Date: 17th March 2015
Location: Tufnell Park
Interviewer: Susan Croft
00:00:00 Living in New York. Mica Nava (MN) was 18. Went to New York (NYC) for gap year but stayed [in New York and later Mexico] for approximately 5 years, went to Art Students League and met new artists. Involved with Happenings and the NYC art scene. Naive and a bit of a rarity. Spent a summer in Provincetown making art and meeting artists including Mary Frank and Robert Frank. Shared house with Dody Muller, Jan Müller’s widow- very influential painter. Mentions people such as: Bob Thompson (BT), Red Grooms (RG), Jay Milder (JM). Several of these artists got together with MN and started gallery back in NYC at the tail end of Abstract Expressionism (Figurative Expressionism). Recognises herself and her group as ‘the younger ones’ working in The City Gallery. MN curated one of the main exhibitions – ‘The Drawing Show’ [actually ‘Drawings’] – and was discovered by someone [Judith Stein] researching the Green Gallery and Richard Bellamy [in 2016], who forwarded her details on to another person [Melissa Rachleff, curator and author of Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-65 (2017)].
00:02:55 Written out of History. MN references the fact [that, until discovered by Rachleff] she had been written out of the history of the City Gallery which is itself widely referenced online but mainly in relation to the male artists involved despite MN being one of the key organisers. MN curated a drawing show, JM and RG did not get so involved because they were not organised enough and it was hard work. Artists exhibited included George Grosz, Franz Klein, Philip Guston, BT, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, JM, RG, Mimi Gross, herself and Mary Frank (about 40 artists). MN references a catalogue she still has). MN was painting and drawing.
00:04:35 Spring’s Awakening: The lack of studio meant MN was unable to paint for a while but was reading Spring’s Awakening by Frank Wedekind. MN’s uncle and aunt in NYC were from Vienna originally but were refugees, father was from Vienna, mother was from Holland, MN was born in UK in 1938 and MN’s Uncle was interested in Wedekind and together he and MN recognised that sections of the English translation misrepresented and censored the original text, inspiring MN to direct a production. The Living Theatre offered them space [a performance space on Mondays but in the end the play was performed in an Off-Off-Broadway loft for two weeks on May 1960]. Aside from school productions at Bedales School, this was the first theatrical production she directed. MN was 20/21 at this time working with a cast of primarily teenage actors.
00:06:15 School/Family. Attended Bedales- privileged, progressive schooling MN later rejected. Father was a businessman, Mother was interested in progressive education. Parents were eccentric, liberal, living in the English countryside (N Hampshire) which MN did not enjoy. Father was stationed in Pioneer Corps during the war thus they left London and moved to Newbury. Older brother was a farmer. Every summer the family home was filled with people from all over the world (relatives from France, Holland, Austria). Father was Jewish, Mother was not and totally secular. Very ‘Non Jewish Jewish’. References film by Caroline Pick addressing Jewish identity [Possibly A Home Movie but it is not named]. Very political family.
00:08:11 Mexico to London. Moved to Mexico and met Jose (J) (Pepe- names are interchangeable). Jose was self-taught fisherman/ painter. [See autobiographical chapter in her Visceral Cosmopolitan (2007) describing this period with J and cultural mixing in London]. J and MN moved back to London and had three children. J joined The People Show (TPS) in 1970. TPS adopted a very collective approach- no directors, collaborative script writing. TPS was very influential on MN who brought this praxis into the Women’s Theatre Group (WTG). (Susan Croft asks to go back to when MN first returned to London with J for further context). MN explains they returned in 1964. MN made money teaching English as a foreign language, writing film sub-titles, translating. Studied at LSE as a mature student which lead to her involvement with the Women’s Movement in 1969. [Got involved in the Women’s Movement in 1969, a few weeks after her third child]
00:10:24 Women’s Movement. [In 1969 the] Women’s Liberation [Movement] had four groups in London, one in Tufnell Park. MN describes her independence and rebellious nature as a very passionate mother. MN was trying to write during this period, painting less. In 1968, J and MN became involved with politics with J involved with Hornsey [Arts School] Occupations. Both followed a radical, alternative, left wing politic. References Mexican political organisation in 1968, friends who were in other alternative, left wing political groups but cites the emergence of Women’s Group as very surprising, despite the group involvement in radical politics throughout the ’60s. Tufnell Park group part of Vietnam Solidarity group of feminists [the group included several women from Vietnam Solidarity] including many American women who involved MN. MN describes first meeting  as ‘incredibly transformative’. MN’s home life at the time was full of interesting people having inherited a large house. Very bohemian household. [in 1970] MN had got into LSE to study sociology [as a mature student] which she did while looking after three children and J working with The People’s Show on tour a great deal.
