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Bringing Down the Curtain

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What happens when people with a common cause disagree about the way forward?

It was the free sandwiches that drew Christine Channer to the Westminster Theatre that evening. As a struggling young dancer immediately after the war, any chance of food was welcome. But what she saw on the stage changed the course of her life.

The play she saw, The Forgotten Factor, was the first to be staged at the Westminster Theatre after it was bought for MRA use in 1946. It looked at industrial relations through the story of two families on either side of an industrial dispute - and was credited with helping to resolve conflicts between labour and management on both sides of the Atlantic.

Something about the play, and the people acting in it, made Channer begin to question the values on which she based her life. A year later she decided to use her talents not merely to boost her career, but to help people find meaning and hope in their lives.

Channer's experience is typical of those of hundreds - maybe thousands - of people who have seen plays at the Westminster Theatre over the last 52 years. 'People not only enjoy entertainment at the Westminster; they go out and do things afterwards,' wrote Kenneth Belden, then Chairman of Trustees, in the mid-Sixties. People would return home after shows at the theatre to give their marriages another try, to bury the hatchet with their enemies or, in some cases, to take steps which raised productivity and saved jobs at their places of work.

In its heyday, the Sixties and Seventies, the theatre aimed, in Belden's words, to present 'constructive drama that would not merely expose the follies of mankind, but give people new courage and purpose, and a new will to tackle the problems of the contemporary world'. This vision continued through the Eighties, when the Westminster increasingly became a focus for Christians who wanted to express their faith through the professional stage. But by then running a London theatre was becoming prohibitively expensive.

MRA decided to end commercial theatre in 1990 and since then the theatre has been dark, apart from some recent short-term lets. Later this year, MRA will move out to a new centre in nearby Greencoat Place. The decision has been a painful one for MRA in Britain, touching people's deepest loyalties and convictions and exposing divisions. The fact that there has not been a split - and the degree of unity and enthusiasm that has now emerged about the move - seems something of a miracle to many of those involved.

MRA bought the Westminster Theatre in 1946, specifically to stage The Forgotten Factor and as a memorial to MRA servicemen who had died in the war and in thanksgiving for those who had survived. Christine Channer's parents were part of the group of businessmen and their wives who set up the Westminster Memorial Trust to raise the GBP132,500 asking price. The money arrived in 2,857 gifts, mostly small, many of them from returning servicemen and women, who gave their demobilization gratuities.

For the first 15 years, MRA only used the theatre occasionally, letting it out for long periods. Then in 1961 it launched a continuous series of plays, many of them by Peter Howard, who took over the leadership of MRA that August. The Westminster gained a reputation as a professional theatre which viewed contemporary issues through the prism of faith and moral values - and to which you could take the whole family without fear of embarrassment. It also aimed to offer fresh perspectives to people in public life.

The audiences came in coachloads from all over the country and often stayed over Saturday night to attend an MRA meeting in the auditorium on the Sunday morning. Particularly in the early days, large numbers came from the Welsh mines, from the shipyards of Clydeside, from the factories of the Midlands - and there were even frequent parties from the European mainland.

In 1955, Belden was walking across the courtyard beside the theatre, when he was struck 'with the absolute force of revelation' by the potential of the site as a centre, with catering and conference facilities. His flash of inspiration came to fruition when the Westminster Theatre Arts Centre opened its doors in November 1966.

The new centre had some of the best facilities in London. It was one of the first theatres to include a high quality restaurant and snack bar; to run conferences (over 200 between 1961 and 1966); to run a programme for schools; to lay on simultaneous translation for foreigners; to have showers in the actors' dressing rooms and provide changing rooms for the stage crew and usherettes. 'The way we cared for our staff was unusual in those days,' says Louis Fleming, the Arts Centre's first director. 'People loved working there.'

The theatre's philosophy was ahead of its times, maintains Fleming, who now advises on multimillion-pound theatre-building projects all over the world. 'Nowadays the big buzzwords in theatre are "community outreach" and "changing people",' he says. 'There's hardly a theatre that is not concentrating on social issues, in terms of education, ethnicity, social conscience. There's a whole notion that the way to reach people with problems is through the arts. The Westminster Theatre had that community outreach and took it for granted.'

During these years, the theatre staged a wide variety of productions from modern mystery plays like The Ladder to Alan Thornhill's historical Mr Wilberforce, MP and Mr Brown comes down the hill, Peter Howard's exploration of how Christ would have been received in the Britain of the Sixties. I remember being taken as a nine-year-old to see Space is so startling, a musical about the race for space. Its songs--and those from the pantomime, Give a dog a bone, which played to packed Christmas audiences for 11 years--still evoke a nostalgic ripple of ice-cream flavoured excitement in me.

