Locally performed plays have a long tradition but the community play as we understand it today took off in West Dorset and South Somerset in the late 1970s largely thanks to the enthusiasm and expertise of our President Ann Jellicoe, herself a professional playwright and theatre director. The essence of the modern community play is that it tells a story taken from the community's past. Typically, the historical setting will be factual while the actual story may be fictitious but nevertheless makes use of authentic material. And if the play has resonances today so much the better. The whole purpose of a community play is to draw together the local community and to involve as many people as possible in all its varying aspects including, of course, those who come simply to watch and enjoy the finished work. Thus a good community play is one which not only earns accolades for the quality of its performance but succeeds also in uniting the community in a common artistic enterprise.
The community play is open to all. It is not just about acting or singing, although there is plenty of both, but about everything which precedes them, the research which goes into the play writing, the workshops, the costume making, the stage design, the props, the sound and lighting, the stage management and all the numerous front of house activities. There can be few people who don't have something to offer among all these different activities. Participation in the play is a wonderful way of making friends and finding out more about other people and about yourself. Many of us have hidden talents and abilities which the play draws out to everyone's surprise including our own.
Although not an essential characteristic of a community play it has been the practice in Dorchester to employ a director and designer. Not only has this helped achieve a high quality of production, it has enabled ordinary people to learn professional skills.
You can find more from Ann Jellicoe's book: 'Community Plays: How to put them on' published by Methuen in 1987.