Harvard Educational Review

Drama in the Dale: Transformation Through Community Drama

During the winter of 2011–2012, Weardale, England was the setting for an ambitious informal adult education project. In this rural area in the northeast part of the country a local arts collective Jack Drum Arts established a community play project entitled The Bonny Moorhen. This dramatic undertaking aimed to retell the story of the infamous Battle of Stanhope, a local lead miners’ uprising. The project took place in a converted barn and involved a group of sixty learners of all ages and from all walks of life. The troupe formed the choir, band, backstage crew, and company of actors who, with the support of professional artists, built a temporary theater space. Everyone involved in the project made a personal journey. Here Helen Mills and Alan Anderson, in association with Julie Ward, cofounder and project producer at Jack Drum Arts, offer their personal testimonies from the project.

Local Stories as Community Drama: Julie Ward and The Bonny Moorhen

For years I have lived and worked as a theatre artist on the edge of the remote North Pennine hills, a government-designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which includes Weardale. An area rich in minerals, Weardale became one of the major lead mining centres in Great Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, providing the raw materials for the bullets used to fire at the French during the Napoleonic wars. Despite the importance of the region, after the Battle of Waterloo the bottom dropped out of the lead market and desperate poverty swept the area. To make ends meet, miners and their families took to shooting the red grouse, more commonly called the bonny moorhen, so that they could raise money to buy bread.

At the time much of Weardale was owned by the Prince Bishop, a religious leader who was vested with the powers of state. The Prince Bishop of the day, a man called Shute Barrington, was incensed by what he perceived to be stealing and ordered an army of local men to rout out the poachers. In response to the Bishop’s actions, the local community came out in force against the rule of law and a riot ensued that threatened the stability of the monarchy.

In 1995 my theatre company, Jack Drum Arts, produced a small-scale touring play inspired by this story with four actors playing multiple roles on a minimal set. Having had this experience, we realised that the epic nature of the tale would also lend itself to a large-scale production. In 2011 my collaborators and I saw an opportunity to gain government funding to mount The Bonny Moorhen as a community play through an adult learning initiative. Having been an actor in the original production, I now took on the role of creative producer and was responsible for bringing professional theatre artists together to work with local people, many of whom were new to me. Following the production, a core group from the cast and crew founded Drama in the Dale, a community play association established to explore more local stories through the performing arts. Through their participation in the production of The Bonny Moorhen, Alan Anderson and Helen Mills found a new inclusive community to connect with and have now become committee members for Drama in the Dale. Here they reflect on their first experiences engaging with community theatre.

From Housewife to Bishop: The Transformative Story of Helen Mills

Prior to participating in the Drama in the Dale project, I had only ever gone along to theatre events as a mum, taking my children, who love role-playing and dressing up. But it was quite clear from the outset that The Bonny Moorhen production was a project for adults as well as children, so I felt comfortable participating in this arts undertaking on my own terms.

Though I was more or less an outsider to the theatre world, I ended up playing two parts in the community play production, namely Mary Siddle (a pub landlady) and the Bishop of Durham, who at that time (1818) was Shute Barrington, a man in his eighties.

It was this frail old man who was offended by the actions of the Weardale poachers as they sought to feed their families by catching game birds from the local moors. Shute Barrington precipitated the conflict in the play by ordering a gang of bailiffs and gamekeepers to apprehend and arrest the poachers Charles and Anthony Siddle, Mary’s sons. As the story goes, as they were making their way back down the Dale with the prisoners, the Bishop’s men stopped at an inn for refreshment in the market town of Stanhope. Provoked by the Bishop’s lack of compassion, the local population soon came to the rescue of the poachers, and a riot ensued. Hugely outnumbered, the Bishop’s men turned tail and fled. This violent affray became known as the Battle of Stanhope, happening as it did shortly after the Battle of Waterloo and a year before the infamous Peterloo Massacre in Manchester when government forces on horseback charged peaceful protesters killing dozens in the process.

Taking part in the retelling of this true story has inspired me to look up the history of the presumed battle and research the character of Shute Barrington, in particular. I soon came to learn that, apart from his dislike of poachers, Barrington was a patron of education. In fact, two local schools still exist in his name.

Being involved in The Bonny Moorhen has taught me more about myself as well, especially my capacity to learn more deeply about a wide range of historical and social issues through inquiry. I have also been surprised at my ability to commit text to memory, particularly the Bishop’s long speech—which included Latin words! I also learned how the structure of a play comes together from concept to curtain; it builds like a wave and then climaxes with the performances. After the play closed, my fellow cast members and I were all moved to a higher plane of collective consciousness. We had achieved something extraordinary together. The audience loved it, and we all wanted to perform again!

Helen Mills rehearsing with young performer Jonathan Liddle. Photograph by Helen Ward

As an adult, it has often been easy for me to take a backseat when new opportunities arise, not motivating myself to even get out of the house on some days. But every Sunday for six months I got out of the house with my two children, one of whom is learning disabled, and travelled nearly twenty miles to join my fellow actors to work on the play. It was such fun, and the kids enjoyed themselves, too. I didn’t have to worry about entertaining them; they were engrossed in activities lead by the design team, such as making models of red grouse or drawing pictures of the characters.

Through my participation in The Bonny Moorhen, I’ve seen how the arts have helped me express myself in new ways. I’ve found that on stage I can be transformed into someone else and adopt a whole other persona. My ego has benefitted a great deal through the process of transforming myself from a housewife and general caregiver to whole other characters who are different from my everyday life.

Mary Siddle was an ordinary mother working hard running her pub in difficult and destitute times. Playing her character meant I had to use a local dialect and a higher vocal intonation. In contrast to this, when I played the Bishop I transformed my voice into something posher, plumier, and more quintessentially English.

