The Crime Show
Mike: That was probably the most ambitious indoor show ever that John Bull did. That involved a real horse, the skeleton of a horse, we had a kind of set which was made of, what apparently appeared to be concrete pillars, but they were actually polystyrene. And at the Oval, the Oval version of the show, we had a sports car which was driven into the theatre space via the exit doors into the car park by Al [Beach], who appears as Mr Big at the beginning of The Crime Show and knocks all these concrete pillars over and at the same time fills the theatre with car exhaust fumes [LAUGHS] – not too good! And that was the opening 5 minutes; and then it got, it sort of developes from there. We had the skeleton of a horse which had been made by Diz, he was staying in Jeff Nuttall’s house at the time. He’d gotten meat off the horse – well, no, it came from a knacker’s yard, it was already a skeleton I think, but it had been very imperfectly cleaned. So he was cleaning it and wiring it all together in Jeff Nuttall’s back garden, and then hey presto we had an animated horse that could rear and move. We had this in the show. Again I think it was treated with UV paint so that it sort of… it lit up. When we did the version in Rotterdam at the Lantaren which was a much bigger space, we also had a real horse, and what happens is, at the very beginning of the show there are these exquisite packages tied in cloth rather like sort of Christo sculptures, that descend onto the tops of these pillars. And that is…the parcels are brought down by a figure in a Ku Klux Klan costume – and then Mr Big drives in and knocks all the pillars over. And so it proceeds from there. Yeah, that was a pretty ambitious show.
Father Xmas Union
Patrick: So the Father Xmas Union: what was exciting was that we were protesting against the commercialisation of Christmas, and the fact that it was just a money-making concern and we had lost the spirit of Christmas…which I was, rather liked being part of something that said that. So we all paraded round…there was a guy called Owen who was a West Indian guy, also there was a black…Norman Beaton – he became, he was a Father Xmas. All sorts of people; there were about 30 of us. So there were the Doggs Troupe, there was Ed [Berman], and then there were other friends who got dragooned in. And we had banners with, ‘Xmas… Keep Xmas as Xmas’ and ‘No Commercialisa…’ – and the police came along. And we had a big plum pudding on a banner – rather beautifully made; I mean, the props were great, the costumes were great. They looked great. As a group they looked quite fantastic; I mean, 30 Father Xmases. The police then arrived, and they said, ‘You are causing an obstruction, I must ask you to move on please’. Us English we went, ‘Oh sorry, yes, of course, we’ll move’ – right? Ed said, ‘No, we’re, this is, we’re, I am, who, do you know who you’re talking to? I am Father Xmas!’ ‘Yeah alright, yeah alright…’ ‘Huh! You have no idea – tell ‘im!’ We were going, ‘Oh yes, he’s Father Xmas, he’s Father Xmas’. And he just carried on acting, just…and he had no fear of this…and the guy said, ‘If you don’t stop now…’ – we were singing Xmas songs, and… – ‘I will arrest you’. So we said, ‘OK Ed, I think it’s time’, you know, ‘I think it’s – ‘; Ed said, ‘OK arrest us!’ ‘Right!’ And we all got arrested. Just…these police arrived out of nowhere, and I had this guy, held, you know they hold your arm, and then we’re marched to the police station, arrested: ‘I’m arresting you for obstruction’. I remember going, ‘Ed – help!’ I was so pathetic. And he, this is what he wanted. He’d alerted the press, they were all there; and every newspaper the next morning, it was absolutely perfect photo opportunity. It was the most political thing: white policeman, black Father Xmas, you know, all the images, boom…and we were all taken to the Marylebone Police Station, which is now a rather snippy hotel – no, not Marylebone, Great Marlborough Street. And we had…’Empty your pockets please. Er, name?’ ‘Patrick Barlow.’ ‘How old are you?’ He’d take all the props and one of us had a plum pudding prop; he said, ‘One banner with…something on it. One plum pudding…’ – and the guy would write down ‘Plum Pudding’. Then we were all let go on bail of some tiny amount of money. Then we had to go to court – yeah, we were charged with obstruction and we had to go to court, and we all went to court, and lined up, and I think we had to wear our Father Xmas outfits in court. The judge was a guy called George Robey, whose father was a famous old Music Hall comedian. No, he was, this one was Frank Robey and the comedian was George Robey, who’d played Falstaff in the Olivier Henry V – famous funnyman, famous clown. And his son was not remotely amused by this. And I remember the policemen coming down, they’d go out the court saying, you know, ‘Arthur Edward Smith’ – he just looked and he went, ‘Santas!’ So all the santas, we all went in there and stood in the dock – 12 of us; I think the mates had, I think they’d disappeared, but the core lot, we all stood there in our outfit…you know, our Father Xmas uniforms. And then we had a whole trial, it was like a trial, and the policemen were saying, ‘I found these men’, and ‘Edward… I call Ed Berman’. ‘This is complete nonesense, it’s a tissue of lies!’ – it was like it was a murder case – ‘It’s a tissue of lies from start to finish; we were not obstructing anybody, there was plenty of r…’ And we had a counsel who said to the policeman, ‘You’re lying, aren’t you officer’ – I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And the guy, the police officer: ‘No sir, I am not lying sir, they were obstructing the pavement’. And finally George Robey or whatever his name was said, ‘Can we get on with this? I have a round of golf I have to…’ and I swear to you, he said, ‘I have a round of golf I have to get to at 1 o’clock, can we just get this…’ so we finished it and then he said, ‘Right, I fine you all £12. Next!’”
