Joan Littlewood and Stratford Fair

Adapted from ‘Community Art an Anthropological Perspective’ by Kate Crehan, 2011 

Free Form Arts Trust, which was instrumental in the foundation of Chats Palace (1976) and in starting the annual Hackney Marsh Fun Festival (1974 – 1995), had previously organised their first neighbourhood festival on the Keir Hardie Estate in Canning Town in 1972. It was a seven-week programme of different live arts events, many with a strong participatory component.

One visitor to the Festival was Joan Littlewood, one of the most influential figures in postwar British theatre. Working in an old Victorian theatre located in the East End rather than the West End home of middle-class theatre, her productions in the 1960s, as British playwright David Edgar put it in 2006, ‘popularised a high-energy, rough and ready, Anglicised version of Brecht’s suddenly influential political theatre’.

In the early 1970s, Stratford, the home of Littlewood’s Theatre Royal, was a somewhat desolate place, supposedly in the process of being ‘developed’. The local school had just closed, and there were many empty sites, left vacant by developers in the hope of future profits. Despite Littlewood’s declared aim of creating a ‘people’s theatre’ and while her theatre may have been more successful at attracting working-class audiences than traditional West End theatres, to many local people it was still essentially an outpost of alien middle-class culture.

Well aware of this problem, Littlewood was excited when she visited the 1972 Canning Town Fun Festival – like the Free Form artists, she had a strong commitment to making art, in her case theatre, that could reach working-class people. She suggested that  Free Form organised a programme of art events, to be called ‘Stratford Fair’, intended to bring her theatre out of its box and into the local community and to get the local community into the theatre. The story of this collaboration reveals something of the difficulty of bridging the gulf between high art and popular culture.

Martin Goodrich, co-founder of the Free Form Arts Trust, remembers:

To celebrate Joan Littlewood’s 100th birthday anniversary, Chats Palace is taking part in the nationwide weekend of Fun Palaces on Saturday October 4, 10-4pm. Come and meet the Fragile Archivists to watch a wide range of historical and modern footage, pick up material about the origins of Chats Palace and much more.

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