00:14:37 Artistic freedom in People Show was dependent on women to support at home. Creativity not hindered by domestic tasks. Dependent on women partners with enough money to support families.
00:16:09 People Show was international: [Mark Long( ML) – German refugee mother] George Khan (GK) from Pakistan, Jose Nava (JN) from Mexico, Joy Elias-Rilwan (JER), Emil Wolk (EW) Jewish-Italian from New York. A cosmopolitan group. Brother involved in much straighter theatre; went to Central School [of Speech and Drama], worked at the the National Theatre but gave it all up. MN Joined up with that world a bit but didn’t think much of it.
JN had ability to immerse himself in projects; Mark Long (ML) good speaker, strong presence. They came from art schools. Had that in common.
00:18:47 1973 finished sociology course at LSE – tension with involvement in Women’s Movement; looking after house and 3 children. Got a less good degree than she’d hoped. After LSE went to Women’s Theatre festival at the Almost Free Theatre; took part in discussions. [By then the WLM had grown so much that new groups had formed all over the country. The Tufnell Park group split into smaller groups and MN moved with others to the Belsize Lane Group (BLG) in 1971.]
00:20:00 Michelene [Wandor – playwright and journalist: MW] [was also] in Belsize Lane Woman’s Group, as were Sheila Allen [actor, SA], Dinah Brook [actor, writer (DB)] Sally Belfage [writer dec. (SB)]
00:21:54 Women’s Theatre Group split [was formed after the Almost Free Theatre Women’s Theatre Festival in 1973 but split into two parts shortly afterwards: the (new) Women’s Theatre Group and the Women’s Company.] Those who stayed not interested in careers; more in political message. The Women’s Company that split off were more interested in [creating opportunities for] women in the theatre profession [as writers performers and directors, while the WTG were more concerned to develop and disseminate feminist politics to new audiences]. WTG more part of the TACT [The Association of Community Theatres]. Driven partly by Anne [Engel] and MN. Joined by Jean Hart [writer, actor, teacher (JH)], Lynn Ashley [actor LA]. JH and LA were married to rich and successful partners [Bill Oddie & Eric Idle]. Didn’t feel need to be rich and successful themselves. The WTG mix of people – older in their 30s with children and some younger. Julia Meadows (JM) AE, Claire Chapman [aka Chapwell CC] and Sue Eatwell [film producer (SE)] [were in their 20s] Frankie Armstrong [singer, teacher (FA)] [was somewhere in between].
00:23:41 [In 1975] Arts Council GB funded WTG [Women’s Theatre Group] but not WC [Women’s Company]. Based on trying to find new theatre audiences. WTG was more politically radical…conscious…socialist [in the agit-prop tradition] as distinct from WTC (which included Pam Gems [playwright], Pam Brighton [ director] Faith Gillespie [ writer] ) [and Lilly Susan Todd]. WTG’s first [Arts Council funded] play My Mother Says I Never Should was influenced by Spring’s Awakening [Awakening in that also concerned with teenage sexuality, was widest performed in schools and youth clubs as well as theatre venues.]
Earlier show Fantasia came out of political narrative. Taken to Sussex University. MN’s 10-year old son was in it. Included SE, possibly CC, also men in it.
00:27:29 The themes of Fantasia [WTG’s first short piece in 1974]. About the idea that people are socialized [rather than born] into certain kinds of roles. Claire Chapman will have a better memory of it. Shared the roles, but it didn’t work out that way always in terms of authority and influence. The show was about heterosexual desire; the early feminist assertion that women should be as sexually liberated as men and not endure constraints regarding sexual pleasure. [It provided information about contraception for girls, and as Michelene Wandor put it in her Understudies, it was a ‘modern morality play’, designed to be taken to teenage audiences in schools and youth clubs.] It was part of the whole 60’s moment and about being sexually active.
ILEA [Inner London Education Authority] made a recording of My Mother Says. MN had a copy. Used it to teach about alternative theatre when she worked at UEL in the early 1980s but it was probably stolen from her office, a strange thing to steal.
00:31:15 The Process of devising the script. Held meetings in their homes, Anne [Engel] was very strict when people were late. Often met at MN’s place as it was big and convenient — can’t remember if we had an office or rehearsal space.
They discussed the structure and took notes. Each went away and did a scene. Then worked in small groups and developed the script all making suggestions. Then changed things and gradually made a proper framework. MN was better at structure, other people were better at dialogue. MN has a draft script from then.
