Peter Cann Pentabus Interview

This interview with Peter Cann was made for Pentabus in September 2015 by Stephen Abbott

So, really, just two questions. One is, tell me about your time at Pentabus. And the second one, tell me about any particularly interesting productions that stick in your mind?

My time at Pentabus was interesting because the first time that I worked for Pentabus, I worked as an actor. And that would have been I think in 1979. And then I went away and did lots of other things, and then I came back, later, in the early eighties, and initially again as an actor. But they wanted me to do some directing as well, so I worked as both.

And then they got a grant from the Arts Council to have a writer in residence, so I applied for that and then became writer in residence.  And I think that lasted two years altogether.  And then, as that was running out, as the term of that was running out, Jonathan Cross was leaving, and so the job of artistic director came up, and I applied for that, and got the job of artistic director. So, that is in a nutshell the functional bit.

I think that I finished at Pentabus in 1989, so I must have been artistic director from eighty-six, or eighty-five, some time around then.  It was interesting, because it was a time of change, and funding changes, and funding structure changes when I was there, from basically being a part of West Midlands Arts to being independent of West Midlands Arts, with its own board of directors etc. That was happening before I took over as artistic director, that was during Jonathan’s tenure.  And of course the move from Stourport up to where they are now, Bromfield.  In fact when I first started working for them, their base was in Kidderminster, in a place that flooded when there was bad rain, flooded from the river.  So, I have been in Pentabus in three different locations.

When I first started as writer in residence, Pentabus had two wings, which was the community arts wing, which then became more and more to do with media, with using media as a tool for community development, which then split off and became the Rural Media Company.

We were able to develop as well as Pentabus a sort of – some people call it a youth theatre, but a lot of the people in it were, most of them were in their twenties and some in their thirties. They became, from that, a theatre company in their own right,  ‘In Transit Theatre’. So then we had a sister company for a while, and then another youth theatre or ‘Raw Theatre’, so for a while we had three different sort of sister companies going on.

And then the other big change when I was there was the change in how you look at the structure of theatre companies and arts organisations in general, which was the kind of vogue for ‘consultancies’.  And Pentabus got some money from West Midlands Arts to use and have a consultant. So my first thought was, OK, we’ll take the money, but we are not going to have a consultant, we will do something useful with it. But you know, there was a rider on it, and they said that, ‘You have to do this and you have to do this, you have to go through this process’.  So, that was fine, and what the consultants came up with was that Pentabus needed to re-structure and that the chief executive should not be the artistic director, and it should be a development director, and the artistic director should be a part time post. And so, at the time I was being interviewed for an arts programme, it is what Front Row used to be before it was Front Row, so it was for BBC Radio, and I was being interviewed, and one of the questions was: “So, about this restructuring, where does that leave you?”  And off the top of my head, I said: “Out! I am gone,  I am not staying.” And so I resigned on Radio 4!  And so immediately I had to go and phone in my resignation officially to the chair of the board of directors.

So, there were all those changes and the company grew quite a lot, during that time. And, yes, it was exciting times, I think. We did a whole range of different kinds of theatre ranging from play schemes through to village hall shows. And then I was fortunate enough also to be able to employ two writers in residence during my time there, Penny O’Connor, and Nick Fisher.  So we continued to be a new writing company which Pentabus still continues to this day, which is another of its great traditions: of going and taking theatre to people who don’t have easy access to it, and of doing exciting new theatre.

I’ve got another element to my involvement in Pentabus, which was after I left as artistic director, then I came back as a freelance worker, mostly as a writer.  And some of the work that I did then was among the most exciting things, I think, because it was when we started doing the big site specific works.  A lot of people don’t recognise how pioneering Pentabus was, in doing those.  The first one I had done was with Shared Experience in London, and we did it in a way that nobody had done before, and that was Steve Johnstone and I. And then we continued doing the stuff with Pentabus, and we did three.  One was Possession, at Witley Court [1995], then the second one was Ringing Down the Shut at Old St Chad’s [1997] and the third one was at Ludlow Castle: Comus 2 [1998]. And those were great, with professional actors and musicians, professional stage management etc., and young people.  And they were quite an exciting model.

