Bringing Local History To Life

Bringing Local History To Life

Experienced writer/directors Philip Dart and Claudia Leaf from Scene Three Creative offer help and advice on creating a play from local history records.

Have you ever had one of those lightbulb moments, when you read a story from local history and think “That would make a great play?”

The villagers of Ash, in Kent, had just such a moment when they came up with the idea of a community play, which could literally bring their ancestors’ stories to life.

Ash’s local historians wanted to preserve a rich cache of records owned by the village. These documents related to the Swing Riots of the 1830s, when agricultural labourers who were fearful of losing their livelihoods set out to break the farm machines that threatened their jobs.

The village had collected testimonies from the local law courts, personal stories and accounts of rebellious acts written by contemporaries – more than enough to form the basis for an exciting play. They also had a fundraising target to raise money for a local heritage centre, and believed that an entertainment based on the real-life stories of the Swing Riots would be the perfect way to attract donations.

The result was a fantastic, site-specific performance that used the geography of the village to tell the village’s stories. Scenes were played out in the high street (using the doors and windows of a cottage dating from the Swing Riots period), in the graveyard, in the church (where the local choir had their moment in the spotlight) and in the local pub. In smaller performance spaces the audience – led by stewards – was split in two and the two halves of the audience simply swapped over.

The donations collected helped significantly towards building the heritage centre and the script itself (written by Claudia Leaf from Scene Three Creative) has since become part of the village’s historical record.

Here are some tips for producing your own local history performance

– If you’re not confident about writing dialogue, explore court records from the time. You may find accounts of actual conversations that you can use.
– Look for contemporary poems, or songs, that could be included in the action
– Don’t feel you have to produce a full-length play lasting two hours or more. If you are planning to perform in different venues, the performance will take longer because of the time it takes to move the audience, and four or five short scenes will probably be enough.
– If you are hoping to perform in a public area such as a street, you’ll need to apply to your local authority for permission. They will expect you to carry out detailed risk assessments of the areas you choose and you may also need to apply for a performance licence.
– Keep costumes simple. A suggestion of period costume is fine if you can’t afford to dress your larger-than-usual community cast.

There are various sources of funding you could apply to if you wanted to produce a really spectacular town or village event (funding could also provide a writer’s fee if you don’t want to write the script yourself). Try the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Sharing Heritage’ awards (with awards of £3,000-£10,000) or the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Awards for All’ (with grants available up to £10,000). Be aware, however, that you will need to raise a proportion of match funding for these funding streams and most funders will want to see an element of sustainability – ie a part of the activity that will make a lasting difference or continue after the main project has been completed.

So if you’ve chosen to create your own community play, good luck. You’re embarking on a project that will not only create great interest amongst audiences now, but which may itself become part of local history in years to come.

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