Medium Fair Company - the start of community theatre on Dartmoor

The company began by touring shows to 30-35 village venues throughout East Devon and Teignbridge. Dissatisfied with the occasional nature of the contact with the villages which this afforded, and with the fact that in watching these touring shows the villagers were not being allowed to speak for themselves, Medium Fair decided to instigate a scheme they called Village Visit Weeks, whereby they chose a handful of villages and lived in them for a period, working with the local residents on material taken from research into local history which the company had undertaken. At this stage the tasks of Medium Fair were fourfold: a) to get to know the people and some of the village institutions; b) to put on their own production of Under Milkwood; c) to incite villagers to perform something (preferably, but not necessarily, relevant to the locale) on the Saturday evening that brought the week to a celebratory conclusion in the Village Hall; and d) to leave something more permanent in the village (e.g. a much needed bus shelter; a refurbished hall). The actors’ job was now to help the villagers to produce work as well as to present Medium Fair’s own shows. One of these Village Visit weeks took place in Ilsington, and resulted in a group of nine- to ten-year-old boys performing a scene based on the legend of the Ghost of Birchanger Cross:

The scene was set in the pub (just up the road from the village hall), where the local farm labourers (some still remembered by and related to people in the audience) were challenging each other to go out to face the ghost. The theatrical unreality was emphasised by the props, which consisted of lovingly made cardboard cut-out frothing pint-pots, and a carefully painted and suspended inn-sign (copied from the real one), and by the simple fact of young boys playing men.

The acting had the usual gauche charm that many children naturally produce in performance, but it was also palpably informed by a quality which in professional actors would be called belief or authenticity, but in this setting might be more appropriately termed community. On reflection there is nothing particularly startling about this – underlying all the changes in rural life over the past hundred years or so there is still, as many villagers will affirm, an abiding consciousness of living close to rural rhythms, of a life governed by concerns transcending the agricultural revolution brought about by telephone and tractor. This consciousness is, of course, slowly dying – but apparently enough of it survives to have allowed these small boys to transfix their audience with something approaching a truth about their lives (Kershaw, 1978).