The Common - Production Blog

Production Team

Producer - Fin Irwin

Associate Producers - China Plate (Paul Warwick and Ed Collier)
Director - Ben Lewis
Writers - Nick Walker (Lead writer)
Hattie Naylor
Charlotte Josephine
Inua Ellams
Tim Cowbury
Actors - Charlotte Melia
Martin Hyder
Designer - Gary Campbell
Lighting Design - Rachael Duthie
Sound Design - Tim Atack
Stage Manager - Justine Bock

Review by Catherine Courtenay: The Common at Dolton Village Hall

Having driven to a village in the middle of the countryside, then run along a dark street to arrive, rain soaked, at a community hall, it seemed fitting to be going to watch a play about the rural environment.  

Dolton Village Hall was the venue for the premiere performance of The Common, a 90 minute production consisting of five short plays, the result of a year-long project involving five writers, China Plate Theatre Company, two North Devon rural communities and Beaford Arts. 

Beaford's got a long history of staging professional drama and music performances in rural villages and in more recent years it's developed an even closer relationship to the local environment by working with government agencies and wildlife organisations to promote, protect and celebrate an area of Devon now given global recognition as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. One of the sub projects linked to the biosphere is the North Devon Nature Improvement area, or NIA. The government has identified a section of land in the upper Torridge region where the landscape and wildlife is given special status – it’s one of only 12 such areas in the country. Led by Devon Wildlife Trust, various agencies are tasked with environmental projects - and all this is done by working with landowners, farmers and the rural communities that exist within the NIA. 

What Beaford does, as a ‘cultural partner’ is reach out to people on the ground, to cut through the agency talk and scientific papers to make the whole concept of biosphere and NIAs understandable and meaningful to people. And this is precisely what The Common does. It was powerful, emotional, often humorous theatre, where two actors and five writers held a mirror to our thoughts, challenged our preconceptions, and left us with plenty of food for thought. 

Taking the question, ‘what is the value of our landscape?’, the writers produced five mini plays, made up of conversations between two characters. To do this they spent time in the two chosen communities, Dolton and Hatherleigh, listened to people, walked the landscape and learnt about North Devon. 

The plays were held together within the concept of an auction; the hall was laid out like an auction room, everything up for sale. The actors, Martin Hyder and Charlotte Melia, moved among us; we were very much involved, very much a part of the performance. Different lots were held up - a camera, a milk bottle, a pair of wellies - leading nicely into each of the plays and the 'what's it worth?' question.  In the first play by Hattie Naylor two siblings discuss the view, and ask the question - what would you pay for it? One photographs it - photos are worth something. Does the family own it, or are they simply stewarding it for future generations? It's so appreciated, but who will take responsibility for the land? Big questions were followed by a more intimate piece. Some of the dialogue in Charlotte Josephine’s piece was heartbreaking as a daughter returning home to her family farm tries to talk to her father. Her pain at feeling so attached to the land, yet so affected by the pull of her city life was deeply moving. There were times when the performance became uncomfortable. In Blood and Earth, by Tim Cowbury, a wealthy couple reflect two very different but equally disturbing attitudes to the countryside. As they stare out at the audience, she marvels at our adorableness, how gorgeous we all are; she wants to hug us, it’s part of his heritage, she says, which is why she's bought it - or us - for him. Turning from his mobile phone for a moment, the man - bitter, angry, bored - tells us exactly what he'll do to us. He’ll pour chemicals into us, work us to death, make the most of every last scrap of us. But what are we? Sheep, cows, trees, locals? We were none and all of those things. At no point did the writing lapse into stereotypes. Nothing was clear cut or easily defined - and this was so clearly felt in the play by Inua Ellams. In a community meeting, scientists and government officials try to get the landscape valued. It has to be valued in order to get the funding, in order to get the protection. Local people respond with frustration and disbelief. It was a very real, ridiculous, and desperately sad meeting - made all the more poignant as, once again, themes of childhood, innocence and love were woven in. The final play, by Nick Walker was deeply unsettling; set in a not too distant future, it was once again a daughter and father, and it had a bleak, lonely resolution. 

Powerful these plays were, but they also captured the warmth, the humour, the tenderness and the beauty of the both Devon’s people and landscape. The writing had plenty of dialogue which had come straight from the local interviews; it also touched on the poetic at times, phrases staying with you long after leaving the hall. 