Divvying up the money and sell out success in New York
Bette: The whole thing about the money is quite interesting, because we were always paid cash. I always insisted, wherever we went, it must be cash. And, cos you can’t have cheques and then ‘Ooh, I’m sorry, it’ll be in the post’- it’s always in the fucking post: no! It never gets out of the post, I want the bucks [CLAPS] in my hand. So what you’d do after the show, we’d all sit there, in the dressing room, and a man would come down with a load of notes, crumpled up notes or new notes, whatever, and he’d give them to me – ‘Thank you very much’. ‘Lovely evening, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes, lots of fun, thank you’ – so: ‘One for you, one for you, one for you, one for you, one for you, one for you, two for me; one for you, one for you…’ and it went round like this, probably a hundred at a time or whatever it was. So they could all see physically where the money was going. That share went in the handbag. The end of the tour I said, ‘Look, I’ve got £6,000 in that handbag’ – which I was always leaving in restaurants – this old fuckin’ ‘and bag (I’ve still got it) jammed with money, and I’m always leaving it in the…but it was ‘Where’s the bag, where’s the handbag?’ ‘Oh! Oh yes, we’ve…’ – and Steve would have to run back to the restaurant, and say ‘We’ve left something – oh, thank you very much’ and come back. It was madness, absolutely madness – but we were tired, we were so tired and so smashed after the show. The end of one particular tour in Europe I said, ‘Look, I’ve got £6,000 here. You can have £,1000 each or [PAUSE] we can go to New York.’ And we went to New York. So I thought we’d do a couple of weekends in the West Village in some club or other and that would be that, and the girls could have a couple of weeks in New York; be a lot of fun. And then, nine months; it ran and ran and ran, for nine months. Eleven o’clock at night, and all the stars were coming from uptown, you know; the Mick Jaggers and the Mike Nichols, and all that. So they were coming in and being – Mick Jagger! Lots of different stars come, you know, it was great, it was really nice. ‘Theatre For The New City’, which was very much what they, the ideal behind it, in the late 60s when it was started; it was a theatre for the ‘New City’, we wanted a new city, a city about other things than what we were getting in the fifties and sixties. I think the happiest time, or let us say the most exciting time, was being a smash hit in New York, with no expectations at all. We were under a rock, and suddenly everybody wanted us. Everybody wanted us, and – wanted to know us, wanted to rip us off of course, but that was very exciting. Success in New York is very, very exciting; and it’s slightly hysterical, which was perfect for me. It was very exciting cos we’d done church halls, we’d done German nightclubs, and Dutch youth centres and we’d been everywhere, and it was fine, it was a living, but suddenly VOOM – everybody was talking about you. There were parties, there was lunches, there was this, there was that. Couldn’t get enough of you, and that was very exciting. A little wearing…
David Cleall 1
New Arts Lab
David: When I came down to London I made for the Drury Lane Arts Lab, which was like the mecca for counterculture at that time – only to see a notice on the door saying that the Arts Lab had closed, in ’69. I was still pursuing films that I saw obviously at the National Film Theatre and so on, but fairly soon I tracked down the group that were the London Film-makers’ Co-op. I think they had flyers on lamp-posts and that led me to the Robert Street New Arts Lab. They were doing mainly, at that time, the cinema I think got started before most other things. So this was, I think, just sort of before Christmas about 1969 – Dave Curtis had started his programme of American underground films, a few even Hollywood classics, European classics. And that drew me to this extraordinary place, called the London New Arts Lab – but it sort of had various forms of the title and it was more familiarly known as, I knew, as the New Arts Lab. But on your membership card, because it was a club and you had to join, it was printed boldly with IRAT, ‘cause it was the Institute for Research into