restricted access Joan Littlewood and the De-Mystification of Acting
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Joan Littlewood and the De-Mystification of Acting

The language of 'reality' would require incredible strength and trained skill on the part of the handler and would perhaps also require an audience equally well trained in what is known.

This paper has been prompted by the current revival of interest in Joan Littlewood's 'Theatre Workshop' which flourished in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Littlewood; Goorney; Leach; Holdsworth). Having been a member of her company in the late 1950s, I have always been interested, and felt involved, in anything which concerns Joan herself; and, being an actor, I share the occupational concern for everything to do with actors and their actuality, that is, as distinct from the image they carry in the eyes of the public - although I realise that the two things are not entirely separate from each other. I mean by this that an actor's own view of him- or herself is greatly affected by other people's attitudes. Obviously, this is true of all professions, jobs or trades. However, it is notably the case with actors, whose milieu calls for a higher level of self-consciousness, conscious self-consciousness that is.

Joan Littlewood's importance within the area of theatrical professionalism came home to me on one particular occasion when, several years after leaving Theatre Workshop, I called on her at the theatre in Stratford East in order to ask her advice. It was in the 1960s. Joan was in the habit of allowing the local children into the Theatre Royal at times when the stage was not [End Page 36] currently in use, so that they could enjoy themselves with any costumes or props which they could find. She called these their "mucking about sessions". So that I could hitch a lift down to London I had taken the precaution of wearing my clerical collar and one of the children noticed this. "Ooh, look! It's a vicar", he said to Joan pointing at the collar. "No, he's not", she said. "He's only an actor".

It was not that Joan objected to actors as such of course (Littlewood) - only to actors who gave her the impression that they thought being an actor was in any way special, or made them particularly skilled or clever; in other words, that they thought or at least seemed to think that doing this particular job set them apart from the general run of folk. Actors earned their living one way, market traders another. This, or something very like it, is something which I myself heard her say more than once. It is significant for any accurate understanding of Theatre Workshop and its creator because it concerns Joan's fundamental conception of what theatre did or, at least, what Joan herself believed it should do.

For Joan Littlewood, theatre ought to be a language used by workers to communicate with one another about the things which mattered to them. This at least was the way she set out to use it. From this point of view Joan's theatre was political like Bertolt Brecht's with a commitment no less profound for being less immediately obvious - a strong personal belief in the integrity of working class life and the need to strip away the hypocrisy surrounding the attempts made by other sections of society to avoid drawing attention to the realities confronting their less fortunate neighbours. Life was to be disclosed - rather than mimicked, which made it hard for actors who had been trained as mimics.

Some members of the cast were enlisted from the streets around the theatre, which presented them with the opportunity to act without being actors. From her point of view these people were real, being both working class and un-trained.

It was this training which resulted in the theatre she deplored, where actors stood apart from the reality they were supposed to be embodying, instead of making every effort to immerse themselves in it and see if they survived. West End actors, she was known to say, were assured of their own survival, with the result that all they actually managed to do was demonstrate...