The bleak and windswept tors of Dartmoor are perhaps not the most obvious place to go hunting for innovative theatre experiences. But theatre traditions have thrived here since the 15th century, where the stannary towns of Ashburton and Chagford had the best documented traditions of early drama in Devon. In the Sixteenth Century, Dartmoor was the birthplace of John Ford, Shakespeare’s contemporary, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the home of the novelist and playwright, John Galsworthy. After the end of the second world war theatre, despite there being no designated theatre space or dedicated company for the area, theatre continued to be performed through a mixed ecology of various rural touring companies and schemes, and a thriving amateur community in village and town halls.
Manaton and East Dartmoor Theatre, now known as MED Theatre, was constituted in 1989 to produce drama for and by Dartmoor people. Founding Artistic Director, Mark Beeson, had been brought up on Dartmoor from the age of five. Having studied human sciences, he followed a career as a primatologist, but fuelled by a passion for theatre, which had been such an essential part of his family’s life, began writing plays alongside. He entered the first Arvon Poetry Competition in 1980, won a prize with his long poem The Walk, and went on to write four verse plays for the BBC on ecological subjects. In the same year he wrote The Badgers, a protest play against the treatment of Badgers by MAFF, and the treatment of Dartmoor people by the Dartmoor National Park Authority. The play, which was inspired by a summer’s field work for Exeter Museum, was played back to Dartmoor people the following year, in local village halls.
Despite this developing playwriting career, Beeson continued in his work as a primatologist. In 1981 he conducted a study of blue monkeys on the Zomba Plateau in Malawi. In 1981, the Zomba monkeys were under threat of being shot to protect pine plantations, but Mark’s research had enabled their survival by removing fears about the extent of the economic damage their bark-stripping behaviour might cause, and by showing that results from elsewhere suggested that shooting bark-stripping monkeys only increased damage. The research highlighted the tensions between the different interests inherent in a conservation issue, brought into sharp focus by the poverty of the local population, and made him aware of deeper psychological tensions within himself caused by loneliness, homesickness, alienation and cultural and historical guilt. He lived alone in a hut on the top of the Plateau, in a place regarded as too cold and exposed for local people to inhabit. The world of the montane forest, scattered in patches across the undulating grassland of the high pleateau, entranced him with its variety and beauty, but the chill isolation of the mist, which enabled its existence, was a constant reminder both of its kinship to the harsh weather of Dartmoor and its challenge to humans. The montane forest is very important for water catchment, and its survival is crucial for the villages and towns of the farmed land below.
The experience was important not just to his primatology career (Beeson’s resulting paper resulted in his election to the Linnean Society), but to his vision of a community theatre company on Dartmoor. “ I was inspired by the experience of watching blue monkey groups on Zomba mountain, and by the use of animal characters in African drama, to create and develop a community theatre organization in the Dartmoor National Park, where adults, teenagers and children could all work and play together in drama that dealt with issues around the manmade/ natural interface”, Beeson writes. Returning from Malawi in 1982, Beeson wrote another play, The Hedge, specifically for and about his home village of Manaton. The play came second in Ann Jellicoe’s village community play competition that year, and Jellicoe encouraged Beeson to stage the play himself. The production was finally staged in Manaton Parish Hall in 1984 and was followed by three more plays written and directed by Beeson for the hall and its community. In 1989 MED Theatre was properly constituted to formalize the structure of the company that had begun to evolve.
By 1999 MED Theatre had created 17 Dartmoor Plays. Productions were all built in Manaton, but toured to numerous venues in the area, mainly Dartmoor town and village halls, with occasional performances in Schools and Community Colleges. The plays, all written by Mark, were a mixture of satire, fantasy, history and myth. Historical plays were interspersed with contemporary or futuristic plays in which conservation, economy, science and humanity were brought head to head. Music, choreography, scene painting, costume design and artwork were provided by local professionals on a paid basis, acting and all other input was unpaid. Plays were performed by casts of adults, teenagers and children, usually between twenty and forty in number. As the years passed, a core group of local adult actors was forged, with an evolved understanding of the writing based not only on the knowledge of how to deliver it technically, but on a kinship with their Dartmoor surroundings and the issues involved.
