Monstrous Regiment

Company name: Monstrous Regiment

Established: 1975

Founders: Chris Bowler, Linda Broughton, Helen Glavin, Gillian Hanna, Mary McCusker

Reason: ‘…because they were unhappy with the dearth of parts for women and, in particular, challenging parts. They wanted to be able to control their own work and shape new roles on and off stage for women theatre workers.’ (British Alternative Theatre Directory, 1982)

Current status: Dormant since 1993

Area of Work: Women’s, New Writing

Policy: ‘Our principal reason for coming together is a dissatisfaction with the opportunities offered women working in theatre; and to perform material specifically geared to a company that will never contain more men than women. Policy making and practical tasks are shared by all.’ (Publicity, 1976)

Structure: Collective; collective management (from 1983); Artistic Director-led collective (from 1991).

Based: London

Funding: Arts Council of Great Britain revenue funding

Performance Venues: All of UK and abroad, small and middle-scale touring, theatres, arts centres.

Audiences: Wide-ranging with strong women-based following

For Scum design images see Andrea Montag‘s interviewee page.
For more company images see Lily Susan Todd‘s interviewee page

Company and work process:
Taking their name from a sixteenth century pamphlet by John Knox entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Monstrous Regiment (or Monsters as they became fondly known) was brought into being one soggy afternoon in August 1975 (retold by Gillian Hanna in The Afternoon of the Storm).

Belt & Braces, with whom Gillian Hanna was working at the time, were auditioning for a very small woman’s role. (As was usual for Belt & Braces and other companies of the period, there was little casting on offer for women, and what was on offer was stereotypical.) Shocked by the number of experienced and motivated women who came to be auditioned for this meagre job, she afterwards invited them all to a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a music theatre company. All shared the same exasperations as to the type and amount of work available to them – and a desire to do something about it. Mary McCusker: ‘If I have to play another tart with a heart of gold in a PVC skirt, I’m going to throw up’. Not all stayed, but from this meeting emerged the core group who became the Monstrous Regiment.

It was agreed they would be a collective, which sat naturally with their political beliefs and suited the running of a women’s company. Many of the group had previously been in ‘failed’ collectives and wanted the challenge of ‘getting it right’. A challenge they worked with, debated and returned to time and again to try and maintain (John Slade). Their commitments were feminist and socialist. Funding applications made to the Arts Council of Great Britain and Gulbenkian Foundation in January 1976, give a vivid picture of their policy, structure and aims (Application highlights). Success with these allowed them to proceed with their first production, Scum: Death Destruction and Dirty Washing written by Chris Bond, Claire Luckham and the company (Process and development of Scum). For many, Scum was an unforgettable and formative experience. When they received revenue funding the following year they were able to set up a structure of employment that paid thirteen wages for 52 weeks a year at slightly above the Equity minimum. This was important to them as professional Equity members.

A number of shows followed in quick succession employing a similar development pattern: Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill (1976), about 17th century witchcraft and fear and loathing of female sexuality; Kiss and Kill by Ann Mitchell and Susan Todd (1977), on violence against women; Floorshow with material from David Bradford, Caryl Churchill, Bryony Lavery and Michelene Wandor (1977), a musical cabaret on women and work; Time Gentlemen Please by Bryony Lavery (1978), another cabaret this time on sexuality, which famously led to the show being stopped (the plugs were literally pulled) in Leeds by some incensed punters who missed the irony at play (Letter of support from Beatrix Campbell); and Teendreams by David Edgar and Susan Todd (1979), about a feminist teacher’s relationship with the women’s movement.

During the 1980s, the company’s work and management was continually evolving due to changing personnel and the political climate. The early ’80s saw a season of extant foreign plays: Shakespeare’s Sister, written and originally performed by Theatre de L’Aquarium, Paris (1980); Dialogue Between a Prostitute and One of her Clients by Italian Dacia Maraini (1980); and Mourning Pictures by American Honor Moore (1981). As with nearly all their foreign language plays, Gillian Hanna did the translations. Each play stretched them in a different direction – visually in Shakespeare’s Sister through its series of images and fragmented text, poetically through the verse form of Mourning Pictures, and looking at the performer’s relationship with the audience in Dialogue where, throughout the play, the Prostitute would come out of a scene and directly debate issues around sex with the audience. Penny Cherns and Paula Dionisotti worked with them to create The Fourth Wall (1983), an evening of one act plays by Franca Rame and Dario Fo. There was some exciting, experimental use of music from Maggie Nichols, who sang unaccompanied in counterpoint to the text being delivered by Paula Dionisotti – improvising nightly. During  this period there were further commissions from Bryony Lavery on Calamity (1983) and on Origin of the Species (1984), their first co-production with a mainstream venue – Birmingham Rep.

