Company Name: Sidewalk
Founders: John Ashcroft, John Burrows, Sarah Boyes, Norma Cohen, Keith Rubidge. Re-formed by Guy Groen (later Guy Holland)
Established: 1968. Reformed formally 1974 to give a new lease of life.
Reason: To provide plays for young people and children
Current status: Disbanded 1979 after funding withdrawn
Area of Work: Community, children, women and young people
Policy: To present enjoyable and entertaining theatre reflecting the changing situation of women and children
Structure: Co-operative with six performers and one administrator – all work as a collective
Based: Various private London addresses including Brandon Road, N7, and later in offices at Matthias Road, N16, 291 Finchley Road, NW3.
Funding: Arts Council, Islington Borough Council, Greater London Council
Audiences: Schools, community venues, theatre spaces, playgrounds, playgroups
For more company pictures see Norma Cohen’s web page.
Company work and process
Sidewalk was initially formed by John Ashcroft, John Burrows, Keith Rubidge, Sarah Boyes and Norma Cohen in 1968. Without funding they made theatre for adults and children performing plays based on Norse myths and also plays by Brecht. The company was reformed in 1974 at Guy Groen’s suggestion. Their first production was a commission from Islington Council to produce a play for children. Jack’s Trip to the Stars (1974) was the result and this toured schools and other non-theatre venues.
The company continued devising shows for children and performed in a variety of venues including appearing at a Science Fiction festival in Holland. They tackled colonialism in The Lion and the Snake (1974) and marriage in The Seeds of Love (1974).
They derived their material from folk stories and myths using ‘the experience and imaginations of generations of people’ (company information, 1976). The method of working was cooperative to which individuals brought their own skills. Both rehearsal and performance were regarded as a learning process. The company’s aim was to ‘entertain, to extend social and political awareness, to encourage people to believe in themselves and in the possibilities of what people can do together to change things’ (company information, 1976).
Initially, different members shared the administration of the company but in order to get funding they appointed Marion Pyke as their administrator. Marion proved to be, ‘a driving force for community engagement’ (Guy Holland, interview 2013). In 1976 the company devised Son of a Gun, (1975) their first play for adults, which turned out to be very socially significant.
The company aimed to reach the whole community, doing some agitprop performance about one-off issues and attempting work in adventure playgrounds which proved to be very challenging for the cast. They also commissioned Peter Flannery to write a play for older people, The Last Resort, (1977) which they performed at Islington Town Hall.
By 1978, the composition of the company had changed with none of the original performers remaining. Clair Chapwell, who had admired Son of a Gun, joined the company and along with Berta Freistadt, Robin Goodfellow and Ian Milton toured How the Vote Was Won, (1978) which was collated and directed by Julie Holledge. Clair remembers that Julie insisted that they got in character half an hour before the performance – in costume, in voice and manner. By 1979, only Clair was left and she wrote Spilt Milk, a play for under fives, an anti-sexist play in a more realistic genre than Sidewalk’s earlier plays. She employed Ian Milton and Caroline Holdaway as actors and Norma Cohen as director. During 1979 funding was withdrawn and Clair formed a new company called Spare Tyre.
Guy Holland (formerly Groen) and Norma Cohen remember that the policy of Sidewalk was informed by members’ political and artistic concerns (audio 1). The name of the company suggested people ‘ taking their own path’ and of the theatre being ‘accessible’ and not ‘elitist.’ An example of anti-establishment work is illustrated by this song from the anti-colonialist play The Lion and the Snake (audio 2). The education authorities had no objection to the themes of the plays and the only difficulty they had was when the company used the word, ‘bum’. The highlight of their work however was not the children’s plays, but the company’s first play for adults, Son of a Gun, performed in conventional theatre spaces.
For a few years the company operated as a successful collective. They wrote collectively and decided among themselves who was to direct. Guy and Norma speak about this here: (audio 3).
Not all the plays were successful. The second play for adults, The Last Resort, especially written by Peter Flannery was performed to, ‘the wrong audience at the wrong venue’. Working high up in the vast Islington Town Hall, Norma remembers the ‘clunk, clunk clunk’ of the tip-up seats as the audience walked out. The plays performed at adventure playgrounds evoked strong memories. It was ‘tough’ work. Norma and Guy both remembered being assaulted and chased by young people and children. ‘We were in their space … there were no structures.’
Flemmy, the last play which Guy performed in was, in his view, the ‘nadir’ and he claims that it was the ‘catalyst’ for the subsequent decline of the company. Collective working no longer worked for him and he left at the end of this show because of artistic differences. The dynamics of the group had changed as some of the original members had left and new people had joined, some of the challenges of this are expressed here: (audio 4).
Clair Chapwell has distinct memories of her first play with the company, How the Vote was Won. She remembers an ‘audience of twenty five and a cockatoo’. This is probably the performance which the director, Julie Holledge liked as it was in an Edwardian conservatory. Clair also remembers a challenging performance in a care home in which many of the audience had dementia and how tea and biscuits arrived during the middle of the play. Also present in the audience was the ‘dreaded man from the Arts Council’. Clair wrote and performed in the last play for Sidewalk, Spilt Milk. This was, ‘harder than I thought’, especially as the third performer, who was ‘highly skilled’ couldn’t do the last show. Clair was very keen for Norma Cohen to direct Spilt Milk. Norma had not long had a baby and agreed to do it if they could rehearse in her own home. Clair found this harder than expected but ‘kinda got through it’. Clair did not mind running the company alone. She had not had good experiences of working in a collective in her previous company and welcomed the opportunity to write alone.
