Directors Report On Lorry Theatre - 1969

Submitted by root on Mon, 07/17/2017 - 16:04

Lorry Theatre took place very early in the Blackie's history  and it was the first attempt of working with communities in the open air.  Bill Harpe directed the event and, not surpringly, his Report On Lorry Theatre considers the role of the arts and artists when working with audiences who traditionally have had little or no relationships with either.


 "More art for more people" is a dangerous political slogan - apparently unifying such diverse activities as Ballet for All, (a touring group set up to promote the repertory and aesthetics of the Royal Ballet) and the theatre of Joan Littlewood (which has produced such shows as 'Oh What A Lovely War' and the plans for a Fun Palace.)  The slogan makes no distinction between two quite different convictions: that art in its traditional forms should be preserved and more of the community should be 'educated' to appreciate these forms - and the conviction that if the arts are to appeal once again to a wider audience then the arts them­selves must begin to change (i.e. arts and artists themselves are as much in need of 'education' or change.) Both convictions are capable of providing a firm basis for artistic activity, each approach deserving (once the principle of public patronage for the arts is accepted) a substantial measure of public support.

To date, almost all public money has gone to promote the former approach (which in general terms has meant the very expensive promotions of 'Opera House and Repertory Theatre Culture'); and virtually no public money at all has gone on the latter. Lorry Theatre Expedition, jointly promoted through grants from the Merseyside Arts Association and Great Georges Project - but only made possible because of substantial support from business and industry and from a large (and generally unpaid) cast - falls into the latter category.

Like much art attempting to develop relevant contemporary forms, Lorry Theatre Expedition was primitive. A 50 foot long and 20 foot high scaffolding whale, set up in an open space in a city by a bus stop, remains - in spite of any sophistication of thought behind the design and of 20th century equipment (slot-in scaffolding, electronics, public address system etc.) - a basically primitive statement. At its best the production was something of a primitive miracle. Viewed on the large scale - the building and transformation of huge images in an urban environment (a whale, a ship, a dragon, a space-craft) - the production always had magic and surprise; though the full magical possibilities of the concept could only be realised with more sophisticated structural materials. Viewed for its 'stage performances' on the small platform set in one side of the images, the production sometimes had magic (community singing, one child captivating a large audience, a news story that held everyone's attention) and sometimes hadn't (the performers looking in need of more direction, of imaginative costumes and characters, of richer material to work from.). I was generally satisfied and convinced by the validity and viability of the project; sometimes delighted by the life which was generated; and sometimes ashamed that we hadn't made real the full potential of the project before taking it out into the area.

In Lorry Theatre we attempted to set up a situation in which the community and the artist could (and for a performance to succeed had to) meet. This was literally 'taking art to the community' and the 'art' needed to be able (like a piece of substantial Renaissance sculpture) to stand up for itself in the real world if it was not to suffer the sort of fate which the Arts Council's Open Air Sculpture Exhibition suffered at the Goree Piazza, Liverpool, (where the sculpture had to be taken away for hospitalisation and repair after ten days exposure to the realities of city life.)

It was in the nature of Lorry Theatre project that each performance took as much of its character from the site and from the people who passed by or stood to watch as it did from the artists/builders/performers who 'created' the show.

The performances at Huyton and Speke were both sunny and successful with performers, young and old, coming up on stage to perform, and an interested good-humoured crowd standing for much of the day (though of the two Speke was potentially the 'rougher' situation). The performance at Crosby, in poor weather, was distinguished by the social contact between cast and audiences local housewives brought us pots of tea, coffee, even toast and boiled eggs; conversations started, we were invited into homes for soup, for tea, to sit and talk; perhaps one of the nicest parts of the Crosby performance was when a group of singers and children, sheltering from the wind by the side of a block of flats, sang folk-songs into the late evening while the scaffolding was being taken down. At Kirkby (on August Bank Holiday) the performance was created by the audience who took over the stage and made their own entertain­ment, singing and dancing on stage and sometimes around the structure as well; for a good part of the afternoon there was no need for us to do much more than play records during a break while one group of performers was taking over from another and to build the images around the performance. The Liverpool, Bull Ring, performance was rough - the audience consisted mainly of kids and they did not find what we had to offer satisfactory.

This was the one case in which Lorry Theatre failed to come to terms with the environment - the most you can say was that we got in and got out unscathed. Birkenhead was friendly if rough - with young people bringing along their records for us to play, and the atmosphere (at its best) something like a fairground. Bootle was a very successful performance with folk-singers and poets coming out of the audience to perform; with a standing audience (in good weather) for much of the afternoon; and with children arriving after school to sing songs, play Pied Piper musical games, and to chase or be chased by Spring Heel Jack. The performance on St. Georges Plateau, Liverpool was by far our 'quietest'; a case of us entertaining the audience (with sports news and a very successful dragon image on a Saturday afternoons) there was little or no audience participation. The other two Liverpool performances varied from the excited invasion of the whale by some 300 children (Harlow Street), to an occasion in Catherine Street where the at first puzzled passers-by gradually grew into a fair sized audience, the performance ending with business men with umbrellas and young kids all making flowers together and hanging these flowers from the hessian covered scaffolding structure.

We were very fortunate with the weather - only one cancellation out of a programme of ten performances in eleven days. The duration of the stage performances depended on the location - generally starting around lunch time and ending around closing time (about 6 o'clock) on sites primarily associated with shopping centres; where the site was primarily associated with blocks of flats we could obviously, in some instances, have gone on through the night if we'd had the energy. 'Drive up' time on site was generally around 10.30 am; 'drive away' time was usually a little after 9 pm. Of the sites visited three (Birkenhead, Kirkby, and the Bull Ring) were perhaps too close to the flats themselve.

