Artform Spotlight: Victorian Theatre #2 with Townsend Theatre

In our previous post, we reflected on the joys of Victorian theatre and we continue that theme by looking at another element of Victorian art and culture – The Magic Lantern show.

Magic lantern shows were arguably the first example of cinema. Square glass slides (33⁄4 inch) of still images were projected onto large cloths, screens or walls. To the modern eye, perhaps, not that radical, but when they were first shown in mid to late Victorian times they were greeted with great excitement and enthusiasm by audiences. By the late 1800s, there were over thirty firms engaged in the production of lanterns and slides in London alone.

Travelling magic lantern shows were very common, showing picture slides of places and people, often depicting far-flung, exotic locations. There were also sets of ‘story-slides’ that carried lyrics for songs and hymns, so audiences could either follow a tale as told by the ‘projectionist’ or sing-along with the songs played on a travelling harmonium, for instance. Occasionally, there would be ‘movable slides’, novelty or comedic trick-slides as a way to entertain crowds. They were very popular forms of entertainment that lasted until just after the First World War, when early cinema with its ‘moving pictures’ started to replace them.

Flash forward a century or so and we arrive at 2011 and the beginnings of Townsend Theatre Productions. Named after producer Louise Townsend, the company was set up as a collaboration of experienced, highly skilled theatre practitioners. It had humble beginnings and was able to put together their first show thanks to small donations made from a handful of trade unions and the free use of a cow barn on a farm in Buckinghamshire as a rehearsal space.

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Writer, actor and musician, Neil Gore (also a founding member) is the star of their latest production – a one-man magic lantern show inspired by the book of the same name, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The book is semi-autobiographical and details one man’s experience of working-class life in the 1920s as he struggles to find work as a painter and decorator alongside the ever-present threat of ending up in the workhouse.

Neil remembers the first time he saw a magic lantern performance: ‘it was by writer Sean Street at the Hackney Empire in the late 1980s and I was so completely beguiled by not just the beauty of the images, but also the magnificence of the projector – a large and heavy polished brass instrument, which in itself was a piece of mechanical history. Ever since, I had always wanted to get one and use it in a show, as it is an innately theatrical device.’

Townsend Theatre Productions’ work is broadly political and marks important events in, (mainly British) social history or centres on inspirational people that have contributed to major positive societal change. These are often either stories or figures that are forgotten but are contributions that the company feels cannot be overlooked.

They are always powerful stories of struggle that also tend to be emotional, educational, and entertaining studies.

While the Victorian era Magic Lantern shows were used for exhibiting pictures from around the world, they were also used for entertainment – there are many ‘story-slides’ of fairy tales still in existence. They were also used during church services or communal singing, as a means of advertising or campaigning (there are many examples of slides warning of the evils of drink, for instance), for political purposes and so on.

Neil states: ‘it is thought, according to one book I’ve read, that Robert Tressell (the author of the novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), used a magic lantern show occasionally to promote Socialism at gatherings in village halls around Hastings, where he lived. He would begin with slides of great cities and building from around the world to gasps of delight from those gathered, and then gradually introduce slides depicting the results of the evils of Capitalism and the hope for a brighter future.’ The slides that are available nowadays are rich and varied, and can now cost quite a lot of money, with some sets or themes being particularly rare or popular among collectors.

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In the course of researching many of the stories that they have created plays about, Neil has always drawn inspiration from the art and culture of the time, especially theatre and song. He believes this is critical when generating the ‘feel’ for the period or setting for the play/production. For example, when researching for the play they made about the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, he was drawn to the work of Red Megaphones and Theatre Workshop of Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood, as well as Unity Theatre. These names were the emerging political and experimental theatre practitioners of the time, known for mixing drama, poetry, and song in their productions. Neil also came across a lengthy poem by Jack Lindsay called On Guard for Spain. He felt it was such a powerful piece of writing that it should be included, albeit in a slightly shorter form, as it encapsulated the emotion and urgency of the time.

Townsend Theatre Production inevitably deals with the overtones of the political theatre of the past, whether that is street theatre, agit-pro or ‘kitchen sink’, etc… Their pieces are always theatrical, musical, direct, informative and entertaining in either form or content, and have often drawn comparisons to the great companies of the past, such as John McGrath’s 7:84; something that Neil says is always a great compliment.

Under normal circumstances, they are regular visitors to theatres large and small, arts centres, community centres, village halls, libraries, and museums across the UK. Often these venues are in rural locations.

The network of rural touring circuits that criss-cross the country are a valuable point of access for so many audiences, and they always offer us a very exciting range of experiences.

One element Neil particularly enjoys is the uniqueness of each venue and the challenges that each location provides a touring company: ‘whether it be a brand new large hall with a stage, a tiny Georgian hall with a space just big enough for the set, an echo, no curtains, a low ceiling, a flight of curly stairs up which to carry the set into the main performance space. A parish council board room as a changing room perhaps or, maybe, the broom cupboard, or there could be fifty 13 amp sockets all in the right place – or fifty in the wrong place! Or just one for the whole building through the serving hatch in the kitchen. I jest, of course, but all these venue idiosyncrasies and challenges are what makes rural touring what it is – unpredictable but above all, fun.’

The company also appreciate the warm welcome that is always offered to them, a welcome that often includes wonderful, home-cooked food! They also appreciate that special, palpable feeling in each village that occurs within the communities on the day of the performance.

There’s always a close relationship and rapport with the audience, especially being in such close proximity to them. This is definitely the sort of venue that best suits the style of our work, as its always audience-focused, living off their reaction, which, in turn, feeds the energy of the piece.

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During lockdown, the company were awarded some emergency Arts Council project funding. They are using this to focus on three main projects. Having recently produced a short film of their production, We Are the Lions, Mr Manager! – the story about Jayaben Desai & The Grunwick Strike of 1976-78, they managed to create an online version of the show, including highlights of the performance and some of the projected images and film. By using footage originally taken as archive material, they were able to reflect the story as well as the atmosphere of the performance.

They are also creating a podcast ‘radio’ version of their production, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, about motorcyclist, Clem Beckett, and his journey from the cinder tracks of 1920s speedway racing to join the International Brigades in Spain during the Civil War in 1936. It was recorded at the time of the tour and will be available to buy or download by mid-August.

The third project is making a film that includes some of the research that they undertook for a forthcoming show about British shipbuilding. It will include video clips as well as recorded interviews of former (and some current) shipbuilders and members of their communities across the UK.

If you would like to see more of Townsend Theatre Productions work then take a look at We Are the Lions, Mr Manager! Other material and information can be found at townsendproductions.org.uk

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