Actuality, Charles Parker and Me
by Frances Rifkin, 2010

ACTING WITH FACTS: PERFORMING THE REAL ON STAGE AND ON SCREEN 1990-2010. University of Reading, 1-3 September 2010

The following account was presented at the above conference in Reading.  Also presenting were David Edgar, Patricia Hodge, Mark Lawson, Jan Ravens, Sylvia Syms.

Actuality-based work, for me, focuses primarily on the relationship between the owners of the source material and the artists/makers, on our exchange and developing consensus on how the work should be carried through. It would be useful to refer to the paired document on the Catching Stories website, “The Corby Project, 1979-81”. This contains, for me, a lot of the practice shared with and learnt from Charlie and described theoretically in this presentation. 

  1. Artists’ perception of and reflexivity on their own many identities, social being and existence: am I part of the group? Which parts of me/us are part of the group? Am I the other? Who am I/are we in this context?
  2. Artists’ relationship with audience/constituency
  3. Relationship between respondents/source providers and artists: what do we expect of me/us? What is my gaze? .
  4. Aim of project as understood by all involved.

 

Who was Charles Parker? And what is actuality?

A committed Socialist and Trade Unionist. A decorated submarine commander in WW2, he became a BBC producer fired for his radicalism and impossible behaviour by the BBC in the late 60s. Over 10 years, he worked with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and major figures from the folk revival to create a series of Radio Ballads, a form of creative documentary with no voice-over, the words of working people with old and new folk and jazz woven through them. He founded Banner Theatre in Birmingham in the early 70s with a staged performance of “Collier Laddie” derived from his radio ballad “The Big Hewer”. Banner began as an amateur group which became professional in1979 with my appointment as director.

When Charlie started, at the BBC, the words of ordinary people were spoken by actors, very awkwardly, as if they were speaking in a foreign language. Charlie began to change, when, for example, he heard the neighbour of the dead rail worker hero of “The Ballad of John Axon”, say that ‘railways go through your spine like Blackpool goes through rock’. He ‘didn’t need to go to actors or dramatists to find material for drama; he could go straight to the common people instead’.

He formulated the notion of actuality as the living cultural resource of working-class people marginalised by the dominant middle class culture as inarticulate, with small vocabulary and no intellectual structure due to limited horizons and restricted codes (Basil Bernstein). He asserted, as did MacColl and others, that the folk song tradition embodied the language and discursive structures from long histories of cultural and political life and struggle. He heard this in the stories and conversation of working people.

The issue of left ethnocentrism can be raised as a caution. Language and life are in flux: class and ethnic groupings shift and change. Charlie’s ideas in some hands threatened, and threaten, to fix the marginalised groups within their margins. However, working-class speech has changed and changed again as anyone will know who has heard the regional and multi-lingual transformations of English, dubbed London Black English, Birmingham Asian English, for example. The class tensions between Bengali and Sylheti may be relevant here. There is also currently, I think, a paradoxical compensatory urge on the part of the dominant groups, to privilege rather than combine with the marginalised culture (political correctness?). This may be hard to resist under social, creative, moral, political and other pressures.

I think that the process of marginalisation due to so-called inferior language use moves from group to group. This process infects society with a collective deafness to the human complexity of the speakers who may be from many countries but who tend to occupy a class or power position in this country which is effectively working-class. The rich and powerful don’t on the whole suffer from this process. In some “verbatim” practice, people are, in my view, reduced to a series of sad stories aimed to inform or upset the audience, with little or no recourse to the political context which is the source of the pain. Furthermore, there may be no representation of richness in their lives, no sense of their courage, hopes, lives apart from these elements. No shared humanity and respect.

Where English is spoken as an additional or second language, or where translation is needed, then the complexity of the relationship between speakers and listeners becomes so much greater. In fact, the passion and individuality of the speaker can transcend the difficulties of a developing grasp of so-called standard language. That English is, frequently, initially, taught with a focus on transactional language does not encourage, confidence and ownership, love of the language for itself.

Do We Look Like Refugees…?”, seen at Edinburgh, is produced by Alecky Blythe with recordings of South Ossetians displaced in the Russian invasion. It is performed by Rustaveli actors working in Georgian, from voices on headphones. The energy and life of the source speakers pours onto the stage rendering the surtitles almost superfluous. The Georgian sources, owners of the words, are shown by the performers as seeing themselves as agents in their own lives. Consequently, the audience of strangers sees this too, feels for and with them as equals.

Lockerbie” by David Benson, represented Jim Swire, a doctor and activist, as an agent in his own story and, in this process, the production avoided some of the pitfalls of pity and consumption. Information with figures and facts supporting his argument were clearly presented, a dominantly middle-class audience and character shared references: power and political frameworks were inherent to the narrative. The actor physically and emotionally embodied the prevalent social and political contradictions.

