Hard Corps

Company name: Hard Corps

Founders: Catti Calthrop, Jill Fleming, Debby Klein, Joy Lale, Sandy Lester, Sarah McNair, Karen Parker, Jeannette Scott. Joined by Adèle Salem (formerly Saleem) in 1984.

Established: 1983

Reason: Fulfilling the need for a Lesbian Theatre company which presented material of a more frivolous nature, in other words without the need to explain anything or tell ‘coming out’ stories – so that lesbians could enjoy a good night out in ‘normal’ surroundings. After Karen Parker and Debby Klein left to become Parker & Klein, Sandy Lester left to pursue a position at the Shaw Theatre, Joy Lale became a Script Editor at the BBC and Jeannette Scott become an actors’ agent. Those left in the company – Adèle, Sarah and Catti – decided they wanted to concentrate on historical ‘notorious’ lesbians and thus produced John (about Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge) and Les Autres (about Natalie Clifford Barney, Romaine Brooks and Dolly Wilde).

Current Status: Disbanded. Some personal conflicts among members, but disbanded mainly due to other commitments and impossibility for members to survive solely on this work.

Area of Work: Lesbian

Policy: In their own words, ‘Hard Corps is committed to theatrical hedonism and Torvill and Dean type emotion-packed spectacle’ (John programme). And further, their self proclaimed objective was to ‘perform Lesbian Soap Operas at the London Palladium, overthrow the patriarchy and put tampons on the National Health’ (Spare Rib Shortlist). They openly declared that they didn’t have a distinctly formulated artistic policy, because they were a ‘motley collection of individuals’ who chose not to write ‘fast food’ theatre, in other words theatre ‘written to a formula’ (‘Hard at it’ Interview with Hard Corps in Women’s Review, Number Four, 1986).

Structure: Worked as a collective but with some distinction between roles depending on strength and experience. During the production of John, by Adele Salem for instance, Michele Frankel was called in to support Salem throughout the writing process by providing help and advice with structure. She re-organised the stream-of-consciousness script and re-arranged it into a chronological narrative. Frankel was also credited as director. Catti Calthrop’s role was that of designer as well as being a core company member. Sarah McNair wrote Les Autres, directed and sometimes organised funding whilst also being a core member; and occasionally other individuals were called in for different jobs. Individuals were credited for their specific jobs in programmes and reviews of the shows. The company functioned on a low budget without regular wages for any of the members.

Based: London

Funding: Funded most shows themselves, partly out of disdain for bureaucracy. Alleged motto: ‘Poverty-a-go-go’ (Backstage Business article). Did however receive a percentage of the box office from venues, which usually just covered expenses.

Performance Venues: Festivals: Bristol Women’s Festivals, Women’s Theatre Festival, Edinburgh Festival at the Traverse. Theatres – including Oval House, Melkweg Amsterdam, Lauderdale House. Pubs – including Three Horeshoes and Duke of Wellington. Also South Camden Women’s Centre and the London Lesbian and Gay Centre.

Audiences: Mostly women; lesbian, feminist

Company work and process:
Hard Corps produced work which was considered wild, anarchic and funny, as well as defined by a lesbian identity. Its tone was more satirical than that of other already established companies such as the Women’s Theatre Group. Hard Corps also departed from the style of other women’s theatre companies by experimenting with structure to fulfil the need to free creative expression and find new forms. This experimentation was handled in a playful way whilst simultaneously being backed by clear aims and theatrical ideals. In certain shows the company attempted to create lived experiences for their audiences, which resembled performance art rather than traditional pieces of theatre. This involved a pushing of boundaries both in terms of theatrical form and in terms of content. Poetry and exploration of language was considered more important than a political message or teaching. The work was nonetheless fueled by the idea that women’s personal lives were political, and that politics could and should be drawn out of these experiences.

Topics dealt with included the presentation of roles in lesbian relationships (butch and fem), which was partly the focus of John, as well as female rage as a substitute for the perhaps over-represented female self-destruction (The First Woman in Outer Space). The shows included original writing by its members, original music and lyrics composed and written by its members, as well as including words from other texts. The First Woman in Outer Space was a patchwork of The Last Lunar Baedeker by Mina Loy, Hiroshima Maidens by Anne Chisholm, and crucially The SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas and The Little Book of Saints. In writing this piece, Adèle Salem chose texts that provided some insight into her own personal experiences as well as relating to a wider narrative of women’s personal histories. Les Autres mirrored relationships within the company, the self-examination of which made up a considerable part of the content of the actual work which was being produced.