Arts and Technology. That was what they, the organization called themselves as well; it was sort of multi-named. So IRAT gave a sort of, a punning visual style for some of the publicity that used a rat, actually on posters and flyers and things like that. This was a building that had been identified by Camden for a short, two-year lease. I understand that that the Drury Lane Arts Lab had kind of collapsed and all sorts of problems, and I think the core of people that were organizing the Arts Room, the Arts Lab, moved out before actually Drury Lane closed – which as I say was, I understand was about September, October of 1969. I think this new building that they had which again was another short lease from Camden Council – it was for two years – and it was a large factory premises, 1 Robert Street. It was a very large building; it was a labyrinth, a warren of different rooms, different levels. It must have been at least four stories high I think. I seem to remember the frontage as being almost like a fire station or something, it had the kind of concertina doors or something, I can’t remember that terribly clearly but I know to get in there you had to really wrestle with the door, and then you kind of made a kind of dramatic entrance when the door kind of gave and you kind of stumbled in, into what was the gallery space. So there was a very large gallery space in the ground floor, and at the back of that was the cinema – and as I say was programmed by David Curtis. This was also an art exhibiting space downstairs. Probably when I first went, late ’69 the cinema was the main thing that was actually happening. But one can imagine the work that was required to turn an old building like this into some kind of arts centre. And it was all going on and changing all around you, kind of every time you went something different would’ve appeared or disappeared, or whatever. The problem was always money to keep these places going. I don’t think there was any public money put into it at all. And so, there was a sort of a bit of a breakthrough, I think it must have been early 1970, that’s after the Christmas when it had opened, there was a number of what’s called loosely Andy Warhol films, but the popular ones directed by Paul Morrissey were Flesh, Lonesome Cowboys and Bike Boy. And the Open Space in Tottenham Court Road was struggling financially as well and they opened the controversial Andy Warhol film, Andy Warhol Flesh, and that really brought a lot of people in there, to the Open Space; while at the New Arts Lab, sometime around January, February, they opened Lonesome Cowboys which had a scandalous reputation that brought a lot of people in, and so that seemed to put some money in to the Arts Lab that must have helped generate other things that were going on. So around that time, January, February, it seemed to be more developed. There was, you couldn’t call it a bookshop, but there was a reception where they did sell underground press and short-run pamphlets and booklets and things like that. Eventually there was, a macrobiotic restaurant was opened in that space as well. So, you know, it was starting to work much more as an arts centre. Because this idea about it being an institute for research into arts and technology, it was very much driven by an agenda of was called at the time ‘multimedia’, that everything seemed to be fusing into every other form. So in the cinema you would get practitioners like Geoff Keane from Brighton who would be showing his what was called ‘expanded cinema’, where he might have actors and he would dress up in costume and use different multiscreens and, so it was more like Performance Art whilst in other parts of the building it was a pioneering centre by John Hopkins – known as ‘Hoppy’ – who started something called TVX, which used video recording equipment pretty much for the first time. And so they used that as a basis on the third floor I think that was. Malcolm Le Grice had built up the processing of film on the third floor I think the London Film-makers’ Co-op was based. And also around January, February of this year there was Offset Litho Press were brought into the building, and the publicity of the Arts Lab at that kind of time takes on its own kind of look that was all produced in-house.
David Cleall 2
Seeing the People Show
David: There was a number of theatre groups that were based there [New Arts Lab] as well, and it’s difficult to avoid a group like the People Show! So, I do remember the first time I went to see the People Show, which might be this one [refers to flyer]– I sort of checked out the People Show website and I think it might have been called The People Eaters but I might have that completely wrong. I remember paying my money not knowing what to expect from the People Show. The entrance to the theatre was halfway along the gallery space. The entrance was on the ground floor and then there was…you could just sort of see, there was gonna be a staircase going up to where the theatre was. I don’t think you could buy tickets, and it was going to start at 8 o’clock, something like that. ‘Course everything started late then, if it ran at all; you know, quite often shows that were billed never appeared or something else appeared, and it appeared much later. It was one of those kind of scenarios, and 8 o’clock was coming and going; there didn’t seem to be much apart from the queue of people trying to get into the People Show. But then eventually there was sort of an almighty noise when there seems to be a sort of drunken waiter-type person who kind of is collapsing on the stairs and general mayhem is breaking out on the staircase, and we’re sort of, thinking we don’t really want this, we want to kind of get in and see the show and, but, you know, why are we waiting and, so we’re all standing there, completely puzzled by what was going on, and this sort of drunken outburst and this noise, and people were shouting over each other and, things like this, while we just want to go and see the show. But I suppose after half an hour or so we realised that actually this was the show, that we were actually in the show, and the show was on the staircase almost as much as it was in the theatre. One device I remember from going in, I think you almost sort of like had to persuade Mark [Long] or some of the others to try and let you in because it was going to be so good, this show, that, you know – there was a nominal six shillings, six shillings it cost to go in, but I seem to remember that you had to give an item, a, something to them to kind of persuade them to let you in (and I can’t remember what I did give there); but eventually, and this was quite a long time, I sort of did get in to the theatre space where the People Show was supposedly, but there was nothing there, whereas the show had been on the staircase, and everybody had been queuing and intimidated by the group that’s going on. When you actually arrived there wasn’t anything there that you’d kind of been waiting for. The theatre up there was a, just a, was a sort of black box kind of space. It was quite small and probably would seat about 50 people, something like that. It was organized in the round, so far as I remember. Eventually you sort of got to know the, I think it was four players that there were in the People Show. Mark [Long] and Laura [Gilbert] were the two figures that you could kind of identify best. I think probably in retrospect it was John Darling and a guy called Jose [Nava ] – I can’t remember his second, his last name – and he was like a very sinister kind of character who I don’t think said much. And there was a little bit of banter and repartee going on between people, but it sort of didn’t seem to have any structure and then, at, you know, you start wondering about will I get out of here, will I get my thing, my possession, whatever it is that I gave to get in here? And it seemed so anarchic, the whole kind of thing, and you sort of think, will I ever get away? But I was sort of very intrigued by the, the set-up – you know, a little bit nervous and shy of what was kind of going on around me and everybody completely unsure about what was developing and how it was going to go. But I did survive and I did get out there and then I did go back and see the People Show again there.
Son of a Gun
Norma: We went from being this tiny company to getting Arts Council funding, to touring London, touring England, in a bread van that we found and adapted, doing shows over England and then going to Holland and touring Holland and then made a show called Son of a Gun that was a seminal work that you might have heard of and that was the exciting part, it was excavating all our lives really – we made it I think …. late Sixties, early Seventies? no – late Seventies and it was about all our growing up years and that was done through improvisation and then John Burrows scripted it and it got reviewed in The Guardian and could have had, a big future I suppose and we took that to Holland. We talked I think, we worked in a pub, The Old Red Lion in Islington, and we all sat around talking about what we all wanted to make a piece of theatre about – I remember one subject was death (laughs), somebody said death was where it was at – we must have been then in our, you know all about thirty or late twenties and we just talked and talked about what was important to us really and we scripted it based on… Tash [Fairbanks] had had a whole time with much older parents and I think she’d grown up with parents who, she thought were her sister and brother or something … I can’t remember now and also her coming out years – so it was a very stark time and difficult time for her and we worked through that . Ken, who I was later married to – he went off to be part of The Flying Pickets – he had been in the army for nine years and couldn’t get out – so he had a completely other kind of experience, he was trapped in a different way. It just felt very powerful and I’d come from Liverpool – I’m a Liverpudlian so there was an amazing scene where I played a prostitute and somebody else played a police officer and I’d got copped and they were trying to get me out and I exploded, it was sort of full of explosions. But it was amazing to have something that we carried with us – we took it to Rotterdam, there was an international theatre festival and that was another, it was a bit like the Oval, but on a bigger scale I remember walking into this room – or was it the Melkweg [Amsterdam]?– the Melkweg – The Milky Way it’s much more sophisticated now – the waft of cannabis came over you know, and all these bright lights….
