Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Joan Littlewood's THEATRE WORKSHOP Manifesto

The great theatres of all times have been popular theatres which reflected the dreams and struggles of the people.  The theatre of Aeschylus & Sophocles, of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, of the Commedia dell'Arte and Moliere derived their inspiration, their language, their art from the people. 

We want a theatre with a living language, a theatre which is not afraid of the sound of its own voice and which will comment as fearlessly on society as did Ben Jonson and Aristophanes.

Theatre Workshop is an organisation of artists, technicians and actors who are experimenting in stage-craft. 

This was the Theatre Workshop Manifesto in an early form.

Joan Littlewood as 'Mother Courage'
& if I'm not badly mistaken Harry H. Corbett playing with her.
I'd love to know who the third man is!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I believe the third man to be an actor called GEORGE COOPER (AKA Mr Griffiths from Grange Hill) the research was done for me by an actor from the year above me at East 15, Simon Arnold.  And here is a delightful link to an interview with him for the THEATRE ARCHIVE PROJECT - he begens to discuss Mother Courage on Page II.  http://www.bl.uk/projects/theatrearchive/cooper2.html

So, Joan always wanted to create theatre which was a vital force in society - just as it had been at other points in history. 

"Joan liked to think of us as taking the theatre to the people who were robbed of their theatre – dispossessed sort of thing" - George Cooper.

For me, the Theatre Workshop manifesto demonstrates Joans utter belief in her actors and her passion to inform, represent and entertain her audience.

I wonder if Jimmy Miller (better known as Ewan MacColl) had a hand in developing this particular manifesto - there is no doubt that he had a massive influence on Joan Littlewood.

"Dirty Old Town" as sung by Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger

During the 1930s, Ewan MacColl had started a performance group called the 'Red Megaphones' who'd been putting on songs and sketches for the striking workers during some tough disputes.

After a time, they changed their name to 'Theatre of Action" - they sought to create full-length plays and stated in their manifesto that they would only perform work which "expressed the lives and struggles of the workers" - it was around this time that they appeared on the radar of a youmg Joan Littlewood.  

Joan had studied at RADA.  When she graduated, she detested what she viewed as 'cosy theatre' - so rather than look for work in London, she travelled to Paris to find out more about the theatre in Europe. 

On her return she spent a short time working in Rep in Manchester and on a BBC Radio documentary about the building of the Mersey Tunnel - it was probably whilst working at the BBC that she met Ewan MacColl and joined Theatre of Action. 

Now a bold force, MacColl & Littlewood tried to get visas to visit Russia in order to study how they approached theatre in Moscow - but they didn't get visas and so they set about working on a manifesto for "Theatre of Action" - it was to include their belief that "theatre must join the battle between the oppressor and the oppressed" - Not a million miles away from what the idea that the late great Augusto Boal was to go on to develop in Brazil.

Joan Littlewood's portrait as can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.

Inspired by Copeau, Joan and Ewan didn't want their actors to be merely be trained in body and voice, but to educate themselves in political thought, classical literature & theatre technology. They wanted them fully educated and empowered!  This is how they worked for a time.  And then came the war. 

WWII dispersed the group, but a few of them continued with the educational work they'd started & which was of huge importance to the group philosophy.  At this time Joan returned to BBC Radio where she met Gerry Raffles who would become the love of her life and her husband until his death in 1975. 

After the war, Joan wrote to each of the "Theatre of Action" members asking them to reunite - and from this point on the story of Theatre Workshop is best told in the beautiful "Theatre Workshop Story" by Howard Goorney -  a MUST for anybody interested in the history of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.  The book is currently out of print but copies can be found from second sellers on Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Theatre-Workshop-Story-Howard-Goorney/dp/0413487601/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344362325&sr=8-1

It is worth noting that Theatre Workshop was set up as a collaborative venture and whilst Joan was their director and a huge source of energy and inspiration for the group, she did not set it up as HER company, rather as a workers co-operative in which they all drew the same salary, all had an equal voice in the decision making process and were all an equal part of the ensemble.  And it was on this basis that Joan made a famous quote:

"I do not believe in the supremacy of the director, designer, actor or even the writer.  It is through collaboration that this knockabout art of theatre survives and kicks"

Finally, here is a link to a lovely tribute to Joan Littlewood in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2008/mar/04/joanlittlewoodwillneverbe

Joan Littlewood 1914 -2002

SOURCE OF MOST OF THIS INFORMATION: "Directors Theatre" by David Bradby & David Williams.  A superb book which looks at the importance of process to seven major practitioners, including Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook & Ariane Mnouchkine.  Unfortunately, it is currently out of print but available from second sellers on amazon UK:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Directors-Theatre-Modern-dramatists-Bradby/dp/0333294254/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1344361021&sr=8-2

"If we don’t get lost, we’ll never find a new route" - JOAN LITTLEWOOD

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