Director Elizabeth Newman reflects on the story of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', its impact and how, through our investigate day, we considered the story in completely new ways.
AN EXTRACT FROM THE PROVOCATION OF OUR INVESTIGATE DAY
So I ask you this – where are we now?
Where do we find ourselves as a nation in 2016. 801 years ago the Magna Carta (1215) was signed. But surely those words yes, created a long time ago, surely they still matter. Don’t they? Let me read you this –
"No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land…To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”
As we know, these parts of the Magna Carta were integral to the development of the American Constitution– therefore to the people in To Kill a Mockingbird. What we need to explore today is how far do we believe that we have travelled? What does the future look like for Britain and for America? What is the theatre’s responsibility in the discussions of justice, law and rights?
As soon as I secured the rights to produce To Kill a Mockingbird I had a conversation with my friend Clare. We had a heated discussion about why we are still producing To Kill a Mockingbird versus the new play. I was clear – Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is great. We want to produce great works in Bolton for our audience. However, we spoke about my responsibility to reveal, discover or stimulate the creation of the great new works.
This got us thinking… not only do we need to create the great new work but we also need to move forward with the perspectives that are being offered to audiences. We spoke about how Tom’s story is told from someone else’s point of view and entirely from their very different life perspective. Why can’t Tom tell his own story? Scout is a young, white, well educated girl – why do we chose to see it from her point of view instead of his. This doesn’t mean we want to stop hearing from Scout. Her insights and perspectives are valuable; we need them. We need both. Without Tom we are only receiving half the story. We want two plays not one. Scout and Tom should exist with each other, as equals.
So I decided to take action. We commissioned three playwrights. I worked with Deborah Dickinson (Associate Producer) to select the playwrights and commission them. Janice Okoh, Lorna French and May Sumbwanyambe. Each of the writers are voices that had yet to be heard in Bolton but bring a new and welcome perspective. They are also currently under-represented on our stages across the country.
We asked playwrights to either write scenes (part of a full length play) or a short play inspired by Tom’s story. We guaranteed these would be presented at our Investigate Day. Our Investigate Days happen for every Octagon Season Ticket production and it’s an opportunity for audiences to investigate the play with artists, creatives and specialists.
THE INVESTIGATE DAY
For the first time ever we decided to have a full day exploring the play. This was to give us the opportunity to present the new commissions and spend more time with experts. The panel was made up of three specialists.
Eleanor is a criminal barrister (1 Pump Court Chambers, London). She specialises in criminal defence work and has represented defendants charged with the most serious criminal offences. She previously worked as part of a defence team at the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone and she is currently teaching criminal litigation on the Bar Professional Training Course at BPP University.
John has worked as a housing professional for over thirty years. In 1997 he was appointed as Head of Litigation at Whitehead Solicitors specialising in housing law and anti-social behaviour and in 2005 was appointed Head of the Community Safety Unit for a national social landlord. He now works for Restorative Solutions promoting the use of Restorative Justice in resolving conflict and reducing harm and has worked on high profile cases involving serious crime by bringing victims and offenders together.
Nat is from Ghana and came to live in Bolton in 1976. He has done a huge amount of voluntary work in the town as a school governor, church councilor and trustee for Bolton CVS, Bolton Racial Equality Council (BREC), BRASS, and Bolton Arts Forum. He is currently the Chair of the African Community Association.
The first half of the day was a panel discussion post provocation (see top of page). We then performed various political speeches after Rob Edwards performed Atticus’ closing speech from the court scene. Throughout the morning the panel offered interesting, although unsettling, insights into the situation facing the Tom Robinson living in our communities today. Their political understanding combined with their intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system meant some hard truths were exposed.
Later on in the morning I asked Marc Small to go into role as Tom Robinson and share his experience of the court as Tom. The audience witnessed the emotional rollercoaster he goes on during this act in the play. It was a clear insight into the drama they did not experience in our current adaptation, as Tom isn’t given a platform to express his pain. His moments of speech are about past events. The new plays were designed to redress this balance and insight.
Marc also articulated those moments of hope he experiences during the play, when he believes that maybe right will be done, that maybe Mayella Ewell (who is falsely accusing him) will look beyond herself, her own dreadful circumstances, and tell the truth and stop the trial. There is a moment when she takes the stand. Atticus cross-examines her; he challenges her evidence and hope appears… maybe Mayella Ewell will tell the truth. She will give him his life back; his life that is about to be taken away from him wrongly. This hope is dashed as she’s been so abused by her Father with no end in sight she does not have the capacity to show mercy. It is beyond her. The young people in attendance particularly responded to this demonstration and the discussions around Tom’s experience. They led the questions about fairness, right and justice.
In the afternoon, we looked at the commissions by the three writers, each of them investigated a different aspect of Tom’s story. Janice investigated the hope that Tom’s family have before the events. We explored the American Dream during the post-performance discussion.
Lorna’s play for me was by far the most heartbreaking. She managed to find a way to bring Tom’s daughter to life. I asked Jasmine to play her, Jasmine plays Scout in our production and she managed to communicate to our audience with her fellow actors that Tom also had a Scout. Tom was working to create a world of kindness by caring for Mayella and this lost him his daughter and his daughter her father – a tragedy in the truest sense.
May’s short play dramatized the moments between Mayella and Tom before the wrongful accusation. He clearly depicted that moment when a desperate young woman approaches the only man who has ever shown her kindness and seeks affection. In that act of desiring human connection she completely destroys his life because of her shame and embarrassment, that she was found by her abusive father trying to seek affection from a black man. Bob Ewell (her father) is so steeped in hate due to his lack of nourishment from birth that the only way he can impact on the world is to cause pain, as pain is the only truth he knows.
At the end we then returned to where we began. The provocation and specifically to the Theatre’s responsibility. How can we help create a society where all men are equal?
I closed our day by announcing the obvious – there are no easy answers so the only solution is to continue the fight – we stand together, we keep trying, we keep trying to support people to ask the difficult questions of themselves and of each other. We encourage people to connect, to love. We give Tom and Scout a voice and we propose empathy as the way forward. We try and follow Atticus’ advice knowing that if we do we’ll get along a "lot better with all kind of folks". In the words of Atticus – "You see, you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." I guess we just keep climbing…