Can a performance change your life?
I once created a play about the demise of the London Docks. At the time I was teaching near the Royal Docks and many of the families who I taught were connected to it in some way. London was once a vital and massive seaport with 17 miles of docklands. But over the years the docks declined, and containerisation spelt the end.
I wanted to pay homage to these events and see it through the eyes of someone born locally in the middle of the second world war. I interviewed many people who worked on the docks, but I also worked with my pupils and got them to ask questions of their parents. A whole section of the play became about the story of immigrants from the Caribbean who settled in the area. It was a true community play and took on a life of its own. At its heart was the changing life of a family but also from time to time the action was stopped by the closing of yet another dock. For each one of these, there was a wreath, and we announced the name of each dock that closed. Eventually, the scaffolding set was covered in wreaths.
The play was a big success at the school – partly I think because people recognised their own history in the story. Then great excitement came one morning when I was contacted by an organisation that represented local people who had worked on the docks. They arranged for the play to have a couple of performances in a huge warehouse beside the Royal Docks; it even had a crane outside. This warehouse was so big that you couldn’t see the other end of it! At the time it was said to be the largest free-standing building in Europe. Excitement indeed but I needed to scale things up a bit. I introduced real cars into the play and made the distances bigger. Again, it was a great success and more local people enjoyed the story.
Unknown to me a professor from Cambridge University attended the event and asked to see me. He explained that he enjoyed the performance of the central character so much that he wanted to offer him a place at the university. This was 1985 and he wanted to widen the background of his students – a man ahead of his time. So when people say to me theatre won’t change lives, I’d say it can (even though the boy in question eventually decided it wasn’t for him).
It’s all office blocks and apartments now and that warehouse was swallowed up by City Airport but if you get the chance to visit, the Museum of London Docklands tells the story in a wonderful hands-on way.
- Featured image: Chatfield and Coleman; Henry Moses, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons