Company Name: The People Show
Founders: Jeff Nuttall with Mark Long, John Darling, Laura Gilbert and Sid Palmer
Reason: Jeff Nuttall (artist, writer, poet) invited fellow residents of the Abbey Arts Centre to work with him in creating ‘happenings’ initially for a London Free School benefit concert and then in a series of performances at Better Books basement (92-94 Charing Cross Road), the Edinburgh Fringe and the Drury Lane Arts Lab.
Current Status: Still in operation – People Show
Area of Work: Experimental. The People Show’s work is difficult to categorise and the label ‘experimental’ is rejected by founder member Mark Long. None-the-less the term ‘experimental theatre’ had currency at the time that the company was formed and especially on the Arts Lab ‘circuit’ in the early 70s
Policy: ‘People Show are committed to making multi-disciplinary, multi-media live theatre that is directly informed by the personalities and skills of the individuals working within the company at any given time. Our non-autocratic ethos is still as relevant today as it was at the inception of the company in 1966, and we strive to maintain a balance of creative input between the longer-standing members of the company and new artists. This is a crucial part of the process of generating and exploiting new material created through inter-disciplinary collisions and tensions. We have a commitment to creating theatre in its widest sense, embracing emergent technologies whilst remaining sensitive to the human scale.’ The People Show website (2014)
Structure: The core of the company has tended to be 5-7 people, with no artistic director and everyone taking on performing roles at some point. With regards to decision making, Mark Long ‘detests the label “communal” which has always been applied to the People Show and prefers instead the approach of non-consensus. This he calls the “Fascist of the Day” method, where the strongest voice wins out. “Communal” suggests the lowest common denominator ….. I much prefer working with people who have a definite idea of what they want to be doing.’ (The Independent, 1996). Some members have had independent careers whilst maintaining long standing affiliations with the company. Ex-members have often ‘guested’ on shows and mentors have been brought in to develop particular skills.
Based: A London based touring company that travelled extensively throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, America and Australia. From about 1980, The People Show had rehearsal premises in the East End of London. Recently, as a response to changes in Arts Council funding, the company have given up these premises in order to maintain their independence.
Funding: Subsidised by the Arts Council initially in the form of individual visual artists’ bursaries and later as a theatre company. Significant funding has come from work commissioned for European arts centres, theatres and festivals.
Performance venues including: Better Books, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Bristol Arts Centre, The Warm Up Café Edinburgh, Drury Lane Arts Lab, New Arts Lab (Robert Street), Royal Court Theatre, Luton Arts Lab, Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff, York Arts Centre, Oval House, ICA Theatre, Jackson’s Lane, Birmingham Arts Lab, The Cockpit, Edinburgh Fringe, Open Space Theatre , Warehouse, Bush Theatre, Galway Festival, Albany Centre (Bristol) The Leadmill (Sheffield), Riverside Studios (Coleraine, Northern Ireland), Roundhouse, Gardner Centre (Brighton), Bradford University, Nottingham Playhouse, Everyman Theatre Liverpool, Stables Theatre Manchester, Galbenkian Studio Theatre Newcastle; The Crucible Sheffield, Dartington College, European venues: Zagreb, Poland, Mickery Theatre Amsterdam (and venues in Holland), Ghent (and venues in Belgium), Copenhagen, Germany and Paris. La MaMa, New York and American, Canadian, Australian and Venezualia tours.
Audiences: Initially the company were associated with the ‘alternative’ scene and the challenging end of avant-garde theatre. As The People Show evolved to include popular music forms, acrobatics, parody and verbal humour their work became widely accessible for example in The People Cabaret Show and Whistle Stop.
Company work and process: This summary of the company’s work and process covers the period 1966-1988
Jeff Nuttall and Better Books
Jeff Nuttall created the company to stage ‘happenings’ in 1966, when an ‘underground’ scene in London was being established. Nuttall was a poet, sculptor and musician and early performances drew upon these elements. The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) led by Gustav Metzger, took place in September 1966 in various London venues including Better Books basement – where Nuttall had previously exhibited ‘installations’. DIAS brought together radical international artists such as John Lathan, Yoko Ono and the Viennese Actionists. The confrontational aspects of early People Show performances can be seen to have been influenced by this context. The success of these events led to regular performances at Better Books from January 1967. Along with Jeff Nuttall – Mark Long, John ‘Dod’ Darling, Laura Gilbert and Sid Palmer were the founder members and the company’s name was taken from one of these early shows ‘It was the People Show because that’s how it started when we finally got into the Better Books basement – as an exhibition of people. We presented ourselves as sculptures. …’ (Jeff Nuttall, 1979).
