Red Ladder

Company name: Red Ladder Theatre Company (originally Agitprop Street Players)

Established: 1968

Founders: Maggie Lane, John Hoyland, Sheila Rowbotham, Kathleen McCreery, Chris Rawlence, Steve Trafford, Marion Sedley, Richard Stourac. Artistic Directors: Rachel Feldberg (1986-94), Kully Thiarai (1994-1998), Wendy Harris (1998–2006), Rod Dixon (2006–present).

Reason: Founders had limited theatrical experience but were stirred by the events of 1968. Wanted to develop a fused political and cultural practice that related directly to working class audiences and their emerging struggles.

Current status: Still operating, see Red Ladder

Area of WorkPolitical

Policy: Work centred on socialist issues, with themes and styles produced and discussed within the company and with audiences.

Structure: 1968 – Collective. In 1985/86 – the company changed from a Collective to a Hierarchy with the appointment of a Board of Directors who in turn employed an Artistic Director (Rachel Feldberg).

Based: London 1968-75; Leeds 1976-present

Funding: Arts Council of Great Britain, Yorkshire Arts, local authorities, Arts Council England and Leeds City Council

Performance Venues: Played in Tenants’ Associations, squats, factories, Working Men’s Clubs, Trade Union halls, community centres. Toured mainly the West and South Yorkshire

Audiences: ‘Tenants’, squatters, Union members and community audiences


Company and work process:
The Agit Prop Street Players – as Red Ladder was originally known – emerged when the newly formed ‘Agit Prop Information Service’ were approached by students from Hornsey and Guildford Colleges of Art, who were occupying the college at the time, to help them put on a play called The Little Artist at the Trafalgar Square Festival of 20 July, 1968. The Agit Prop Street Players developed over the next few months doing plays for Greater London Council (GLC) tenants on rent problems in the East End and other parts of London. The plays were short and biting (described as ‘units’ in a 1972-73 publicity leaflet) focusing on issues that affected people at the time – housing, unemployment etc. The tenants’ plays were very popular with the company, sometimes doing three tenants’ meetings a night. By 1969 they had moved on to do a play about squatters, The Squatters Play. In the spring of that year they did a play for the Ford strike at Dagenham called Stuff Your Penal Up Your Bonus. The play was the culmination of a week of activity by the company in response to the Ford strike, demonstrating their solidarity with the workers.

Their next play, The Big Con, a ‘Productivity Play’, was written with the intention of finding trade union audiences. It was first performed in September 1970 at the Institute for Workers’ Control in Nottingham. Then came The Cake Play against the Industrial Relations Act. This was first performed in January 1971 and stayed in their repertoire until 1974.

By 1971, the name Red Ladder had evolved, after a much loved and used prop (the red ladder) and a policy of taking theatre to ‘working class’ audiences in places where working people usually found their entertainment, which included trade union clubs.

Steve Trafford, one of the founder members said, ‘Artists were politically motivated by the events of the time’. The Red Ladder members were squatting in Camden so the squatters movement was very relevant to them. They met other activists and trade unionists and discussed issues affecting their lives. They performed plays at non-theatrical venues, taking them directly to the people. On one occasion they performed The Cake Play outside Pentonville Prison as a demonstration in support of trade unionists who had been locked up for defying the Industrial Relations Act. Kathleen McCreery, another founder member, recalled The Cake Play being performed in Hyde Park to 100,000 workers. They worked closely with Trade Union Councils performing at their weekend schools for shop stewards.

Red Ladder was recognised by the Arts Council in 1973 and received a grant of £4,000 which rose to £43,000 by 1978-79.

In 1974 Kath became involved in the Women’s Movement and co-wrote with other members of the company, Strike While the Iron is Hot. There was a self-analysis of Red Ladder after this and a difference of political opinion arose within the company. Kath and Richard Stourac left and started their own company, Broadside Mobile Workers Theatre.

Elizabeth Mansfield who joined the group in 1976, was involved in Anybody Sweating and Taking our Time. When she joined, the group were using a ‘cabaret’ style entertainment with a political message. There were lots of discussions about this within the group and in the end they returned to doing plays as it suited them better.

In 1976 the company moved from London to Leeds and based themselves there whilst continuing to tour nationally. Their work reflected the conditions of working class life in their area. Libby Mason, another founder member, thought the group moved to Leeds because there was a stronger working class base and more opportunities all around.

The play Taking our Time, written in 1978 by Steve Trafford and Glen Park, was about the industrialisation of the weaving industry in Yorkshire and was hugely successful, attracting a wide, popular audience. The company spent a long time researching the background for this play and Michael Attenborough from Leeds Playhouse directed it. Subsequent plays written by Steve Trafford were Nerves of Steel, Power Mad and Ladders to the Moon. Steve left the company in 1981 by which time all the original members of the company had also left. Both Steve and Elizabeth felt that after Margaret Thatcher was elected the group became very demoralised, and after ten years of very intense work at every level – political and personal – they were burnt out. (See further company information)

In the 1980s Red Ladder’s work took a different direction. They began commissioning plays from outside writers and appointed an Artistic Director and a Board. Their work concentrated more on young people in the community as it still does today.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Steve Trafford, a founder member, said that performing The Cake Play outside Pentonville Prison was ‘a great moment for Red Ladder’. The company had predicted years before that someone would get put inside because it was one of the provisions of the Industrial Relations Bill and here they were demonstrating against just that.

Kathleen McCreery referred to The Cake Play when it was performed in Hyde Park to 100,000 workers. She said they met workers from Wales two years later who had seen it. She also said ‘the visual images Red Ladder used carried more weight than words’.