I think that one of the things that Pentabus doesn’t get recognised for, which it should, is that pioneering work, and that kind of site specific theatre, very dynamic site specific theatre, community theatre. Which has got nothing to do with mob caps, and not very much to do with history either, they were more of a dynamic way of approaching what you can do with large casts and interesting sites.  So, it was more site responsive that site specific, some of them, you couldn’t have really done anywhere else. So, I think that was pioneering work that Pentabus did, which I would like them to have got more recognition for, than they do.  Other people get recognition for things that we were doing first.  I am not bitter about it, it makes me smile.  But it would have been nice for Pentabus to have had that kind of recognition for the work that they do and always have done.

Pentabus has always in different ways been radical since I was first doing it.  One of the most overtly political pieces that we did was at a time of the introduction of the poll tax, and one of my favourite shows was a show called Becca’s Children [1990], which was about the Rebecca riots in Wales in the nineteenth century. And it is an exciting story anyway and it has got lots and lots of elements in which go right back to Pentabus’ routes: the use of folk theatre, the kind of, I suppose the 7:84 influenced style that Pentabus was very successful at.  And it was about popular objection to unfair taxation, but in an allegorical form, I suppose. It wasn’t about the poll tax riots, it wasn’t about the poll tax, it was about the tollgates on the roads between the line production and fields in Wales, it was about the same kind of thing.  And that was a good example I think, of Pentabus being quite strong, socialist, radical theatre.

Its very essence was of a tradition of radicalism, just by its taking theatre to people who don’t have access to theatre. And West Midlands Arts was very supportive at first in being able to allow that kind of proper subsidy of the arts, where the village halls didn’t have to pay a huge amount of money and it was quite a nominal, because we had enough support for it to be able to be really accessible to a huge number of people, which was very important.

So that was two of the – kind of favourite things.  And then another great thing that we did was the first time that we went to Edinburgh Festival.  It was with All Quiet on the Western Front [1987-1990], which was the one man play that Steve Johnstone did and I wrote the adaptation and directed it. And that was exciting.  There was a lot of resistance from the board at first, understandably, because it is a financial risk, but we were fortunate enough to recoup all of the money and more than it cost to do it, and that show went on for about three years, at different times touring Ireland, touring nationally. And so it was a good show for them.

Another memorable production was Dancing With The Devil [1996]. That was a time when I was free-lancing for the company, and I came back and was asked to write a script for this. And it was one of those shows when everything goes right, from the beginning: you think, this is quite exciting, from the first chats with the company, to them doing it, and a great cast. John Flitcroft and Francis Land were the main actors in it, and an actor musician, and then we used puppets and all kinds of things, and it was just an exciting show.

And another great thing, which was personal for me, because it is great, was Pentabus’ involvement with Teatro do Montemuro, in Portugal, for whom I am still working, after twenty-one years.  I have just come back from doing a show with them, and quite often there have been several former Pentabus people working in conjunction with Teatro do Montemuro over the years and that has been a very exciting collaboration, which was begun with their contact with Pentabus.

You talked about the style being very much influenced by 7:84. Could you elaborate? 

Yes, it was theatre which, as Pentabus did, going to – In the early days, going to village halls, almost entirely in Scotland, and the Highlands, and taking committed theatre, and doing it in a very accessible form.  Their most famous and influential show is The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Oil, which was –  it is a bit misleading how it is described in the form of a ceilidh, it kind of wasn’t, it was in the setting of a ceilidh, in which the play took place. And it used popular theatre traditions, the use of song, and the use of comedy, the use of sketches, use of direct address to the audience, and a very eclectic mixture of things, very much influenced by music hall, I suppose.  So, all of those things.  I personally was, and still am, was very influenced by that, and a lot of our plays, a lot of Pentabus’ plays, you could see that influence of 7:84.

And apart from the touring aspect, how was that different from Theatre Workshop?  What had progressed between Joan Littlewood and John McGrath?

You can see the direct influence, I think it is almost John McGrath taking the baton from Joan Littlewood in a sense.  Because when Theatre Workshop first started, before they moved into Stratford, they were entirely a touring company. It was only after two years of working with virtually no money that they moved into Stratford East, so there are direct similarities, and obviously similarities in form with the ‘Concert Party’ element of Pentabus. But I think then they moved away from that, and then John McGrath took it on further and going to more isolated places.  John McGrath was very passionate about access.

I think that Joan Littlewood’s company wasn’t, despite what people say, it wasn’t a working class company.  I am not denigrating it at all, but it wasn’t.  Their audience was generally the usual theatre audience, particularly when in was in Stratford East, and when it was touring, it toured to theatres. Whereas John McGrath; the big difference was taking it to those popular venues.

