Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview Theatre Interview

Louise Townsend: Dare Devil Rides To Jarama

By | Published on Friday 18 September 2020

This week touring company Townsend Theatre Productions are releasing an audio version of their acclaimed pre-COVID stage play ‘Dare Devil Rides To Jarama’, a historically focused piece about two British men who became involved in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

It’s a fascinating subject for a play, and I was intrigued to find out more about the piece and the real life characters depicted in it. I spoke to the company’s Louise Townsend, producer and director, to find out more.

CM: Can we start by talking about the content of the audio play? What story does it tell?
LT: ‘Dare Devil Rides To Jarama’ is a drama based around the experiences of The International Brigades during the early part of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and 37.

It reflects too the powerful political and economic forces engulfing 1930s Europe and the reasons why so many ordinary people made the extraordinary choice to leave family and livelihoods and fight in a brutal war so far from home.

The story is centred on the contrasting lives of International Brigaders Clem Beckett and Christopher Caudwell. Beckett, a Lancashire blacksmith and famous star of the speedway track, and Caudwell, a renowned writer, poet and philosopher, were killed together at Jarama in February 1937, having become friends as members of the British Battalion’s machine-gun company.
Through their stories, the play will shed light on the political and social world of the 1930s and all that inspired and confronted the Brigaders on their journeys to Spain.
Deeply moved by most Spaniards’ determination to defend democracy against Franco’s rising fascist army, many of the volunteers crossed the Pyrenees to help the Spanish Republic, convinced that this evil had to be stopped to prevent a wider European war.
The play captures the raw passions and emotions produced by the Spanish Civil War – idealism to despair, hope to anger, determination to fear – through storytelling, original song and poetry of the time.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
LT: The original production toured in 2016 and 2017 to mark the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War and commemorate the creation of the International Brigades in October 1936 and the Battle of Jarama in 1937.

It was an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of the 2500 men and women who went to Spain from the British Isles who hold a unique place in the annals of radical and labour movement history. They were the first to take up arms against fascism and their example of courage, sacrifice and international solidarity remains a beacon of inspiration for all anti-fascists and lovers of democracy and social justice.

The play raises issues and themes that are just as relevant today and offers many valuable political lessons for us now, as well as opportunities for discussion and debate. It has much to say about unity, internationalism, class struggle and comradeship, as well as focusing on the heroism of ordinary people fighting for a better future for all and future generations.

DM: What made you want to create a show addressing these themes?
LT: The inspiration for the project came, firstly, from the desire of the International Brigades Memorial Trust to commission work to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and, secondly, our mission to focus our work on bringing to life the stories of radical and labour movement history, with a strong focus on legacy and education.

Clem Beckett’s story reflects perfectly our aim to examine the lives and contributions of inspirational and pivotal figures from our social history, often forgotten or overlooked, who campaigned or fought vigorously to improve the quality of life for everyone.

It also contributes to our mission to deliver vivid, politically committed theatre to all audiences across the UK, but especially to those with low levels of theatre engagement in areas of deprivation or geographical seclusion.

CM: Obviously, it was in the first instance a successful stage play – is this audio version a recording of it in theatre or has it been recorded specifically to become a digital release?
LT: This audio version of the play was recorded in a studio during the time we were touring the show in 2017. It is an exact record of the play as it was performed at that time; not just an archive, but recorded with the serious intention of creating a radio version some time in the future.

The recent COVID crisis and subsequent lockdown enabled us the time to work with Hollow Moon Media to add sound effects to create a high-quality radio production.

CM: In what ways does the audio experience differ from the theatrical experience?
LT: Although the stage play and recorded radio play differ very little, the experience of both is very different.

The stage version had opportunities for audience participation, in creating some of the sound effects – crowd noises and engine sounds – for the motorcycle racing sections, as well as joining in with the songs, which was actively encouraged. For the radio version, all the sound effects are blended into the action, and the experience is much more as a passive listener.

What is very satisfying is that the stage script seems to have transferred to a radio platform in a very effective way. That may be because the script’s narrative is written in verse, which hopefully contributes to it being an accessible listening experience.