The original aim of the show had been

 a)  to entertain an audience, and to get the audience to entertain themselves

 b)  to build large images (the whale, the space-ship etc.), and to get the music, poems, songs etc. to relate to these images

 c)  to play games on and around the images and structure.

The City Building Surveyor to Liverpool Corporation strongly advised us against (c) ('I recommend therefore that this aspect of your activities be not proceeded with', letter of 15th August 1969) We reluctantly accepted this advice - though this put an unexpected strain on the entertainment part of the show, which then had to run for a period of something like 6 hours continuously each day. (We developed a technique which began to deal with this something close to a living newspaper).

We had hoped (see original script) to be able to let the audience climb rope cargo nets on to the 'ship's to 'dive off' into a foam rubber sea: to run obstacle races through the structures etc. With professional teachers in the cast we had a nucleus of people qualified and prepared to play with children a situation which doesn't exist in the majority of playgrounds and certainly not in the streets, deserted buildings, and rubbish tips where many of the children we visited play regularly.

The difficulties encountered at the Bull Ring came from the fact that the kids wanted and expected to be allowed to play on and round the structure. They swung on the lower bars of the scaffolding, stole newspapers and ran around waving them, appeared flourishing large fibre glass tubes (which they'd taken from somewhere but not from us) all signs, as a chance visitor from the University Education Department remarked, that the kids really wanted to play and be involved with the structure rather than stand and be entertained.

We don't believe that the games we were offering (to adults as well as the young) were any more dangerous than the invitation to play in a playground, join in a game of football or play Christmas games. I feel convinced after the experiences of this summer that games can and should play an important part in projects such as this. In any future project discussions with the appropriate Local Authority officers might begin at an early stage (one of the problems this summer was the relative shortage of time available for such discussions).

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the production (outside the performances themselves) was the co-operation and support we received from business and industry - without this the production would not have been a possibility. A good deal is talked and written about the involvement of art and industry and there is no doubt that Lorry Theatre Expedition was remarkable in this respect. Such a production would certainly have cost thousands had all the equipment and services to be paid for, and a number of the services (such as rehearsal facilities at RAF, Woodvale) represent the sort of help which it would be difficult to buy. I think one reason for the generous help and assistance is that this was not solely 'a fine arts' project, but had an evident relation with social work and education and with a concern for environment and community development as well as with the arts.

To quote from the original press releases 'The show relates - in part - to other summer endeavours such as playgrounds and playgroups which while the schools are closed for six weeks, attempt to begin to do something about those problems which begin from boredom and end in vandalism and shop-lifting.'

The other remarkable aspect of Lorry Theatre was the attention it received on TV, on radio and in the press. There were films of the performance on both Granada and BBC, coverage on Radio Merseyside, and press coverage in the "Birkenhead News", "Bootle Times Herald", "Castle Street Circular", "Crosby Herald", "Daily Telegraph", "The Guardian", "Kirkby Reporter", "Liverpool Daily Post", 'Liverpool Echo", "Plays and Players". It is true that unusual contemporary art activities are dangerously prone to press coverage (and frequently in terms of ironic humour if not of ridicule); such press coverage can be a handicap rather than an asset. However, virtually all the press coverage was positive in its praise of the performances and of the idea. At a time when much press coverage of the contemporary fine arts sets out to ridicule, it is something of a compliment that we were treated in the way we were (and every reporter who wrote about Lorry Theatre did so after visiting a performance). In addition Lorry Theatre was treated as news rather than art (making, for example, the front page of the Saturday night "Echo"). And so, just as the perform­ances themselves were seen by people who might never go into a theatre, the news of Lorry Theatre and its aims was presented as news to newspaper readers who might have avoided it had it been printed on the art page.

Because it represented, in some ways, a new departure in theatre, it is difficult to make comparisons between Lorry Theatre Expedition and other theatre productions. Lorry Theatre was created as contemporary theatre for an urban situation - an event which would have significance if you drove past it, saw it from a bus, walked past, or stayed and joined the standing audience. The show had no conventional 'story-line' beginning and end - you didn't have to be there at the 'beginning' in order to gather information which would explain the rest of the action* Under such circum­stances it is difficult for example to calculate the size of the 'audience'; but certainly something of the order of 10,000 people must have 'seen' Lorry Theatre; and of these some 2,000 were 'captured' and stayed to stand for a time. The audience for BBC's Look North saw a 5 minute film made at a performance.

Comparative production costs are also difficult to obtains it would certainly be considerably more expensive to create a Lorry Theatre tour and to meet the actual costs involved than to subsidise the overheads for a 3 or 6 week season by a repertory company. On the other hand 'one off' events (with a cast and personnel assembled for a relatively short season) are generally more expensive than a long term or continuing project. And an event which has to be created from nothing (by commissioning writers, musicians, designers, etc.) is generally more expensive than a production created around an already existing script or scenario by interpretive artists.

The outgoing expenditure on repertory theatre in Liverpool over a year (inclusive of administrative overheads and some capital expenditure) must be at least of the order of £100,000. A touring summer Lorry Theatre playing in the open spaces of Merseyside would (to cover transport, equipment, production team, a nucleus of professional performers, and an imaginative array of props and costumes, ) need a grant of some thousands of pounds. It is only fair to remember here that repertory theatres have a box office income, whereas a Lorry Theatre project would not - though an imaginative production might well tempt a TV company to pay for filming; and a film made by a film unit associated with the production might bring in a continuing income for some years after the tour. There is also an argument - which I believe to be true - that a production such as Lorry Theatre should never be wholly professional but should, in addition to allowing the audience to perform, give opportunities for work under professional direction to talented non-professionals, students, young people from other countries etc.