And then again there was another company that was very influential on me, and on Pentabus because I went to work at Pentabus, was Footsbarn Theatre, who were a Cornish theatre.  They took theatre to village halls and to villages and I remember, because I was at university when I first saw them, before I had come across Pentabus, being in a village hall, where I lived, when I was at university, and seeing this incredible piece of theatre, and thinking, that is what I want to do. I’d been excited by all these different forms of theatre, but that was what I wanted to do, and it is what I did.

You talked about the audience for Joan Littlewood.  When you were there, who came to see Pentabus shows? 

It depended on the show.  And also it depended on the village and who was organising it in the village.  The broadest audience was always for the Christmas shows.  We changed it from being a pantomime style to something different, like a story, original stories. But they had the biggest audience, always packed and always a very broad cross section of audience. And some of the things like Becca’s Children had big audiences as well, and a big cross section. We did one that was very Joan Littlewood with a show called: Concert Party [1984], and that was done at harvest suppers, or whatever.  So those shows which were tied in as John McGrath did, with social events, and also the open air shows, village fetes and stuff, had a huge audience, a different, broad band of audience.  Some of the more, I suppose more experimental shows had a smaller section of audience, and also to be honest smaller audiences.

Nick Fisher’s play, The Ballad of Johnny Reece [1989] was a great show but it was really difficult to sell, which was a shame.  Whereas All Quiet on the Western Front [1987-1990], because it was a familiar title, even though it was a one man play, which seemed a ridiculous thing to be doing, a one man play about the first world war, and a German in the first world war, because people knew the film, we sold that quite easily. And then from the reviews at Edinburgh, that was easy to sell.

But, I think, certainly in the earlier days when we were doing a lot of those kind of John McGrath influenced shows, a large cross section of audiences. Some of them – people kind of picked and chose as it became more expensive to book Pentabus shows, because of – putting VAT on village halls made a massive difference to Pentabus, a huge difference. And also when Pentabus had to work harder to get more funding, when funding decreased from West Midlands Arts, and particularly from Hereford and Worcester, we had to charge more, and that was difficult.  But I would say, yes, there was a broad section, a broad cross section of audience.

Tree Heskins told us, ‘When I first got there, everybody said that you can’t put a show on in February because everybody is out lambing.  And then I looked at who was actually coming to the shows, and none of them were ever out lambing!’

That analysis is quite right, in that it was harder to get audiences in very busy times. So we never did village hall shows in the summer, for example, because we tied shows to things that were existing, such as the open air shows and fetes.  We would do play schemes in the summer obviously, because there was a demand for them, and we’d do street theatre in the summer. August, September, no point, because the harvest was the busiest time, much busier than lambing, even in the border areas.

What used to happen is, there used to be kind of a – I can’t remember the word, but bunches of villages would get together and book Pentabus rather than just as individuals, and particularly in more isolated areas, which would be very, very much influenced by the seasonal year, and what was happening where.  But I think that lambing was less of a problem than harvest.

That has just reminded me of another one of our more controversial shows which was called Knock After Dark [1985], which was about the unionisation of small farmers and farm labourers. And that was one which caused quite a lot of divisions in communities, presumably the farming communities, because it obviously had a very left wing stance.

So, what did the people that were uncomfortable with the left wing stance do to express their dissent?

Wrote letters.  We used to have quite a lot of letters and complaints saying: ‘We don’t come to the theatre to watch and to be preached at, to see our way of life being challenged.’  And then other people saying: ‘Yes, great, it is good – fantastic!’

That has just reminded me, there is another one that we did, very much with the community arts wing, called Different Drums [1991], which was about the life of traveler communities and clashes between traveler communities and settled communities.  We had a great letter about that.  The place was Neen Savage. There was a bit in it where we did have fornicating puppets, and we had a letter about our village hall being ‘polluted with this filth’, but we didn’t know whether it was about that or the fact that it was very much on the side of the travelling people, rather than the people who had prejudice against them.

Your name first came up in the interviews when we were talking to Jonathan Cross, who suggested what a great relief it was when they were doing workshops to have somebody else going and writing it down. 

I used to do a lot of that when I was an actor, because I was quite happy to take charge of the script writing. I wouldn’t just transcribe, but: ‘Well, that could be better’, and I would start editing it and changing it, and then coming up with bits of script. Which was good for the company, because otherwise, devising can be agonising.

They’d never had a writer in residence.  Andy Andrews was a writer, and he wrote some very good scripts, particularly one called The Last Cottage [1979-1980]. But then, with the writer in residence, they had somebody who would write plays for them, was commissioned to write plays. And we negotiated what the play would be about, but it wasn’t the same as sitting in the rehearsal room.  But then we continued doing that all of the time when I was there.

