2018: Playing With The Past

Stephen M Hornby and Abi Hynes, two of our Festival Theatre playwrights, gave a talk at the People’s History Museum in Manchester as part of their OUTing the Past Festival for 2018.  They talked about four plays and how they’d researched archives and worked with historical adviser to create compelling and popular drama that was also historically literate drama.  Here’s  an edited transcript of what they said.

Stephen M Hornby and Abi Hynes at the launch of LGBT HM 2018 at the Liverpool Museum

STEPHEN:  I want to start five years ago in 2013, when Russia was poised to stage the Winter Olympics.  More and more evidence was emerging from Russia of their oppression and state sanctioned violence towards the LGBT community, but with them promising a spectacular games, no one, least of all the British Olympic Committee, was interested in a boycott.  So, me and a group of fellow theatre makers decided we’d do what we do best, and we made a play about it.  To Russia With Love was the umbrella title for four short pieces by me, Chris Hoyle, Rob Ward and Adam Zane which were staged in Space 1 at Contact in Manchester in February 2014.  This brought me as a playwright and producer to the attention of Dr Jeff Evans, the National Festival Coordinator for LGBT History Month.

Jeff asked for a meeting to discuss an idea he’d had.  2015 was going to be the tenth birthday of LGBT History Month.  The popularity of the month had grown and grown, and whilst there had been incredible take-up, there was also a plateau in event attendance.  In addition to a month of grassroots historical and political activity, LGBT HM wanted to create a city-based weekend festival of history for the tenth anniversary.  Jeff wanted to include a full dramatisation as part of the programme, something headline-catching and full of strong optics for social media and press.

Jeff was completing a PhD in “The criminal prosecution of inter-male sex 1850-1970: a Lancashire case study”.  Not all good historians recognise a good story when they come across one, but Jeff does.  He’d catalogued the press accounts of a large police raid on an all-male drag party in Hulme in Manchester 24th September 1880, and the collapse of the subsequent trial of the men arrested.  And the raid attracted a lot of reporting, stretching across the Manchester and Salford press to the North West, into Yorkshire and then nationally, into illustrated weekend editions and even into the American press.  The Court papers in relation to the trial no longer exist, but Jeff had cross referenced each of the men arrested to the nearest census data before and after the trial.  This provided a rich picture of the careers, social status and domestic circumstances of the 47 men who went to trial.  And what a story it was!  There was a blind accordion player, a man dressed as a nun on the door, a lustful night of ribald songs and dancing in a Temperance Hall, a secret society of men who booked spaces under the pseudonym of the Assistant Pawnbrokers of Manchester, a police raid by a detective who was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, and the curious collapse of the trial at the moment a new Chief Constable came to power in Manchester.  There was almost too much material and certainly too many different stories.  It was an embarrassment of riches.

One of the Can-Can boys from A Very Victorian Scandal

Our solution was to trim back the 47 men to a core of four contrasting men and a wider cast of twelve additional characters, and then to shape three separate short plays out the material.  We put the whole project under the umbrella title of A Very Victorian Scandal and then had sub-title for each piece: The Raid, The Press and The Trial.  By having three separate but inter-connected narratives, we could dramatise the different elements of Jeff’s research without them all having to fit together neatly into one full-length play.  One character In The Press was invented, a journalist called Henry Newman.  He acted as the embodiment of the relationship between the Manchester Police and the newspaper establishment.  I made him the reporter charged with accompanying Caminada on the raid of the drag ball, only to see his lover arrested.  He acted as some narrative glue to tie together otherwise disparate elements of the researched history.

Having staged something that involved sixteen characters, in full period costume, performing three different plays, in three different non-theatre spaces, over three consecutive days, we decided to make life a little easier for ourselves in 2016.  I commissioned Abi Hynes to write a play based on the life of Henry Stokes, which Abi will tell you about shortly.  Once Abi had agreed to the job, she quite reasonably asked, “So, what is festival theatre? How do I do it?  How is it different to just writing a play set in the past?” I think there are three things that make festival theatre distinct:

  1. It’s based on original historical research and the writer works with a historical adviser throughout the script development process. We are not aiming for historical accuracy per se, which anyway could be argued to be impossible and a fool’s errand.  We are aiming at literacy, i.e. that whatever creative choices the writer is making, they are coming at it from an informed position.  Put more simply: they’ve done their homework.
  1. Its not about simply attempting a recreation of events in a naturalistic performance and documentary writing style. We are interested in essences, and in equivalences, way of communicating the core of something to a contemporary audience, what Professor Sanders calls “learning from the heart.”
  1. Our focus is on the voice of ordinary working-class people. We are not telling the stories of a privileged, creative, London-based elite.  Our focus is on how people like us made sense of the world’s they lived in and the rules, laws and regimes they found themselves working with, or limited by, or resisting against.  So, with some sort of explanation as what was expected, I handed over to Abi.

ABI: The story of Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester goes like this. A man was walking his dog by the River Irwell in Salford, 1859, when he saw a ‘tall hat’ floating on the top of the water, and discovered that a man had fallen into the river and drowned. That man was Harry Stokes – a local bricksetter and special police constable, who owned several alehouses in the area with his second wife, Francis. It was only when the body was pulled out, and examined under instruction by the coroner, that he was found to be biologically female.

That’s the story as we, the writer and producers of the play, got used to telling it. The key challenge that Abi Hynes, the playwright, faced was how to dramatise Harry Stokes’ story when the inciting incident was the death of the central character. To solve this problem, and to allow Harry Stokes to tell his own story from beyond the grave, she invented Ada. There would have been two women who laid out Harry’s body and discovered his secret – I condensed these into one woman, who encounters Harry’s ghost and gets to hear about chapters of his life first hand. By adding this fictional element to the drama, she was able to find a vehicle for the truth (or at least our interpretation of it).

