More than a game
"It's complete coincidence," says Oliver, who is projects director and effectively writer in residence for the East London-based ARC Theatre Ensemble. "Orient is the football club I've supported all my life - since I was five.
Coincidence or not, Oliver's enthusiasm for the struggling second division club was a help when it commissioned a play from ARC for performance in schools. Not that the subject matter is parochial: Kicking Out is about racism in football - not just the verbal abuse aimed at black players, but also the fact that disproportionately few of the sport's fans are from ethnic minorities. As Leyton Orient's Neil Watson says, "less than one per cent of our crowd is black or Asian yet they are around 25 per cent of the local community. "
Watson, who runs the club's Football in the Community Programme, believes the play commission represents a "unique partnership between sport and the arts . . . I can't think of any other football club that has done anything similar".
As an ARC project document puts it, the play "will be toured in schools to engage (14 to 16 year olds) with empathy in the issue of racism with the long-term objective of affecting behaviour on the terraces." (Although the age range is Year 9 upwards, adds Oliver, "There's nothing in the play that couldn't be seen by years 7 and 8".) Lasting, appropriately, 90 minutes, Kicking Out is "about a team that doesn't exist yet", in its author's words. A group of 15-year-olds get together to take part in a five-a-side football competition whose rules stipulate that each team must contain both boys and girls and that they should come from at lest three ethnic groups. They are coached by Eddie, a football fan in his 30s who was involved in racist activity in his youth. In the first scene, we meet him shouting abuse from the Orient terraces.
Clifford Oliver the fan had his first glimpse behind the scenes of the club for his preparatory research. He recalls talking with young Orient defender Mark Warren: "He said 'They'll call you a black bastard in the dressing room, but that's your mates' . . . If you are black and you want to succeed in football, you mustn't be a troublemaker; you must develop a thick skin and be one of the lads." Successful black players, he thinks, "have to let go of their own identity".
But it's the Asian character in his play that Oliver seems keenest to talk about. "That was where my focus started to move. Why aren't there Asian players, and why are there far fewer Asian faces on the terraces, if any? Yet there are Asian leagues, and the kids in those leagues can really play. It's apartheid, it's segregation."
Showab, the Pakistani in Kicking Out, is initially not considered for the team by his white coach, because his family "don't really understand football. It's not in their culture." This is an attitude that even "enlightened" teachers share, says Oliver: he recalls hearing one say, at the start of a school year, that the football team he had inherited was going to be "hopeless" because it consisted of ten Asian kids - adding "roll on the cricket season".
Financial backing for Kicking Out has come from the Commission for Racial Equality, among others. It certainly fits into the national Let's Kick Racism Out of Football campaign that the CRE and the Professional Footballers' Association launched last year. As Oliver says, "Neil Watson saw it as national backing for what he was trying to do locally."
The Football in the Community scheme runs sports courses for children in the school holiday and at half-terms; is helping develop girls' and women's football in Waltham Forest and Hackney, Orient's home borough and its nearest neighbour; and has won a national award for its work with people with disabilities.
"We've been trying to get as many people interested in the club as possible, " says Watson, a former PE teacher. "The bottom line for the club is to try and increase the level of interest" - always a worrying problem for Orient, situated close to two more successful teams, West Ham and Tottenham. "It's suicide if we don't start attracting support from the black and Asian community".
He stresses, too, the support that Waltham Forest and Hackney councils have given. "They're the ones that have identified the target groups. Getting Afro-Caribbean and Asian kids involved in football is a priority for them. They're prepared to commit funds every year to ensure that happens."
After a "showcase performance" for teachers in Waltham Forest on November 4 Kicking Out will tour schools in the East London area: it has bookings until almost the end of the football season. (It is also scheduled for a House of Commons launch on November 22.) Every school performance will be followed by what Carole Pluckrose, ARC's co-founder and artistic director, calls, "interactive forum theatre"; the actors will improvise in character, directed by Oliver, in response to whatever the audience has to say about Kicking Out.
With a variety of ethnic groups in his audiences, Oliver adds, "the brief has to be to create characters through which each group can see the story, and to create a situation they can all share. The play is about coming together, about building." Or as Pluckrose puts it "at the beginning of the play the kids are disaffected; by the end they become empowered and are a team."
Founded in 1984, ARC has mostly worked in schools - although it has been to Edinburgh, winning a Fringe First award in 1986. Health and safety, HIV, assertiveness and bullying have been among the subjects of its previous plays: although most of their work is done in London, they have visited schools further afield from time to time.
Could Kicking Out transplant to areas outside East London? "We would like to develop it further if possible," says Oliver. "But there might be some translation problems. At the moment the play is set around a small East End club, though we could transpose this to, say, Rochdale. I'd have to go and stand on the terraces there.
"It was bad enough writing it about Orient - they sold half the players that were in my first draft, so I've already had to rewrite with new names."
ARC Theatre Ensemble, Eastbury Manor House, Eastbury Square, Barking, Essex IG12 5SN. 081 594 1095 (fax 081 507 0118). A Kicking Out work pack, sponsored by Midland Bank, is available.