The original members had reduced to Chris Bowler, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker. Financially now there was only money for one full-time post, that of Administrator; everyone else began to be paid per production, and other duties were done unpaid. It was agreed they would become a collective management. Other things were changing too. The company was evolving into a women-directed group (there had always been men in the company in the early years), which they found gave them a new freedom to investigate work in a way that wasn’t always possible with men present. The company worked hard to select shows that reflected the shifting times concerning the women’s movement but weren’t always certain as to what they thought they should be saying. Simply supporting women writers and artists became an important action in itself. An interest for them at this time concerned ageing and the lack of opportunities for actresses over the age of 40, and they began looking for plays with older women’s castings and subjects. This focus is seen in the choice of My Song is Free by Jorge Diaz (1986) about women in detention in Pinochet’s Chile and Island Life by Jenny McLeod (1988) set in the wilderness of an old people’s home.

By 1990, they realised the collective management wasn’t working and appointed an Advisory Board to assist them. When the Arts Council insisted that their funding support was dependent on them appointing an Executive or Artistic Director with whom they could negotiate (dealing with Collectives never sat easily with the Arts Council), Mary McCusker stepped forward as interim Executive Director and in April 1991, Clare Venables was appointed Artistic Director. The company continued working for another two years before going into hibernation.
For a list of those people who worked with the company up to 1991 click here.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
See Andrea Montag‘s interviewee page for her audio extract on designing Scum.

Lily Susan Todd: ‘…we [women] needed to find out what we had to say, and Monstrous was going to be about that, which was very exciting. It was going to be about, what the hell was it we had to say that was unique, or that needed to be said…we wanted to be exploratory, we wanted to explore form, theme and a female territory and what that would be composed of.  We had those discussions in a very piecemeal way. It was not highly theorised.’

Chris Bowler: ‘The heatwave of summer 1976 peaked during our week of one-night stands for Southern Arts. One week I had booked included a performance at the West End Centre in Aldershot. We were very aware of being in a town dominated by the military – after all we were a regiment too. I was half expecting to be taken away and shot as a dirty feminist. The patriarchal machinery was all around us but we weren’t afraid. It was blistering hot but we had women’s work to do, getting the Scum set (wooden flooring pallets and half-barrel washing tubs and a cast iron stove) out of the van and into the theatre. We decided that swimwear was the order of the day, and of course our personalised carpenters’ aprons and gardening gloves (the pallets were full of splinters). Yes, we were feminists, but we had bodies, and we didn’t care who knew it. The W.E.C. didn’t know what to do for the best. Should they comment, or stay mum and pretend that all their companies did get-ins in bikinis? Discretion won the day – or was it fear? Did they think we’d turn on them with our spanners and ratchet screwdrivers? After the show, one brave soul told me they’d expected us all to turn up in boiler suits and dungarees. So, victory to the Regiment. Another stereotype shattered.’ (Taken from Monstrous Regiment – A Collective Celebration by Gillian Hanna, with kind permission of Nick Hern Books, Chris Bowler, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker)

Reviews:
‘….a company of extraordinary high quality.’ Liverpool Post 1977
‘…it is a joy to see how Monstrous Regiment exploits surrealistic and expressionist techniques and give them a blazing theatrical life and function…’  The Guardian 1982
‘With their policy of commissioning new plays which have strong parts for women and always having more women in the company than men, Monstrous Regiment, since their inception in 1976, have combined artistic endeavour with political good sense.’ Time Out 1982
‘…a company of unqualified excellence.’ Tribune 1979
For reviews and details of productions between 1976-85 see here.

Productions:

