Theatre and the urban-rural divide

Clarissa Brown
3 October 2001

Prompted by the funeral pyres of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, I have started researching a community play with a difference. The community concerned is not a geographical one, but a ‘community of interest’, of people whose lives are shaped by the divisions and connections which exist between urban and rural life.

The premise of this work, which the Royal Shakespeare Company is hosting in Stratford-upon-Avon, is the belief that change is made by individuals who exercise choice. My task, as the play’s director, will be rather like that of a peace negotiator: to discover common ground among a profusion of voices, from which we can create a play of contemporary significance.

I started on my journey of conversations alone, talking to people about what the urban-rural divide meant to them as individuals. Yet right from the beginning, I realised that I had tapped into a huge collective journey.

I have been talking to people from many walks of life, from farming to urban planning, gathering in perspectives on how they live their lives, and how they view their professional specializations. Before long, in any conversation, people reveal an interest in the ‘whole’ rather than just their small part of it. Each conversation feeds the next and the boundaries set up in the very notion of a ‘divide’ soon become fuzzy.

Theatre across frontiers

In this project, I am bringing together two different areas of my work as a theatre director. The first is the tradition of community theatre, in which I have been working for fifteen years, along with such playwrights as David Edgar and Jon Oram (Artistic Director of the Colway Theatre Trust, and my collaborator on this play). This involves opening the doors to as broad a cross-section of people as possible, identifying burning issues and areas of shared concern.

I will be bringing the skills of professional theatre-makers into this research process so that the final form and presentation is directly and collaboratively inspired by the roots, images, experiences, thoughts, thinking, myths, characters and narratives of all these encounters.

The wonderful power of theatre is that you can imaginatively visit other realities and have experiences beyond your own thinking. As far as the urban-rural divide is concerned, we are all witnessing a potential tragedy being played out in slow motion, “one that profoundly touches the nature of the human species around the world”, as Ken Worpole and Roger Scruton put it in their introduction to the City and Country strand.

In our post-World Trade Centre thinking, when we are constantly impelled forward by our adrenalin-pumped hunger for the news, it is ever more important to step back and listen to the deeper rhythm of people’s experience.

This research is concerned with issues that are global, national, from within a community, a section of a community, a group, street, household – right down to an individual person.

Only connect

“I particularly value conversations which are meetings on the borderline of what I understand and what I don’t, with people who are different from myself… I like conversations which discover that people with apparently differing standpoints can reach a meeting of the minds on some subjects, limited though they might be.” Dr Theodore Zeldin, Conversations (Harvill Press, 1998).

When I spoke to Dr Zeldin about the urban-rural divide and this project, he pointed out that privileged people have always had the choice of both the urban and rural, so what is necessary now is democratisation, rather than a divide.

His inspiring way of thinking is to look beyond what we have for alternative ways of living, and in “thinking beyond” where we are now, to create new models.

Dr Zeldin relayed a story from a recent visit to Switzerland where he attended a convention for cardiologists. The world-leader in cardiology said that he no longer had conversations. As a young man, he would have talked to his peers. But now he talks to no one. He doesn’t even talk to his daughter, in her twenties, for fear that she will rebel and do the opposite of whatever he says.

Here is a brilliant man, globally at the top of his profession, and all his focus goes into one small valve.

This story questions specialisation and the ensuing divide, and advocates us all to converse and share our thoughts and knowledge – or the basic things that connect us can be lost.

Art and earth

Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association, effortlessly made the connection between theatre and soil when he approached our conversation with the idea that “a national culture owes much more to its sustenance than it realises.” He gave a very direct example via the Society of Landscape Painters. Landscape painters need a landscape to paint. How can you paint interesting landscapes when faced with mono-agriculture? Artists and architects have always been inspired by nature. What does this leave us with? When agriculture goes into decline it undermines the sustenance of its culture.

The land needs people

But none of this is just an English problem. Michael Hart, Director of the Small Family Farms Alliance, has links all around the world. He has just come back from India, where, due to industrialised farming methods, twenty million farmers are now being forced off the land. What is going to happen to all these people?

A farmer himself, Hart is only too aware of the importance of public opinion. He has taken family road shows onto the beaches to educate adults and children about farming and to break down the divide, to make farmers and farming more accessible. He estimates that in 1999 they spoke to one hundred and fifty thousand people.

And in working with other organizations, like Friends of The Earth, he wants to address all the farmer-bashing that goes on. Farmers need to be seen as multi-functional. Not only are they responsible for producing food, but are guardians of wildlife and nature: they provide the habitat for many of our indigenous birds, flowers and creatures. Generally, farmers are all lumped together, whether growing GM crops or rearing pigs, “We are all seen as the baddies, but I love my life – farming is an addiction, an incurable disease.”

Wherever you live in the world, we invite your input on the following themes:

  • Do you feel more at home in the city or the countryside?
  • Do you know why?
  • What frightens you about either?
  • What is it about the countryside that makes you feel nostalgic?
  • If you live on the land, who or what do you feel is against you? What is it that you would like to see changed about what you do? And what is preventing this change?
  • What is the impact of government or the EU on your life in the country?
  • Can you draw or write a map of your life called “The Countryside and Me”?
  • Have you recently moved from city to country, or vice versa? If so, why? And what are your impressions?
  • Do you know any good jokes about farmers?

Anything you send to Susan Richards between now and 9 October will be incorporated into this first wave of research from which the theatrical team will devise the play. If you want to contribute but miss this deadline, we will relay your contributions to the director. We may ask your permission for an edited version to appear on openDemocracy.

The first series of practical workshops at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s regional base in Stratford-upon-Avon in the coming week will be bringing together theatre-makers, farmers, businessmen and other “stakeholders”, in order to start identifying conflicts in the countryside. Further open workshops, to be held in Devon, are being planned. openDemocracy will carry information about them in due course.

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