Utterly captivating and working on so many different layers, The Common gave us real food for thought; so many facets revealed through these 10 characters and you never lost sight of the biggest character of them all, the one enveloped in darkness outside the hall, our very own, special part of the Devon countryside. 

Catherine Courtenay November 2014

Production Shots of The Common at Hatherleigh

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Some lovely responses via twitter for performances of The Common

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The Common - Dress Rehearsal at Dolton Village Hall

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It's looking good for the first performance of The Common tonight at Dolton Village Hall.  

 

Thanks to producer Fin for these snaps from yesterday's dress rehearsal.

The Common - In Rehearsal

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Open rehearsal for The Common at Dolton Village Hall

Writer's Blog: Charlotte Josephine

I was really excited to be given the opportunity to come North Devon. My flat mates found it hilarious that I was “going to speak to some farmers in a field”. The image of me in mud was a bit much for them, I don’t know when it happened but I have somehow become quite urban. Never the less I was excited, counting down the days, I allowed myself the daydream of standing in an open field, sucking in lungs full of air so fresh it almost makes you dizzy. Devon didn’t disappoint.

I was really struck but how beautiful the place is. And how long it had been since I’d seen countryside like that. And how wrong that felt. What have I been doing, if not this? It feels right that humans should have clean air and space and quiet and trees and green and those views, oh those views. I felt very lucky.

Everyone I met was very lovely and very interesting. We had some incredibly important conversations about the biosphere reserve with the experts, that I secretly surprised myself by genuinely really caring about. I mean obviously I care about climate change, who doesn’t. I like the planet and try my best to do the little things I can do so I leave it as I found it. But there’s a feeling of powerlessness that can easily fall into apathy, and I arrived in Devon feeling quite ignorant about the state of the World. I guess I’d expected a lot of technical jargon, facts and figures that would leave me cold. I was surprised by the deep level of conversation, that led into intimate discussions on what it means to be human, what it is we’re doing here on Earth, what the point of it all is. It unlocked a lot of thought for me on my relationship with the land, my attitude to the space I live in and posed some questions about my future plans. In short, it was unexpectedly motivational and inspiring.

The piece I wrote was mainly inspired by meeting photographer Rosie Anderson. I read her charming ‘personal post on a place called home’ on her website on the train down and knew we’d be friends. Like her I left a small town in search of culture, believing I had to travel from home to find it. Her passionate post about the closing of Hatherleigh Market really struck a chord with me. It’s heartbreaking when we sacrifice tradition, community and culture for financial gain. Rosie was really inspiring. I felt oddly in awe of her relaxed manner and her balance between doing a job she loves, raising a family and living in a beautiful bit of the world, that gives her that connection to the land. She inspired me to write the piece I did, imagining myself coming back home to raise a family, choosing to come back to my roots rather than get caught up in some artificial buzz of a city that doesn’t quite ever stop to pause for breath.

I’m very grateful to Beaford Arts and China Plate for the opportunity to get involved in the project. It’s been a really stimulating experience for me, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and I can’t wait to come back to Devon and see the piece!

Charlotte Josephine is a writer and performer. One third of Snuff Box Theatre Company she is also an associate artist at Only Connect. Charlotte wrote and performed one-woman show "Bitch Boxer", winner of the Old Vic New Voices Edinburgh Season 2012, The Soho Young Writers Award 2012, the Holden Street Theatres Award 2013 and the Adelaide Fringe Theatre Award 2014. Charlotte is currently working with Kudos on adapting the play for television. She is also currently under commission at the Soho Theatre under their Soho Six programme.

 

Writer's Blog: Inua Ellams

When I walked out of my flat yesterday, I saw a wounded pigeon at the entrance to the lil gated community I live in in Brixton. The bird was twitching on the ground, I think the half-broken wing it raised feebly was healthier than the second tucked under its weight. Days before, someone had defecated at this same spot. My flatmate who is American and more than a tad superstitious thought it was a coincidence too much and considered dowsing the place, our flat, the gated area, the whole lot with holy water. I encouraged him, "Protection is better than cure; Do that shit" was my response. As we came and went throughout the day, we watched the bird raise its feeble wing. Another resident we bumped into at the gate suggested we call the company who clean the grounds to come and deal with it, she too was unsettled by the bird but could not bring herself to touch it. As dusk neared, we returned and found the bird gone. We wondered if someone had cleared it up but as we searched, found it had crawled to the dark shady part where the hedge meets the brick-work, where it could die in peace. My flatmate and I commended this. "A noble beast" we thought. "Seeking an honourable death" we thought. "Saving its savage carcass from the eyes of the living" we thought.