The work was mostly decided on as a company although individual members fulfilled different roles such as writer, composer etc. and often external directors were called in.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Sarah McNair: ‘Jill Fleming’s work was inspirational to us and very much designed the company’s attitude, which, I like to think, was a kind of forerunner to the taken-as-read attitude to be found today in such series as True Blood where vampires and other ‘misfits’ are regarded as part of society. The characters we portrayed were mostly lesbian sans ‘coming out’ stories and I think that was what our audiences enjoyed – being able to escape for an evening watching all manner of recognisable characters (both fictional and historical) in curious as well as everyday situations’

Debby Klein: ‘I’ve still got a dog-eared, badly spelt, vitriolic anonymous review from the Women’s Newsletter of ‘Hard Core’ (sic!) on Jill Fleming’s Running Out of Time. It describes Jill’s play as ‘misogynist crap’, (the production was ‘rubbish’) and we and our playwright were castigated as being ‘homophobic’ and ‘harmful’. It’s easy to forget how oppressive and self censoring some aspects of lesbian feminist politics were back then and also why Hard Corps productions, including Jill’s work, were so welcome to women audiences because it was different, zany, self confident and not riddled with angst. Luckily for us the majority of our audience didn’t demand their money back, as our anonymous reviewer did (and got it!) on the grounds that we were a disgrace to the sisterhood. I performed in three of Jill’s plays and loved her sense of the absurd and very funny dialogue. I can still remember one scene from Lovers and Other Enemies where Boudicca enters with the severed head of a man and in the ensuing squabble, her lover Cleopatra snaps, ‘Men, men, men. That’s all you ever talk about.’

Although our styles were different, Jill’s work was an inspiration when Karen and I left Hard Corps to form Parker and Klein and I struggled to write my first play Devilry. I then wrote the rather insane revue Forever which Karen and I performed with Hard Corps. We couldn’t come up with an idea for costumes until we made the decision, late in the day, to perform in tutus – just because we felt like it. As an audience member I also really appreciated Hard Corps’ John and Les Autres – so stylish – two plays about the fascinating lives of glamorous, quirky, historical lesbians and important in reclaiming our own history, which was frequently dominated by gay men’s.

Lesbian sexuality was a central theme running through Hard Corp’s work. What was different was that the work wasn’t concerned with a defence or explanation of lesbian sexuality or an analysis of society’s views on it. It just was… desire, drama, falling in and out of love, women in long-term relationships, women in hot pursuit of each other. In other words a celebration of many different facets of how women relate to each other sexually and emotionally. And not a label in sight! I’d like to think that did have an impact on a different way of perceiving women’s desire for each other. It’s strange to remember how sanitised images of lesbians were back then. While gay men were vilified we were largely ignored or seen as earnestly discussing politics dressed in unflattering dungarees. Certainly there was nothing ‘worthy’ about Hard Corps. Our anonymous, vitriolic reviewer suggested our one ambition was ‘dressing up and prancing about on stage’. That might have been part of it and we definitely wrote/directed/performed in plays we would have enjoyed watching ourselves. But hopefully there was a bit more to it than that. Looking back it was an exciting time for different kinds of women’s and gay theatre and perhaps we were essentially ‘queer’ before the word became commonplace in describing a particular aesthetic’

Karen Parker: ‘It was a time of big hair, shoulder pads and singing telegrams (my preferred method of making money). It was also a time of questions such as ‘are you a woman identified woman or a woman identified lesbian?’ As a pretty poorly educated, working class, northern, wannabe actor finding herself in the middle of this hot bed of throbbing, lesbian showing off, it was exciting, scary, dangerous, confusing but most of all fun. I lapped it up. Best of all, we were creating theatre. After the Gauche production at the Oval House, the founding members of Hard Corps would club together and rent a space at the Polish Centre close to the Porchester Baths. Once a week we would… I can only call it mess about, for an afternoon. I remember auditioning women (how they found out about us I don’t know) and Sandy [Lester] asking them if they were bothered by the word Dyke. We looked for other writers but always returned to Jill Fleming’s work. We produced her plays and grew in confidence that there was an audience out there completely ready to laugh at themselves.

