ONLINE COMPOSITION MASTERCLASS

Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

55: In Memoriam Alan Dossor

These days I open the review pages of The Guardian with some apprehension: they are usually immediately opposite the obituary page. On Friday August 12th I was surprised and saddened to learn in this way of the death of Alan Dossor. In an accurate and generous appreciation, Irving Wardle rightly identified Alan as one of the outstanding theatre directors of his generation and the latter half of the twentieth century. What he did not record, and perhaps could not know, was the extent of Alan’s influence and inspiration beyond the world of writers, actors and theatre companies…

I met Alan in 1968. By the luckiest chance in my whole life, I had landed a dream job for a practical creative musician – musical director of Nottingham Playhouse. Regional theatre was flourishing at that time; at Nottingham we played in repertoire, alternating 2 or 3 different shows in any one week, most of them featuring live music, which I got to write or arrange. Alan was an assistant director under outgoing founder John Neville, and then his successor Stuart Burge, who gave me my job. We got on well, were the same age (both in our mid-twenties) and of similar temperament; Alan gave me terrific support in my early wet-behind-the-ears days – I’d never worked in theatre before, the Company included many formidably well-known actors, and inevitably I made the occasional gaffe.

It was a measure of Stuart Burge’s trust in us that we were given the task of devising the Christmas show that year, which Stuart wanted to be based on an old Swiss folk tale, The Mountain King. We devised the book ourselves, but I got a sparky writer from the University to write lyrics; and I hired 6 very versatile musicians from the Music Department to play in the pit band. There was even an elaborate ballet to open the show, with Stuart’s daughter Lucy and other students from the Northern Dance Theatre in Manchester – whose distinguished director Laverne Meyer did the choreography!

The following season Alan left to take over as Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, which is where his art really blossomed. He invited me to direct the music for a play he had commissioned about the formidable local Labour MP Bessie Braddock. I never really looked back: this was the second luckiest chance of my artistic career, and the start of four glorious years contributing music to ground-breaking productions which are still fondly remembered for their theatrical – and, yes, political – power and energy.

Pretty well everything Alan did in those years (broadly 1970-75) bore some relation to the local community and especially working-class Liverpool – which he cannily identified as the essential audience to reach. The work was also always directly relevant to current political and social issues – one of the most enduring productions was a deeply moving version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle set on a building site, which ended with the burning of Thatcher’s Industrial Relations Act in a cement-mixer. Then there was Tarzan’s Last Stand, an extravagant satire on Enoch Powell by Chris Bond (which would resonate equally powerfully in the turbulent, disordered world we’ve been living through in the last few months).

Alan had a great eye for performers and instinct for commissioning writers: an extraordinary ensemble of highly individual actors, then at the beginning of their careers, now household names or faces – Roger Sloman, Alison Steadman, Jonathan Pryce, Antony Sher, Bernard Hill, Gillian Hanna, Pete Postlethwaite, Nicholas le Prevost, Julie Walters – was thus complemented by a roster of writers that included John McGrath and Adrian Mitchell.

Echoing the trust that Stuart Burge had placed in us years before, Alan was astonishingly generous to me: he gave me a free hand (albeit within the considerable budgetary constraints of the Everyman at that time!). Claiming to know nothing about music (which many people incorrectly do!), he once said to me “I have no idea how you do what you do, nor why it works, but it obviously does, so I’ll leave you to it”, or words to that effect. So music also became a hall-mark of all the iconic Everyman productions of that period.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

A few weeks after his death, I was writing The Beast is Back and the rest of the Grand Union shows commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street (see previous Post and Post 53). It hit me very hard that I would not be doing that if it were not for Alan Dossor; very likely there would not be a Grand Union Orchestra at all. Everything I learnt at the Everyman, and was largely taught by Alan, I have in effect translated into a musical form:

  • The local community needs to be reflected on stage, which means enlisting performers who represent the local demographic;
  • Their lives and their stories – and their musical cultures – should form part of the content of the show, its narrative and structure;
  • The experience of the performer, whether amateur or professional, must be palpable (a strong Brechtian principle), and is crucial to the authenticity, integrity and appeal of the show;
  • The politics of class, and our response to it, has been replaced by the politics of race, which in turn colours and defines our presentation of current social and historical issues.

Above all, however, this must be effected with great humanity and passion, which Alan’s productions always achieved; there is no place for ideology in art. Like me, politically he might be described as a libertarian socialist; he politicised me (like many others), but we never actually talked politics, only the most effective, and artistically truthful, ways we could portray people’s lives and move an audience.

So, no musical analysis this month, but all throughout these Posts aspects of this influence can be discerned. Take for example Undream’d Shores, maybe our proudest achievement so far, or these dramatic episodes from the Grand Union Orchestra canon which you can almost imagine transformed from what you might have seen in an Everyman show in the early 1970s:

Post 26: Chilean exile Vladimir Vega evoking the coup which overthrew Allende, and…

Post 22: …singing a heart-breaking lament for his homeland

Post 33: dramatising the fate of a shell-shocked victim of the Portuguese African wars

Post 20: describing a family caught up in the Bangladesh war of independence

Post 54: memories of Cable Street come back to haunt us (GUO is based in East London)

Postscript

Lucy, Alan’s daughter, organised a wonderful tribute to her father at the Everyman in November. Many of those who were privileged participants in that short golden period paid tribute to him, and brought those days back to life. But it was much more than just an exercise in nostalgia: I think all of us came away revitalised and recharged with a creative energy and ambition to continue to produce work that responds creatively to the inequalities and injustices of today’s world – sadly not so different from those we were addressing 40 years ago.

alandossor-2

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2 comments on “55: In Memoriam Alan Dossor

  1. Phil Abel
    December 1, 2016

    My time as a student in Liverpool (74-77) overlapped with Alan Dossor’s time at the Everyman and I saw inspiring productions and great performances there. Thank you for so clearly describing what made them good.

  2. Gilian O'Connell
    December 28, 2016

    A powerful and moving article which has left me feeling hopeful that there may be a way forward in these times of greed and hate. Bring on 2017!

    Thank you Tony

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