 

A month before, I had traveled to Devon to work with Beaford Arts on a theatre project. Devon is an astonishing, interesting place. It is take-your-breath-away beautiful. There are beaches just miles away from farms. For it's vegetation and wildlife, it is protected by the government, who, for this and many other nuanced reasons, want to know the price of every piece of it. Under the title Eco System Services, the attempt is to figure out how much a piece of land is worth, and what it does. Does it feed animals? Does it soak up rain water? Does it grow food? Is it a natural flood defence? What does that mean in monetary terms? My job was to speak with farmers, conservationists, climate change experts, locals and try to articulate how one might go about putting a price on everything. It was a job of listening, of conversations that were heart breaking, overwhelming, passionate and multilayered. When it came to writing, I didn't know where to start, but an idea crystallised after I met a farmer, his wife and two sons.

 

They told stories and anecdotes to illustrate how complicated a process it would be, the vast holes in such system, how there are some aspects of the land that simply cannot be valued, that are (by that definition) priceless. He refereed to us as townies, and he and his colleagues as country folk. He did not like townies. As a black african I'm used to prejudice, I found it refreshing, dare I say thrilling, to be prejudiced because of where I lived rather than the colour of my skin. As we talked and I asked the right questions, he began to relax and slowly 'you townies' became 'those townies'. We 'othered' them so we could point and laugh. I have no guilt about this because the stories he gave to illustrate his point were water tight.

 

For instance, He spoke about us townies buying up country farms as second homes, going for 'countryside walks' through farm and grazing land. When they go walking, he said, they see maybe a wounded bull or a cow, think we are negligent farmers, report us to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) who ask to do something about it. Two things we can do, one, let the animal alone for two-three weeks which is how long it takes to heal or two, kill it. As a bull what would you want? Us farmers know that's how long it takes and want to give the geezer a chance, but townies don't... they interfere, complain that the animal is suffering and we'll have to do something about it. Same thing with carrion they see on the land. Flies feast on the corpses, crows, wild foxes, mink; it is incredibly rich fertiliser which goes back into the soil. It's the circle of life, he said, but townies see this, call Defra and we have to clean it up because it makes them uncomfortable. Everything dies. Everything.

 

Back in London, a month later, the same 'townie' I pointed at and laughed back then, is same townie who shook at the sight of dying bird, is he who stares back from the mirror, is me. There are questions I've asked since. How far have we urban dwellers strayed from the natural order of things? Do the circles we build in urban environments ignore the ultimate definite end? Is it a circle then? The conversations I had left me feeling that we should let country folk deal with country issues and let townie folk deal with townie issues, but of course it isn't that simple. The play I wrote is called Marsh Orchids & Concrete, a two-hander where a communications manager from London meets a farmer from Devon. I tried to demonstrate the complication of intersection, that we inhabit the same land, that policies cross boarders, farmers feed cities, decisions in westminster ruffle leaves, that we are invested in our natural world, how despite the naive, can't-stand-a-dying-bird urban spirit in me, this brick city boy still yearns for fields.

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In this section

Tweets of praise for The Common:

"Were you in Dolton village hall last night? The Common @beaford was stunning, emotional, funny, so true! @NorthDevonNIA @DefraNature"

"Saw this tonight. Great writing and acting, and even a mention for North Devon's bow-tie wearing duck... "

"Delighted to have been involved (& quoted at length) in @beaford's The Common - performed tonight in Hatherleigh.  5 fab mini plays in one."

"@beaford arts style thinking on #ecosystemservices may actually help new era of valuing nature research"

"stage ingenious, intricate, brilliant mediation on the values that cohere around rural land in Hatherleigh tonight  #Thecommon"

"thoroughly enjoyed The Common in Hatherleigh last night. Great acting, thought provoking, good observation of Devon nuances. Fab."

More feedback from The Common audiences at Dolton and Hatherleigh:

"An inspiringly insightful piece of contemporary theatre with important messages for our collective future – we ARE the land."

"Very thought provoking – take it to Westminster!"

"Thought you were brilliant from many aspects! Loved the auction running through – the humour and the very many different relevant points of view. Really has made me think more about this. Great writing, great acting and liked the way you used the whole hall and audience! Thank you for a memorable Friday night!!"

"Brill! Sock it to Whitehall."

"Great performance, loved the weaving together of those authentic words."

"It was a triumph. Full of admiration for the performers. Very moving and you got the Devon nuances."