Theatre for Everyone, with Robbie Gordon – 21 April 2021

What a great evening! Robbie Gordon, actor, director, and ‘facilitator,’ took time out of his busy schedule to give Ayr Writers’ Club an insight into ‘Community Theatre.’ He also shared a brilliant way to build characters, but more of that later. Robbie studied Contemporary Performance Practice at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It’s all about making theatre available and relevant to communities who perhaps feel they have no connection with live performance.

Through his roles as Creative Learning Coordinator at Ayr’s Gaiety Theatre, a director of The Royal Conservatoire’s Youth Theatre Group and co-founder of the performance group Wonder Fools, he opens up theatre opportunities for a wide range of communities.

‘There are three requirements,’ he says, ‘people, communities and real stories.’

The process of creating a piece of community-based theatre also involves three phases; research, co-creation and co-design. Robbie illustrated these points with reference to some of the work of Wonder Fools. For instance, Prestonpans, the community in which Robbie grew up, provided an intriguing story of four local men who were among the 549 Scots who went to help the freedom-fighters in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. So here we have a community, people and their story, but how do you make it relevant to people today? The research involved talking to local people (not interviewing, Robbie insists) about what they knew or remembered. It also involved trawling through the phone book and cold-calling, in search of possible descendants.

The four characters were then fleshed out and, obviously, fictionalised. In consultation with members of the community, these ideas were altered and developed. An opportunity to connect to the present day occurred when a relative mentioned that, for at least one of the four, this was a defining moment in his life. In later years, suffering from dementia, he would often pack a suitcase and insist he was off to fight for Spain.

‘Co-design’ is shown in the current work ‘Positive Stories for Negative Times.’ This includes five plays for young people (aged 8-25) to perform. Youth and drama groups are producing these on-line or in live performance, not only throughout the UK, but globally, providing a welcome escape for young people isolated by the pandemic.

Then it was the turn of the Ayr Writers community to step up to the plate. We had been asked to bring an object which symbolised a particular community. We had a ski- boot, representing snow-sports. Well actually, it was a slipper (suspension of disbelief don’t you know? Can’t see you skiing very far in a fluffy slipper Kirsty!) We had a Blue Peter badge; a lighthouse that wasn’t quite what it seemed; a horse’s lead rope, representing Riding for the Disabled; tinned goods, representing food banks; a guitar for musicians, to mention just a few.

Now came the intriguing part. Robbie asked us to create two characters from our chosen community who weren’t likely to get on (no conflict – no drama). He gave us a list of questions to ask each character (gut reaction required here – no thinking about it for too long) to establish their age, background, hopes and fears, secrets, likes and dislikes, political views, what they most wanted and most feared, ideal night out/ night in. You can certainly surprise yourself with what you come up with during this process. Now we had to write a short piece of dialogue  – necessarily short as time was running out.

We didn’t have time to share many of these, but the preparation for a TV interview between Blue Peter badge winners of different eras provided the setting for one piece, and two prickly characters – a blind lady rider and her young and rather grumpy helper who may gradually get to like and respect each other,  provided another.

I’m sure we all enjoyed and have benefitted from this evening, so some interesting sketches and plays could be the result. Break a leg folks!


Maggie Bolton

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