Sometimes we devised. Becca’s Children was a great example, that was devised with me as the script writer, but again, it wasn’t the case of sitting and transcribing what actors did in an improvisation, it was – we’d discuss stuff, and maybe do some improvisation, then I’d go and come up with some bits of script.

On the Pentabus website, there is mention of a lot of work by Theresa Heskins. I think you wrote with her sometimes?

The plays that we wrote together were Vaughan the Terrible [1992], and Secret Black and Midnight [1993]. She wrote the script for – I can’t remember the title of it, an all women production, and then there was a one person show and I think that Therese did the script – I can’t remember if she wrote some solo shows, and I would be surprised if she didn’t. She became artistic director of In Transit, and is now my wife!

In Transit and Raw Theatre, they were separate?

Separate things, yes. But quite often, particularly in the summer, Pentabus would have to turn down stuff because we would be booked, for weekends particularly, there was a massive demand. And so we were able to fulfil that demand with shows from In Transit and Raw TheatreRaw Theatre did mostly street theatre, very, very exciting, and In Transit did kind of pub shows.

I wonder, then, if some of the shows in the archives, aren’t actually Pentabus?

I don’t think so, I think they would have all been Pentabus. Although Pentabus booked them, they were credited as those companies.

We did quite a lot of pub theatre. The shows that I remember doing, the first one was called, One Over The Eight [1979], and that was just a collection of sketches and things, and didn’t really have any thematic line, and was a bit unsatisfactory as a show. But then we did one which was about advertising that was really good, and a successful show, because again it was quite hard hitting.  And another show, pub show, was: Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys [1988]. And the other big pub show that we did was Nineteen Ninety Four [1989], obviously Nineteen Eighty Four ten years on, and it was an open overt attack on Thatcherism and Conservatism and everything right wing, really.  So, yes, so we did quite a lot of those.  I suppose, particularly the later ones, like Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys, weren’t exclusively pub shows, we did a lot in pubs, whereas One Over The Eight and the advertising show we only did pubs.

I remember Andy Andrews and I used to just go and play music in pubs as well – yes, in fact, several times when we had bands for shows, we would go and just play music. We’d charge, but we would play music.

I think that what Theresa Heskins did was move them out of village halls really and into going into more theatres. Which I thought was a loss, really.  But it is going back to village halls, which I think is great, I think that is a brilliant thing.  I don’t think that it has ever lost its political – I think that it did a little bit under Theresa, deliberately she didn’t want to, and she had a different agenda which was a perfectly viable agenda, so it did start to lose its political edge, but I think that since then it has come back.

They don’t now do the amount of community event performances –  does that reflect a national trend?

Yes, I think it does.  Yes, it reflects a social change really. There aren’t as many as those kinds of events.  There still are fetes, and there still are the big agricultural shows, but there aren’t as many harvest suppers, there aren’t as many of those village events.  There are still some, but not as many.  And I think that Pentabus moved on from doing that anyway.  They were still doing it when I was there, because I was still in the 7:84/Footsbarn era, I suppose.

In towns and cities, has the community stuff also withered a bit?

No, I don’t think so. Certainly not – in Sandwell and Dudley and the Black Country, it is still thriving, and I think a lot of that has to do with Black Country Touring, which is the company of Steve and Frances.  Their specific brief is to place theatre in community contexts, and so I have seen them in Smethwick Library, for example, I have seen them in community centres, again in Smethwick and West Brom, and they have done site specific things, they do some things in schools.  I think that one of the great things that they are doing is the Young Promoters Scheme, which is getting young people involved in the whole thing, from the generating ideas for a show, to choosing actors etc. and then booking it into schools and community venues and stuff, that sense of ownership. Yes, ownership of your community theatre is starting to come back again.

I think a lot of that notion of community arts was eroded in the Thatcher years by the erosion of the notion of community, the things went together, so if you haven’t got a belief in community, and you are encouraged not to have a belief in community, then those community events will be affected.

Funding as well?

