Reflections on the work of Recreation Ground from Graham Lucas, Frances Rifkin and Maureen Simpson, 2013:
Frances: We had a lot to learn about writing political/social plays when we moved out of our highly successful stint in Lunchtime Theatre. We were plagued by notions of Agit Prop which we eventually realised was useful only in certain contexts. Do You Remember Cable Street? was mechanical and clumsily written but the audiences were supportive and welcoming. Remember Cable Street worked better – we’d learnt a lot. Maybe some of our best work was for young people: it really reached a crucial audience and entertained and excited them. But Twelve Shifts of Gear and Resistance, both for adults, were well received and wonderfully community-based. Resistance was conceived when I lived on the Grunwick’s picket line with Maureen and the actors for weeks. I am really proud of Carrots, Rewards and AF-OK! and remember a performance of the latter where the boys were on the edge of their seats…eyes…round… wanting to know what happened next as the story of fascism was revealed. They had actually won.
Maureen: I am proud of Resistance but my only regret is that we didn’t have enough money to do a bigger production. The women of Grunwick were happy to talk to us and to assist us with their story… I went up to the Grunwick’s picket line nearly every morning to support the workers and we got very close and involved with them. My dog used to come with me and was known as ‘the little picket’.
Frances: Resistance was very Brechtian, very clean…a very effective piece of work. We were not just a theatre company but were part of a political movement and the plays were to support the struggle.
Maureen: We made a conscious decision, sometimes struggling with the method, to take work with some serious content out to the community of all ages. In those days, that was not a prestigious thing to do.
Challenges of political theatre
Being a socialist company had its downside in that they received telephone threats from the National Front and Column 88. The NF also tried to wreck a production in Bradford. They demanded to be let in but as the show played on, Maureen kept the police talking until the show was over. The company was amused that the police ended up protecting them as they loaded the van at the end of the show. ‘We wonder if the attack by the NF had any connection with the burning down of Unity Theatre after a Recreation Ground performance with Peoples’ Liberation Music on November 3rd, just before the Bradford incident on the 20th November.’ No evidence has emerged around this. In Andersonstown, Belfast, United We Stand received a visit from the army at the end of the show while the audience was singing the Internationale. ‘The soldiers waved their guns at us…they didn’t know what to do… and eventually left.’
The company worked as a strong collective. Actors employed for a specific play had immediate collective rights over their work but not for the long-term policy. ‘We argued and argued and argued, with everybody and each other but the work on the whole was consensual and people were behind it.’ Company policy was to unite on specific issues and to hack out a collective position. This worked and actors with many views including conservative ones, worked with them.
On the issue of Maoism, (Frances was a Maoist until around 1976) company policy ensured that all views were included in the course of a debate. In retrospect, Mao’s cultural analysis, as a form of early cultural studies theory, was genuinely influential. ‘In the world today, all culture, all literature, and all art belong to definite classes that are geared to definite political values. There is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake – art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent from politics.’
Making process primary
A continuous theme throughout the period Recreation Ground operated, and one upon which we had many discussions, was the importance of making ‘process’ primary. This was in opposition to the prevailing consumerism, which always posited the primacy of the product and made the process of its manufacture entirely secondary.
Making process primary entailed various requirements –
‘Firstly, so that all company members could engage in the process of shaping and developing the work, a collective company structure was put in place.
Secondly, we eschewed playing in mainstream theatre venues where the audiences were habituated to regarding plays simply as products for their consumption, and instead embarked on establishing circuits of new venues and creating new audiences who were more readily open to experiencing theatre in other ways. To this end, a discussion was always held after the show so the audience was able to both engage with the work and with each other, and the actors engage with the audience in a less formalised way.
Thirdly, we moved towards the whole company taking part in devising the work; a more open rehearsal process in which the performers were encouraged both to develop their own skills and take ownership of the aims of the work.’
Sets, design and posters
Sets were designed, not as a ‘product’ provided as a setting for the performers, but as a process the whole company was engaged in, which involved the ‘get-in’, erecting, performing with and ‘striking’ understood as a coherent whole. This led to a design specification that sets should be easily dismountable and packable as small, light-weight, modular units, be easily ‘carryable’ by any company member and fit through standard doors; and that the ‘get-in’ and ‘get-out’ should each never take more than 45 minutes. This was in contradistinction to the mainstream approach that sets were ‘products’ that were added to a show, often as an ‘ego-trip’ for their designers.
Publicity posters were designed, not as ‘product promotions’ as is normal in a consumer society, but as invitations to engage in the company’s process.