The Phantom Captain

Company name: The Phantom Captain

Founders: Neil Hornick, Jean Michaelson, David Webster, Rick Davis.

Established: 1970

Reason: To produce performance work by director/writer/performer Neil Hornick and his artistic collaborators.

Current status: In deep hibernation since 2006.

Area of Work: Experimental, New Writing, Community & Street

Policy: Began as ’The Switch’ in 1967 counterculture era, with concept-driven happenings and part-improvised stage pieces based on intensive group workshop activity. It was an experimental mixed-media outfit, aiming at consciousness-raising and enchantment by non-naturalistic means. Went on to present a wide range of work: stage plays, mock lectures, slide shows, improv pieces, ‘environ-mentals’ (nowadays better known as ‘immersive’ theatre), indoor and outdoor infiltrations, street theatre, drama/encounter workshops and residential projects (groups included students, actors, drama advisors, social workers and children), performance art, exhibitions, early video-based events, and so-called ‘Write-Off’ publications (including pamphlets, leaflets and a book of solicited forewords). Work was as much as possible site-specific, i.e. uniquely tailored to the location and occasion, devised to respond to and redefine the given space; and that went for theatre stages too.

Structure: Artistic director Neil Hornick was initially partnered by Jean Michaelson and David Webster; then, most enduringly, by Chicago-raised Joel Cutrara (for fifteen years from 1972); and Peter Godfrey (a.k.a. Peter Deman, 1974-1979). ‘The Phantom Captain Irregulars’, an auxiliary of fellow-players, participated as occasion and budget allowed. They included, at various times, Cindy Oswin, Ian Johnson, David Thomson, David Gale, Liz Weston, Jude Allen, Louise Jones, T.I. (The Incredible) Bradford, maze-maker Greg Bright, Julia McLean, Gil Brailey, Frans Kleijweg, Helen-Anne Ross, Terry Moore, Ellen Wilkinson and Sef Townsend. Other key contributors included Richard Gollner, Chahine Yavroyan, Zoran Markotic and photographers Bruce Hart and Augustine Huysser. Grant-aid eventually enabled acquisition of a company van, sound and slide projection equipment, a working base in Camden, a full-time administrator (Liz Weston and, later, Luke Dixon), full-time and short-term contracts for a team of actors, and, in 1974, creation of Unexpected Developments Ltd. (UDL), an umbrella company and registered charity with a board of directors. UDL also supervised Peter Godfrey’s Rational Theatre Company before his departure in 1979. At its most minimal and financially constrained, the company functioned as a one-man band. For longish periods it was an effective two-man unit (Neil and Joel). At its most expansive, it supported five full-time personnel plus Irregulars – e.g. 12 players when engaged to infiltrate the newly opened National Theatre (The Dramatic Society, 1976).

Based: London.

Funding: Annual Arts Council Great Britain grants, rising from £400 (1972) to £26,000 (1980).

Performance venues: A wide range of performance sites, the more unconventional the better. Principally, alternative venues such as the I.C.A., Round House, King’s Head, Bush Theatre, Oval House, Serpentine Gallery, Battersea Arts Centre, Drill Hall, Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, and Birmingham Arts Lab; but also such ‘orthodox’ venues as the Lyttelton (National Theatre), Oxford Playhouse and Theatre Royal, Windsor. Appeared frequently abroad at De Lantaren Arts Centre Rotterdam, as well as the Shaffy, Melkvej, Paradiso, and Bellevue Theatre in Amsterdam, at venues in Germany, Austria and Spain, and the Performing Garage in New York (1981). Frequent appearances at arts labs and arts centres, art galleries and museums, theme parks (including Holland’s De Efteling, where we masterminded the official launch of Europe’s largest simulated haunted castle), numerous college campuses and community venues, plus places of private and corporate celebration, including hotels, banquet rooms and private homes. Also performed extensively in streets, shops and shopping malls (including the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus), restaurants, zoos, ships, civic centres (including Tilburg Town Hall, Holland, for an official Mutual Adoption ceremony, 1976), banks, libraries, prisons, chapels, a mental hospital, an antiquarian bookshop, rock concerts, and at festival sites throughout Britain and Europe.

