Banner Theatre: A Brief History
Banner Theatre is a radical theatre company based in Birmingham. This article, covering their history, politics and practice, is a work in progress by members of the company.
Banner Theatre is a socialist theatre company based in Birmingham. Formed in 1974, from a disparate collection of folk singers, drama teachers, office workers, broadcasters, technicians and car factory workers, Banner is one of the few companies from the radical community theatre movement of the 1960s-1970s still creating and performing work in partnership with Britain’s Trade Union movement, and working class and disenfranchised communities – those A. Sivanandan calls ‘communities of resistance’.
Some of Banner’s founder members came from Centre 42, a project initiated by Charles Parker and Arnold Wesker in the early 1960s, which aimed to interest trade unionists in radical culture. Others were recruited from the Birmingham Folk Centre and the Grey Cock Folk Club. Charles Parker, an influential founder member of the company, was a left-wing broadcaster, renowned for producing, along with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, a powerful and innovative series of radio programmes known as The Radio Ballads (1957-1964).
In Parker’s words, the bedrock of the Radio Ballads was ‘the peoples’ experience expressed in their own words’. This process involved an extensive sound recording programme carried out by MacColl, Seeger and Parker,
Taking tape machines into peoples’ homes, factories, workshops, clubs, etc., and recording long conversations in which workers are encouraged to describe their way of life in-depth. These recordings, running into between 100 and 200 hours of speech, are the concrete ground-base of the ultimate programme. Charles Parker
Parker, MacColl and Seeger then blended folk music traditions, oral histories and new recording technology to create the original documentary art form of the Radio Ballad.
Only eight of these Ballads were made from 1958 until 1964. In sociologist Andy Green’s words,
Listening to them today, we need to remember that tales of working class life were not considered as ‘art’ and it was still traditional for radio to use actors to read scripts in ‘proper’ English that avoided voices ‘from the street’. Defying these constraints, the Ballads challenged a) artistic views of what was strictly appropriate to be aired on the BBC and b) national views that looked down on working class culture and regional identities.
Their influence at the time was immense, most notably on the pioneering documentary theatre work of Peter Cheeseman at Stoke-on-Trent’s Victoria Theatre, but also on the emergence of what Derek Paget called ‘verbatim theatre’ in the 1970s and 1980s – an influence that spread to Canada and Australia.
Banner’s first production, Collier Laddie (1973) was an adaptation of a Radio Ballad called The Big Hewer (1961), which examined the life, traditions, hardships and struggles of coal mining communities.
Banner’s subsequent performances expanded on the Radio Ballad format, with the ‘actuality’ of people’s own words used to generate live shows that now included dramatic visual and musical elements on stage. Connecting with the salient social issues of its time, Banner cultural and political interventions encompassed antiracism and anti-imperialism from the very beginning, in such productions as Viva Chile (1974) and Fields of Vietnam (1975), while tackling racism head-on in The Race Show (1974), later developed as The Great Divide (1976-1977).
Alongside its performance work, Banner also started a community-based initiative, the Handsworth Project (1979-1990). It was presented to funders as a community cohesion programme which would engage a broad cross-section of Handsworth residents in researching and celebrating the rich multicultural history of the borough. Banner proposed to develop accessible and inclusive community theatre through a programme of open workshops which would pass on Banner’s multimedia skills, in order to empower residents to create and deliver public performances.
Other key figures became involved in the early stages, including Rhoma Bowdler, a teacher in Dance and Drama in Wolverhampton, then Handsworth, Birmingham; Dave and Chris Rogers, who were working in Birmingham’s inner city schools, running folk music and singing workshops partially based on radio ballad techniques; and Pete Yates, a musician, sound technician and photographer based at Warwick University.
Over the years, the company took on many forms. From its early Collier Laddie days as a large, 40-strong amateur theatre group, Banner variously became a hard core of amateurs involved in agitprop performances in the streets, then a professional company of four performers able to work in more theatrically sophisticated styles and forms, receiving funding to do so in 1979. With grants from the then Regional Arts Board and the Midlands County Council, Banner brought in an experienced artistic director, Frances Rifkin. A small group of people – those who chose to become professional theatre workers and joined Equity, including Rogers and Parker, became employed by the company, and, with Rifkin, became known as the ‘Core Group’.