After Stunts, Oz
Jan: Yes, I got what doesn’t exist any longer: an Arts Council bursary to pursue a special line of interest, in women’s theatre and popular theatre. And I went and did a bit of work with Circus Oz and with the women’s circus in Sydney, and directed a show for the Sydney Festival which was a devised women’s show, then became very interested in Aboriginal arts, went off to the central deserts for a bit, and I was sort of experimenting with variously life things and I decided I wasn’t going to handle any cash. So for three months I didn’t handle any cash. But I did these workshops for barter, and had barter lists where I said to people, ‘You know, you can give me anything you want or nothing at all, it won’t make any difference to what I do in this workshop’. And I had barter lists, and it was necessities, luxuries and neuroses. People gave me the most extraordinary things – coach tickets for miles and miles and miles, so I got all this free travel. I had plenty of places to stay, it was just an extraordinary adventure. I spent six months adventuring. I have never felt so safe doing all these barmy things. It was a very, very safe sort of feeling. But what I brought back to England, and before, and the reason I moved up to East Anglia, was that the aboriginals don’t have any division between the land and themselves. You know, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. And I thought, I wonder when that got fractured over here, and when we were able to say, this is the human and this is something else. And I set up an environmental arts company, called the Company of Imagi… – well, it went through various titles but it became eventually the Company of Imagination; and it was another women’s company, and we went and devised work in…for… in ancient woodlands, up hillsides. We did these trails, these sort of performance walks. I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people do them now but in those days they didn’t. So they were like guided walks and I was always the guide. We’d work out a route through a particular place then we’d make work and things that happened along the way. Nineteen… it was in the Eighties – so I moved here in 1982
Antigone and Prometheus
George: Antigone ’67: we were in the garage, and we had these political refugees, and we said we’d do Antigone to expose what happened [in Cyprus]. Because the junta banned all the plays of Sophocles, especially Antigone. So we said, if we were in Athens, rehearsing to do this play, and then we hear that the junta has banned it, would we carry on doing it or would we disobey the ban? We started with a prologue where the actors, the director – it’s a dress rehearsal. And the director also was waiting for the actors to arrive because they’re all working, and he gets nervous and agitated, and eventually one by one they arrive. And this girl who plays Antigone, I don’t remember, she comes and says, ‘Look, haven’t you heard on the radio? The play’s been banned’. So the actors starting, ‘Oh well, in that case…’ One says, ‘I have a family, fellas, I can’t, I can’t participate’. And the rest say, ‘Oh, you’re a coward, you’re…’ And there is discussion, then the director says, ‘Alright, let’s do a dress rehearsal, and let’s take a secret vote after the play’. And that’s how the play presented. And then we did Prometheus Bound. We started the play as a classical play in amphitheatre, and you know, different characters are coming, and at the end [???] comes and tells Prometheus that ‘If you don’t reveal what Zeus wants you’ll be thrown the thunderbolts!’ At that time, after that, Junta enters the theatre and stops the production, the performance, and arrests the leading actor and takes him to prison; and from that moment the play is performed in a prison, with the actors tortured. So there were two, two productions as a result of that.
John Fox and Sue Gill
Titanic in Limehouse
John: Well I think it, without being pompous, I think it’s become slightly legendry, but all we were saying was that the kind of theatre you might have had in the middle ages within the cathedral, the cathedral became a market place, it became a theatre place, it was a religious place and the theatre went on kind of all day really, and it was again looking at a different model or you would find it in Balinese theatre, it’s not, you don’t separate the performers or the comedy, from the sacred environment really and also it goes on for hours. We started off with a market where we were selling shark’s steaks and we had Chisenhale Dance Company out on the dock, who were performing, quite, sort of, I suppose eclectic dance performance art but then you had Marcel Steiner on the dock doing his kind of very comic liner, so it had a sort of Bruegelian kind of carnivalesque kind of quality, as well as the kind of big imagery with the big sea wolves and the ice giants and the fireworks and the iceberg and shadow puppetry and so on; and it also ended with a social dance which wasn’t a celebration of the sinking of the Titanic but rather a celebration of all those people in Limehouse coming together to make something. And we brought it in on container trucks, we brought the whole band in on a container truck having already brought it… the set was like the slice through a ship it was like a doll’s house built with container trucks piled on top of one another.
