Company name: Red Ladder Theatre Company (originally Agitprop Street Players)
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 Work: Political
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)
Productions: [table id=10 /]
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.