Dr Phil O’Brien writes:
On October 15 1979, Pit Prop Theatre Company staged its first production: Secret Society of 1812. It wasn’t on a particularly conventional theme for a fledgling group; it was about a Luddite incident in Westhoughton, a town a few miles from Pit Prop’s base in Leigh, Lancashire. The story gives some indication of the company’s approach to theatre: mining (pardon the pun) working-class and local history for political and radical stories. Additionally, the target audience for Secret Society wasn’t especially conventional: it was aimed at nine-year-olds. The production, according to the group’s promotional material, was ‘based on a local Luddite incident in which a magistrate incited an attack on a local textile mill by planting agent provocateurs’. The approach taken in this first play (or programme as the group preferred to describe the work) would inform much of what Pit Prop did over the next 15 years as professional theatre practitioners engaged in pioneering cultural work.
The company’s history is traceable through its fascinating archive held at The John Rylands Library, where I recently spent time working through the 76 uncatalogued boxes. There’s information pertaining to productions on female coal workers, 1970s rent strikes, Moss Side, Nicaragua, the British Raj, and the Anglo-Irish agreement. Many of the productions contain the same four ingredients as the first: 1) a local working-class historical event; 2) a small group of characters often centring on the experience of women; 3) the involvement and collaboration of the audience directly within the performance; 4) a link to wider global and political issues.
Pit Prop was part of the Theatre-in-Education (TIE) movement and one of the company’s starting points is the work of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. TIE was first conceived here in the 1960s as a new form of theatre which brought together actors and teachers and worked with schools over a sustained period. Pit Prop’s artistic director Cora Williams started at Belgrade in 1968 as an actor-teacher before moving to Bolton Octagon. She and others from Pit Prop were then involved in Burnley’s Theatre Mobile which collapsed in 1978.
That first Pit Prop performance in October 1979 sees the company emerge in the opening months of Thatcherism. Crucially, here are a group of cultural workers developing a response from within the working-class communities most vulnerable to the effects of deindustrialization, privatization, and state reduction: all features of Britain under Thatcher. Pit Prop took a broad socialist and feminist approach, one which, up until subsidies were withdrawn in 1994, challenged stereotypes predicated on class, race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity alongside addressing issues around discrimination pertaining to age, physical disability, and mental health.
It is clear from the archive that internal issues also contributed to the pressures placed on the company but, as the Times Educational Supplement reported in 1994, external forces resulted in the closure of Pit Prop: ‘It is the victim of circumstances: local authority cuts forced by six years of Government capping on central funding, the consequences of the 1988 and 1992 Education Acts, and the market forces philosophy of the local arts council.’
So the timing of Pit Prop’s emergence is fascinating, the types of active participation work the group did are compelling, and its funding challenges offer many interesting insights into the role of the arts in Britain. On a more personal level, the geographical area in which it worked is also significant, Wigan being my hometown. And I was in for a surprise when I viewed a film of one of the company’s most successful TIE programmes. Brand of Freedom consists of three parts: a play performed on site in schools, a project book completed by pupils, and a second impromptu visit by Pit Prop. It is set in 1862 during the Lancashire cotton famine and, like Cotton Panic! currently on as part of Manchester International Festival, explores the effect of the cotton blockade on the mills and people of Lancashire. In Brand of Freedom, which features escaped black slave Martha alongside mill workers Morgan and Lucy, the dilemma of supporting either the blockade (with the economic hardship it brings) or the south (and slavery and its expansion) becomes the central focus.
Manchester University Television filmed a performance of the production in which the children, after initially being duped by a southern plantation owner, decide overwhelming to support the north and Abraham Lincoln – a statue of Lincoln across the road from the Rylands is evidence of Manchester’s support for the blockade. On the film is my brother Jim, now 43, then 10. He looks into the camera as the actors, in character, enter the classroom. Jim and the rest of his class soon forget the film crew; they are immersed in a story of which they become a central part. The recording makes for fascinating viewing, not only because my brother and his friends are in it – first as nervous, curious 10 and 11-year-olds and then, within moments, as engaged historical actors – but also because it serves as a demonstration of what were new theatre forms emerging out of a direct engagement with culture, class, history, politics, and education.
Phil O’Brien completed his PhD on class, neoliberalism, and contemporary British fiction at the University of Manchester in 2016. He was recently awarded seedcorn funding from the John Rylands Research Institute to work on the Pit Prop Theatre Company Archive at The John Rylands Library. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.