Sue: …..those sorts [of doll’s houses] that have one long side open – you pull the curtains back, and so people had to be trained to be competent fork lift drivers to scoop these up and in performance come in and place them and then come and place the other one exactly on the top while x hundred people are sitting and watching – so it’s not like you’re working in a warehouse.
John: So then you could get this imagery of the kind of the stokers underneath stoking the fires whilst up at the top the essentially rich people having a party and so on, so it was – I think stylistically it was a strong piece.
Neil: I don’t know how the initial idea came about, but we thought it would be interesting to turn ourselves into a spiritual organisation- along the lines of some of those that were current, then as perhaps now, like Ron Hubbard’s – outfit which used a lot of nautical imagery in its work and we were already into nautical imagery. I think that was the inspiration – L. Ron Hubbard’s seaboard, spiritual antics. So we used that as the sort of base of the concept which was to create a new religion, perform a ceremony and associated street activities and whatever, to do that for about a year – that would be a year’s project and the basis of the piece would be that the theme would be nautical – parodying the L. Ron Hubbard. The whole thing on one level was a parody of Scientology, on another level we wanted to approach it responsibly, seriously and actually create a spiritual movement that accorded with our own beliefs. So that it wasn’t merely a send-up of the religious but something that could be, we might regard as valid, and since humour was central to a lot of the work we were doing – most of the work we were doing– it had to have a strong humorous element – which would be rather unusual. Except, the only spiritual discipline that which accommodates humour is Zen Buddhism, the only one that I know of, and by this time we were very much into Zen, and some would say too much, but I began to read a lot of Zen and what we did was essentially a kind of Anglicised version of Zen but with a strong humorous element to it, and we did a number, it was a major project, we did a number of, we developed this church service if you like, that was the theatrical side of it, which was filmed. It was used in The Phantom Captain film. But we also worked in the street always dressed in these impeccable British officer naval uniforms, male and female, and performed spiritual, slow motion spiritual exercises which were a little bit influenced by Tai Chi – we called it Tar Chi – T, A, R because of the nautical – always in nautical outfits you see, and developed a whole raft or repertoire of events, infiltrations, street theatre, written pamphlets, stage pieces, or the one stage piece that would be all of a piece with, all in keeping with this central exploration, exploratory concept of turning ourselves into a spiritual organisation – the way that Scientology is, only not quite that way. I loved it, I think that we did some of our best work during those couple of years.
David: Peterborough had this new dire… was setting up a new theatre, the Key Theatre and they’d got a new director, Terry Palmer who was mad inspirational Welsh director but they’d also got a very good drama adviser called John Boylan who was the advisor for the whole area, and him and Terry had decided as part of setting up this rep they wanted a resident TIE company. The idea at that time was that there should be a TIE company attached to every Rep – however small there should be a TIE company in every town of any size – there was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of growth and the local authorities particularly were very keen on this because since ‘66 when Coventry had started it had become, I guess, almost a fashion thing really. So there was a lot of enthusiasm but there was no money initially except from the local authority – Huntington, as they were then became Cambridgeshire offered us a grant to keep us going for six months – the theatre had no money and we said, ‘Yeh! OK! We’ll give it a go’, and for six months we just created a whole range of shows, projects , workshops just to get ourselves established. Basically we would – I mean we’d talk with John Boylan about what he felt the needs were, talked with Terry about what he felt the theatre’s needs were – so it was a bit of a pot pourri – I think the first show we did was, we made up a