PRODUCTION NAMEVENUESDATES
Scum: Death, Destruction and Dirty Laundry
Writers: Claire Luckham, Chris Bond and the company
Cast: Chris Bowler, Helen Glavin, Gillian Hanna, Mary McCusker, Susan Todd, Roger Allam, Alan Hulse
Design: Andrea Montag
Music: Helen Glavin
Posters/graphics: Chris Montag
Technician: d. Wilson
(In later productions: Linda Broughton, Ann Mitchell, Ian Blower, Clive Russell)
Technician: Meri Jenkins,
Musician: Josefina Cupido
(One further version was redirected by Ann Mitchell)
1976 - 77
Vinegar Tom
Writer: Caryl Churchill
1976 - 77
Floorshow
Writers: Caryl Churchill, Bryony Lavery, David Bradford and Michelene Wandor
1977 -78
Kiss and Kill
Writer: Lily Susan Todd and Ann Mitchell
1977
Time Gentlemen Please
Writer: Bryony Lavery and company
1978
Teen Dreams
Writer: David Edgar with Susan Todd
1979
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Writer: Bryony Lavery adapted from Anita Loos' 1925 novel: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady
1979 - 80
Dialogue Between a Prostitute and One of Her Clients
Writer: Dacia Maraini translated by Gillian Hanna
1979
Shakespeare's Sister by Theatre de L'Aquarium
Translated by Gillian Hanna
Drill Hall1980
Mourning Pictures
Writer: Honor Moore
1981
The Execution
Writer: Melissa Murray
1982
The Fourth Wall
Writers: Franca Rama and Dario Fo
Translated by Gillian Hanna
1983
Calamity
Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Nona Shepphard
Cast: Jane Cox, Gillian Hanna, Mary McCusker
Design: Andrea Montag
Lighting: Veronica Wood
Music: Jane Cox
Production Manager: Meri Jenkins
Admin: Sandy Bailey
1983 - 4
Enslaved by Dreams
Devised by Chris Bowler
1984
Origin of the Species
Writer: Bryony Lavery
Cast: Gillian Hanna, Mary McCusker
Director: Nona Shepphard
1984 - 85
Point of Convergence
Devised and directed by Chris Bowler
1985
My Song is Free
Writer: Jorge Diasza, adapted by Nigel Gearing
1986
Alarms
Writer: Susan Yankowitz
Director: Penny Cherns
Design: Iona McLeish
1986
My Sister in This House
Writer: Wendy Kessleman
Director: Nancy Meckler
Cast: Suzanna Hamilton, Maggie O'Neil, Maggie Steed, Tilly Vosburgh
Design: Stephanie Howard
Lighting: Veronica Wood
Admin: Sandy Bailey/ Rose Sharp
Leicester Haymarket
Birmingham Triangle
Glasgow, Mitchell Theatre (Mayfest)
Hampstead Theatre
1987
Waving
Writer: Carol Bunyan
1988
Island Life
Writer: Jenny McLeod
Director: Jane Collins
Cast: Corinne Skinner Carter, Joanna Field, Stella Tanner, Marcia Tucker (Joan Hooley, Irma Inniss on tour)
Design: Iona McLeish
Lighting: Veronica Wood
Stage Manager: Lesley Chenery
Admin: Ferelith Lean/Rose Sharp
Nottingham Playhouse and tour1988
A Common Woman
Writer: Franca Rame and Dario Fo
Translated by Gillian Hanna
Beatrice
Writer: Ian Brown
Director: Clare Venables
Cast: Mary McCusker
Design: Annabel Lee
Lighting: George Tarbuck
Stage Manager: Liz Ainley
1989
Love Story of the Century
Writer: Marta Tikkane
Adapted and directed by Clare Venables from a translation by Stina Katchadourian
Cast: Gillian Hanna, Mary McCusker
Director: Debbie Shewell
Design: Moggie Douglas
Lighting: Tina MacHugh
Music: Joanna MacGregor
Admin: Rose Sharp and Carin Mistry
1990
More Than One Antoinette
Writer: Debbie Shewell
Director: Debbie Shewell
Cast: Abigail Bond, William Gaminara, Marsha Millar, Geraldine Somerville
Design: Geraldine Pilgrim
Lighting: Beth Hardisty
Music: Joanna MacGregor
Young Vic Studio1990
Act 1 The Colony
Adapted from Marivaux by Gillian Hanna
Act 11 Comes a Cropper by Robin Archer
Director: Nona Shepphard
Design: Jenny Carey
Music Lindsay Cooper
BAC (Battersea Art Centre)1990
Medea
Writer: Gillian Hanna
Lilian Baylis Theatre1991
Bad Girl
Writer: Kay Trainor
Old Red Lion1991
The Love of an Independent Women 1991
Lady Grange1991
The New Man
Writer: Scott Talbot
1992

Interviewee reference: Bryony Lavery, Andrea Montag, Lily Susan Todd, Michelene Wandor

Links: TMenquiries@vam.ac.uk (The company’s archive is now part of the V&A Theatre Collections)

Bibliography:
Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill (in Plays by Women Volume One, Methuen 1982)
Teendreams by David Edgar with Susan Todd (Teendreams & Our Own People, Methuen 1979)
Origin of the Species by Bryony Lavery (in Plays by Women Volume Six, Methuen)
Mourning Pictures by Honor Moore (in The New Women’s Theatre: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women by Vintage 1977)
The Fourth Wall by Franca Rame and Dario Fo, translated by Gillian Hanna (A Woman Alone, Methuen 1991)
A Common Woman by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, translated by Gillian Hanna (Woman Alone, Methuen 1991)
Alarms by Susan Yankowitz (in Female Voices by the Playwrights Press)
Monstrous Regiment – A Collective Celebration by Gillian Hanna (Nick Hern Books 1991)

Monstrous Regiment are still a company, currently dormant. Their fourth and current director is Katrina Duncan.

Acknowledgements: This page was written and constructed by Jessica Higgs, assisted by Kim Dexter, with many thanks to Monstrous Regiment founder members: Chris Bowler, Gillian Hanna and Mary McCusker, and Nick Hern Books. November 2013

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