For the short time that Banner was revenue-funded, the Core Group produced and toured professional shows whilst continuing to work with large numbers of amateur groups who contributed a prolific amount of work. In that time, Banner also formed a ‘song group’ able to perform at a moment’s notice, which was particularly busy performing at fund-raisers and on picket lines during the Miners’ Strike of 1984.
Throughout the early 1980s, Banner faced a series of serious challenges, first the untimely death of Parker in 1980, then the termination of the company’s entire revenue budget in 1985, which led to the critical loss of several core members whose roles had contributed key developmental and creative energy to the company. The only two theatre-trained directors in the core group, Frances Rifkin and Anna Seymour, left in 1988 and 1989 respectively. A further blow was dealt when one of Banner’s leading creative lights, Peter Yates, died suddenly in 1990. These factors forced the sole remaining core group member, Dave Rogers, to retreat from anything other than the company’s established performance work. As Rogers has acknowledged, ‘the late 1980s and early 1990s were pretty miserable. We were surviving on peanuts… There was only me and Dave Dale, reviving Saltley Gate’.
Dave Rogers, Banner’s Artistic Director for over twenty years, is the only remaining founder member in the company. During this time, Rogers has maintained the company’s ethos, traditions and integrity, working over the years alongside a great many collaborators. Crucially, and at times, in isolation, Rogers has kept the company afloat in an ever more competitive and reduced funding environment, increasingly hostile to the kind of political work Banner is dedicated to.
Rogers continues to steer Banner’s political and creative direction as scriptwriter, songwriter and researcher, as well as singer, musician and performer. Over the last 40 years he has created or co-created over 50 Banner productions and well over 400 songs. He is also a long-time political activist and campaigner.
At present, Banner operates as a small-scale touring theatre company, with a tight core (administrative staff when funding allows, or otherwise volunteer) which contracts appropriate personnel to work on particular projects, and a large network of associates, some with connections going back the full 40 years of the company’s existence, who contribute to the work, occasionally even in a paid capacity.
In the course of its 40-year history Banner has developed a methodology that generates performances in support of struggles for social justice. ‘Actuality’ continues to be at the heart of Banner’s work. For the company,
Vernacular speech is powerful and dramatic, and people present at a deep level their beliefs and values in the jokes, stories and anecdotes they tell about themselves. Our use of ‘actuality’ literally gives people a voice in our productions. Dave Rogers
Banner uses ‘actuality’ as source material for scriptwriters to develop characters and scenes, for songwriters to develop rhythmic, melodic and thematic ideas and as a live theatre resource to complement, contradict and counterpoint action on the stage.
Each of Banner’s productions engages the company in a multi-faceted dialogue with people in their communities. The process starts with initial recordings within a community. These recordings then become source material for the ideas which shape the show. Initial script ideas are taken back to key interviewees for comment and criticism to further develop the shape and content of the final production. A typical Banner play involves the recording of 40 to 60 people whose voices may feature in the production, or whose words may help create scripts and lyrics. Many of the people interviewed will comment on script drafts, and see the final production – and some will organise performances for their communities. This process not only enables the company to gain a deeper analysis of the social conditions addressed in the shows, it also generates both performances and audiences, as when interviewees organise performances for their communities and attend the final production.
The Banner Archive at the Library of Birmingham
The immense body of raw material gathered by Banner since the mid-1970s is an unparalleled oral record of working class life and struggles. It has also consistently reflected Britain’s diverse communities, particularly Black and South Asian people, and asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Banner projects, such as the Handsworth Project in the 1980s, have paid particular attention to the areas of the city where these communities have settled.
The importance of this material to the wider community has been acknowledged by the fact that the Library of Birmingham (Archives, Heritage and Photography) has accepted Banner’s records from their first three decades, and invested in the process of cataloguing these holdings and beginning to digitise the oral records.
Current Creative Form: The Video Ballads
The company describes its current productions as ‘video ballads’, a form which, while retaining the essential elements of the early Radio Ballad form, builds upon both creative and technological advances.
