Experienced writer/directors Philip Dart and Claudia Leaf from Scene Three Creative explain how a local legend can provide inspiration for your next play.
If you’ve spent the last couple of weeks searching online for the next play for your amateur group to perform, you may have concluded that it’s hard to find plays that both suit your actors’ talents and work well for a local audience. However, the answer might be right under your nose.
Our communities are full of amazing stories, as we discovered some years ago when we were awarded Arts Council funding to explore the myths and legends being kept alive through word of mouth in Kent’s towns and villages. The purpose behind the project was to find a story that could be turned into a touring play, and our early research uncovered a wealth of potential ideas.
The tale that stood out for everybody was a bizarre and unlikely-sounding account of Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to the coastal town of Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, which ultimately led residents to believe that they would receive an elephant as a royal gift.
There’s a general assumption that elephants didn’t enter the UK until the Victorian era, when they became popular in touring circuses. However our research revealed that as early as 1256 king Henry III received an elephant as a gift from Louis IX of France and ordered his Sheriffs to place it in the Tower of London.
By the Elizabethan era UK citizens had therefore acquired a sketchy knowledge of elephants, but they were thought of in much the same way that people imagined unicorns or mermaids: as semi-mythical creatures. In our play – which successfully toured theatres and village halls in Kent as “Queen Elizabeth’s Elephant” – we explored the effect that the creature’s imminent arrival might have on the credulous people of a sleepy provincial town.
The legend gave us a colourful leading character in the town’s mayor, William Garton. Garton is a thatcher who causes Queen Elizabeth great hilarity (not to mention some embarrassment) when, in his eagerness to greet her, he falls off a roof he is working on and spectacularly splits his trousers. Trouble ensues when the Queen’s promise to send him a new pair of britches each year turns into an annual humiliation, as Garton is reminded of his shame in front of the queen. He writes to her asking that the trousers be replaced by a gift for the town, and a letter duly arrives, apparently promising to send the town an elephant.
Unsurprisingly, this news plunges the townsfolk into a panic and the people are split between those who fear the beast’s arrival and those who see an opportunity to cash in on curious visitors. Mayor Garton begins to show a ruthless side – displacing villagers homes in his desperation to accommodate the elephant – and almost everyone finds their lives are transformed (not always for the better) as they strive to profit from the beast’s arrival.
To complete the dramatis personae we added a range of supporting characters, including the mayor’s long suffering wife, who seldom sees her workaholic husband and is desperate to conceive a child; the local priest, who fancies himself as a famous choirmaster; the landlady of the local inn who is keen to attract tourists to the town and finally the larger-than-life figure of Jan de Bleecker, a Dutch conman who claims to be an expert on elephant care. We also ramped up the comic elements by including a naïve ‘Elephant chorus’ – a group of mummers dressed (badly) as elephants, who introduce the story and act as narrators throughout the play. However the chorus members are not quite what they seem and, as chaos mounts, they begin to assume a much more sinister role.
Although the piece delighted audiences wherever it went, unsurprisingly the best response of all was in Queenborough, where residents felt it was ‘their’ play and turned out in force to clap, whistle and shout for it. The power of telling a local story was plain for everyone to see, and to this day – some seven years on – people still talk about “our elephant play”. So is your town or village concealing a similar story, with the potential to create a box office busting drama or comedy?
There are two ways to out – either invite a local group of senior citizens to the pub and ask them about the stories they were told as a child, or visit your local library to undertake some research (it hardly needs pointing out that the first option is more fun – but don’t forget to take notes).
Good luck with your research, and if you don’t manage to turn up a great local legend, don’t forget you can always visit our script bank at http://www.scenethreecreative.co.uk for inspiration.