Company Name: The General Will
Founders: John Cudmore, Greg Philo, Michele Ryan. In 1971, the company consisted of John Cudmore, Brian Hibbard, Alan Hulse and Michelle Ryan, with Janet Kelley as the administrator.
Reason: To perform political plays
Current Status: Disbanded 1977 because of funding cut
Policy: (1971) To perform shows about contemporary political issues in both theatre and non-theatre environments with a belief that theatre had an important role to play in radical political propaganda. In certain contexts it is stated that the company was set up to perform the plays of David Edgar, but while they were central to the first period, this was never exclusively so. The company was reconstituted in 1975. To have a political base in the lesbian and gay community. The General Will was committed to the active support of all oppressed groups. Company statements in the Alternative Theatre Directory at this period state that policy was: ‘To promote community theatre, i.e. theatre from the community, by the community, and for the community. ‘Communities’ are defined not as geographical areas, but as groups with shared experience and interests.’
Based: 9 Apsley Villas Bradford, 6; 23 Blenheim Road, Bradford BD8 7LH
Funding: Yorkshire Arts Association, Arts Council of Great Britain
Performance venues: Clubs, community centres, pubs, schools
Audiences: Trade unions, political groups, students, youth, tenants, gay, lesbian. Alternative Theatre Directory statements post-1975 state that the company ‘Usually played to female, gay, and black groups, but would play to anyone who requested them’
Please see The General Will People for information about our interviews with company members in 2013.
Company work and process
The General Will emerged from Bradford’s booming cultural scene in the early 1970s. Albert Hunt ran a drama group at the College of Art and promoted large scale events such as the staging of the Russian Revolution in the streets of Bradford. Chris Parr, previously of Brighton Combination and by now a Fellow in Theatre at Bradford University, promoted new writers and paid them to write for the student drama group. David Edgar, a local journalist and drama graduate reviewed university plays and became known in the local theatre and political circles. Chris Parr encouraged him to write for the Bradford student drama group and from this The General Will was formed.
The actors were John Cudmore, Brian Hibbard, Alan Hulse and Michele Ryan with Chris Parr and Greg Philo as the directors. The plays were socialist and five of them, all by David Edgar, took the form of Agit Prop, and were a response to the industrial militancy of the period, 1970 to 1974.
Read more about the Agit Prop years.
The company moved away from Agit Prop as the political situation and the composition of the cast changed. There was a move towards linking with the community and with popular culture. The Pub Show, a cabaret-style show devised by the company and The Prison Show which was created with a prisoners’ rights organisation and ex -prisoners are two such examples. Dickripitdown , which changed in response to current events, was about local housing and was created by the company. The General Will was commissioned to develop a play about housing on Tyneside which involved tenants. The company was shifting from doing plays ‘for the people’ to ‘with the people’.
Noel Greig, who scripted and directed The Prison Show, and directed and performed in Dunkirk Spirit, was dissatisfied with the company’s domination of class politics over other oppressions, in particular the marginalisation of the politics of gender and sexuality and his sense of the exclusion of his personal identity as a gay man from the work. Feeling that the company was in a ‘political cul de sac’ he staged a controversial theatrical event where he forced the company to re-think its policies.
Read more about this event which was known within the company as the ‘zap’.
The company was reconstituted with a deliberate domination of gay and lesbian personnel, who it was stated, should always be numerically in the majority on the collective. It committed itself to working with the community, sometimes handing over resources to community groups. Some members of The General Will who were involved in the Tyneside project kept their commitment but performed as a new company, Road Gang.
The General Will became an umbrella organisation which promoted performance and new writing emanating from the community. The distinction between professional and non-professional became blurred, providing challenges for the funders. Me See it Gonna Blow was written and performed by Asian and Black community actors in cooperation with The General Will. Lesbian and Gay issues were explored in plays like, Les Be Friends by a women’s group, Present Your Briefs by Bradford Gay Theatre, All Worked Up, All Het Up ( about gays and the psychiatric services) and I Just Don’t Like Apples. These plays were celebrated at a General Will festival in Bradford at the Library Theatre in 1976 and some were toured such as to Oval House in London. Men (about masculinity and trade unionism) and A Women’s Right to Cruise (a bawdy tale of Lesbian life) were two of their later plays. The company also ran music and writing workshops, and organised a conference about the nature of community theatre. In 1977, the company became Lesbian controlled. During that year their Arts Council funding was completely cut.