To describe this hybrid form, Bouzek (2009) explains that video ballads are a unique performance language with which to explore the boundaries of theatre, music, video and creative non-fiction on the stage. Video ballads are not conventional stage plays. They are presentational in form, looking more like a concert, with no attempt to maintain the illusion of the ‘fourth wall’. The feel of a Banner production is closer to a rock performance than stage Naturalism.
The songs and musical elements in Banner’s productions are central to their aesthetics. Many of the songs are written from the perspective of the characters seen in the video ‘actuality’, effectively playing out the character’s subtext. At other times, the songs provide commentary to the action in the same way as the Street Singer does in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Some of the video ballads also explore the use of dramatised musical segments as links between narrative sections. So, for instance, in They Get Free Mobiles… Don’t They? (2007-08), a refugee character engages in a musical dialogue with a UK native to introduce and deride each the major myths affecting how asylum seekers are perceived in Britain.
In a recent development, the company has explored more portable methods of presenting the Ballads. Where, up to recently, Banner’s productions would have employed multiple slide and video projectors, the technology is now available to enable the touring company to work from a single Mac laptop, thus enabling performances in a wider variety of spaces. This advance has the additional advantage of enabling the company to re-sequence material on the go. Scripts no longer have to be locked into a particular order, but can be changed in the same way as musicians change a set list during a live performance. In this way, the company can respond quickly to political and social events as they arise.
Aspects of Banner’s practice
One of the key aspects of Banner’s methodology, and one of the important elements of its productions, is the centrality of the people who represent the community in struggle portrayed in the production.
Their embodiment on stage, originally mediated through the recorded voice, then heightened by visual elements (slides and recordings), is at its most impactful in their actual, tangible presence. On the Brink (1980) involved motor trade workers (Bob Etheridge, Bill Shreeve, Vic Summerfield); The Little Red Mole (1988) focused on and featured union convenor Bob Whiskens; and Banner’s productions on asylum and migration (1997 to 2011) included former asylum seeker and refugee performers such as Gaylan Nazhad, Zirak Hamad, Leon Koffi and Firmin Ghali.
This creative choice is seen by the company as a powerful tool to connect with audiences, to make the experiences portrayed real. It confronts audiences and helps them connect at a deep emotional level with the reality of those experiences.
If the Radio Ballads’ limitation was that they remained confined in many respects to the select audiences of BBC Radio, one clear breakthrough offered by Banner was to produce performances that could be intimately and spontaneously staged in community halls, workers clubs and pubs. This offered the chance to build a more direct relationship and dialogue with the audiences whose concerns were addressed .
This closer participation with the audience was particularly evident during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, when Banner played an important role in giving voice to mining communities and was able to swiftly respond to developments in the strike and in the wider political landscape. Dave Rogers explains that
This was a crucial, defining period in Banner’s history. Culture was directly linked to the struggle, embedded with the mining communities. So, we’d support the strike by going on a picket line in the morning, writing a song in the afternoon and playing at a strike social in the evening… We became ‘the miners’ theatre company’! And we’ve been presented with three miners’ lamps, a real honour for us.
During the strike, Banner built a close bond with the National Union of Mineworkers, and with militant mining communities – a bond that was established from the very beginning of the company’s existence, and that lasts to this day. Performances of Saltley Gate (first devised in 1976) during the Miners’ Strike drew on a sense of collective responsibilities and acted as powerful rallying call for pit workers at a time when, at least according to a woman named Thatcher, there was ‘no such thing as society’ (Green, 2007). Saltley Gate was also restaged as part of the anti-pit closure campaigns of the 1990s, and in 2012 as part of Banner’s 40th anniversary events.
Other work resulting from Banner’s participation in the strike includes Anna Seymour’s work with the North Staffs Miners’ Wives in the early 1990s, the ongoing link with the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign campaign, and repeat invitations to perform at David Jones and Joe Green Memorial events and at the Durham Miners’ Gala.
For Banner, this enduring and multifold relationship is ‘a real indicator of what political-cultural struggle can be’ (Dave Rogers). Banner today remains in contact with many of its original audiences and their concerns, but it has also continued to assert its social relevance by addressing other urgent contemporary issues, such as the case of migrant workers and asylum seekers, or the deepening globalised neo-liberal onslaught on working people.