Sidewalk has provided important experiences for company members, and Oval House and its founder Peter Oliver played an important part in Guy and Norma’s life. Listen here (audio 5).
The Rag Bag Doll Show
‘…a trilogy…the first piece The Lion and the Snake is based on a Swahili folk tale and attacks with considerable humour the role of the colonist. Superman and the Ratrace is set in a fast moving, fast talking office with a nasty King Rat and a meek, little hero who dreams himself into Superman…In the Seeds of Love, Harlequin and Columbine relive their courtship and marriage for the benefit of the divorce judge. It is commedia dell’arte, social commentary and teaching theatre all in one…’ (The Stage and Televison Today, November 7, 1976)
Son of a Gun
‘…a minor epic…a sensitive, portrayal of a working class girl who fights against being second best…funny, politically exciting, well observed.’ (Morning Star, July 1976)
‘…theatre with a message at its best.’ (Financial Times, July 1976)
‘…an unruly epic of a political comedy…’ (Time Out, August 1976)
‘...charts the adventures of a mutinous nine year old to her emergence as a liberated lesbian squatter…’ (The Times)
‘…a dialectical evening…pleasantly arranged, imaginatively staged…the emphasis is sociological…’ (Daily Telegraph, August 1976)
‘…it is great fun…a political play which puts over its message through revue type sketches and sends up the whole range of middle class relationships…’ (newspaper cutting about the University Arts Centre ,Warwick, 1977)
|No information on shows between 1968-72|
|Jack's Trip to the Stars|
Company devised and directed
Cast: Sarah Boyes, Norma Cohen,Mary Frost, Ken Gregory, Guy Groen, Tasha Fairbanks
|Touring schools, playgroups, festivals||1974|
|The Rag Bag Show a trilogy.|
The Lion and the Snake
Superman and the Snake
The Seeds of Love
Director: Keith Rubidge
Musical Director:Ken Gregson
Designers: Luli Chapman and Phoebe de Gaye
Cast:Sarah Boyes, Norma Cohen, Luli Chapman,Ken Gregson, Guy Groen, Keith Burbidge, Sue Pomeroy
New End Theatre
|as above||The Roundhouse|
Insticart Arts Centre,
Silgrave Village, Washington
| The Nose Play|
Cast included: Sara Boyes, Ken Gregory, Norma Cohen, Guy Groen
Designer: Luli Chapman
Agitprop piece devised by the company
|Canonbury Day Centre, London||1976|
|The Son of a Gun|
Devised by the company and scripted by John Burrows
Director: John Burrows
Musical Director: Ken Gregson and Robin Goodfellow
Designer: Phoebe de Gaye
Cast included: Norma Cohen, Natasha Fairbanks, Ken Gregson, Robin Goodfellow,Guy Groen
Half Moon Theatre
|as above with Hilary Gwynne instead of Tasha Fairbanks||Universtiy of Warwick, Arts Centre,|
Strathclyde University, Glasgow,
Women's Group, Technical College, Eastleigh, Hants,
Women's Group,Shoreham Youth Arts Centre, Brighton,
Devised by the company
Cast included: Norma Cohen, Ken Gregson, Guy Groen, Robin Goodfellow
Apollo club, Willesden, a benefit for families of Grunwick Strikers
|The Playground Show|
Devised by the company
Cast included: Guy Groen, Keith Rubridge, Luli Chapman
| Last Resort|
Writer: Peter Flannery
Director: John Caird
Cast included: Norma Cohen, Guy Groen, Hilary Gwynne
|Islington Town Hall||1977|
|Podgy and Dicky|
Written by company
Cast included: Guy Groen
|Touring preschool play groups and nurseries||1978|
Devised by the company and scripted by Sarah Burrows
Director: Rob Goodfellow
Cast included: Berta Freistadt, Guy Groen
|Touring schools, arts centres, youth clubs,|
|How the Vote Was Won|
Writer: Julie Holledge compiled original material from plays from the Actresses Franchise League
Director: Julie Holledge
Cast included: Berta Freistadt, Ian Milton, Robin Goodfellow, Clair Chapwell
Writer: Clair Chapwell
Director: Norma Cohen
Cast: Clair Chapwell, Ian Milton, Caroline Holdaway
Interview reference: Julie Holledge, Norma Cohen, Guy Holland and Tasha Fairbanks.
Links: Guy Holland/Quicksilver
Existing archive material: with Guy Holland, Clair Chapman, Norma Cohen, Hilary Price
Alternative Theatre Director, edited by Catherine Itzin (Eyre and Metheun 1979)
Bouquet with Flying Lovers: Celebrating a life – Keith Rubidge 1945-2002 edited by Norma Cohen with Jan Rubidge (Gally Cat Press, 2004)
Acknowledgements: This page was written and constructed by Iris Dove with the help of Norma Cohen, Clair Chapwell, Guy Holland, Tasha Fairbanks, Hilary Price. November 2013
The creation of this page has been supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.