In 1991 MED Theatre began a programme of playwriting and performance workshops in Dartmoor primary school, pioneering a ground-breaking playwriting programme for young Datmoor people supported by the Arts Council the next year. In this way they hope to hand over what MED Theatre had begun in the way of creating theatre for and by Dartmoor to the next generation. In 1996 Beeson was given a Stephen Joseph award by the Society of Theatre Research to establish the study of theatre in Dartmoor. In 1998 they received European Regional Development funding for a three years project called Performing Dartmoor, aimed at increasing the scope and spread of their work. The inaugaral production A History of Dartmoor Theatre drew on Beeson’s 1996 study, and created a staged journey through five centuries of recorded drama on Dartmoor, which set MED Theatre’s work in the context of what had gone before. More recently in 2004, MED produced a dance documentary commissioned by the BBC for BBC2’s blast project. At time of writing the company has produced around 30 full-scale Dartmoor dramas, as well as over 20 plays written by children in local primary schools. Some of its members have been involved since the time The Badgers was performed, and younger participants are now leading the way for the next generation by writing original Dartmoor-related plays of their own.
High Plateau, MED Theatre’s latest project, returns to Mark Beeson’s experiences studying Blue Monkeys in Malawi. It is a piece of experimental community theatre for a small cast of mainly young people aged 16 – 25, inspired by excerpts from Mark Beeson’s long poem The Blue Monkeys of Zomba Plateau broadcast on Radio 3 in the spring and summer 1999. It integrates drama, poetry, dance and music in equal measure.
Based on Beeson’s diaries, this poem charts one young man’s journey and experience as a lone, British primatologist, far from his homeland of Dartmoor, living on a mountain in central Africa, studying – and ultimately saving – an endangered population of Blue Monkeys. Earlier this year, Beeson returned to Zomba on an Arts Council Funded trip to gather material for the new drama, revisiting the Afro-montane forest where he carried out his work 25 years ago. Of his recent trip Mark writes:
‘The Zomba Plateau in Malawi has been a constant presence in my mind ever since I left in December 1981. It was the experience of studying blue monkeys which inspired me to set up a community theatre on Dartmoor – without the Plateau there would have been no MED Theatre. Going back twenty five years later with filmmaker Amanda Walden, I arrived in May to be told that the forest where I had worked had been burned to ashes by a forest fire the previous year. My heart sank and it seemed as if the whole trip – and indeed all of my previous work to save the blue monkeys – had been in vain. In fact it was the exotic pine plantations that had suffered fire damage, and to my delight we found the montane forest was still intact, with the same number of blue monkey groups. The forestry department had taken my advice, and removed a particular species of exotic pine from the areas adjacent to the indigenous forest inhabited by the monkeys. As a result, bark-stripping appeared to be almost non-existent. Down below the plateau, however, on the surrounding plains, there were fewer trees everywhere, due to the increasing demand for land, firewood and charcoal.
We went into the secondary school at Domasi, which couches in the valley between Zomba and Malosa mountains, to talk to the children about my work in 1981 and the changes I found on returning. I also wanted to tell them how my experience of Malawi in 1981 had inspired me to found MED Theatre, and to talk about our work with schools on Dartmoor. One hundred Malawian schoolchildren listened attentively and in complete silence for an hour – it transpired that none of them had ever seen a blue monkey, even though their calls would have been audible in the school grounds. So they were fascinated by the images on Amanda’s laptop. We were told by one of the teachers that there were only six text books between the four hundred pupils in the school. The contrast with the resources available to the school children we work with in England was striking. When we went into two community colleges round the edge of Dartmoor to give workshops for the High Plateau production, I brought this contrast to the attention of the students.”
The project was launched in March with a community music workshop led by Ayodele Scott (originally from Sierra Leone but now living in Ashburton) introducing Dartmoor participants to African music and thought. The project was then developed into performance by Mark Beeson (writer and primatologist), Rosalyn Maynard (dancer and choreographer) and Gillian Webster (musician and composer).
The resulting dance-drama work constantly flashes from the highlands of Malawi to Dartmoor, comparing the two igneous plateaux, their past, their present and their future, through the primatologist’s own link with the English National Park where Mark Beeson grew up. A key concept in the creation of the dance is that of four perceived elements: earth, air, fire and water, representing the mountain, the mist, the sun and the streams, counterpointed with the scientific complexity which underpins the simplicity of the perceptions. The drama takes place on one day, set going by the disturbing appearance of a visitor in the primatologist’s camp.
Through dance, music, poetry and drama High Plateau depicts the unfolding of a single day, radiating forwards, backwards, up and down through time, exploring in Beeson’s rich, emotive language personal, local and global issues linking Dartmoor and the highlands of central Africa.
“Ever since I sat on the rocks of the Zomba Plateau in 1981 I have had a vision of bringing the mountain and forest to life in line with the animistic traditions I found in Malawian mythology, using dance and music.” Mark Beeson writes, “Finally with the help of an Arts Council England grant and local authority support I and MED Theatre have been able to do this.”