Theatre Practitioners I Love

Posted: June 17, 2010 in Practitioners

Joan Maud Littlewood & Her Unique Directing Style

I have chosen to write about Joan Littlewood, a renowned British Director, and her unique directing style. Over the course of this year, I have grown to admire her and what she has achieved in the world of theatre. She took Brecht’s ideas and started using his principles before Bertolt Brecht had been heard of in Britain, and in many ways succeeded in surpassing him. She understood that theatre could genuinely have something to offer people from all walks of life, that it had something to say about human experience, and that it could send a vital message and still be enormously entertaining.

A left-wing visionary, who knew the rules of the game well enough to break them, Joan’s ideas had their origins intertwined with that of the propagandist theatre – an openly revolutionary and protest form of theatre, concerned with the day to day issues of the class struggle. She had established the company, Theatre Workshop, in 1953, to create original, frequently political, plays, and to put a fresh, again frequently political, slants on many of the classics. A shortage of cash for sets wasn’t a problem for her as it just transformed into a new and visionary use of lighting, thus making the actor the centre focus of performance in her vision for “poor” theatre. Littlewood had said:

“I had always believed we should function best where the need was greatest.”

They experimented with physical approaches to characterisation adopting Rudolph Laban’s style of movement training, and his assistant in England would become and remain the company’s movement coach.

Though many actors’ experiences at the Theatre Workshop were influential and invigorating, they left exhausted, as Joan expected a great deal of dedication and hard work from them. Joan had a very hands-on approach to directing her actors and they continued to train on a daily basis to hone their skills to the greatest extent. She was determined to produce theatre with a company, that was to be completely equal and open to all classes, but it depended utterly on the ingenuity and moral fibre of this enormously gifted woman. She introduced her own innovative improvisational style to the training and the rehearsals at her company. She utilized ideas from European theatre practitioners, such as Stanislavski and Brecht, and fashioned them into her own theories of actor training, all of which are now used by most theatre establishments. There were always  rumours that Joan neglected to follow vital texts for improvisatory games or strange and rebellious techniques is nonsense, but her work then, and still, has been shrouded in myths. Throughout, Littlewood’s principle was,

“If we don’t get lost, we’ll never find a new route.”

Unsolicited scripts would land on her desk and she would put them into rehearsal, developing them through improvisation, e.g. Shelagh Delanney’s A Taste of Honey, and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. When the script was delivered to her, she saw it as part of the raw material that she could use. She would either work in collaboration with the playwright, or without, and implemented the script with actors to gain the production that she required. Joan always professed that

“… if you can get a few people with a sense of humour and brains together, you’ll get theatre”.

For all the problems, finally there emerged as Theatre Workshop’s most significant and enduring production – Oh, What a Lovely War! The production had its origins in a BBC radio programme of 1914-18 soldiers’ songs, but it was Littlewood’s idea to use the songs as links between sketches and to build them out of improvisation methods, incorporating the concept of a seaside Pierrot troupe. She had been quoted in saying “it was the right period and, after all, war is only for clowns”. All who saw it found it to be an unforgettable experience and some of its best moments will remain in the memory of many – from Avis Bunnage’s seductive delivery of I’ll Make a Man of You, to Myvanwy Jenn reading a letter from a soldier on the Front Line and smooth transition into comforting Keep the Home Fires Burning, or the absurd sermon, on the eve before the battle, intercut by the intense tenor of When This Lousy War Is Over, all of which happened against the iridescent electric sign showing the growing numbers of war-dead throughout the duration of the play.

She directed a strong company of actors and produced astonishingly inventive performances with that unrivalled balance of precision and anarchy, which only Joan Littlewood could perfect. She ended her own story with her beloved Raffles’s death in 1975. One of his letters, which she held especially dear, catches the essence of their art and the philosophy of their Theatre Workshop:

“You are right to tell us never to lose humanity. Audiences respond to a love of life. If there is none, I for one want no part in it. Our work has such a short life. A painting lasts until the canvas rots; ours fades the moment it is accomplished.”

  1. Linda says:

    Tish, congratulations on your blog! It is absolutely beautiful and your writing is inspiring. I love the layout, I love the colours, I love the images… I love it all! Well done and I can’t wait to see where you take it next!

  2. Emma says:

    wow this is great and going to be an interesting read!!

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