It Makes Yer Sick
‘The play’s ideas, handled with impressive professionalism and slickness, were put across with some lovely visual images and gags, both funny and moving.  However I felt dissatisfied finally.  ….Some more searing, black, side-splitting feminist jokes in the next play please!’  (Michele Roberts, Spare Rib, 1978)
Taking Our Time
Taking Our Time raises many questions, both about the historical period it deals with and the play’s own approach to it. Not the least of the play’s qualities is that it forces us to examine and confront our traditions.’  (Jenny Taylor and Dave Laing, The Leveller, 1978)
‘While the play retains many of the recognizable elements of previous work, it is more conventionally ambitious in its structure and the dialogue is more sophisticated than before.  Scenes are tautly written, music economic and apt, acting as extension of character or creating a mood of grief.’  (Michelene Wandor, Spare Rib, 1978)
Nerves of Steel
‘Nerves of Steel does not build into a climax, it begins on the spillway and flows through discontent. Its atmosphere and rhythm are on the submerged grey edge of panic. The play uses a surreal time structure to present scenes of naturalism, which assemble the feelings of women and men, both in the play and in the audience.  I wondered ….  whether the polarities will ever meet.’  (Marsha Rowe, Spare Rib)

The Little Artist
Writer: John Hoyland
Trafalgar Square Festival1968
Tenants' Plays
Devised by the company
Tenants' Associations1968-69
The Squatters Play
Devised by the company
Tenants' Associations1969
Stuff Your Penal Up your Bonus
Devised by the company
Ford strike at Dagenham1969
The Big Con
Devised by the company
Institute for Workers' Control, Nottingham, AUEW engineering section, Shop Stewards Quarterly, Hertford, TASS weekend school1970
The Cake Play
Devised by the company
Hyde Park demo, Pentonville Prison demo, Working Men's Clubs, community halls 1971-74
A Woman’s work is Never Done (also known as Strike While the Iron is hot)
Written & Performed by: Marian Sedley, Richard Seyd, Noreen MacDowell, Carlos Guarita, Chris Rawlence, Steve Trafford, Glen Park, Richard Stourac, Kathleen McCreery,
Cast also included:
Susan Glanville, Judy Lloyd, Diana Quick,
Malcolm Reid, Libby Mason.
Trade Union meetings, women's groups, Tenants' Associations, Working Men's Clubs 1974-76
It Makes You Sick
Writer: Frances McNeill and developed by the company
St Pancras Town Hall, Kings Cross; various venues during Liverpool's International Women's Year Committee week of action1975-76
Anybody Sweating
Writer: Steve Trafford and developed by the company
Working Men's Clubs, community halls1976-77
Taking Our Time
Writers: Steve Trafford and Glen Park
Director: Michael Attenborough
Cast: Glen Parkes, Gareth Williams, Elizabeth Mansfield, Sally Eldridge, June Parkhurst, Nick Jensen, Dave Hibbard, Dave Cameron Bache, Christopher Reason
Costume Design: Barbara Mitchell, Miriam Dorman
Set Design/Construction: Simon Best/Chris Rawlence
Sound Technician/Synthesiser: Simon Best
Lighting Technicians: Kate Housden, Paul Kleiman, Tammy Walker
Musical Director: Chris Reason
Working Men's Clubs, community halls1978
Nerves of Steel
Writers: Steve Trafford and Chris Rawlence
Working Men's Clubs, community halls1979
Power Mad
Writer: Steve Trafford
Working Men's Clubs, community halls1979-80
Ladders to the Moon
Writer: Steve Trafford
Whitfield Labour Club, Dalkeith Community Centre, Volunteer Rooms Irvine1980
Writer: Rony Robinson
Maltby Miners Welfare,Loughborough Town Hall, schools in Leeds and Sheffield1981
The Blind Goddess
Writer: Ernst Toller, translated by Michelene Wandor
Yeadon Trades Hall Social Club, Woodhouse Community Centre Leeds1981
Playing Apart1982
The Best of British (whose country is it anyway?)1982
Writers: Paul Goetz and Pat Winslow
Commissioned by Paul Goetz
Bring out your Dead
Writer: Peter Cox
Dumb Blonde
Writers: Peta Masters and Geraldine Griffiths
Music: McGovan/Dougall
Happy Jack
Writer: John Godber
The Beano
Writer: Rony Robinson
This Story of Yours
Writer: John Hopkins
The Danderhall Red Beano
A week long festival in conjunction with Midlothian District Council
Stitchin' the Blues & Mixing It
Writer: Maggie Lane
Tour of West Yorkshire1985
Safe With Us
Writer: Fances McNeill
State Agent
Writer: Rachel Feldberg & Ruth Mackenzie
Back to the Walls
Writer: Jane Thornton
On the Line
Devised by the company

Interviewee reference: Libby Mason. Kathleen McCreery, Steve Trafford and Elizabeth Mansfield.

Kathleen McCreery website

Existing archive material: Red Ladder

Stages in the Revolution by Catherine Itzin (Methuen 1980)
Strike While the Iron is Hot by Red Ladder Theatre (Journeyman Press 1974)
Taking Our Time (Pluto Press 1979)
Look Back At Anger: Agit Prop Theatre in Britain by Swati Pal (Lightning Source UK Ltd 2008)

Acknowledgements: This page was written and constructed by Carole Mitchell with grateful thanks to Steve Trafford, Elizabeth Mansfield and Kathleen McCreery. November 2013

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