Audiences: No limits placed on the kind of audiences we played to. Plays, slide shows and other events were presented in conventional end-stage auditoria. Our ‘environ-mentals’ involved construction of immersive labyrinths, through which audience members wandered or were guided. Otherwise, we were liable to take people unawares by showing up, often unannounced, in non-theatrical locations. Company members were considered to be players rather than actors, and audiences were often inveigled into becoming fellow-players, sometimes unaware who was who.
Among our precepts: ‘We regard ourselves as talent scouts for audiences.’ ‘Sometimes we are obliged to walk out of our own shows before they’re over. Mind you, we are always the last to go.’ ‘There is no such thing as a bad audience. It’s simply that the wrong people were in the wrong place at the wrong time, facing in the wrong direction.

More images can be found on Neil Hornick’s web page.

Company work and process: Initially informed by dada and surrealism, zen, happenings, ‘Third Force’ Psychology (self-realization and encounter groups), Erving Goffman’s sociology and pranksterism. Performed pieces evolved out of improv workshops, brainstorming (often fuelled by cannabis) and even, during the company’s first phase, graphic doodling. The principal of collage in both scripts and visuals was often applied. Pieces were also devised and written by more conventional writing processes. At the beginning of their partnership, Neil and Joel audio-taped and transcribed their brainstorming-cum-improv sessions and (joined later by Peter Godfrey) regularly exchanged typed jottings (‘Mental Notes’) consisting of ideas for pieces, thoughts on work in progress, precepts, bons mots, and miscellaneous lists. These became a useful ragbag resource. For instance, the critically praised stage play Abracadabra Honeymoon (Bush Theatre, 1980) grew out of nothing more than a title we fancied among several others we’d dreamed up and listed.

Partly because of financial limitations common to small-scale touring companies, most PhanCap stage shows were low-budget ‘chamber’ pieces with small casts and minimal settings and props, though our infiltrations and environ-mentals often deployed many more players. Company members had to possess acting and improv skills; the ability to relate face-to-face with strangers in a wide range of player-audience situations; and, ideally, shared our taste for the quizzical, the satirical, the surreal and the absurd.

All work was company-originated (no imported plays, playwrights or directors) and gave equal emphasis to off-stage as well as on-stage performance work. Playful and paradoxical, it aimed more to provoke, fascinate and intrigue than to simply entertain, though always in a comedic spirit, unless commissioned to give people the creeps, as at De Lantaren Arts Centre’s festivals of Horror, Crime and Death. We sought to connect both with theatre audiences and non-theatregoers; to explore the blurred boundaries between ‘theatre’ and ‘real life’, and between theatre and other art forms. Unlikely source material was often a point of principle in our stage productions, giving rise to an adaptation of a cautionary Catholic pamphlet on teenage relationships (What to Do on a Date, 1973), a ‘nauticultural’ religious ceremony (Secretians, 1974), a play written entirely in questions (Loaded Questions, 1976), a rehearsed reading of obscure play synopses (Tales from Samuel French, 1976), a musical about particle physics (The Changeness Congress, 1977), and a full-length erotic love scene untroubled by setbacks or mishaps of any kind (Abracadabra Honeymoon, 1981).

Selected Precepts: ‘We want you to slip on the banana skin only to end up standing on your head eating the banana.’ ‘Theatre is only a stage that everybody passes through.’ ‘If we really knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t be doing it. In fact we couldn’t be doing it.’ ‘Our aim: to recreate the present. Our slogan: Nonconformity for the Masses. Our strategy: to tune up reality to the level of art.’ ‘We cannot move mountains. But we can rearrange the surrounding terrain.’ ‘Those who suspect that our main impulse is mystical and metaphysical should beware of placing limits on our work.’ ‘The chief function of our precepts is to give us something from which to deviate’. ‘When the mask really fits… it disappears.’

