THEATRE: Sharing One Spirit, One Breath by Sylvia le Breton.
The first community drama I directed was in the year of the Millennium. Thirty minutes after the ending of our open-air drama, “One Breath,” the heavens opened. Next day, the rain continued, and as we paddled in the quagmire dismantling the scaffolding, which held the set, the same comment was repeated: “Weren’t we lucky? If this had happened yesterday, we’d have been washed out.”
Of course I agreed, but I didn’t tell them about the angels: the ones holding the giant umbrella over the area of Cannon Hall Country Park, Cawthorne during the four nights that we presented our play.
You don’t believe me? That’s because you weren’t there. I heard them on the last night, just after the show ended.
“Or reight lads” (you mean you didn’t know that angels speak with a Yorkshire accent?) ”They’re dun – let it go.” And that’s when it rained.
It might seem that plans for the play began in September 1998 with a meeting to discuss the possibility of a community drama for the Millennium; in reality the play began some years earlier at the Subud Congress on The Isle of Wight.
At the end of a session, we each asked to receive about our talents. There I was, surrounded by lots of people. There was music, lights, action! At the end of the test I shouted out, “Let the kettle drum be sounded! Then I burst out laughing.
Then the doubts, of course. Who - me? You’re joking. After Spokane I bought a book by Ann Jellicoe on community drama. This was it: a community drama for the Millennium. It all fitted; all the aspects of theatre, which I most loved, could be there:
It could be simple and accessible to all. It could be inclusive of all ages and abilities. It could relate to people’s lives. It could touch people and hopefully, uplift. It could celebrate not just the particular but the universal
We set to work. A committee was formed; funds were raised; we applied for grants and the money came. At first I looked for a writer for the play but gradually came to feel that I must write it myself. Adrienne Thomas encouraged; Kadarijah Gardiner advised and contributed two stonking good songs. If I doubted, I tested and always the receiving was the same, “The people and story are there, just find them.” The subject of the play was crucial of course. If this was going to work it needed a strong story line and real people depicted who would engage the audience. It must celebrate local history but be universal enough to appeal to all those coachloads who would drive up the M1 to see it. (They did – well, a mini bus!) Cawthorne is now a commuter village but still a farming area with many working farms. We took a true incident: a farmer takes 100 store lambs to market; they fetch £5 a lamb; it is the last straw. He leaves the market and walks up the hillside; there is a tree, a rope and then comes the vision. The play unfolds through the eyes of the farmer and the spirit of his dead grandmother. Together they discover the lives of their ancestors. The character of the grandmother is central to the play: strong, loving, feisty and flawed. She is not there to moralise, simply to witness. Although the basic story is serious, there is much laughter, lots of action, including a battle between Normans and Saxons and a dance sequence choreographed by “The Full Monty” choreographer, Suzanne Grand. Over 130 people were involved, 91 actually performing, many never having performed before. I always believed that it would work but never realised just how well. People kept coming forward to help. We had raised £18,000 but spent less than half because so many people offered their services free. Our cast cut right across the village divides. Our youngest member was 7, our eldest 76. Friendships were forged, old enmities healed. People who had not spoken for years were now arm in arm. “Aren’t we lucky?” we said.
After the first performance we were sold out. The word went round and everyone wanted to be there. What can I say? It just worked and the impact was amazing. There was something there, and it had precious little to do with me. The word “magic” was used a lot, also the word “privilege.” Cast and audience alike felt it. One cast member said “It was like being in church.” It was the latihan of course. What else is there to say except that it was the musical director who first suggested that our modest musical ensemble should include a kettle-drum? It was great when it sounded during the refrain of the final song: “Sharing one spirit, sharing one breath.”