In documentary contexts, language is often seen as transactional or as conveying information, providing accounts, as verifying of “facts”. Paget (1990) talks about cultural tourism and the danger of reducing material to human interest stories and audiences to individuals responding in isolation more as consumers than as agents.

For example, there is a range of other pieces currently on offer, about the refugee experience and in particular about sex trafficking of women where, I argue, the audience’s experience can be very much that of cultural tourism, where helplessness and lack of agency dominates.

This displaces the collective will to alter social/political conditions into a process of a detached visitor’s consumption of documentary as information, as fact. Charlie’s theory argues for language as agency, as creative action, as cultural resource and for production as process. For him, the audience is producer: not consumer. My brief account of my work in Corby hopefully illustrates this.[1] There is in Charlie’s work a hidden heritage linking us with the ideas of Paolo Freire and with the Protagonist, the hero of Boal’s theory and performance practice. (See Augusto’s books: “The Rainbow of Desire” and “Games for Actors and Non-Actors” published by Routledge.)

For me as a practitioner, a key part of all Charlie’s work is to move from the individual experience embodied in the separate accounts to a context within which the significance of the experience within society’s power and social structures becomes central and the need for change able to be acted on: the poetry of actuality is the transforming medium in theatre practice.

The centre of the work is the richness of the language of the group, in this case the diverse and “hybrid” working class (quite a large group!). The language expresses creative agency despite relative disempowerment, expresses their lives and fullness as people. Only after this, can issues such as: Whose fact? Whose fiction? Information for what purpose? Aesthetics: whose aesthetics? Whose theatre and in what context? be dealt with, depending on:

  1. Artists’ perception of and reflexivity on their own many identities, social being and existence: am I part of the group? Which parts of me/us are part of the group? Am I the other? Who am I/are we in this context?
  2. Artists’ relationship with audience/constituency
  3. Relationship between respondents/source providers and artists: what do we expect of me/us? What is my gaze? .
  4. Aim of project as understood by all involved.

Actuality-based work, for me, focuses primarily on the relationship between the owners of the source material and the artists/makers, on our exchange and developing consensus on how the work should be carried through.

The quality and understanding of the material develops through this deep connecting and the understanding between different cultures, different world views, different histories focused around the necessity of that production.

This context frames issues of accountability, ethics, politics, use by performers, style of writing etc, so that the process hopefully becomes transparent enough, good enough (to hope for more would be unrealistic.) It also involves clarity about different positionings: political, social and creative. At this point, the term “verbatim” seems an inadequate term to describe the work.

Frances Rifkin
2 September 2010

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[1] See The Corby Project: 1979-1981, Frances Rifkin’s account of her time in Corby to co-research and co-produce Banner Theatre’s play Steel! (1980), about the fight to save the Corby Steel Works from closure.

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Biography, 24 September 2017

Frances Rifkin is a Theatre director and workshop facilitator in Political and Community theatre. In the 1970s she collectively set up and worked with Recreation Ground Theatre Company (RG). Funded by the Arts Council, RG created touring anti-fascist and socialist theatre for trades unionists, anti-fascist committees, solidarity campaigns, schools and community audiences.

http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/recreation-ground

She is committed to theatre Trade Unionism and was one of those responsible for unionising and gaining funding for the Fringe from the 1970s onwards; it is now known as the the independent Theatre field. She met Charles Parker during this time when he joined the movement to organise Independent Theatre.

From 1979 and through the ‘80s she worked for Banner Theatre. During this period, Banner worked widely with grassroots working class audiences and the Trades Union Movement. Learning the process of Actuality recording from Charles and Dave, she participated as a theatre director/deviser and activist in the Steel strike, the Miners Strike, the NHS disputes, the Wapping Dispute and many others both local and national. This was a process which changed her approach to theatre and creativity, especially through the opportunity to work with Pete Yates , Charlie and Dave.

She is a specialist in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and trained with him In the ‘90s. She also worked as a lecturer at Warwick and Lancaster Universities where she developed further her radical approaches to making community theatre work. For Palatine, the Higher Education Authority, she wrote a publication on the Ethics of Participation.

http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/palatine/ethics-of-participatory-theatre

She founded Utopia Arts in collaboration with Graham Lucas in 2001. She has worked for a wide range of theatre companies and organisations – the NHS and others, Universities, TUC.

Since 2010, she has been director of Implicated Theatre, funded by the Serpentine Gallery, London. The company works with Unite the Union members and others and is composed of migrants and refugees. The work consists of a wide range of participatory public performances and workshops in Serpentine and community spaces.

http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/implicated-theatre

In particular, she believes passionately in theatre as a transforming force in society both through the skills of its practitioners in opening up possibilities for non-practitioners and through the power of performance to change the way people understand the world.

© Frances Rifkin

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