To make a point about state funding of the arts, members of The General Will formed the One-Off Theatre company to tour Men. They received Arts Council project funding because the form was, in their view, no threat to the establishment in terms of community, professionalism or theatre. It was scripted and performed by a fixed group of paid actors.
Personal appraisals and thoughts:
For Sue Imerson, an ex -mill worker, The General Will ‘broadened her awareness’. Originally an audience member she became an Assistant Administrator. She performed, wrote, drove and helped build the music workshop. A ‘new world’ was opened up to her’ and she began to understand politics. She ‘wouldn’t have missed for the world’.
For Alan Rushbridger, who ran the community print shop, ‘it was empowering for me, as a gay man to be able to perform publicly and give my experience…it gave people confidence.’
Ali Hussain, a political activist remembers that ‘The General Will helped us to see the importance of artistic activity for change’.
Margaret Robson, performer, remembers the Pub Show as easy to deliver in ‘bitesize pieces’ and with ‘great songs’, and with a thread of gender politics. As one of two women with four or five men, however, she felt it was hard for women to operate because of the dynamics.
When Carol Moss first joined the company, on an unpaid part-time basis, she found it a very creative time. Everyone’s opinion mattered and she didn’t feel ‘separate from the group’. She remembers Brian Hibbard as a ‘brilliant performer, an amazing part of the group, a thorough professional who made sure, encouraged every one to bring out the best.’
Bobby Weaver recalls his drag character Maureen in the Pub Show who ‘challenged gender presumptions‘. He also emphasises the close links the company had with the community, ‘we were living with the excluded’. There was a ‘diffusion of skill’ which [we] put at the disposal of people who were trying to articulate themselves ‘ and ‘ trying to articulate oneself through it’.
Dunkirk Spirit (1974)
‘I learnt more from an hour and a half of this show than I’d ever get from a dozen books on economy…’
Shop Steward (T.A.S.S)
‘The play is written within a socialist framework, and far from rejecting Socialism, it indicates new forms of struggle. It rejects the lack of vision when Socialism is reduced to economistic militant struggles.’ (Morning Star)
‘The real stimulus comes from the anarchic candour of [the Shopsteward’s] camp boyfriend challenging the complacent rhetoric of his left-wing friends.’ (Guardian)
‘Its salient quality is the way it shows the relationship between what happens to people in the bedroom and what happens to them in wider society.’ (Jim Hiley , Gay News)
Productions: [table id=28 /]
Interviewees reference: Michael Almaz, Noel Greig. Ali Hussain, Sue Imerson, Carol Moss, Dusty Rhodes, Alan Richardson, Margaret Robson and Bobby Weaver were interviewed as a group and individually for Unfinished Histories. If you like to listen to the interviews please contact us.
For company members interviews see The General Will People
Dusty Rhodes – Raise the Roof
Sisterhood and After – Michele Ryan was an interviewee for this British Library project
Noel Greig obituary
Brian Hibbard obituary
Existing archive material: some material relating to General Will material is in the Noel Greig Archive at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, including extracts from All Het Up. Dusty Rhodes holds some photos, flyers.
Unfinished Histories holds copies of Dick Ripitdown and Men by Noel Greig and Don Milligan
Gay News, No.75,1975
Stages in the Revolution by Catherine Itzin (Eyre Methuen,1980)
‘All Het Up‘ by Noel Greig in Platform, Spring 1983
David Edgar, the Playwright by Susan Painter (Methuen,1996)
British Playwrighting in 1970s by Chris Megson (Methuen, 2012)
David Edgar: Playwright and Politician by Elizabeth A Swain (Peter Lang , 1986)
Acknowledgements: This page was written and constructed by Iris Dove with many thanks to Ali Hussain, Sue Imerson, Carol Moss, Dusty Rhodes, Alan Richardson, Margaret Robson and Bobby Weaver. November 2013
The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.