Also, the addition of sound effects means that the listener feels they are transported to places and events that are described within the play; a very different experience from the stage version, where often visual ‘clues’ are aiding or leading the imaginations of the audience.

CM: Can you tell us in practical terms about how audiences can access it?
LT+NG They can access the audio-play through our website or through Bandcamp, search Townsend Theatre Productions and click the link.

CM: What sort of work does Townsend Theatre Productions do in normal circumstances? Who started the company and what ethos does it have?
LT: We create touring theatre that is embedded in working-class and social history; it deals particularly with major events, campaigns and industrial disputes that are centred around the involvement of trade unions and make up art of labour movement history. It also focuses on individuals or groups who, through their efforts, have made positive contributions to effect changes and improvements for society as a whole.

The company has created eight productions. Seven have toured to all types of venues all across the UK; from Inverness to Penzance, Lowestoft to Belfast; from small libraries to big theatres, arts centres to community centres, village halls to music venues; our aim is always to reach audiences that would not normally consider themselves theatre-goers or find it difficult to see theatre because of geographical restrictions.

To achieve these aims we often work in partnership with local trades councils or regional union branches, or sometimes rural touring circuits, to promote our work to non-regular theatre-goers in particular.

I started the company in 2011 with writer, actor and musician Neil Gore. Initially the company was created to tour a two-handed version of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, and since then the company’s productions have only ever featured two performers.

This is an intentional stylistic choice, as any solutions to questions or challenges of stage presentation of a script are always theatrical, not necessarily ‘real’.

As a result, our work is often labelled as agit-prop, which is sometimes unfair, although there are elements of our work that rely upon audience reaction and participation, and music and song play an important part in the story-telling. We aim to get under the surface of characterisation and motivation to generate greater depth and emotional content in the piece.

CM: Lots of companies have been producing work in lockdown, many of them presenting it in fairly new and innovative ways. Do you think the fact that the theatre community have been forced to change their interactions with their audience might have a long-term impact on how theatrical projects can be delivered?
LT: The COVID crisis has forced some changes to how theatre companies can deliver work to their audiences. Most of this has been moving to an online presence. It isn’t necessarily a comfortable fit for any theatre product, which relies so much upon the live, the visual and the reaction; an audience relationship; a shared experience.

The challenge for us has been to try to re-create that live experience through carefully editing archive footage of our shows to try and replicate that live feel. It is and will never be the same, but it has been interesting to try, and to learn new skills.

The online world is a very busy one, and not always accessible for everyone; ‘theatre’ isn’t theatre if it’s on a screen; personally, I think moving theatre online is not the solution.

Moving theatre to the outside, where it could be accessed more safely, has more potential, but obviously has seasonal considerations; and it may well change the style of theatrical presentation to take on outdoor considerations of weather, climate, social distancing, sound disturbance, and so on.

CM: What hopes/plans do you have for the near future, whilst COVID is still an issue? Are you hopeful that the performing arts industry can bounce back?
LT: In the near future, whilst COVID is still an issue, we will maintain an online presence through promoting the film of our production ‘We Are The Lions Mr Manager!’ which is available on YouTube, as well as our ‘Dare Devil Rides To Jarama’ audio-play of course.

We are also creating a short film documentary based on a series of interviews that we made pre-lockdown with former shipbuilding workers in Glasgow, Devon, Belfast, Sunderland and Newcastle. This will form part of a future touring project about the story of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ‘Work-In’ of 1971-2, which we are hoping will tour next year.

We are also thinking long-term about how we can create a sustainable outdoor theatre presence in the future.

Other plans are to have a one-person production ready rehearsed to tour in the Spring in case fortunes change. This show will be used by a rural touring circuit organisation at a village hall venue as a pilot in late September to test COVID health and safety measures – including social distancing, masks, hygiene, etc – in a community-based venue. This is the first of its kind in the UK.

We are, of course, hoping that the performing arts industry can return as soon as is safely possible, but I imagine it will be much reduced as a result of this crisis, and will take a very long time to return to anything like it was before. The arts have always been undervalued and underfunded, and that is unlikely to change; it is more likely to be put under further strain because of the financial restraints brought about by an ensuing recession.

‘Dare Devil Rides To Jarama’ is available from 21 Sep via Bandcamp, see this page here.

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