Company name: BLOOLIPS

Established: 1977

Founder: Bette Bourne (Artistic Director)

Reason: ‘I started the BLOOLIPS so that I could be in the middle and I could be the boss. That’s why I started the group. There were no other noble reasons, I’m afraid that was it.’ (Bette Bourne 2013)

Current status: Disbanded 2002

Area of Work: Gay

Policy: It wasn’t about being women, it was about being gay men in frocks’. ‘We were looking for a new kind of gay man. Hitting out at the far right, especially the religious right’. (Bette Bourne) ‘A good chance to dress up and do something silly’. (Lavinia Co-op)

Structure: Company but financially co-operative

Based: Notting Hill Gate, London

Funding: There was no funding except one grant from the Arts Council.

Performance Venues: Hampstead Town Hall, The Tabernacle, The Drill Hall, Oval House Theatre, Hackney Empire, Melkweg – Amsterdam, Theater for the New City – New York, Orpheum Theater – New York.

Audiences: ‘The public’.

For more BLOOLIPS images see Bette Bourne’s web page

Company and work process:
Bette Bourne was a working class actor from Hackney who trained at Central School of Speech and Drama. He became involved with the Gay Liberation Front in the early 70s and was inspired by the strength of one man at a GLF meeting who was wearing a denim skirt. ‘When I put the frock on it gave me a feeling of power.’ He opted out of his successful, conventional acting career to join a radical drag commune in Notting Hill. People wouldn’t talk to me, actors I knew would cross the street to avoid me’. When some members of the commune began to use heroin, Bette Bourne decided it was time to leave. After a period ‘in the wilderness’ he ‘elbowed his way into’ New York based, gay and lesbian theatre company, Hot Peaches, which led him to start his own gay theatre group, BLOOLIPS the next year.  

‘We were dressing in drag and having an edge to it. We weren’t wearing tits, we didn’t always have wigs, we were wearing white face, we were doing fantasy colours and glitter and shapes…The drag was kind of radical, things would be ‘wrong’, or there’d be something you would find on the street and you’d add that to it, it was something that could be industrial. You weren’t impersonating women…you were working on your androgynous side of you. Yes, you were developing something that wasn’t stereotypical…you’re coming from drag and opening a door here to somewhere else, androgyny, alternative way to working in the same field…Finding another way.’ (Lavinia Co-op)

‘Bette would get it out of you to make it more, to make it stronger. He’d endlessly rehearse you. And he was into this is comedy…it has to be exact, precise, hit that word in the sentence, this is how it goes, don’t move, now it’s going over there, see you got the laugh, you didn’t get the laugh because you moved. Bette could pull it out of you. Jon Jon was able to write it and get it together.’ (Lavinia Co-op)

I was very practical, I didn’t want any fluffy, sort of Royal Court, airy-fairy bullshit. I just wanted them to do the show the best they could, make it as funny as they could and funny as it was. I knew all about the politics behind it, but I never discussed that with anybody…We tried very much never to insult women.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘I tended to have a very good, well built script and I built it into [the cast], all the stresses, breathing, sentencing, the whole thing was very carefully worked out.’ (Bette Bourne) Except for Bette Bourne and Jon Taylor, the cast were people who hadn’t had any formal acting training.

Jon Taylor and Bette Bourne ‘fought tooth and nail over every single idea’. ‘We hung on to each other because we were both interested in the other ones talent.’ ‘Jon Jon, as he was known, was simply brilliant. He did a lot of the staging for the dances. He was an extraordinarily creative man, and still is. We loved the results.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘You got rid of the dross quite quickly. They’d either be late, or they wouldn’t be able to sing, or they wouldn’t be able to put it over. I wasn’t interested in people who couldn’t do it. They were kicked out. It was quite brutal…It was very hands on. So the people who were in it, and doing it had plenty to say for themselves, [and] to me as well, but they had the authority and the trust and the love to do that.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘The first BLOOLIPS rehearsals were done in my flat in Notting Hill, seven of us tapdancing in a line. One afternoon we went downstairs for a coffee, and the ceiling had fallen in [onto the double bed]. That set the tone for 20 years of glamour-on-a-budget; in their entire career, BLOOLIPS only ever secured one grant. Our costumes were made out of plastic laundry baskets, broken lampshades, any old tat from a skip or a 50p [dress] shop. We used mops as wigs [etc].’ (Bette Bourne)

BLOOLIPS were the toast of New York performing one time for nine months at the Theatre for the New City.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
‘I was wearing my political education. If anyone questioned what we were doing, we’d say, ‘Get a frock on dear, go out in the street, then you’ll understand”. (Bette Bourne)

‘It was a very high standard of satirical political comedy. We had wonderful writers. I directed everything but it was mainly a question of coaching. I had to show people things. People were quite excited. It had a depth. The big thing for me was to find the ‘gay clown’ in each person. It may have been a sound or some kind of physical movement they did. The subjects were serious but the performance style was highly comic. It was a chance to say our gay thing.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘One of the best things in my life really. Deep down I knew this was right. With all the drama and the arguments and problems with getting it on…I could see…this was a whole big thing for me, that opened up a whole area of me…I was a dancer so I learnt to act, and I learnt to act in comedy,…musical comedy. I learnt to make props, make costume, learnt do stage hand, find out about lights, the whole thing. It was major.’ (Lavinia Co-op)

‘It was a great place for me to come out, and be gay, and stand on a stage and be myself. I might not have worked as a straight actor or as a straight dancer, but because I had that push and a group of people, I could now be myself, whatever it was, without necessarily being camp, being yourself, true to yourself, not acting gay…The other one is working with people consecutively over years and years, and years, was also rare…where you had  a company and they knew each other and they could really grow and work well. Whereas when you’re doing commercial theatre you just have to walk in do it and leave…You’re not growing with someone…That was the collective, shared, collaborative…ensemble…That was the big thing, and being able to be out, and be out for people, and you weren’t necessarily ‘being gay’, doing the stereotypical thing.’ (Lavinia Co-op)