'The hallmark of productions at the theatre was a fundamental optimism, directly challenging some of the negatives of contemporary theatre,' wrote Murray Watts, a Christian playwright and director, in the 1980s. 'Underlying the work of writers like Peter Howard and Alan Thornhill was a belief that, whatever the situation, change for the better was a possibility. The sheer survival of any theatre is a remarkable achievement in the present era, and the Westminster is livelier than ever after 40 years.'

The jewel in the theatre's crown was its Day of London Theatre programmes for schools, which began in 1967 and continued until 1990. At its height, the Day of London Theatre ran three programmes a year--for 16- to 18-year-olds in the autumn, for primary school children in December and January, and for 12- to 15-year-olds in the spring. In the mornings, the schools were introduced to the history of theatre and the techniques of staging a play, from costume design through to directing. In the afternoons they watched a performance, which the seniors discussed with the cast afterwards.

Hilary Anne Buckhurst, an English and Drama teacher at John Kelly Boys' Comprehensive School in Brent, London, brought many groups to the theatre between 1978 and 1983. Her pupils had to work and save for the trips, which were a 'once in a school life' experience for some of them. They learnt as much from the way they were received at the Westminster as they did from the programme itself, she says.

'For a lot of the boys, their culture was street culture,' she says. 'To have people gently sharing another point of view, who spoke to them with such respect--they took that away with them. And the theatre staff didn't evade their questions.' On one occasion the boys 'were not as good as they could have been' and she got them all to write letters of apology. 'The next thing, they had a letter inviting them all back again. They never forgot that.'

'We treated the children as people with dignity and with their own ideas,' says Joy Weeks, Director of the programme from 1979 to 1990. 'We made a big thing of the fact that a play's success depends on the involvement of the audience.'

More than 200,000 pupils and teachers took part in the programme during its 22 years. 'You've done more for my pupils today than I have in two years,' one teacher commented after a programme around Return Trip, a play about drug addiction, where a recovering addict took part in the post-performance discussions. After a play about family break-up a girl wrote that she had sat her parents down and asked if all their arguments meant they were going to divorce. 'We had our best talk ever,' she wrote.

The decision in 1961 to hire professional actors marked a shift in MRA's ways of working. The success of The Forgotten Factor and of a number of morale-raising wartime reviews had convinced the leadership of MRA of the power of theatre to 'change lives'--a shorthand for helping people to make choices based on moral values and the desire to do God's will. During the late Forties and Fifties hundreds of MRA workers travelled the world with plays and revues. Christine Channer, who was one of them, found herself performing in places she would never have imagined--from the mudwalled city of Kano, Nigeria, to the tiny house where the ANC pioneer, Albert Luthuli, was held in South Africa.

These productions were staged by amateurs, augmented occasionally by professional actors who gave their services. After the performances the casts came out to meet the audiences and share their personal experiences of inner change. The plays carried added conviction because the actors and crew believed in--and tried to practise--what they said.

The Westminster's decision to use professionals represented a bid to compete with secular theatre on its own terms and a desire to concentrate efforts on changing the climate of thought in Britain. The personnel released by the hiring of professional actors and stage crews was now needed to stump up audiences--and to talk to them afterwards.

'Peter Howard's original idea was that 500 families should bring a party to the theatre every week as their "life-changing work",' says Hugh Williams, who wrote several of the plays performed in the theatre in the Seventies and Eighties. But, as the years went on and the pressure to fill the theatre was unremitting, some people began to lose their enthusiasm. The unquestioning support for whatever was produced at the Westminster began to weaken.

In the mid-1970s the theatre's policy reverted to letting the theatre out to other companies when MRA was not using it. By then divisions had begun to open up between those who believed in theatre as a means of reaching out to people and those who saw it as a diversion from MRA's work in other fields. There were concerns too about whether the plays staged by 'outside' companies would conflict with the moral values promoted by MRA.

The return to a 'mixed menu' of plays created a 'crisis of identity' for the theatre, maintains Hugh Williams. 'The general public didn't know what they were going to get when they came to the Westminster. One week it would be an MRA play, and the next Happy as a sandbag.'

In 1972 MRA had added another two floors to the building and moved its offices there. Eight years later, the Westminster Memorial Trust handed the building over to the Oxford Group, MRA's legal body in Britain--in what was described as 'the biggest gift by one charity to another in this century'. At the time this seemed like a welcome step towards simplification--but it also meant that the day-to-day administration and expenses of the theatre now fell on the Oxford Group. Some of those involved felt frustrated at the amount of time they were having to spend on what they saw as a peripheral activity.

