You want them to feel that actually they have chosen to do a specific kind of theatre, with specific objectives, and that it is every bit as good as anything you might see in the West End or Stratford or a provincial theatre, but different.

I think that, at best, it was. I remember an American guy saying that, this is cutting edge stuff. It was at one of our open air shows and it was amazing, people dressed as broad beans and cauliflowers, I don’t know what it was about, but to him coming from San Francisco in the seventies, what we were doing was exciting, new and innovative, and good theatre.

It was certainly about avoiding that idea of bussing in cultural excellence, and telling everybody that is what it was, and then taking it away again and saying, We will see you in a couple of years.

The villages that you kept going back to, how did you choose those, or did they choose themselves?

To some extent they chose themselves, because we would put out pre-publicity, and then people would book it. But certainly the fees were heavily subsidised.  That is where West Midlands Arts did a very good job, and that is how the subsidy was used. If they filled the house, that they would make a little bit for the village hall fund as well as pay our fee, and if it all failed, and for some reason they didn’t get people in, which didn’t happen that often to be honest (certainly, once the company’s reputation was established, we always filled the village halls), but if that did happen, we would come to some compromise with them. We didn’t want the village hall’s fund to be erased in order to pay our bill, and then put them off booking us again in the future.  So, on the whole we were getting to most villages about once a year.  Maybe once every two years in some cases. But there was also a core of communities that would book every show.

And those would be the ones where you would also do the community work?

Yes, they tended to be, because we had those contacts and that kind of continuity. I was quite ideologically pure, if you like, about staying local. And it did lead to some lively debates about where the company was going. I remember Peter Cheeseman, he was director at Stoke for a long time, he was doing that kind of local community stuff there.  He was on our board, and I remember him saying to me, “Look, don’t worry about being local and not having a wider profile. If you do excellent work, in a community, about a community, it will be universal, and people will come and see it.”  And I have always regarded that as wise and true: concentrate on what you are looking at, that microcosm, and get that right, and then everything else will be interesting.

The community side of things has dropped away from Pentabus. Do you think that reflects a national trend?

That is difficult for me to answer, because I left the theatre business and went into education.  But yes, I would say that that probably is the case. But there are exceptions, and there’s probably some very good work going on around the place.

One example is Theatre-in-Education which was a huge movement in the seventies, professional companies that would go into schools with an education brief. I don’t think that there are many TIE groups going any more. A lot of the TIE movement was actually peopled by people who were teachers as well, so acting may have not been their first skill. So there was a perception perhaps then that if you are in a community TIE company, you were using drama for an end (very often a political end, actually, an awful lot of those companies were actually very left wing), rather than as an actor.  That is a difficult one, and you can see why young actors fresh from training, might be quite happy to do that kind of work as an apprenticeship, but would get frustrated if they weren’t able to audition for the arty stuff in the theatres.

But that always was the case, and that is why I am so keen on small-scale touring. That is another area that has probably diminished, never mind the community theatre work, but just the small scale company able to go in and set up in a village hall, or an arts centre or a theatre and put on good thought-provoking theatrical entertainment. There is not as much of that as there was. It is important to foster that work however it is done.  I can imagine that is largely a budgetary problem.

You were there while Peter Cann was there, weren’t you?

Yes. Pete’s interest was in directing and writing. But in those days, if you wanted to get into a company, you needed to audition as an actor, because there wasn’t a job of a writer. What you needed to do was get in there and then say, “I want to write something”, which is basically what he did.  So, he did the audition, but it was the fact that he was interested in writing that got him in for me.