Funding as well, yes.  Another great thing when I was writer in residence and artistic director, there was the West Midlands Theatre Federation, which was just a loose federation of all of the theatre companies that were working in the West Midlands, and they didn’t have to be funded, but a lot of them were.  Some meetings, the biggest we had was eighty, eighty theatre companies with different levels of funding.  And then towards the – I saw a lot of that removal of funding and things, so by the time that I left, there were less than thirty, and then those declined as well.  There are now more project funded companies in The Midlands, but for a while, there were none. Even some of the well established companies, Theatre Foundry, for example, which was founded at the same time as Pentabus and was known as Second City; that lost its funding.  Pentabus did for a while, but then there was a very successful campaign to get their funding re-instated, which was great.

What was the most innovative show that you can remember? 

I think that the site specific shows were very innovative in the way that they used sites, and the way the weather bought lots of different elements as well, and visually as well with Purvin’s designs – particularly there was Ringing Down The Shut, where everything was based on insects, basically, but they were human characters, and beautiful music by Sue Harris.  And I remember one particular one, where I only had little bits to do with this one, writing bits of script, was a play which was about attitudes to people with learning difficulties and physical difficulties and it was called – I think that it was called Silent Voices.  [Peter: I can’t find anything of this title in the archives – any other thoughts? Thanks.]  It used media: in a time when people didn’t have multi media shows, they used projection from different sources, along with live action, and it was quite full on and confrontational with its treatment of sex, etc.  I thought that was an influential and innovative show…

That was a site specific one?

No, it was a touring show.  That went to community venues and it went to quite a lot of health related venues. It was directed by Sheila Young, I remember that. [Peter: just checking this, as I can’t find her mentioned in the archives…]

Did that get any hostile press?

No, it didn’t get any hostile press at all.  We obviously got hostile press for Becca’s Children and hostile reactions particularly from Hereford and Worcester, and we were really teetering on the brink of losing our funding from them completely, because of that.  There was another one, I can’t remember what it was, I think this was to do with the community arts wing, it was about Clause 28, the anti-homosexual clause, and we did a project which challenged that quite overtly. And also, it must have been one of our shows which was going into schools, which was challenging, and there was a lot of right wing reaction to that about us promoting homosexuality in schools and taking a quite overt anti-government stance, at the time.  And again, I think we did lose some funding from Hereford and Worcester on that one.

You mentioned earlier, Ringing Down The Shut – where was that performed?

Ringing Down The Shut was at Old St Giles’ Church, in the cemetery grounds outside of it, and what is now called The Hive, which is where Shropshire Youth Arts are based, in Shrewsbury, on Belmont.

Everybody talks about Comus.

OK, I’ll tell you about Comus [1998], with the Roman numeral 2, after it.  Which was not even based on or inspired by the Comus, but because it was performed at Ludlow Castle as a masque for somebody or other, I can’t remember who, as I wasn’t really interested. I loved that show, because – there was a residency somewhere and that was a lot of young people from the Punjab anyway, I don’t know why or how, but they were involved in it, so we had a lot of Indian people. And we had Bharti Patel, who is an Indian actress who has done a lot of work with Pentabus, she was in it. But we went to town on that one.  Again it was Sue Harris did the music for it, and Rob Swinton was another actor, and I will tell you a story about him in a moment!  And we used the whole of the castle, so it was promenade, and we also used film in that, we had a film of people in catacombs, we filmed blowing up computers in a quarry. The premise was that the earth, this alternative earth was in an asteroid belt, and every so many hundreds of years, it would get hit by an asteroid and knock everything back, you would lose technology, etc.,   so knock it back to a more primitive time. That was inspired by the fact that at the time where I was thinking about it and thinking of writing it, there was that scare that some kind of huge object was hurtling to within several billion miles of the earth and so everybody was shitting themselves. And so we took that at the premise, and it was about attitudes about technology and superstition. And so Comus was a God, and Sabrina was the Goddess, and so we built up an alternative mythology and there was a romance tied in it as well. And we had Rob Swinton as the kind of priest of Comus, and we had this great moment where he came up on a scissor lift, on a throne and batwings unfolded as he came out and he looked amazing. And what I really enjoyed about it was he was terrified! ‘Is this safe?  This isn’t safe…’  ‘It’s fine! It’s been tested.’ It hadn’t, of course. He was very good, he was great in it. But I just remember that. In the end, he got to enjoy the fact that it was probably the best entrance he has ever had in his life!  So, that was Comus 2.

It got people in, thinking that they were going to watch a different version of Comus, thinking, ‘I don’t recognise any of this…’! I think that at times I used Milton’s verse structure and the particular metrical patterns that Milton used.

Anything else that you want to add?

No, I don’t think so. That was fun!

Thank you very much!

Reproduced here courtesy of Peter Cann

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