The Community Play

In Britain

Ann Jellicoe is a British playwright, already well known in the fifties and sixties as the writer of such plays as The Knack and The Sport of My Mad Mother. In the 1970’s she moved from London to the small town of Lyme Regis, Dorset, to raise a family. In 1978 Ann was asked to write a play for her children’s school. It evolved into something quite different from the usual school play: it was large scale, included people from all sections of the town, was based upon historical research of the area by local people, and was animated by a team of theatre professionals – friends and colleagues she brought in from London. She had happened upon a unique formula – for what has since become known as The Community Play. The following year she formed the Colway Theatre Trust as a vehicle for exploring and developing this innovative style of theatre. Anne Jellicoe also wrote a book, Community Plays, How to Put Them On, a practical manual, which was itself influential in spreading the idea through the U.K. and in Canada.

Anne Jellicoe was succeeded in 1985 as Artistic Director of the Colway Theatre Trust by Jon Oram, a trained and internationally known mime, teacher, writer, performer and director. The company (whose name has now changed to Claque Theatre) attracted the best of British writers including David Edgar, Arnold Wesker, Fay Weldon, Peter Terson, Howard Barker, David Cregan, John Godber and Nick Darke, and two of its productions transferred to the National Theatre in 1985. The company’s work has bee performed and also inspired the work of other artists and companies the length and breath of Britain, in Europe, the United States and Canada.

In Canada

In the 1990’s Canadian writer, Dale Hamilton, moved back to her home town of Rockwood, Ontario, just over an hour’s drive from Toronto, to discover her family farm-land sold off to land developers and the whole rural community about to be superseded by commuter suburbs. While seeking a way to respond to this through her art and activism, she happened upon the British Community Play movement, as developed by Ann Jellicoe. With the help of a Canada Council study grant, she spent some time in the U.K. with the company that Anne Jellicoe founded, The Colway Theatre Trust, by then under the artistic direction of Jon Oram. Greatly inspired by what she discovered, Dale wrote and produced the first Canadian Colway-style Collaborative Community Play, The Spirit of Shivaree, performed in the ruins of the old Rockwood Mill in 1990.

This production, with it’s astonishing aesthetic and social outcomes (prompting, for example, several company members, to run for Municipal Council and help to develop a new town plan, and sparking community arts activities that continue to this day), launched a Canadian movement and inspired, through a chain reaction, the subsequent careers of theatre creator-producers across the country: including Rachael Van Fossen (founder of Common Weal in Saskatchewan), Ruth Howard (founder of Jumblies Theatre), Cathy Stubington (founder or Runaway Moon Theatre in Enderby B.C.), Savannah Walling & Terry Hunter (of Vancouver Moving Thaetre), and Dale Hamilton herself (creator of many other community-engaged productions under the name of Everybody’s Theatre Company). The Canadian Community Play movement has also been chronicled by and promoted by the scholarly writings of Edward Little (now Professor at Concordia University’s Theatre and Development Program).

Other Canadian companies and traditions, for example the St. Norbert’s Art Centre in Winnipeg and Toronto’s Mixed Company, were inspired by this movement to create their own productions that drew on the principles and practices of this Community Play form. At the same time, other Canadian companies were producing large-scale community-based participatory plays, inspired by parallel theatre traditions: for example Vancouver’s Public Dreams Society, and Toronto’s Shadowland Theatre (both inspired by Welfare State International) and the Roots and Wings project on Bear Island, Northern Ontario.

Before long, the imported British Community Play form, began to mutate to suit its new Canadian soil. The key producers and their communities began to experiment with new approaches that increasingly played with and altered the Community Play form while retaining its compelling guiding principles.

And this brings us back to the present, and to a story that is unfolding too fast and diversely to keep up with on this website. For more up-to-date news on the Community Play legacy, the reader is invited to send a message to us at Jumblies, and also to explore the following links:

Dramatic Action
Off the Radar Essay: Easy To Say

The Spirit of Shivaree (1990)

Eramosa Community Play • Rockwood, Ontario
Produced by Dale Hamilton & the Colway Theatre Trust
Writer: Dale Hamilton
Composer:  James Gordon
Director: Jon Oram
Assistant Director: Rachael Van Fossen
Musical Director: James Gordon
Set Designer: Arndt Von Holzendorff
Costume Designer: Ruth Howard

Pa’Ko’Pi’Ci’Wak/The Gathering (1993)

The Calling Lakes Community Play • Fort Quappelle, Saskatchewan

Producer: Rachael Van Fossen
Co-Writers & Directors: Rachael Van Fossen and Darrell Wildcat
Musical Director: Billy Morton
Costume Designer: Jo Dibb
Set, Puppets, Mask Designer: Ruth Howard
Lighting Designer: Ralph Skene

Many Hands (1993)

The Blyth and District Community Play

Producer: the Blyth Festival
Writer: Dale Hamilton
Director: Jon Oram
Costume, Puppet & Mask Design: Ruth Howard
Set and Lighting Design: Ange Zhang

The Torbay Tempest 1995

A community play in Torquay, England, combining an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest with local history about a Spanish Armada ship wrecked on the Torbay shores, a poor boy hung for stealing a pig, and a rich woman getting married against her will, set in a historical stone barn.

Produced by the Devon Shakespeare Project & Colway Theatre Trust
Writer, Director: Jon Oram
Designer: Ruth Howard

Pilgrim in Time (1997)

Toronto, Ontario • The Saint James Cathedral 250th Anniversary Community Play

Producer: St. James Cathedral & Flying Blind Theatre Events
Writer: Julie Salverson
Director: Ted Little
Designer: Ruth Howard
Professional actors: Thomas Hauff & George Pothitos

All Over the Map (1998)

Guelph/ Eramosa Township

A community play which took place on 4 tour buses, using the metaphor of a marriage to express the issue of amalgamation of two rural townships (Guelph & Eramosa)

Produced by Dale Hamilton and Everybody’s Theatre Company (ETC)
Writer: Dale Hamilton
Composer: James Gordon
Director: Kim Renders
Designer: Ruth Howard

Not the Way I Heard It (1999)

The Enderby and District community play, B.C.

Produced by Cathy Stubington
Writers: James F. Tait, Cathy Stubinston, Rosalind Williams
Directors: James F. Tait, Rosalind Williams
Musical Director: Murray MacDonald
Designers: Cathy Stubington, Ruth Howard

E-Time (2000)

A community play in Salford, England, romping through several centuries of history in a futuristic fantasy, set in a local shopping mall.

Producer: Salford Open Theatre
Writer: Maggie Willett
Director: Michael Harris
Designer: Ruth Howard