Because devising work in and out throughout the year is very hard.  It is quite draining in terms of the invention and the imagination, and sometimes you want to say, ‘Look, we have done a day’s improvisation and devising – let someone go away overnight and write that up, and turn it into something structured and viable.’  And that is what Pete did.  He did quite a lot of writing for us.  We were lucky again, we got a bursary from the Arts Council to enable us to let him do some writing and employ somebody to replace him. In a small company, you had to actually get in someone, you couldn’t let somebody go off and write for a couple of months, because you needed all hands on deck. One very successful show that we did with Pete was a show called Concert Party [1984], which was about a group of semi-pro entertainers who went around the village halls before the second world war, known as ‘concert parties’. They did pretty much what Pentabus was doing, except it would be music, singing and dancing and what have you. And that show was the connection between the community work, if you like, and the theatre work. It was the link that I really wanted to happen and it perhaps didn’t happen enough. In doing some oral history work, somebody talked to an older person who could remember that period between the wars, and told us how exciting it was when the Concert Party arrived at the village hall and as a school girl she would go with her mates. And so we wrote a play based on that.  It was about an impresario’s attempt to reconvene a very successful Concert Party after the war. So we then combined the actual entertainment by the Concert Party (we got songs that were period and we did all that stuff with a banjo), with dialogue in which you learnt the stories of what happened to people during the war, and different experiences that they’d had, POW camps and all the rest. And eventually the thing breaks up, because it is now the fifties and it is rock ‘n’ roll and so it is the last concert party.

But that was a very good collaboration because I picked up this thing from the oral history programme, and said, this is interesting, and Pete just ran with it.  He produced what I thought was a really good piece, that I think you could revive. I directed it, but it was almost impossible to rehearse in any traditional way because, though the actual acts that they presented as the concert party were done with footlights, in-between we showed the backstage scenes, and the backstage scenes could happen anywhere in the hall, so you weren’t able to direct it ‘downstage’, ‘upstage’, ‘stage right’ and ‘stage left’ – there wasn’t one.  Somebody would be shouting from the service hatch, and somebody would be on the lights the other side, and that would take place over the audience’s head, and so they had to turn around and watch it. And so it was a little bit ground-breaking in that sense.

But we didn’t want to lose the devising ethos.  There was always that way of working, where actors can feel that they can feed in ideas, but you have got that ultimate ability of a writer to say yes or no, that will work, or it won’t work. It is very different in devised work than it is in scripted work, which is why I liked having a writer, because I was able to sit down with a bunch of actors and a script, rather than just some ideas on a piece of paper.  When you are devising you always have that problem, at what point do you get off that chair and start moving around, and of course different people need to do that at different times. The director’s job very often is trying to combine all these different impulses to get what you want, and it is sometimes difficult. People will say, “I am still not clear about the idea and I want to talk about it for a bit longer”, and other people will say “I don’t want to talk at all, my way of devising is to just get up and do it”.

Bringing a writer and work-shopping stuff, some building based companies are now doing an awful lot of that, that is great.

It is amazing that Pentabus is still going.  How many companies survive forty years? Some buildings have, yes, theatres in that sense. But actual groups of people doing stuff, not many.

The great thing about working in Pentabus, certainly when I was there, was that you were one cog in a wheel or a machine, and you contributed what you had got. But there were some hugely talented people I worked with, extraordinary people. You would give them so little and they produced so much, which is why I always loved directing, because that is what actors do for you.

What is the most innovative show, or the show that you would most like people to know about?

Rubbisch yn Latwegia, because it was visually very strong. It was the beginning of a time when theatre companies were matching the quality of acting with the quality of design, particularly for outdoor and community stuff.

Concert Party as an indoor show, because it dealt with very serious subject matter in a really accessible way.  That is the feeling I remember getting from people who had seen it, and that was really important. And the idea that anyone can enjoy theatre, you don’t have to be particularly trained or equipped to appreciate live theatre, you just have to be able to respond to it.  Everybody can do that.  That, I suppose was the mission.  I don’t think we necessarily made a mission statement but it was implicit in the work.

Andy Andrews did a very good one man show called One Man Went to Mow, which to me was another highlight. It was one of those in-between-tours situations and Andy said that he wanted to do a one man show and said, “Will you direct?”  We pretty much did it in a week actually, and it really consisted of Andy just pouring out all of this material that he had got (he is a very funny guy, and a good comic performer and writer), and me saying, “Yes, but how is it going to work?”  “Very funny, but…”  So, it was mainly a process of getting rid of extraneous material, until we were left with something that was really very good.  That went down a storm as well.  It was autobiographical really: a London lad grows up and discovers theatre, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and everything else.  But amusingly done.  Comic stand-up at times but also sketch-based, I suppose, going into character.

Where did you perform that?

Around the village halls, the same sort of circuit really. It produced a lot of mirth which was the idea.

Anything else that you want to say that hasn’t already come up?

No, that about covers it for me.

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