Effect and Affect
The deeply affecting result of Banner’s methodology and practice – of which activism is the bedrock – is captured by Bouzek (2009) in the following terms:
Perhaps the defining moment for me happened in the Banner show Migrant Voices. Fred Wisdom, a dreadlocked performer of Caribbean descent, presented a 1920 Kurdish poem encouraging resistance to the British presence in Iraq. The powerful feelings of anger and determination he generated tapped directly into his family’s experience of colonialism in Jamaica. At the same time, there was no possibility of entering into any illusion that Fred was a Kurdish man. At that moment, I discovered what I believe Brecht meant by his Alienation Effect. There was no pretence that Fred was anyone other than a performer presenting someone else’s words, but the emotion in those words was rooted in a reality that created a link across two continents.
Participating in a Banner performance as a member of the audience, and in a post-show discussion – often a space where Banner has its most prominent impact, produces a profound effect, witnessed time and again in post-show questionnaires.
For instance, following one of Banner’s powerful performances on the subject of racism and immigration, a young participant said:
I thought there were loads more people coming to England and that we took in more than our fair share – I can’t believe that the papers lie like that.
Banner’s praxis has particular impacts for those involved with the creative process. ‘One Zimbabwean woman, who was feeling very isolated before this process started, became involved in interviewing for us. Through that she started working with activists working on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers and has now become a central person in that work’, says Rogers (2015). Another case is Laurent Camara, who was a radio presenter in the Ivory Coast before he came to Britain. When the group met him he was working in Asda. Since joining Banner as a technician he has gained confidence and is now running an African festival.
Banner’s earlier shows had focussed on the story of one community with whom the company had developed a close relationship, for instance the miners in Saltley Gate (1976), the Corby iron and steel workers in Steel (1980). Over the years, this single focus changed to incorporate a number of different stories, embedded in a much wider context encompassing aspects of the results of British imperialism and the globalisation of manufacturing industry since WW2.
A turning point for Banner came in 2000, when the company was commissioned by the Fire Brigades’ Union to produce a show to challenge racism in the fire service. This followed the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry (1999), and the Home Office’s directives to address institutional racism. The resulting show, Black and White in the Red, toured to union branches and was accompanied by a programme of anti-racist workshops that raised awareness of the oppressive and discriminatory practices which could be found in the fire service.
For the first time, Banner was portraying power relations that the audience did not necessarily view as a collective issue. Banner’s work was no longer developing organically out of a struggle and in support of that struggle, but rather out of the need to find a balance between continued activism and financial survival. At that point, the company had the potential to be ‘in contradiction with its audiences’, instead of ‘in unconditional solidarity’ with them.
This made it difficult for Banner to maintain the form of intervention which characterised its previous work, particularly as the company went on to explore the themes of asylum and migration, and therefore, to work with much more fragmented, unorganised and less established groups, and with support structures (for example, anti-deportation campaigns) which themselves lacked the organisation of the movements and campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s.
An opportunity to develop the company’s practice presented itself following Rogers’ seminal encounter with Canadian director Don Bouzek of Ground Zero Productions in 1997.
Bouzek was an experienced practitioner of popular education, a term that reflects a number of different forms of adult education which tend to the associated with social movement and campaigns. The particular methodology which Banner is working with stems directly from Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy. Known as the spiral model, it aims to ‘conscientise’ participants, allowing them to become more aware of how individual personal experiences connect to larger societal problems. The process therefore begins with people’s experiences, which become the core of the spiral, and then grows continually outward from the core in a series of steps which are modelled on the Freirean praxis: analysis, action, reflection.
Banner’s first major educational intervention with adults was a 3-year programme that started in 2006 with a collaboration between the company, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and trade unions. Banner performed 20-minute performance pieces that explored the impact of global market forces on migrant workers, These pieces were used as a stimulus for discussion in trade union courses led by WEA popular educators.
From this, Banner built on the potential of popular education both as an effective framework for community intervention and as a means of accessing new sources of funding for working with young people, culminating in Banner’s decision in the late 2010s actively to seek out opportunities to deliver anti-racist popular education workshops for young people.
Currently, Banner is developing popular education workshop for union schools, collaborating with trade unions such as the GFTU and with sister arts organisations, to explore the full potential of the arts as a powerful, yet under-utilised resource for the trade union movement.