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Photo Costal Productions

First play at new Opus Theatre

Tania Charman a local community activist and board member of the Heart of Hastings (HOH) Community Land Trust has arranged for the Liverpool Theatre Group, Costal Productions to perform The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the new Opus Theatre on Saturday 26th August 2017. This is Tom McLennan’s adaptation for the stage of the famous book by Robert Tressell. Hot’s Sean O’ Shea talks with Tania about the impending production, HOH links with the theatre group and the role of HOH.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists documents the privations of working people and their families in Hastings (Mugsborough) in the early years of the twentieth century. In this interview, Tania expresses some of the rebellious and unquenchable spirit of the book’s hero, Frank Owen – and with humour and passion points out that things haven’t changed much since the book was written. She argues that if the conditions of the working class are to be improved, it will have to be by their own efforts. She herself is determined to be at the heart of this endeavour and her use of the arts to further this goal is inspired.

If you’d like to contribute to the work of the Heart of Hastings Trust or to the development of the new Opus Theatre, do get in touch. Contact details for Tania, for Heart of Hastings and Opus Director, Polo Piatti are included at the end of this article.

Could you say a bit about your involvement with the Heart of Hastings Trust (HOH) and some of its aims and activities?

I have been a director since the inception of this community organisation in early 2016. I so wanted to be involved as I truly believe in us finding our own solutions to our community’s problems, especially in housing. We have had decades of dictatorship from the top, which has been unsuccessful, and a hundred years on, the problems of poverty remain unresolved in Hastings/Mugsborough.

Have the people at the top read the The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (RTP)? Probably not! I recommend they do, as it will change their view on how to help people and underpins the reasons for this approach. Anything has to be better than the typical ex-council tenement social housing, where the people have lost ownership and been absorbed by large corporations who have lost the social and care dimension in their mission. The demise of Tenant Management Organisations (TMO) means tenants’ voices are no longer heard.

So, here we are looking at using the ZED Factory model, building housing from a factory on the Power Site in Ore Valley using local labour. Things that are promised however seem not to happen in construction and top down regeneration by property developers is all that is evident.

The RTP book says there is another way, as does the Community Land Trust (CLT) model which imbeds ownership and gives everyday people control through a collective approach.

Every week I learn more about a different approach to living collectively, and how you build a community as they build the housing. After living in lifeless large corporation social housing for years, this model offers something amazing. The Organisation Workshop model from Brazil is an effective method of mobilising people who are on the margins of society and excluded. It has a success rate of 8-9/10 and has recently been piloted in Luton at Marsh Farm.

The models and partners that we are using come from far and wide and offer something refreshing in housing. Through working on site, through our partnerships and the board, there is never a moment of stillness as we march forward on a mission to bring an alternative vision to others and in housing.

I’m convinced we will bring an exciting new model and opportunity to Ore Valley and start to mitigate gentrification for local people in the White Rock area. We can do this through creating affordable spaces, diverse communities, fabulous neighbourhoods, using social driven investment and long term co-ownership. It’s basically about local people being able to live in a town that is fast becoming un-affordable to its own residents.

HOH aims to achieve two things. Firstly, to build modular, sustainable units on the old derelict Power Station site for long term capped rent. Secondly, to acquire property in White Rock for long term capped rent, all run on a collective basis with voting shareholders and owned by the Community Land Trust (CLT) in perpetuity.

Our website offers more information on these projects: Heart of Hastings.

Whilst in Liverpool last year and meeting our cast this year, we visited the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust, who worked with Assemble Studio,                   who won a Turner Prize for their innovative architecture and arts work with the Granby Community Land Trust, which is a wonderful scheme.

This is a pioneering project we are putting together and we need all the support we can get. So get involved. We achieved the pier resurrection through pure community determination, so we can do this too.

To help:

  • Buy a CLT share – provides a vote at meetings and makes us democratic. ‘Be the change you want to see.’
  • Look at the private investment opportunities in the White Rock area on our website, a better offer than the banks are offering at the moment
  • Get actively involved in the work we are taking on in White Rock or volunteer on the Ore valley Power station site
Photo courtesy Tania Charman

Photo courtesy Tania Charman

What have been your links with the Liverpool Theatre Group and can you tell us a bit about the cast and the background to the current production?

Suzy Tinker (Trustee of HOH) and myself had both read the book and then, as we discussed it, we realised it’s alignment to our own aims and the long term poverty in the Ore Valley. Sadly, it seemed not much had changed a hundred years on. Clearly there was potential for a project to provide a way of educating people about how they become entrapped within the system. Changing how we produce and manage housing is one step, and the Play and Dialogue project are relevant in that it will help us to spread our message

We decided to research Tressell and activities associated with him and talk to local people about the RTP. The ‘Tressell Trail’ was drawn up; yes a map, linking a shared heritage with Liverpool, Dublin and Johannesburg. Then we found there was the Tressell guide leaflet produced by local historians, and also a Facebook page, talking about a ‘Liverpool Annual Festival’, and so we arranged a trip to Liverpool to meet these people, as it seemed we had much in common. Robert Tressell’s book is one of a few platforms which we are planning to use exploring housing and how it relates to poverty today.

