By Simon Parker
It all started in 1979 at Perran Round. The medieval playing place, once the setting for religious dramas, had been chosen for the debut performance of The Beginning of the World, adapted by Bill Scott, founder of the fledgling theatre company.
‘It really all came about because after being out of the theatre world for a few years I suddenly got the urge to go on stage again and persuaded some friends to join me,’ says Bill, who has remained at the helm, as artistic director, ever since.
‘There were about eight of us. We called ourselves, quite grandly, The Cornish Miracle Theatre Company. I found a Victorian translation of the Cornish Ordinalia and started messing about, writing a very loose, knockabout version. I felt sure that when the Ordinalia was originally staged in Cornish in the 1400s the three devils – Satan, Beelzebub and Lucifer – would have been portrayed as comic characters. So we did the same, playing it as pure clowning. It felt authentic because the method and spirit of the piece came from the same traditions as they had five hundred years earlier.’
Rehearsals were rudimentary, set and props were crude, costumes were home-made, but eventually they were ready for the first show – and at the very opening moment of the very first night, God, played by John Carley, was about to make his entrance.
‘John looked very god-like, with an impressive beard and blue robes,’ recalls Bill. ‘We’d made a funky little wooden platform to represent Heaven and devised a system whereby two people stood on one end of a length of scaffold board, pivoted in the middle, and the idea was that as God stepped on to the other end he would be gently lowered to earth. It was going to be a spectacular moment – and we’d even bought a firework to let off.
‘Unfortunately, we hadn’t sorted out the technology very well and the thing just collapsed. God uttered the words, ‘In the Beginning…’ and stepped forward – only to fall several feet down on to the stage. Fortunately he wasn’t seriously hurt, and carried on as best he could.’
That would have been a bad enough start, but you couldn’t make up what happened next.
‘There was a huge clap of thunder and a flash of lightning and then the heavens opened and the actors, set, and audience (all six of them!) were drenched in monsoon rain…’
That dramatic day in 1979 heralded the birth of Miracle Theatre. But to find out what led up to that moment it’s necessary to look a little further back in time – to the home of a little boy with a passion for all things theatrical.
‘I have no idea where my interest for live theatre came from,’ says Bill. ‘It was just a weird thing. When we first got a telly I used to wait for 5 o’clock, when Children’s Hour came on, and I’d hold a little rug in front of the screen and count down from ten seconds to zero, gradually winding it up to reveal the screen – just like a stage curtain. I must have got this strange stage management obsession from somewhere but I don’t know where. When I was about seven I wrote a short play and performed it with my brother, but I don’t know where that came from either.’
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and despite its disastrous opening night, The Beginning of the World went on to be a surprise success, playing to audiences of a few dozen at outdoor settings across Cornwall. Encouraged by the reception, Miracle began to plan its next show.
‘I wasn’t really looking any further than The Beginning of the World at that point, but it was quite well received and everyone wanted to carry on,’ says Bill. ‘From the very start our ethos was to take theatre out to communities rather than expect them to come to us. It began there and grew into our continuing commitment to provide travelling theatre in out-of-the-way places that’s accessible to all.’
Anyone who has seen a Miracle show will know that whatever the text, whatever the subject, whatever the period, it will always involve comedy – which is no mystery really because comedy is written all over Bill’s face. Quick to laughter, invariably smiling, he’s a man who exudes good humour – and this is reflected in his work. Over the past forty years Bill has written from scratch, or adapted, some forty-four plays. Most years he scripts, casts and directs two productions – and, as any playwright will tell you, comedy can be the toughest call on any writer.
‘Comedy is sometimes undervalued by critics, but not by actors (who know it’s much harder to play than a straight part) or by audiences (who love it) or by fellow writers (who know how difficult it can be). For me, being able to make people laugh is the most wonderful thing to do – and I am absolutely convinced that being able to help facilitate people to laugh together is a really good social function. Laughing together, enjoying a moment with others, creates magic in our lives. There may be ten people or two thousand in an audience, but the effect is the same: a shared experience.
‘I find writing comedy really hard – and if I’m honest most of the really funny stuff that Miracle does comes about in the rehearsal room, through actors spotting opportunities. When I write a script I make it absolutely clear that it’s not a sacred thing, it’s there to be messed about with, and I don’t give a toss how different to the original it ends up, as long as it works. That way, you build on something together. I might find my script really funny, the actors might be bent double with mirth at what they’ve created in rehearsal, but you only really know if it works when an audience tells you so… through their laughter.’
The Beginning of the World was followed by another Cornish standard, Tristan & Iseult, and The Fables of Faust, which almost ended in disaster when Hell’s Angels set fire to the marquee while they were on stage in North Devon. A few years later, Miracle morphed into a trio, comprising Keri Jessiman, Steve Clark and Bill, specialising in touring short history plays. They proved hugely popular with children and families and played at venues across the country.
‘We did quite a few for English Heritage on subjects ranging from Henry VIII and the history of Pendennis Castle to the Civil War in Cornwall,’ says Bill. ‘One was a show about the Spanish Armada – but from the Spanish point of view. It was all meant to be educational, but told using our own brand of knockabout stuff. It was very rough and ready stuff but what I always loved about it was seeing kids literally around your feet, listening and watching and laughing.