Lust in Space
‘With a vengeance, in a viciously modern attack on sex roles, liberation, prudery, and boredom-in-the-orchestra by the wonderful Bloolips, half-a-dozen laminated Londoners who are Lust in Space. The many faces of drag – varsity, music hall, chanteuse, tap-tap chorus, gender-fuck – are flung at the delighted audience like roses or tomatoes by Lavinia Co-op, Precious Pearl, Dizzy Danny, Gretel Feather, Naughty Nickers (cute! and what a piano), and troupe leader Bossy Bette.’ (Weinstein, Village Voice, 5-11 November 1980)

Sticky Buns
‘This restorative drag show is the latest camp extravaganza of Bloolips, the outré English company that won an Obie a few years back for Lust in Space. The new show is more of the same: bizarre makeup and tacky-glitter costumes; musical mayhem involving hoof and mouth; and some adorably awful sketches satirizing old and new mores.’  (Marilyn Stasio, New York Post, December 21st 1983)

Living Leg-ends
‘It’s a new revue based around the influence of far-fetched stories on our morality. Delights promised include the destruction of Sodom and the forbidden rites of Passion’s Plaything. The mind boggles!‘ (Michael Griffiths, Time Out)

‘The Bloolips are back in town, and this troupe of British music hall merrymakers is as disarming a company of cross-dressed clowns as one is likely to encounter. With no diminution of their parodistic amplitude, they are almost tasteful.’ (Mel Gussow, The New York Times, October 3rd 1985)

The Island of Lost Shoes
‘…trying to describe what goes on in it is like trying to describe a dream. Puns and other wordplay abound. Moods and costume change with dazzling frequency.’  (The New York Times, September 24th 1995)

Productions:  *The production table below is a work in progress. If you have any information relating to the productions listed, please contact Unfinished Histories. BLOOLIPS toured extensively and the cast changed at times during these tours.*

Just Myself
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, John Church, Diva Dan
Hampstead Town Hall1977
Ugly Duckling
Written: Jon Taylor
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Julian Howes, Jon Jon, Gretel Feather, Little Mickey, Mr Mills, Paul Theobald
Piano: Dick Cox
The Tabernacle, Tour of Holland and Germany (with Cheek)1978
Written: Jon Taylor
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Jon Jon, Gretel Feather, Paul Theobald
Piano: Dick Cox
The Tabernacle, Tour of Holland, Germany (with Ugly Duckling)1978
Vamp and Camp
Written: Bloolips
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Precious Pearl, Gerti
Piano: Bella Martine
Tour of Germany, Architects Association, The White Lion, Jackson's Lane, The Albany, The Tabernacle, Oval House1979
Lust in Space
Written: Bloolips/Jon Taylor
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, John Brown, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Gretel Feather, Jon Jon, Naughty Nickers, Precious Pearl
Drill Hall, ICA, Jackson Lane, The Albany Empire, Orpheum Theater, Theater for the New City - New York, Tour of Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver1980 - 1982
Yum Yum
Written: Bette Bourne and Rex Lay
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Bunty, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Sweet Pea Precious Pearl, Dotty Spot
Tour of Holland, Germany, Canada1983
Odds and Sods (Re-named for the US Tour Sticky Buns)
Written: Bloolips
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Babs Your Ankle, Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Marge Mellow, Dotty Spot
The Almeida, The Tabernacle, The Fridge, The The Albany Empire, Festival of Fools Tour of Holland, Oslo, Bergen, Cape Cod, New York1983 - 1984
Living Leg-ends
Written: Jon Taylor
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Gloria, Phil Harmonia, Marge Mellow, Naughty Nickers, Precious Pearl
The Albany Empire, Ritzy Cinema, Nettlefold Hall, Oval House Theatre, Glasgow, Germany and Holland Tour, Province Town - Cape Cod, Theater for the New City - New York, The Triangle - Boston1985
Slungback and Strapless
Written: Jon Taylor
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Rose Bud, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Phil Harmonia
The Albany Empire, The Tabernacle, The Shaw Theatre, Cabaret Vancouver Expo, Tour of Holland, Germany and Norway1986
Teenage Trash
Written: Jon Taylor
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Diva Dan, Phil Harmonia and Precious Pearl
The Drill Hall, Hackney Empire1987
Gland Motel
Written: Ray Dobbins
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne
The Drill Hall, New York1990
Get Hur
Written: Ray Dobbins
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Gretel Feather, Regina Fong, Ivan, Precious Pearl
Piano: Mark Bennett
The Drill Hall, Theater for the New City -New York1993
The Island of Lost Shoes
Written: Ray Dobbins
Directed: Bette Bourne
Cast: Bella, Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Harmony, Naughty Nickers
The Drill Hall, Tour of the US 1995

Interviewee link: Bette Bourne and Lavinia Co-op

Existing archive material: Bette Bourne and Lavinia Co-op

Bloolips New York 1993
Guardian article on Better Bourne
Lavinia Co-op web link
If Words Could Kill

The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre by Laurence Senelick (Routledge, 2000)
A Life in Three Acts, Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill (Methuen Drama, 2009)
Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York, 1976 – 1985 by Sally Banes (The University of Michigan Press, 1998)

Acknowledgements: This webpage was constructed by Lucie Regan from an interview and conversations with Bette Bourne (Founder and Company Member 1977-2001) and Lavinia Co-op (Company Member 1978-1995). Unfinished Histories would like to thank them for them for their time in helping us draw together the above material. November 2013.

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.