Having been told at college that there would be a hundred women that looked like us at every audition and that we were too fat anyway, Debby and I wanted to develop our newfound confidence and voice. I had always been set on starting my own theatre company (Hard Corps’ first production was in association with Framework Theatre, a cooperative I was a founding member of) and she wanted to write, but most of all we needed to hear fewer voices around us and to get things done. We started Parker and Klein. As people fell away from Hard Corps to pursue different careers, it left a leaner company able to create wonderfully crafted pieces such as John and Les Autres. We did work together again and for me playing the character of Mrs Proctor in Jill Fleming’s The Rug of Identity was a highlight.’

‘Seduction is sometimes instantaneous, and within minutes the audience was won over by the humour and liveliness of this production… In a sense, it over-succeeds and leads us to expect equally good things after the interval and our expectations are not entirely met … while remaining within the current lesbian theatre trend of handling the love of literary women, it stands out as an exciting, imaginative and very enjoyable piece and deserves to be widely viewed.’ (Spare Rib)
‘A revue of local lesbian mores which included a putative orgy staged according to feminist principles (democratic chairing, collective participation, cuddling to the fore) and a sketch set in August at a London cattery, whose irritable inhabitants discover that their vacationing mistresses have named them all Sappho…’ (Women’s Review)
‘Now this lot are a wicked bunch, taking the rise out of lesbians and their fetishes – from romance versus one-night stands, to street wise tabby cats versus exclusive siamese – with a ragged humour, high energy and latent ferocity that left me gasping for breath, and for more. No taboo is left unturned – even ‘them old bisexual blues’ get a belting, and elicit some sighs of audience recognition. […] lesbian troupe Hard Corps are obviously both needed and loved, judging by the rapturous reception – and this reviewer’s aching smile-jaws’ (City Limits, 1985)
The Rug Of Identity
‘Theatre should ever be thus: the first night delayed for 20 minutes to allow a crucial prop (a lavatory pedestal) to be mended; an exotic audience putting their feet through disconcerting gaps in the tiered flooring; a programme which invited the reader to describe a sex-change operation in three words or less; a junk stage-set with loopy sightlines; all this, and one of the most sublimely ludicrous plays I will have ever sat still for. […] A few weeks ago I roundly declared that the sisterhood were “still waiting for their own Joe Orton to materialize”. I was not then aware of Jill W. Fleming’ (The Times, 1986)
The Rug Of Identity
‘If Joe Orton had been a lesbian this play might have been one of his early dramatic efforts. […] Lesbian Fawlty Towers or transexual wet dream – in whichever way Hard Corps choose to subtitle their outrageous black comedy, you can be sure that all these answers and much more will be revealed in Jude Alderson’s pacey production, in which Karen Parker as Mrs P gives overacting a good name’ (Time Out, 1986)
The Rug Of Identity
‘Uncomfortable in its insights and cruelly funny. The Rug Of Identity deserves a red carpet’ (Time Out, 1986)


For She's a Jolly Good Fellow
Writer: Jill Fleming
Director: Adèle Salem
Oval House1983
Writer: Adèle Salem
Oval House
Traverse Theatre Club
Forever (in association with Parker & Klein)
Writer: Debby Klein
Director: Elspeth Morrison
Music: Shaz Nassauer
Cast: Karen Parker, Debby Klein, Catti Calthrop, Linda Canning, Sarah McNair

South Camden Women's Centre
Oval House
Les Autres (that lot)
Writer: Sarah McNair
Cast: Adèle Salem, Catti Calthrop, Sarah McNair
The Nightingale
Venue 4 Women at Work
Oval House
Three Horseshoes Pub
Lauderdale House
The Rug of Identity
Writer: Jill Fleming
Director: Jude Alderson
Oval House
Duke of Wellington Pub
London Lesbian and Gay Centre
The First Woman in Outer Space
Writer: Adèle Salem
Developed with: Peter Noble
Director: Michael Wilcox
The Nightingale Pub
Brighton Women's Festival

Interviewee reference: Adèle Salem

Existing archive material: Debby Klein, Karen Parker, Sarah McNair and Adele Salem all individually hold Hard Corps photos, flyers and other archive material

Putting Your Daughters on the Stage: British Lesbian Theatre from the 1970s to the 1990s by Sandra Freeman (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997)

Acknowledgements: This web page was written and constructed by Natalia Rossetti with many thanks to Sarah McNair for help with editing and factual detail, as well as Debby Klein, Karen Parker and Adele Salem. November 2013.

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