version of The Harlequinade – with five of us in it, for infants and juniors – Chris was Harlequin, Carol was Columbine , Colin was the silent Pierrot and Richard was the – I’ve forgotten the old man’s name in Harlequinade – anyway I was the Captain, who is very bluff and loud and had a big moustache and shouts at everyone and we toured that for something like ten weeks all round Huntingtonshire – that sort of established us in the minds of the schools. We then did a Christmas show for 3-7 year olds, cos the theatre was doing, I think Brian Way’s Pinocchio for sort of families and adults so they wanted us to do someone to do a show for littleys – so we did a show that we called Once Upon A Time, which was basically storytelling for infants – which we just made up and we did that, and all the schools who we’d be out to came back to see the show, so we must have done that for about five weeks – it’s a very small theatre and they was a Rep company there with some great people in it and we just thought ….we became friends – I think the second term we started doing tailor made workshops for schools, as a sort of bright idea – ‘tell us a theme and we’ll come and do it’ and we – this was mad, but we were young! ‘We would say we’ll come to your school for a day and put on a workshop on any theme’, and we would give ourselves a day or maybe sometimes two days to prepare that theme, to devise a day’s workshop and then just go in and do it. That got us very established with very specific schools who were very keen – it was a nightmare but we did that for the second term, then the third term – which was the end of our first year – we put together a show called Just Like That which again we made up, it was a theatre show and it was for a broad age range and it was about Lionel the Lion who’s Chris, Muddles the Magician who was Carol, who were sort of friends, this is turning into the Wizard of Oz but it was more or less and then Clarence the Clockwork Soldier (makes ticking sounds) which was me and then Egbert the Walking Talking Elm Tree which was Colin who, I think, just came on as a tree and sang a little song which went ‘I’m Egbert the Walking Talking Elm Tree’ and anyway all these characters get together because Lionel has lost his roar, and his roar has been stolen in a box by the nasty Grimble which was Richard and so the three of them go on this journey to get Lionel’s roar back from the Grimble and in the end with the help of the audience of course it all succeeds and they all… and Lionel gets his roar back – so we were combining a mixture of doing something in the theatre to support the Rep company, doing tours of plays around schools ad infinitum and then trying to build up the TIE individual tailored workshops.
Roy Kift 1
Mary, Mary with Freehold
Roy: Mary, Mary opened then at the Royal Court and went to the Mickery and got extraordinary good reviews I mean in The Observer and The Sunday Times and everything and I was more confused than kind of wow I’m the greatest I’m the next flavour of the month I was more confused that it was so – happened so quickly. The script did change in rehea… must have changed in rehearsal but basically it was a very – because I came out of this acting area, it was very much thought through in terms of , visualised in terms of acting and what people were doing? And if you read it you see that it opens with a kind of ritual of kids playing in a playground. Played by adults. And what we had was huge cubes which made the adults look look small. Yeh? Yeh? and there was no attempt to b…, ‘I’m a little child with freckles’ or something we just, we just played out this weird ritual that kids have always …. chants? ‘Do you know what..’ I would start ‘Do you know what –pills are for? Do you know what little..? Do you know how to kill little boys?’ It was a ‘Do you know how to kill little boys?’ and you’d say ‘What are this kids playing?’ So it was all done through a kind of kids’ fantasy and I think that was what turned Nancy [Meckler, Freehold director] on, because it was completely non-naturalistic? And then suddenly there would be small scenes, really very, very sparely written. Just odd lines and we had to try to put together truths and it would move quickly from one scene to the next, yep, people will have to read it, you’ve got the script now so. I’d love to see it again now, I really would because it seems to be more modern than most of the plays that are being put on nowadays.
