Joan Littlewood: theatre-maker that changed British theatre

by Phil Cleaves | 1 September 2017

The greatest revolutionary of the British theatre.

Do you want to make theatre that changes the world? There is no better example to follow than the internationally minded Joan Littlewood. She was the figure head of one of Britain’s most trailblazing companies for over twenty years. Littlewood directed a vast number of productions of widely varied styles, from political agitprop to social-realism, expressionism to naturalism. Peter Hall, the founder of the National Theatre, described her as “the greatest revolutionary of the British theatre”. Playwright David Hare said “Littlewood changed the nature of theatre”. The great theatre critic and dramaturg Kenneth Tynan declared that “when the annals of our theatre in the middle years of the twentieth century come to be written, one name will lead the rest”.

So how did she change the world? Simple, she started with her immediate community. Whether in Manchester at the start of her career or in Stratford, East London she was determined to make theatre that spoke to normal, working people. Furthermore, Littlewood broke with the hierarchical conventions of commercial theatre and celebrated the collective. In her letter to Encore magazine in 1961 she reinforeces this ideal: “No one mind or imagination can foresee what a play will become”.

Professor Nadine Holdsworth is leading a pilot project funded by Warwick University in collaboration with essentialdrama.com to promote Joan Littlewood’s work in schools. The hope being that Littlewood’s legacy will inspire young people to make theatre that speaks to their community and begins to change the world. The project funded a series of workshops and a free downloadable education pack for students and teachers.

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