Why Joan Littlewood Matters – possibly more now than ever

Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal
Joan Littlewood and Theatre Royal

A guest post by Stella Duffy, theatre maker, novelist and Fun Palaces champion

Joan was a working class actor and director when most actors, and especially most directors, came from privilege. She was a woman when most directors were men. She ran a major theatre venue when most people running venues were men. She worked outside of London, especially in the North West and the North East, working with local people where they lived.

It would be great to say that all this has changed, but it hasn’t. The majority of those making theatre are still middle class. The majority of those making theatre are still men. London remains disproportionately funded in terms of arts.*

Perhaps it is because of this glacial pace of change that Joan remains a beacon to those of us for whom the arts is our passion, especially the women and the working class in theatre and the wider arts.

Decades ahead of her time, Joan created community and immersive theatre with the Theatre Union in the 1930s and Theatre Workshop from 1945. Their work was avowedly left wing, brought text, dance and music together, and experimented with film, lighting, sound and design long before sets of scaffolding and projection-as-design became the standard they are now. Even when working with little or no production budget, lighting and sound were intrinsic to her productions in a way that is now expected and at the time was considered decidedly avant-garde. Given that making sound or film a core part of a piece involved reel-to-reel tapes, traditional projection, and extremely expensive stock – from a company with always limited budgets – the daring to incorporate new methods and techniques is undeniable.

But all of this is merely what she did. What is truly thrilling about Joan and her legacy is who she was as a person – or, at least, what they say she was like as a person. ‘They’ being the people who worked with Joan. I’ve probably talked to a dozen or more of these people in the time we have been growing Fun Palaces – and every one of them speaks of a different Joan. The drinking, smoking Joan who was raucous and often furious and suffered no fools, gladly or otherwise. The Joan who was careful and kind, who could be generous and gentle in times of sincere distress. The Joan who (literally) brought kids in off the street to play and work in her theatre, quite possibly changing lives as she did so. The Joan who left brutal acting notes on dressing room doors so that all of the cast would see them, not just those to whom the notes were addressed. The Joan who swapped casts’ roles hours before curtain-up, to keep the play fresh and to stop the actors ‘being boring’ – the Joan with a horror of boring actors. The Joan who took on the work of an unknown playwright, Shelagh Delaney, and gave her career the kickstart it needed. The Joan who worked with Brendan Behan sober and not. The Joan who told bored local lads to try robbing the bar of her own theatre as a way to keep them occupied. The Joan that Murray Melvin tells us always said ‘ask the kids’ not just what they wanted to do – but how THEY would do it, empowering them to create their own engagement. The Joan who despised the National Theatre. The south Londoner who loved the East End. The Joan who brought Laban’s work to the British stage. The Joan who directed the Greeks and Shakespeare and modern unknowns. The Joan who worked with Cedric Price to design their never-built Fun Palace, who said,

‘I really do believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people.’

I can’t speak to all the other Joans, but the one in that last quote, that’s the Joan who inspired our Fun Palaces. The 240 locally-led, community-based Fun Palaces that took place over two weekends in 2014 and 2015, run by 5262 local people and with over 90,000 people taking part. That’s the Joan we channel when people who have never before run a public event or worked in arts or sciences ask us if they can make a Fun Palace with and for their own community – our answer is always yes, and then in the same way that Joan ‘asked the kids’, we ask them (all ages) what they’d like to, and how we can help them to do what they want. Fun Palaces come from the community, from the locals, from the people – from the genius in every one.


* Although it is clear that some of this funding – especially to major galleries and venues – is certainly not accessed by the majority of Londoners, many of whom never visit these major venues once they have left school.

Stella Duffy

Great thanks to Stella for this tribute to one of the people without whom so many good things in community arts might never have happened. If you have been similarly inspired by someone before you please share the experience in a comment below. 


  1. At the age of 15 (1961) I joined Peoples Theatre Youth Theatre in Newcastle – almost at the bottom of my street. I didn’t know I was at a theatre founded as the Clarion Players in 1911 to raise funds for the British Socialist Party or that I was being taught by three ex-members of Theatre Workshop who had relocated to the NE and wanted to give something back. The experience transformed me.
    In 1968, I joined the group (average age 19) building an Arts Laboratory in Birmingham. My mentor was Clive Barker, another generous and glorious man who always acknowledged Joan as his inspiration.
    I guess I try to do my bit to keep that flame alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter, it’s great to hear about that experience. I only know of Birmingham Arts Lab by name; it would be good to know more, and how those formative days shaped your thinking. Would you consider writing something that could be shared here?


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