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Guest Blog: Pentabus' Elizabeth Freestone on radical rural theatre & Latitude

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Elizabeth Freestone is artistic director of Pentabus Theatre, a company based in Shropshire which produces theatre in rural areas.

Here she talks about why the countryside needs theatre as much as its urban equivalent, and tells us how Pentabus, along with other companies, is going about providing it.

Pentabus' new play Stand Up Diggers All, about the English Civil War, runs as part of the upcoming Latitude Festival.

Pentabus is based on a farm in the Shropshire countryside. Operating out of two old barns and a former farm estate schoolhouse, we produce award-winning theatre; developing new plays and inviting writers to respond politically and theatrically to the rural world. We make work that is playful and compassionate, offering rural audiences theatre that speaks directly to them. We then take this work on the road, touring across the country, an ambassador for our community.

When our productions surface in London or Edinburgh, we become visible, part of the new writing scene. The majority of our time, however, is spent not in cities but in villages, in fields not theatres. We are more often than not invisible, part of a forgotten network of theatre makers who offer geographically isolated people across the UK quality theatre right on their doorstep. Making work in village halls, community centres, on the top of hills and in the knaves of churches, companies like ours make plays for a defiantly non-urban audience.

The National Rural Touring Forum annual conference took place recently. At it, Alan Rivett, director of Warwick Arts Centre, hailed rural theatre makers ‘national treasures.’ After all, almost a million people every year attend performances in their village hall or similar local venue. The uninitiated might be forgiven for imagining theatre for rural audiences is conservative, polite, moderate, light years behind its city cousins in terms of form or originality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Companies as bold and diverse as participatory devisers Uninvited Guests, Asian dancers Kala Sangam and folk band The Unthanks are committed to touring rural venues. Pioneering producers China Plate and Fuel develop and support artists in this field, supporting those who engage with communities unserved by theatre’s mainstream.

The conference was a hotbed of creativity; debating the logistics of making immersive theatre in remote places, discussing how to accommodate new dance forms in low-ceilinged venues, putting forward new programming models for church halls in the Highlands and barns in Cornwall, alongside scratch performances of new work from Ponydance, Greyscale and Ridiculusmus.

Discerning, informed and open to new ideas, rural audiences have the right to as varied a cultural diet as their urban counterparts. Thanks to digital advances and companies such as Flicks in the Sticks, an eclectic range of independent films find their way to village halls. Thanks to the thriving rural theatre scene, people can wander down to their village hall to see a show from Kneehigh, New Perspectives or Eastern Angles. Companies who make theatre for rural spaces must therefore be stylistically adventurous and formally bold to keep up with the audience’s demands.

Long before London cottoned on to the thrill of immersive theatre, rural audiences have been enjoying the complete transformation of familiar spaces into performance environments. The village hall by nature is a transformative space: by day the location of a pre-school class; by night taking on the appearance of the clay streets of Nigeria, as in Inua Ellams' new show. Rather than an audience going into an artist’s space, as in a conventional theatre, here the artist comes into their space. The intimacy and informality between performer and theatre-goer and the cross-generational makeup of the audience combine with affordable ticket prices and a miniscule carbon footprint. It’s a thrilling, inspiring movement to be involved in.

It shouldn’t be surprising that culturally provocative work is welcomed in this environment. Despite the impression painted by The Archers and newspaper stories about the Chipping Norton set, the countryside has long been the lifeblood of radical political movements. From the Peasants Revolt to the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the Reform Bill, the Grain Riots to the Suffragettes, the rural world has played a key part in shaping an oppositional agenda in the UK.

At Pentabus we make theatre that responds to these forgotten narratives and roots them firmly in the contemporary political landscape. This year’s Latitude show Stand Up Diggers All examines the links between today’s Occupy movement and The Diggers, a protest group of the English Civil War who fought against the enclosure of common land through guerrilla gardening and encamped occupation.

Delving deep into our roots and spurred on by a curiosity about where we’ve come from, rural theatre makers are making urgent new work that connects to a vibrant and vital audience. There is no nostalgia in the communities we tour to; simply a big appetite for playful, political, formally brave theatre making. The rural theatre-making community makes a real commitment to the creative health of the countryside, encouraging artists to draw from it, and urging local communities to participate in it. Together, we tell stories that are born locally, but resonate nationally.


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