By the mid-Eighties the theatre, which had once been MRA's great asset, had become a bone of contention. Productions continued, often in alliance with such Christian companies, as Aldersgate Productions. Some, especially a series of plays based on CS Lewis's Narnia stories, were extremely successful. But as the expense of maintaining the theatre soared, an increasing number of MRA's activists began to feel the time had come to sell and move on.

Christine Channer, who was involved with many of the MRA and Christian productions at this time, compares the Eighties to 'trudging through treacle'. 'People were always so delighted when we had something on at the Westminster--and then so quick to be critical if they didn't like it. It's not easy to have people stabbing you in the back when you've poured your creative heart into your work. There began to be a sense of "them" and "us".'

In 1987, in a final attempt at compromise, a deal was struck by which the theatre was leased for five years to the resident theatre production company, Westminster Productions, which was augmented by trustees from the wider world of Christian theatre. The idea was that those who were enthusiastic about theatre should get on with it, freeing everyone else to concentrate on other things.

The Westminster Productions 'experiment' was half completed when Britain's deepest recession since the 1930s struck. Partly due to new legislation, schools were finding it more difficult to send groups to a Day of London Theatre. A grant for the company's new studio theatre was not renewed; the company lost over GBP40,000 on a production it had hoped to bring over from the United States; and an ambitious - and, in the view of many of MRA's supporters, inappropriately sexed-up - production of Czech President Vaclav Havel's play, Temptation, failed to draw in the audiences. In the autumn of 1990 Westminster Productions handed the theatre back to the Oxford Group, and after a series of painful - and often acrimonious - post mortems, the building was placed on the market.

To everyone's surprise, the theatre took seven years to sell. The delays gave MRA in Britain a chance to regroup and to launch a number of new programmes. These include Foundations for Freedom, which runs courses for young people from former Communist countries and the West on democratic values; Hope in the Cities, linked to an American initiative promoting 'honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility'; the MRA Schools Service, which provides speakers on moral and spiritual choices to secondary schools; and Agenda for Reconciliation, focussing on conferences for people from crisis areas at MRA's conference centre in Caux, Switzerland.

The hiatus has also given time for healing. Joy Weeks, one of the board of Westminster Productions, found the months after the folding of Temptation excruciating. Many of MRA's supporters had been deeply offended by the play's staging; some felt that Westminster Productions had betrayed their trust. There were accusations of everything from bad judgement to infamy, and strident demands for repentance and apology.

'People would walk past me in this building and not say hello,' Weeks remembers. 'The worst thing is when your colleagues distrust what you feel deeply you are meant to do in life.'

She describes the experience as a 'very rich time in terms of learning what forgiveness and reconciliation is all about. There was considerable pain in being open to hearing other people's opinions, being prepared to understand how much one's actions hurt others and having others apologize for the hurts they caused.' Eventually she sat down for an honest - and tearful - talk with a person who had attacked her openly. 'We discovered that it is possible to hold totally different opinions and yet maintain respect for each other's calling.'

Hugh Williams, who as Chair of Westminster Productions, bore the brunt of the criticisms, emerged with his faith intact but feeling hurt and resentful. In 1994, he went on a two-day retreat where participants were asked to spend two hours in silence thinking over God's goodness to them. 'The next one-and-three-quarter hours were the darkest of my life,' he says. 'I couldn't think of God's goodness at all - only of the pain and difficulties of the last years. It was only in the last 15 minutes that I was able to recall that both my wife and I had recovered from serious illnesses; we had inherited a lovely cottage; and had two wonderful sons.' Talking to a friend later, he identified two events in the last decade which had scarred him emotionally.

'The next day we were told to picture a walk up a mountain. At the top, we were told to look round, see that Jesus was standing behind us and quickly, without thinking, say something to him. I found myself saying, "I need to be healed." I thought I heard Jesus reply, "But do you want to be healed?" Later that day I made a list of all the people I felt had contributed to my wounds. I went through them and asked myself if I had forgiven them. Then I went back over those I hadn't, thought about them each and, looking at each name, said "Yes, I forgive." I felt Jesus simply say, "Then you are healed."'

The seven years of on-again-off-again attempts to sell were particularly stressful for the Council of Management of the Oxford Group, who carried final responsibility for MRA's property, and its general management committee. Like MRA itself, these bodies were divided between a majority who felt the time had come to leave the theatre, and a minority, represented by the Secretary, Stanley Kiaer, who favoured staying and separating off the parts of the building MRA did not need, so that they could be rented out. They were faced with an issue common to many values-driven and religious groups--what happens when people with a common purpose sincerely and deeply differ about what is the right thing to do?