‘Another great thing about those shows was the size of the audiences, which could be hug. We did the Spanish Armada play in the old WI hall in Truro one afternoon when there were only two people in the audience. After the show, we packed up, got in the van and drove to Kenilworth Castle to perform the same play – to over 2000.”
Bill, Keri and Steve continued juggling conventional work with creating Miracle shows throughout the 1980s and 1990s, scratching a living and delighting audiences across the South West and further afield. But with families and other commitments, it became increasingly clear to Bill that a life of lurching from one financial crisis to another was unsustainable. So it’s no exaggeration to say the big change in the company’s fortunes came just in time.
‘It seems odd now, but it’s absolutely true, that I was on the point of giving up – not so much for me, because I still enjoyed it, but because I didn’t want to go on asking people to work for nothing,’ says Bill. ‘Then I got a phone call out of the blue to say the Arts Council had carried out a review and we ticked every box and they wanted to support us. That was such a wonderful thing to hear. The Arts Council has been very supportive.’
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Miracle has gone from strength to strength, performing in more venues and to more people, while tackling increasingly diverse and challenging scripts, using ever-more ambitious sets, and collaborating with a range of actors, makers, musicians and communities. The company has had bases at Fentongoose, Falmouth, Truro and Krowji. In early 2019 it decamped to a large unit on Treleigh Industrial Estate in Redruth, allowing its practitioners to make productions, rehearse, store sets and costumes, and run the company from a single site.
To put its influence into context, since 1979 Miracle has worked with an estimated 200 artists to create 44 shows and deliver more than 3,000 performances during 66 tours to an estimated 450,000 people in 500-plus locations.
Just for the record – and for Miracle anoraks to tick off their favourites – this is the full list of shows: The Beginning of the World (1979), Tristan and Iseult (1980), The Fables of Faust (1982), McBeth (1984), The Joke Machine (1984), Waiting for Godot (1985), Shooting Star (1986), The Great Enterprise (1988), Dr Livingstone I Presume (1989), Frank and Ernest (1989), Cabbages and Kings (1990), A Pig in a Poke (1991), A Grand Catastrophe (1992), A Parcel of Rogues (1993), Aladdin (1993), The Tempest (1994), The Revenge of Rumpelstiltskin (1994), The Scapegoat (1995), Beauty and the Beast from Mars (1995), Knight of Passion (1996), Dr Livingstone I Presume (1996), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1997), The Fall of Robin Hood (1997), Cleopatra (1998), A Parcel of Rogues (1999), Twelfth Night (2000), Beggar’s Opera (2001), Twelfth Night (2002), The Chairs (2002), Quasimodo (2003), The Great Silence (2003, 2004), Hamlet (2004), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (2004), The Case of the Frightened Lady (2005), Aladdin (2005), The Case of the Frightened Lady (2006), The Government Inspector (2006), Time Machine (2006), The Government Inspector (2007), Taming of the Shrew (2007), Jason (2008), Taming of the Shrew (2008), Cat’s Cradle (2008), Tartuffe (2009), The Revenge of Rumpelstiltskin (2009), Romeo and Juliet (2010), Beauty and the Beast from Mars (2010), The Death of Sherlock Holmes (2011), Tin (2012), The Importance of Being Ernest (2012), Frankenstein! (2012), Waiting for Godot (2013), The Case of the Frightened Lady (2014), The Tempest (2014), Dr Livingstone I Presume (2014), The Magnificent Three (2015), Tin: The Movie (2015), Zonk FM (2016), Life’s A Dream (2016), The Magnificent Three (2016), Cinderella (2016), The Third Policeman (2017), A Christmas Carol (2017), The Cherry Orchard (2018), Aladdin (2018), A Perfect World (2019).
Long-term followers will have their own favourites – and Bill is no exception.
‘I’ve enjoyed doing all of them but there have been particular high points,’ he says. ‘I loved Tin – both the stage version and the movie – for several reasons. It was fantastic subject matter, we were able to involve a large number of people from the community, and we collaborated with the English Touring Opera and Ben Luxon – all of these things made it a very magical experience.
‘It’s great to give opportunities to people. I look around for people with skills and talents who might be able contribute to what we’re doing. You find over time that some people really fit and want to stay, and some have worked as actors with Miracle and then gone on to start their own companies, like Trifle Gathering, Owdyado, Pipeline and Quirk. I don’t want to take credit of any of that but if Miracle hadn’t been here they might not have happened.
‘Going back to some of the high points, Quasimodo stands out because it was the first show we did after getting our Arts Council funding and we were able to take it to The Minack, among other venues. It had a great set, the actors were on top form, and we had full houses. I remember thinking, ‘we’ve made it!’.
‘I could also mention Waiting For Godot, The Third Policeman and others, but if you ask me for the biggest buzz it’s being there, in a venue and looking around and seeing audiences having a good time, a good laugh – that’s such a precious thing and completely intoxicating to watch.’
And so, after forty years of nourishing audiences with its joyous and unique form of travelling outdoor theatre, Miracle continues a tradition that began all those years ago with The Beginning of the World. And it’s sobering to think that some of the boys and girls who were taken to see The Beginning of the World by their parents in 1979 now return each year with their own grandchildren to experience that same sense of Miracle magic.