It was a day to celebrate and explore the value of the participatory arts, and for the 150 of the country’s leading arts practitioners and delegates who attended, it also served as a fascinating and captivating reminder of how the arts have the power to move and shape communities.
Throughout the conference various venerable organisations across the UK presented their new ideas and projects which were paving the way for the participatory arts. One example by National Theatre Wales was a particularly bold demonstration of how art can encompass – and even save – a lost community.
National Theatre Wale’s The Passion is an invigorating play designed to inspire and unite the town of Port Talbot – a town which had been literally and psychology bypassed.
Originating from the town by Father Carney, the much loved community leader, in 1978 The Passion became a biannual tradition till the last 90’s and was eventually defeated by the weight of economic burdens.
Last year renowned actor Michael Sheen, with the assistance of National Theatre Wales and WildWorks, resurrected and injected the passion back into The Passion to restore the play in all its glory for a show which would last for three days in a four mile radius of the town.
Unfortunately, although discussed and celebrated at the national summit, Project Associate Adele Thomas, the sole organiser, co-ordinator and developer of the community engagement of the show, was unable to attend the national summit but wishes to share her own remarkable story of a project that engaged 2,000 local people directly as well as 1,009 performers.
Follow Adele’s personal journey of rediscovering her home town through the shared act of creation.
The Passion by Adele Thomas
Of all the memories I have of The Passion, one that stands out most vividly, is sitting in the living room of Methodist Minister Denise Creed.
‘The community of Port Talbot’, she told me, ‘are a bypassed people’.
You need only go to Llewellyn street in Port Talbot to see what she means. On one side, the long terrace is made up of houses that only have even numbers on the doors. Opposite them, the massive structure of the M4 motorway stands where the odd numbers used to be. The last 50 years of Port Talbot’s history has been dominated by industry and unusually destructive town planning: the M4 motorway was built straight through the town, a massive Steel Works has become the sulphurous, belching emblem of the town and until recently one of BP’s biggest petrochemicals works stood on the end of Aberavon beach. The inhabitants of Port Talbot began to feel that the town’s soul was being compulsory purchased piece by piece by developers and by multinational corporations. Denise Creed’s statement was right – Port Talbot was a town both literally and psychologically bypassed. No one ever stopped to turn off the M4 motorway and come and visit the little industrial concrete town – they drive straight over it to get to the more beautiful parts of west Wales.
In 1978, faced with economic downturn and a significant drop in local industry, much loved community leader Father Carney decided to engage and inspire a depressed community by staging a Passion Play. It quickly became a biannual tradition, engaging hundreds of local people up until the late 90s when, – running out of steam and battered by spiralling costs and red tape – it stopped.
In 2010, renowned actor Michael Sheen, with National Theatre and WildWorks, came back to his home town to make a new Passion: a secular version of the Passion story that places Port Talbot, its people and their stories at the heart of the narrative. This re-telling developed enormously over time, shifting to respond to the voices of the town, but a potted version of the story goes like this: a local teacher who has been missing for 40 days and has lost his memory returns from the wilderness. He discovers the arrival of Global corporation ICU who are planning to build and enormous super-bypass over the town which will mean the forced eviction of most of the town’s inhabitants. The teacher leads people – both the living and the dead – to share their stories, to speak the town that is due to be destroyed, something that makes him public enemy number one in the eyes of ICU.
The show would run for three full days and would take place in a four mile radius of the town in 10 different locations and would eventually include a cast of over 1,000 local people. There was some assumption in the town that we’d perform the show in Margam Park, a beautiful stately home and grounds just on the outskirts of the town and setting of the original Port Talbot Passion play. But this was going to be a very different Passion: It was going to take place on the streets and in the familiar and the ordinary places of the town: in the shopping centre, on the beach, in underpasses, down the back alleys and in the places with difficult reputations, in the social clubs, in the civic centre, in graveyards, in car parks, on a roundabout. It would transform the ordinary – even the derided and feared – spaces in the town into the magical and the spectacular.
Tell me your story
I have come to listen
I was employed as Project Associate on The Passion to gather, find, organise, mobilise and integrate the community of Port Talbot into the show and to work closely with Michael , WildWorks Director Bill Mitchell and poet Owen Sheers in integrating the show into Port Talbot.
Like Michael, I am a Port Talbot native and so entered the project with a considerable head start in terms of local knowledge. Inspired by Michael’s remit to include as many people in the town as wanted to be involved and guided by the ancient Passion plays that involved the skills of local craftsmen, I made it my mission to meet everyone in the town. I don’t think I slept much, I went through six months phone credit every fortnight and I lost my voice at least once a week. But every morning I woke up propelled by the ambition and audacity of the sheer crazy scale of the piece and the knowledge that my hometown was going to be at the centre of something extraordinary.
It was the crazy scale and duration of the show that gave us scope to engage people in a massive range of skills that would never be employed during a traditional theatre project. In all, alongside the 1,000 performers, we also engaged 1,000 people in a myriad other capacities.