'One of the problems we had had since 1980 was that the two sides could never agree on how much it was costing to run the theatre,' says the Oxford Group's Treasurer, Chris Evans, who inclined towards selling. 'Eventually someone proposed that any figures Stanley and I could agree on would probably be correct. This forced us to work together and today Stanley is one of my closest friends.'

As the months went by and no sale emerged, the pressure grew to sell the building for whatever it would raise. Some saw the theatre as a drain on resources that must be stopped; others as a valuable asset which it would be profligate to sell for too little. Feelings rose and it began to seem inevitable that there would be a split over the issue.

In December 1995, some of the Council members met over a period of three days and tried to talk honestly about their feelings. By the second evening, the differences seemed as irreconcilable as ever. Eventually, the group sat in silence together, asking God to show them what to do. To their surprise, they found that there was one thing on which they could agree - that the building should not be sold for less than GBP2.5 million.

Some saw the GBP2.5 million as a test which would demonstrate what God wanted. The problem was how long to wait. During the next two years Kiaer frequently felt that the point had been proved and the building should be taken off the market; while Evans fought the desire 'to override the feelings of the minority' and sell for the best price possible.

Last summer, an offer for the asking price eventually arrived. In the six months that it took to negotiate, MRA sought alternative premises - only to find that freehold prices had soared all over London and that GBP2.5 million might not buy a replacement. 'We considered palatial premises in Pimlico, an enlarged pillbox in Waterloo, an adapted warehouse in Euston,' says Kiaer. He was determined not to sell without knowing where MRA would go; others were prepared to take the risk and rent temporary offices if necessary.

In January 1998, it looked as if, after all the waiting, the sale was going to fall through. Those who had wanted to sell the building began to accept that it might be right, after all, to stay. Nobody had any desire to start again from scratch. Then, suddenly, three new potential buyers appeared on the scene - and an alternative building came on the market, at just the right price and in just the right place, which seemed to meet all MRA's requirements. Amazingly, everyone who went to see it liked it - including some of those who had most opposed a move.

The sale of the theatre went through and, in May, MRA and Westminster City Council exchanged contracts for the purchase of Roman House, in Greencoat Place. The building has space for meetings, receptions and accommodation, as well as for MRA's offices - and maybe for small-scale studio productions.

So what has MRA learnt from the last 10 years? 'When in doubt,' says Evans, 'take the one step on which you can agree.' He talks too of the decision not to talk only to those with whom he agreed, but to seek out and listen to those with other views.

The delay was undoubtedly costly - not just in financial terms, but in terms of time and emotional energy. But with hindsight, it seems that it may have been necessary, to allow for healing and for the right new centre to emerge. Stanley Kiaer sees the outcome as a 'miracle'. 'I've discovered what honesty, the grace of God, prayer and the courage to stand alone mean.'

And what about Christine Channer? 'There are no two ways about it, the move is going to be a wrench,' she says. 'I went through very painful times over it: everything in the building is a part of what I have lived through. But a few months ago I realized that God can't give gifts to hands that are tightly clenched, only to hands that are open. That thought was a turning point for me - it's still a wrench, but I feel at peace about it.'


Each year since 1991, MRA's annual conference at Caux in Switzerland has devoted a session to supporting those engaged in peace-building initiatives. Coordination comes from Britain and other countries involved in developing MRA's international work for conflict-resolution. Over 400 people from 49 countries took part last year. This year's session, on the theme 'Healing the past, forging the future' will take place from 9-16 August.

Similar to its American counterpart, this initiative in a number of British cities is engaged in helping individuals and communities to resolve conflicts, create relations of trust and take responsibility for transforming what is wrong in society. It aims to promote 'honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility' with a view to 'making Britain a home' for all her peoples.

Launched in 1993, these training programmes in values for democracy have involved over 300 young people from former Soviet bloc and Western countries. So far, 30 courses and seminars have taken place in 11 countries, including five annual international programmes, each lasting three weeks, at Tirley Garth, MRA's residential centre in Cheshire.

Aimed at stimulating sixth-formers to 'think more deeply about their purpose in life', this programme provides speakers to British secondary schools. In the six months from last October to March, 3,500 students in 49 schools took part in discussions.

Over the past 24 years, 6,000 people have taken part in the annual Caux Conference for Business and Industry in Switzerland, much of which is organized from Britain. This year's conference will take place from 13-18 July on the theme of 'Learning to shape a values-centred future'. An annual conference organized by The Industrial Pioneer is also held at the MRA centre in Cheshire.

Since 1995, MRA has provided a framework in which young people can spend a year training with its UK-based initiatives. So far, people from nine nations have taken part.

Videos produced and edited in London have been filmed in recent years in Cambodia, Kenya, India and Switzerland. Over 1,200 copies of two videos aimed at healing the wounds of conflict are in circulation in Cambodia.

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