00:33:25 Difficulties of balancing paid work, childcare and theatre. At the same time as working with the WTG, from ‘74 to ‘77 MN taught part time at Birmingham Poly- complementary studies in the Art Department. So MN did Tuesdays and Thursdays in Birmingham and Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Women’s Theatre Group. [Childcare was squeezed in between]. There was some tension between the younger ones, who had more appetite and the older ones, who wanted to spend more time with their kids. MN doesn’t know what happened to Sue Eatwell. It’s interesting that AE continued with her career as a feminist and theatre person and was the most driven. MN doesn’t know what happened to Lynn. Saw Jean, her daughter works in film- Kate Hardie.
00:35:25 Then My Mother Said That I Never Should –or ‘My Mother Says’ the name was stolen, which caused tension. That was the one that I felt most identified with because it was the closest to what I had done before.
00:35:55 The next play was Work to Role. MN played the gran and the doctor – tended to get the more mature parts – ‘authority parts’. Did speaking parts mostly, the others could sing.
00:36:36 Touring. It was hard work touring. Toured in a huge diesel van, MN was the main driver. Also did lots of carrying of equipment. The van was parked outside her house and it was a huge amount of work. The children were quite young, 10, 8 and 5- Jose was also often on tour as well, they had au pairs but it was tough [combining childcare and work]. There were also people in their house, Emil Wolk lived in their house for years; he was like a second dad to the children.
00:38:36 Schools Work and Attitudes to Sex. Toured to schools. Always had discussions after the performance – consciousness-raising model – it was an integral part of what they did. A former teacher now academic in Australia, James Donald, has a memory that WTG chucked him out of his class in a girls’ school as they thought they would be better at talking without him there. There was a letter in the Evening Standard saying ‘Theatre group incites girls to underage sex’. It was very libertarian. They wanted to make sure kids had sex when they wanted it and didn’t when they didn’t and also had access to contraception.
The ‘sex as danger’ model gained more currency over the following years – MN wrote an article about that transition. MN had a foster kid in the 80’s who had been abused by a member of staff at the school he was at. Given the recent revelations she is glad she stuck her neck out and wrote those articles about sex and how violent and abusive it could be.
00:40:45 Women’s Theatre Group. MN was in My Mother Says I Never Should (1975), Fantasia (1974) [and Work to Roile (19760]. Had left by time Out! On the Costa Del Trico (1977) was put on. Wanted to do something on consumer society, shopping and advertising but it didn’t happen. Jean Hart (JH) and Anne Engel (AE) had a more orthodox socialist framework. Left was more focused on political activities than of consumption. But she was already interested in that in the 1970s. Wrote article about political organisation at the point of consumption in 1990. After being so immersed in alternative theatre, she was relieved to get out of it. MN started a PhD in the late 1977. Separated from Jose Nava (JN) [in 1978]. Started teaching at Cambridge. Got a job at University of East London. Life was very different and removed from the alternative theatre
00:43:38 Reasons for leaving. Weighed up whether she wanted to do a PhD or stay in the Women’s Theatre Group. Thought there was too much conflict and not enough of what she really wanted to do. Conflicts over decision-making and ideas. Not about who got which part. Genuine sense that they wanted to form a group to effectively raise certain issues. Part of the consciousness-raising emphasis of the women’s movement in the 1970s. In 2015 Sue Parrish gave lecture at Goldsmiths [in which she claimed that the early WTG and WC were] about breaking through the glass ceiling. [MN disagrees. This was not a concern of WTG]
00:45:56 Audiences. Like Red Ladder and other agitprop theatre, looking for new audiences. Working men’s clubs. Closer to the network of people in TACT. How to get Arts Council funding. School children flocked to them. People genuinely did take interest. [Performed in schools, youth clubs, festivals and small theatre all over London and UK] Went to Cardiff and Aberdeen [and even Holland]. Invited to different places, different people would take on the admin. Went to Holland. Mother was Dutch, speaks a bit of Dutch. Invited to festivals and schools. Had as much work as they could manage. Didn’t pay themselves in beginning. Some had been to schools to talk about the women’s movement. [In the early days they worked for free but later started to charge and, combined with the Arts Council funding, were able to pay themselves.] A lot of their political actions hadn’t been paid so the theatre didn’t feel to begin with like paid work. Decided to pay themselves £30 a week.
00:49:27 Everybody contributed. A very dynamic and creative time. Lived at the edge of domestic and work responsibilities. They were writing and producing. MN was also writing and a governor at school her children attended. From the mid-1970s to late 1980s, she also did theatre there. Moved to Kentish Town, continued to be close with JN.
00:55:58 Effect on family life. The women’s group members often had young children, many eventually separated from husband and partners. It was a turbulent time. [SC: in practical terms the men couldn’t move with it?] MN agrees, says that yes the women had had enough of traditional domestic life.