Initially when Jess Steele OBE (Director & Project Co-ordinator), Suzy and I met our Liverpool friends none of us knew how we were going to help each other. We talked about our shared history and passion for this book. We also discussed the bust that Hastings’ artist, Nigel Sales, was sculpting as a personal crusade, and how much we felt it was important to remember Tressell in this way in places he frequented or lived. Liverpool now have the bust and enthusiasts are working to have it placed in the library or Museum. It’s a great start!

Liverpool RT enthusiasts had a play and musicians who sang songs about Tressell and acted out the book, while we had the physical heritage and the fact that the book was based on real stories of local people’s struggle with poverty a hundred years ago. The two seemed to complement each other.

Liverpool had a feel that felt familiar to me and many strong socialist views are heard in this city if you listen as you go along your way.

And this project has a very personal significance in that I’ve lived through years of poverty in the Ore Valley and know what it’s really like. The book touches something that makes me want to fight to educate and eradicate poverty in any way I can. I am doing this as it really doesn’t have to be like this.

Keep the red flag flying. Photo Costal Productions

Keep the red flag flying. Photo Costal Productions

What inspired you to arrange for this production to be staged in Hastings?

In April 2017 a friend and myself decided to go up to Liverpool to see what the festival was all about. We arrived late and the entry gate was locked so we climbed over the five foot iron railings to find lots of people collecting for the activities looking at us from far across the churchyard. When we joined them they welcomed us and noted our nimbleness. We smiled at each other and said, ‘We’re from Mugsborough’ – and everyone laughed. Maybe we were just living up to our reputation as pirates, smugglers, strugglers and skulduggery in times gone by.

We went to both performances of the play as they were in very different venues and we wanted to see how they adapted the play to fit both a stage and a library interactive performance. Well both were equally great, although the second involved the audience more. It was amazing and I felt great emotion throughout the play about the issues related to poverty. It’s not changed, it’s just moved along. It’s the same with slavery, it’s not gone, it just hides itself in a different guise.

The offer to bring the play to Hastings was something we jumped at, however we knew nothing about the workings of it all and have learnt a lot already through collaborating with great comrades in Liverpool.

When they came to visit the venue and the town we took them on a Tressell tour of all the buildings and sites. We did thirteen miles of walking on a warm day, so they saw a lot of Mugsborough, and they loved it as much as we loved Liverpool. We have the best community people promoting this great and energetic performance from the Opus Theatre and the Liverpool Theatre Group, Costal Productions, and we hope to broaden minds that may be new to Tressell as well as pleasing existing enthusiasts.

What prompted you to choose the Opus Theatre as a venue?

Suzy Tinker and I had looked at the Trinity Church last year as a venue for an idea we had and the ambience in these places is somehow right for the period of RTP. So when someone said Polo Piatti and Daniela Othieno (Project Manager) were involved in opening the Opus Theatre at the church I was delighted and intrigued. The sound and capacity is fantastic and it looks just like an old music hall. The cast loved the space and we are honoured to be the first performance at the theatre.

Have you any further projects or cultural activities in mind to be hosted at the Opus Theatre?

We have many future plans for Tressell related activities and projects. We want to use the book and the story as one platform to create awareness of what the issues are today in our most disadvantaged communities. The divide is growing, with sixteen years life expectancy difference in houses next to each other in one ward in the Ore Valley, and others with similar shocking statistics.

So, what is today’s problem? Social Housing traps the poor! Shouldn’t we all be well with an NHS and welfare benefits? At least that was the aim seventy years ago – or has this been forgotten? In my experience without a decent home, you can’t grow and develop. Without change nothing will be resolved.

Let’s ask people what they think and why this problem has never been solved. Maybe if we ask them to find the answers through artistic and creative dialogue using the RTP book, instead of officials labelling people and telling them what they need, it might well help them to solve the issues and come up with their own solutions.

Bringing land and people together is seen as the foundation for building a different way to live collectively. I thank Jess Steele for this enlightenment and Suzy Tinker for her support and great skills on our journey.

For the people that can’t read or don’t find it easy to read, the play is another way to learn about the story told. This is not a sniffy affair; it’s for those who value the working class and struggle with the cost of living, it’s all about the common good!

How can interested readers get hold of the book or buy tickets for this performance?

The book is sold for £2.99 at the Tourist Information centre, Breeds Place, Hastings (by Iceland). Alternatively we will be selling copies at the shows on the 26 August.

Tickets sold at:

Wow and Flutter – Trinity Street, Hastings & Book Buster – Queens Road, Hastings

Online ticket sales and background info   –

The performance is on Saturday 26 August: two shows 1.30 pm and 7 pm. Standard tickets £13 and concessions £11

Other interesting websites and information below: – your venue for this play overview of history and union’s role history and photos Hastings museum Brighton Universities research – Trevor Hopper.

There will be an opportunity for a few small walk on parts, so if people fancy their luck please contact: You will be entered into the hat and if you win you will be required to meet the cast and learn your queues on the morning of the plays.

Note: Assemble is a collective based in London which works across the fields of art, architecture and design.