Initially their performances used ‘scripts’ devised by Nuttall – there were no characters, setting or narrative as such but there were ‘structures with actions, costumes and props…and with huge sections where it would say “cast improvise” ‘ (Mark Long, 2014). Nuttall saw The People Show as being akin to a jazz band ‘…. there was a chorus, people stepped forward to take solos, people stepped forward to take duets’. After about four shows, ‘Nuttall-devised’ shows were alternated with ‘company-devised’ shows. Nuttall’s desire to be ‘shocking for its own sake’ (Mark Long, 2014) contributed to their notoriety and the Better Books shows were often sold out.
Edinburgh and The Arts Lab
In the summer of 1967 they reprised a number of the Better Books shows at a venue being managed by Roland Miller – the ‘Warm-up’ Café at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. When Jim Haynes’s Drury Lane Arts Lab theatre opened in October 1967 it became their regular London venue. With a tentative arts lab ‘circuit’ starting to be established beyond London, The People Show began a long term commitment to touring . Their confrontational approach was exemplified by their opening show at the Drury Lane Arts Lab, The Cage Show, that ‘was notorious for putting the audience in cages [made from bedsteads] – one night an audience member broke out wielding an axe’ (Mark Long, 2014).
In the following summer, the company (now with Muriel England) returned to Edinburgh for a successful run at the Traverse Theatre. Roland Miller joined the company as administrator and performer. Conflict between Nuttall and Palmer came to a head over Railings in the Park which played at Edinburgh and the Arts Lab (in October) prior to Palmer leaving. Mark Long, Laura Gilbert and Roland Miller had now committed to full-time performance work and this ‘streamlined’ grouping went on the road, touring colleges, universities, art schools and jazz clubs. They travelled light and often made shows around things that they found on arrival and sets were built when they got to a venue. These venues were rudimentary spaces and out of necessity the shows had to adapt to the performance environment – this ‘site specific’ approach is still pertinent to their work today.
Soundtracks, Structure and Characterisation
Following the show Changes – Jeff Nuttall moved on to other projects. The Drury Lane Arts Lab closed in 1969 and when the London New Arts Lab opened a few months later Roland Miller briefly ran the theatre. The People Show had a residency there throughout January. Mark Long explains how their work at this time differed from the happenings ‘because [the shows] had a dynamic – a start, a middle and an end’. John Darling had now re-joined them and created the production soundtracks which were now essential structuring devices – providing shape whilst allowing for improvisation. The company ‘…. are not “actors” in the traditional sense – they are people who have explored improvisations in an audience environment so thoroughly that they have the confidence to throw out the “acting” which shelters behind someone else’s lines, someone else’s character. They have the guts to be themselves in front of others…Their “characterisations” are imaginative projections of their own obsessions: and what they present is not “a play”, it’s a show, a display, an exhibition, an entertainment’ (Time Out, 1970).
Around the time of the Royal Court Theatre’s festival of fringe theatre ‘Come Together’ in October 1970, Roland Miller and John Darling left the company. Mike Figgis who had been providing musical accompaniment, now took over Darling’s role as creator of the shows’ soundtracks and in Kurt Schmidt he became ‘an assured performer in the People Show tradition’. Jose Nava whose ‘influence [had previously] been painterly, sculptural…has now developed a truly sinister quality in his performances’ (Time Out, 1971) and also became a key figure in the new grouping.
When the company had access to more sophisticated theatre spaces their work often became tightly structured. For example Glass at New Arts Lab and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 1971, was exclusively a montage of static images with precisely timed lighting and sound cues.
Laura Gilbert was, for a number of years, the only regular female performer and devisor in an otherwise male company. According to Mark Long (2014) she had ‘her own People Show audience “cult” following. Her boyfriend, Derek Wilson – a potter and painter – had a huge influence on set ideas.’ The People Show had a surprising degree of stability with regards to personnel, for example Mike Figgis, Jose Nava and Laura Gilbert stayed with the company for about ten years each. However by the late seventies Mark Long and George Kahn (musician and performer) were the only long standing members. Kahn maintained an independent career as an actor and musician as did Chahine Yavroyan (musician, performer and lighting design) who had joined in the late seventies. Emil Wolk, who had previously worked with Pip Simmons and Freehold also stayed with The People Show for about ten years.