We asked people to come forward and tell us how they wanted to be involved and so people took part in doing what they do best. Indie bands wrote songs of protest in underpasses dressed in black balaclavas, the local surf rescue team drove the boats that brought the invading forces (who were in turn played by a local rugby team), a stonemason made the tombstone that marked the Teacher’s resting place, over 100 organisations sewed squares that went to make a huge community shroud that would cover Michael’s body and it was a local carpenter that made the crucifix and hammered in the nails during the final event. It was our challenge to discover the right place for their skill in the show (easy when you discover a local scaffold company, less obvious when trying to work out how to integrate a gymnastics display team into the Passion story!). As Michael often noted, it frequently felt like the town was guiding us rather than the other way around.
I made it one of my rules to never catch a taxi – I made sure I walked everywhere and stayed on the ground. I spoke to everyone who would listen, I visited every organisation and talked to every charity in the town about the shows themes of sacrifice and redemption. I made sure that taxi drivers and shop owners and anyone else who comes into contact with lots of local people knew of our plans. I knocked hundreds of doors on the streets we were performing in and made friends with the residents – I even threw parties for them. I met a man on Llewellyn street who told me sometimes dreamt of the ghosts who had lived on the side of the road that had been demolished to make way for the motorway. His story gave us our Llewellyn Street scene, in which the dead rise up from the concrete pillars of the M4 bypass to tell their stories to the living. The more people I met the more surprises arose. A local roofer called Tony Pugh told me his story of a life lived above the the town and described to me his view of Port Talbot from the roofs. His story became the template for our ‘God character’ in our version of the Garden of Gethsemane.
Start to unpick any scene or any moment in The Passion you will quickly realise that it is saturated with the town and its people: the local residents that allowed us to use their homes and their streets, the performers, the people who built each set, the words they spoke, the imagery- it all traced back to someone or somewhere in the town. That Garden scene is one such example: the words of an ordinary roofer were transformed into sublime prose by Owen and spoken by David Davies, a man who used to play Jesus in the original Port Talbot Passion play who had, in our Passion, been promoted to playing a God figure, standing on the roof of a house in a council estate which was now a location for a telling of the greatest story ever told, alongside a Hollywood actor and an audience of 8,000 people.
On the first day of performance, as the town came together to tell and to hear its own story the weather was 40 degrees. It was noted to be hotter than Spain. People travelled from far and wide to be there, but most importantly a massive local audience arrived too, full of gossip and curiosity. Over the three days that followed, the audience took on a role of its own making: on the Friday evening they were booing the ICU Company Man, by the Saturday night they were on the brink of riot, calling out the name of Teacher and by the Sunday they walked four miles through the alleys and backstreets of their town to be there with him at the end. We engaged 2,000 people directly, but by that Sunday the cast now had 12,000 extra recruits. There was no audience any more.
By the final event, the crucifixion on a roundabout on a beach, the audience was 15,000. On his death, the teacher recited a litany of memories –the places and people of the town that had been forgotten. This list had been collected over months on luggage tags hung up across the town that asked people to jot down something in the town they wish could be returned and the response was astonishing. Out of the horror and violence of the crucifixion people suddenly cheered nightclubs of the past, they laughed at the memory of Number 9 Twmp (euphemistically known as a dune on the beach used for ‘courting’) and cried at the names of those who didn’t make it. In the words of one International newspaper journalist, it was transcendent.
A large part of the success of that weekend was due, I think, to the fact that Port Talbot’s story had never been considered, let alone told, before. Lyn Gardner from The Guardian remarked that the effect of being there “was like watching a town discovering its voice through a shared act of creation. Fact and fiction, myth and memory, rumour and reality, even the living and the dead stalk side by side. I’m prepared to bet that over the last three days, Port Talbot was one of the happiest places on Earth”.
Michael later described it as “It was a bit like being part of some kind of natural disaster or tragic accident, but in a really good way.”
Following the show, something extraordinary happened in the town. Political activism shot up, people formed campaigns to prevent the demolition of the buildings and places that the council threatened to demolish, they protested developments to destroy more homes, people finally plucked up the courage to start the businesses they had always dreamt of, the level of pride and sense of ownership in the town shot up. It was as though the show hadn’t finished, but was a smaller part in the narrative of a town discovering itself.
Last week, One year on, I was hugely privileged to return to Port Talbot to mount a Memory exhibition of the project, which would coincide with the launch of Owen Sheers’ novelisation of the event, ‘The Gospel of Us’ and the premiere of the film of the same name made from the live event by filmmaker and artist Dave McKean. When I stepped off the train in Port Talbot station, it was as though I was walking into an enormous extended family – almost everyone I passed in the street seemed to be someone we worked with or someone who had become swept away by the power of the event. We conducted hundreds of filmed interviews with people about their memories, we gathered together the work of local artists and poets that had been made in response to the show, we called out for people’s photographs and received over 4,500 images which told as many different versions of the event. In many ways the exhibition told the many local gospels.
The film – another of the show’s gospels – was launched in all six screens of a local multiplex cinema full, with nearly 2,000 people turning out to watch the film of themselves, of their story. The cinema in which it was premiered stands almost directly opposite to the roundabout on which the show reached its climax one year before.