As part of the play making process, one day my fellow cast members and I went into a local school to do a role-play session so that the young people could interview us for a newspaper project they were developing. I arrived in character, dressed as the Bishop, and impressed even myself when none of the students noticed that I was actually a woman. Throughout the role-play I answered the students’ questions with the pomp and circumstance that was suitable to my character. I let the children know that I would not have been dissuaded from sending my troops to stop the poachers—“Thou shalt not steal!” I cried, citing the Ten Commandments as the basis for my argument. As the Bishop I showed no compassion for the starving lead miners, which, in real life, was very difficult for me to do—in effect I was lying.

Being involved in The Bonny Moorhen production connected me to a new group of people in my community whom I would have never engaged with otherwise. In particular I enjoyed working with the young people in the play—they had such drive, confidence, and enthusiasm. These young people do drama regularly and are so confident in the way they talk to adults. I was never given that opportunity as a child; we were told to be seen and not heard and were never offered the opportunity to experiment with who we might become.

All this to say I would do it all again. I can still remember all of my lines—and the momentum of The Bonny Moorhen continues to roll on.

Drama Eases the Pain of Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Transformative Experience of Alan Anderson

I am fifty-two years old and live once again in Weardale, the place where I grew up. I came back to this community in 2006 after a long absence that saw me join the British Armed Forces on a whim at sixteen. During my twenty-one years as a soldier, I served in various hotspots such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf. Ultimately I ended up as a combat engineer instructor specialising in Soviet mine warfare. To say that I experienced “drama” as part of my daily life in the military would be an understatement. Nonetheless, after a full career with the British Armed Forces I became an intelligence officer with the police force, doing plain clothes’ work, before being medically retired a few years ago.

I got involved in The Bonny Moorhen initiative after I saw a poster advertising “Taster Sessions” at my old school. I wasn’t particularly interested in participating in a theatre program—and therefore I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to look around my old school and see if it still smelled of powder paint!

In the school hall I met a variety of people associated with The Bonny Moorhen project, including the director, Paddy Burton. Everyone was sitting in a circle discussing the play, talking about the different characters in the story and the significant places where the action had taken place. I remained sceptical. In my eyes, this was just a way to fill a couple of hours before the pub opened! We did a bit of singing—which I didn’t mind as much as I had expected—and then looked at the play’s script. I was asked to read the part of a nasty gamekeeper. In this role I had to frighten a young boy, so I put something of the provost corporal into my performance; he would be known as the “shouty man” in the army, a man who gives orders to a platoon and inspects them. So we read our parts, and, to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it.

Not long before engaging in The Bonny Moorhen project I had been diagnosed with post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and often found myself in a very dark place. When I returned home after that first day of reading lines in character, my wife noticed that I seemed different, a bit brighter. This was a welcome change, so when the project started up properly I joined in, playing the part of that same nasty gamekeeper. I found myself looking forward to the weekly rehearsals, even though I regularly felt out of my comfort zone. Throughout the experience my wife noticed that I was sleeping better. I wasn’t having night terrors anymore, and the dark periods I did encounter seemed to have light in them.

I enjoyed the rehearsal process and responded well to the working methods of the director, who always ended sessions by giving us positive feedback paired with little challenges to make our performances better. We did drama exercises to help us bond together as a team, and we tried out different ways of playing the scenes. After six months of hard work, with everyone pulling together, we were ready to face our public. I thought back to the dark place I had been in just a few months ago—and here I was now preparing to go on stage and looking forward to it.

I remember standing in the wings on opening night, listening to the choir sing the overture; it was like standing in the doorway of an airplane waiting to do a parachute jump. I thought, “I can’t back out now. I’ve committed to doing this with these people.” My fellow cast members and I had all worked so hard, and I felt like I was in a team again; from the youngest child to the oldest person, we were all in this together joining our efforts to achieve a common goal. It was like being in the army—but without the violence and danger.

Being part of a dramatic production so completely community based has made me feel valued as an individual. Through my participation in The Bonny Moorhen I know that I have contributed some part of myself to the project and would like to continue contributing in that manner. I have also begun to look at the world in a new way. For example, when I walk in my community I now see the landscape for what it is rather than as a potential battlefield waiting to be engaged. Before acting in the play I looked at the world with a military eye. When I moved here I bought myself a gun with the intention of going out to shoot rabbits; but because the project was so deeply rooted in the local landscape, I’d now rather go out and walk in the environment than become a pseudo-paramilitary.

Alan Anderson on set as the nasty gamekeeper. Photograph by Jamie Sproates

My appetite for history has also been whetted. After the play closed, I went to the local lead mining museum to find out more about the topics discussed in the script. The project tied together a story from the past with a place in the present that has relevance now and potential influence on the future. By delving into the issues addressed in the play, I understand how to take the story of the Battle of Stanhope and transpose the lessons learned from the narrative onto other topical issues, such as our current global recession.

Drama has been a form of therapy for me. Although performing in The Bonny Moorhen hasn’t cured me of PTSD, it has given me a different outlook on the world. I’ve come to recognize that the downtime between military tours of duty isn’t long enough for servicemen and women, and there aren’t enough strategies in place to support soldiers returning from conflict zones. People like me are leaving the armed forces with serious psychological problems. It took me nearly fourteen years to realize I was suffering from PTSD. Along with psychological intervention, drama—and other art forms—can have a positive effect for people in my position. Thanks to the Drama in the Dale initiative, now I have another tool to deal with PTSD. While I may still have dark places in my life, now I am smiling inside—because I know those dark places don’t have me.

JULIE WARD – Jack Drum Arts, Drama in the Dale and National Drama, UK

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