This new core company, crucially augmented with a more transient but highly significant number of female performers (Natasha Morgan, Joy Lemoine and Didi Hopkins for example) sent The People Show’s work in various new trajectories. Music, and especially jazz, had played an important part in the company’s creative toolkit from the earliest days. In 1970 for example a free form jazz group ‘The People Band’ provided musical accompaniment and shared venues. In 1978-9 Billie Holiday and The People Cabaret Show both brought this element to the fore and successfully toured internationally.
As a result of European governments being more generous in funding the arts than the Arts Council, The People Show extensively toured Europe including Poland, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France and Holland. Some commissions abroad allowed the realisation of more ambitious projects and this subsidised their UK work. For example in 1979 a commission from the Theatre of Nations, Hamburg enabled a four and a half week preparation period – two and a half weeks building the set and two weeks working on the show. The set was built on two levels with a working lift operating between the two levels. Mark Long explains how ‘Everybody builds. Everybody is part of the building [process] in some sense or other….as you build the show, as you build the set, just knocking in nails, putting in screws, ideas start to occur’ (Mark Long, 1982). The Hamburg Show was a very visual show using a Mike Figgis soundtrack with precise cues for performers and lighting operators. Whilst improvisation was an essential part of the creation of a show it was no longer evident in the performance. ‘…We don’t improvise in shows very often but we have a lot of discussion. We will always meet before a show, every day, and in the early process of a show that will be early in the morning… A lot of changes will happen to the show before the next night, and they will be fixed before we actually go on to do it.’ (Mark Long, 1982). The Hamburg Show was brought to the ICA Theatre London but ‘the problem with a big set is that it will only fit into certain spaces…it is necessary for us to have a touring piece at certain times of the year.’ With The Dentist for example ‘We knew it was always going to have to be props. I think then an idea came up for the Dentist – just the visual idea of the dental equipment… The idea of a waiting room which would involve the entire audience [also] came quite early.’ (Mark Long 1982)
Vaudeville and Whistle Stop
Playing down the influence of ‘highbrow’ avant-garde practitioners on their work, Mark Long has stressed the important influence of vaudeville. Similar to The People Show, vaudeville was ‘surrealistic, rebellious, visual, spectacular, naughty and used live music’ (Mark Long, 2014). Johnny Hutch (1913-2006), who had had a lifetime in vaudeville, was brought in as a mentor to the company and developed acrobatic and tumbling routines in the eighties. These elaborate routines and the introduction of more text became characteristic of their 1980’s work. This reached a particular peak in 1987 with Whistle Stop that played in the Bush Theatre and toured extensively. The piece used an elaborate set representing the ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’. Jeff Nuttall returned to the company in an acting role and the singer-songwriter Charlie Dore played the main female role. Although uniquely a People Show, Whistle Stop is more akin to ‘theatre’ than most of their other shows.
‘No one knows what to expect when they walk through the door – it might be a poet musing out loud, a mad guy trying to sell you something you didn’t know was for sale, an invasion by employees of the Shanghai Harbour Board, a melancholic chick haunting her own nakedness – or? The only ego-defence against other unknown egos is no defence at all. This, and here I stick my neck out, is probably the message of The People [Show]’ Phil Parsons, International Times, Issue 18, August 1967
‘The trio of brilliant young actors are experts at subtly bringing the audience into total involvement.’ Stage and Television Today, 5th Dec 1968
‘Truly subversive and probably very good – it just so happens I couldn’t stand them.’ Allen Wright, The Scotsman (quoted in The Traverse Story, 1988)
‘Created in 1966, the People Show has returned to its lawless collective roots. This is not to say it has dated. Far from it – it has captured that elusive energy which propels free-flowing ideas into the public domain.’ Mark Waddell, The Scotsman, May 1997.
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Interviewee reference: Mark Long was interviewed by Unfinished Histories 2014. If you would like to know more about this interview please contact us.
Existing archival material: Archive material held by The People Show. For their website and other links see below. The Jeff Nuttall Papers are kept by the John Rylands library, University of Manchester.
Bibliography: devising performance – a critical history. Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling (Palgrave,2006)
Dreams and Deconstructions – Alternative Theatre in Britain. Sandy Craig, editor (Amber Lane Press,1980)
Performance Art Memoirs. Volume 1 Jeff Nuttall (John Calder,1979)
Performance Art Scripts. Volume 2 Jeff Nuttall (John Calder,1979)
Interview with Mark Long Peter Hulton (Dartington Theatre Papers, 1982)
Traverse Theatre Story. Joyce MacMillan and John Carnegie (Methuen,1988)
The People Show by John O’Mahony in The Independent (17 January 1996)
Acknowledgements: This page was written by David Cleall.