Personal appraisal & thoughts: For a while there, from the 1960s onwards, The Phantom Captain played an active part in the underground/fringe/alternative/ performance art movement of the counterculture. In the cross-currents of touring and festival participation, we enjoyed fraternal relations – and sometimes collaborations – with other groups and individuals of like-minded spirit, including the Natural Theatre of Bath, the John Bull Puncture Repair Kit, The People Show, Bruce Lacey & Jill Bruce, Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, Action Space, Michael Almaz, Trevor Stuart & Helen Statman (Cocoloco), Nabil Shaban, Dogtroep (Holland), Forkbeard Fantasy, Ian Breakwell, Avanti Display, Fine Artistes, and the Penguin Café Orchestra. With ACGB funding, and the establishment of the Independent Theatre Council in 1974 (Neil Hornick was a member of its first steering committee), came a degree of respectability, or at least responsibility, to satisfy the orderly imperatives of grant aid and contracted working conditions. At times we felt like Scheherazade, compelled to keep the Sultan (the Arts Council) entertained lest we be beheaded in the morning (we eventually were, in 1980, but soldiered on).
We were so busy and prolific during the 1970s, and so often reliant on on-the-spot inspiration that artistic standards sometimes faltered, if not floundered (e.g. the aptly titled A Disastrous Evening with The Phantom Captain (1974). But at its best, the work achieved high definition and we received our share of positive feedback both from audiences and from the national, international and regional press. We certainly had our fans and supporters (including Jenny Topper, John Ashford, Naseem Khan and Michael Kustow), though never an enormous popular following. Our theatre games workshops, encounter groups and residential projects enabled us to share something of our ethos and working process more intimately and, we like to believe, fostered a degree of creative growth among those taking part. On a personal note, The Phantom Captain enabled Neil Hornick to unify and integrate under one artistic umbrella a disparate variety of artistic impulses and interests, as never before or since.

Selected Productions: see here

Kingdom Come: The Art & Craft of PornographyFirst performed at the Wyvern Theatre & Art Centre; Toured Nationally1972 - 1978
A Bite Out (a.k.a. Hamper)First performed at part of the Stopover Season, Gulbenkian Theatre Studio, Newcastle; Toured Nationally1973
Service Inclusive (a.k.a. The Serviette Union)First performed at the Howff Theatre Cafe; Toured Nationally and Internationally1973 - 2003
The Phantom Captain EmporiumPerformed at Bath's Another Festival1973
What to Do on a Date (a.k.a. Our Story Exactly)Previewed at Recreation Ground, London; Toured Nationally1973
Secretians, or The Secret ServiceFirst performed at Brunel University; Toured Nationally and Internationally1974 - 1977
The Investigation BureauPerformed at De Lantaren's Festival of Crime, Rotterdam1975
The Tilburg AdoptionTilburg, Holland1976
The Phantom Captain Dramatic SocietyPerformed at the National Theatre, London1976
Loaded Questions (a.k.a Open to Question)First performed at the Bush Theatre, London: Toured Nationally and Internationally1976-1981
The Changeness CongressPreviewed at Oval House, London; Performed at King's Head Theatre, London1977
The Sheerealist PlatformPreviewed at Action Space Drill Hall; performed at the National Theatre
Toured Nationally and Internationally
Tortured SpiritsPerformed at De Efteling's Haunted Castle, Holland1978
Abracadabra HoneymoonPerformed at Bush Theatre1980
Our Boys TownPerformed at Theatre Space, London and King's Head Theatre, London1980

Interviewee reference: Neil Hornick, Helen-Anne Ross

Links: The Dialectics of Liberation Redialled, Cindy Oswin

Existing archive material: Neil Hornick retains close to 70 chronological scrapbook albums, as well as scripts, 35 mm slides, audiotapes and DVD-transferred videos, plus some costumes and props. Also, two Arts Council sponsored films, Performance Art (1974) and The Phantom Captain Appears (1978). Additional material held by Unfinished Histories.

Reason for disbanding: Loss of Arts Council grant in 1980 severely curtailed full-time activity, but company continued to perform and run workshop projects, on and off, until 2006. Neil Hornick continues to guest-perform occasionally with other companies.

For Neil’s and The Phantom Captain’s full bibliography link here, their filmography here and audiotapes here.

Acknowledgements: This page has been written by Neil Hornick and constructed with the assistance of Xi-mali Kadeena. We are very grateful to Neil for his many contributions to Unfinished Histories, including the depositing of a sizable part of his archive with us. November 2013

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