Some of the cast of the Burnley plays at the University of Salford

STEPHEN: 2017 was a big years for LGBT HM.  Marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 saw a wave of activity across the year: museum exhibitions, art exhibitions, documentaries, television seasons…it felt like every other major cultural institution engaged with the anniversary in some way.  But how was LGBT HM itself going to mark the anniversary?  The answer, and it seems an unlikely answer, was with two plays about Burnley: The Burnley Buggers’ Ball which I wrote and Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator, which Abi wrote.

A few years earlier, Paul Fairweather, a long-standing activist and historian, got some funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to create an LGBT Heritage Trail for Burnley.  I asked Paul to take me on it, which he generously did.  LGBT HM had already identified a potential story: on 30th July 1971 the first ever attempt to open an LGBT Centre, an Esquire Club in the language of the time, ended with an electric public meeting in the Burnley Central Library.  The very room that the meeting was held in still exists, albeit in a moth-balled part of the library, and as soon as I set foot in the room, I knew we had to tell this story.  I didn’t know that within a couple of hundred yards of that room, another forgotten part of LGBT history had occurred in 1978, which Abi will talk to you about shortly, and which became the second piece for 2017.

Initially inspired, I did my research but all I really had for a plot was: some men arrive; some men give speeches at one end of a room; everyone goes home.  It wasn’t the most riveting plot.  And then there was a moment of serendipity. I was working on another project at the People’s History Museum and through that, my path crossed with Michael Steed.  As far as we know, Michael is the last living person who spoke at the meeting.  And Michael was willing to go out to dinner and be interviewed by me.

In the meeting itself, there was a crucial moment when a speaker from the GLF takes over from the organisers.  He shouts down the hecklers and shuts up my panel of speakers.  He says, “Were speaking as if there are two gay men in this room and five in the whole of Lancashire.  I want every gay man in this room to stand.”  According to the published account of the meeting in Peter Scott-Presland’s Amiable Warriors, somewhere between a half and two thirds of the room stood.  The panel: Michael, Ray Gosling and LGBT hero Allan Horsfall all stood.  At dinner, Michael first gave a conventional retelling of this account.  Then after another glass of wine, he leant forward, placed his hand on my forearm and made his revelation about the panel.  He said, “Of course, the truth is that none of us stood.  Not one.”  “So, Allan Horsfall the brave, out campaigner, the grandfather of LGBT right in the UK, than man more responsible than anyone for getting the 1967 Act passed, that Allan, didn’t stand?” I asked again, needing confirmation. “No”, came the emphatic answer from Michael.

Up until then, I thought I’d been writing a piece loosely about Ray Gosling chairing a meeting.  Suddenly, I had a different, much more compelling story, a story that turned the history of that meeting on its head.  Alan was now the main character and the play was about him not standing.  I would send him back through time to try again, to make a deathbed bargain with an angel to try to change something in his past.

ABI: Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator told the story of Mary Winter, who was sacked from her job as bus driver in Burnley for refusing to take off her ‘lesbian liberation’ badge. In her ultimately unsuccessful fight to be reinstated, she staged a demonstration outside Burnley bus station, and achieved national press attention by recruiting Vanessa Redgrave to publicly support her campaign. Once it was all over, however, the history of Mary Winter we’d found in our research came to an abrupt halt. It seemed that she had left Burnley, but there was no further trace of her – which gave a firm end point to the play beyond which we weren’t able to speculate.

It was only when we started promoting the Burnley Plays that we were able to pick up the trail again. After we were interviewed about the plays in newspapers and on the radio, we were contacted by two separate people who told us they’d known Mary Winter later in her life. The first knew her when she was living somewhere else, under a different name. The second told us about an archive held by Feminist Archive North in Leeds, which contained a lot of press cuttings and other materials from Mary Winter’s protest in Burnley, amongst a lot of other documents, and had been donated by somebody going by this same new name. For the first time, we were able to identify the donor as Mary Winter herself – and Abi and our historical advisor Paul Fairweather went to visit the archive and trace some her activities after Burnley, which included other social justice campaigns across the country.

We have never managed to contact Mary herself – though not through want of trying. We feel that we have a duty to respect her privacy – it’s possible that she doesn’t want to be found, and that her history, though important and fascinating to us, may not be something she now wants to be publicly associated with. But it was thrilling to discover this new evidence about other chapters of her remarkable life.

Abi Hynes and Stephen M Hornby at the People’s History Museum in Manchester for their talk “Playing with the Past

STEPHEN: Abi’s experience with researching Mary Winter illustrates one of the dilemmas facing us.  We might value and want to dramatise and to celebrate someone’s lived experience, but what if they don’t?  As a writer, the research process is primarily about creating a story, not necessarily about creating a cautious provisional version of a truth about the past.  The rules of what makes good drama and what makes good history may overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.  In making a popular drama out of someone else’s research, there is a kind of narrative hierarchy that the drama then gains over the research.  Specifically because drama is emotionally engaging, it is remembered vividly. There are pictures of the play, a mass of articles about the production and even films that can reconstitute the dramatised version of the past endlessly to audiences potentially all over the world.  That gives the drama a kind of weight and authority that the original historical material may lack.  The drama itself may contain all manner inventions, conflations and simplifications, and yet the danger is that it might itself become more widely known historical account.

The dilemmas are different with every project we undertake and we are learning and changing and refining as we go, ever more conscious of the power of the story-telling we bring to our audiences.

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