Roy Kift 2
Stronger Than Superman
Roy: Coming back to Volker Ludwig, he said ‘Handicapped people’, and I did all this research in London, took days out with handicapped kids, felt awkward you know … all those awkward things – how do I address them? How do I play football with a kid in a park who’s in a wheelchair and treat it seriously and all this stuff…it all went into the play in the end, and we tried to go to a cinema and got turned away and I thought this was outrageous. I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t tell Volker I just wrote it? And I wrote it, I think the first version all came within I think within fourteen days, suddenly all fell together, now how did it fall together? How did it suddenly become funny? It became funny and I suddenly realised that the joke is not on the handicapped kids the joke is on people like me and my awkwardness, in the way I approach people with handicap – I’m blind to their situation if you like, I’m deaf when they speak to me and I prefer to speak to their mothers? In other words the joke is on all of our prejudices and our fears and our uncertainties in respect of handicapped people. So I thought, how do I solve this? How do I solve this? Because if I have a handicapped boy or a girl on stage I’m going to get exactly what I don’t want – is sympathy and ‘mitlein’ they call it in Germany -‘Oh! The poor boy isn’t it sad?’ Yeh? So I thought arrggh God! If it’s a wheelchair kid and it can’t – not spastic, because everybody thinks handicapped is spastic, so I’ll take spina bifida which is a kind of, a kind of paralysis, yeh? which you can be born with – and I thought, I know what I’ll sit this kid on the floor under a blanket, yep, then we don’t know it’s a handicapped kid and I’ll have a very funny monologue, and I wrote a very funny monologue about football – bout I’m a football hero and I can do this and that and that – very funny, and then I thought no, no, wait a minute, half the audience are going to be girls and maybe they’ll say errgh! Not football! Errgh! So I thought that’s not good enough. And then I thought, and also because the kid can’t be sitting on the floor, it’s something (laughter) that its terribly difficult to see people, you see I think in terms of these theatre problems. But no, I’ll sit him on a bench, behind a table, yeh! behind a table – so what’s he doing behind this table emm? What can he be doing? Um, I know what he’s doing – he’s fantasising about Superman – I didn’t realise that it was a metaphor, yeh? It only came to me later, it’s very strange yeh? yeh? And he fantasises ‘I’m Superman, I rescue Lois Lane, I’m doing this and that’ and it was very, very funny -it still is very, very funny – it has to be very funny ‘cos the play (laughs) has been performed for the last 38 years (laughter) everywhere, yeh? And then I had his sister coming in the wheelchair and the whole audience said, ‘Oh, the poor little girl. He’s got a wheelchair sister. Oh, how sad!’ Yeh? And then she comes in and he says where have you been? and she says I’ve been round the place and – I’ve seen we’re in a new area and I’ve seen there’s an old people’s home. And he says ‘Old people …. errgghh!’ He can’t get on with them. She says ‘Er, that’s right, you go on about old people – but what about you? and she jumps out of the wheelchair – What about you, you’re handicapped!’ Yeh? And of course the audience is uhh!? This guy I been thought normal, yeh? Great witty guy I’ve identified with him, yeh? No, no pity no sympathy? and uh he’s the guy that’s handicapped. Of course then they’ve met him as a person not as a handicapped person and that was the, that was the real ‘xxxx’ [unclear german term]- as they say in Germany the real – the thing that gripped them – then they can identify with this person as a person and not as a handicapped person and then when he goes out into the real world which he does and meets other people who treat him like he’s a moron, yeh? or he’s, he can’t really do things – they could laugh at the other people, they could laugh at the way people’s reactions – knowing very well that that was their reaction to the girl – to his sister. So I wrote it and I gave it to Volker and (unlcear) said there’s no way you’re going to get into this – they just have there, they just have their five writers and no writer has ever broken in yet, and of course because it was the scene that nobody had cracked in GRIPS [Theatre , Berlin] and they were looking for it desperately and he could read English he said within a week I’d love to do this, I’d love to translate it – I thought wow! and then a week later I heard – this was 1980 – a week later I heard that 1981 was going to be the Year of the Handicapped [International Year of Disabled Persons] I felt it’s like roulette here, I thought if its half good and half works it must – it’s probably going to get picked up all over the place. And it was more than half good – it was Stronger Than Superman – It opened in March 1981, March 7th – never forget the date. All the top reviewers were there because GRIPS was like Berlin Ensemble everyone always went to GRIPS, all of them – and it got five star reviews from absolutely everybody and within about four days it had been sold, it was sold out for the rest of the season, booked for the next season and it ran for three years – 216 sold out performances (laughter) and within weeks of opening the rights were sold in Sweden, so-and-so, the rights went all over the place and other German theatres were throwing out planned productions and saying, We want to do Superman ! We want to do Superman, and it was bought by German television for the first programme and then the third programme and I thought what’s going on here, yeh? ‘cos when you write a children’s play you think well, you know, I’ll make a thousand quid maybe and suddenly I was earning like a school teacher, a really steady whack every month from the GRIP’s Theatre, all these sold out performances and all these other theatres in Germany.
Shapes and spaces
Mark: I don’t think the People Show were, I would never think of the People Show as ‘happenings’ particularly because the People Show definitely had a dynamic over a period of time. I wouldn’t say definitely a narrative, but it definitely would have a theme that started, a middle and an end and I don’t think happenings and performance art necessarily were concerned in a linear way like that – in the same way as jazz – Jeff talked about a jazz band, I mean yes a show was like a number, you know, and it did have a theme and it was conducted and it was composed and it wasn’t purely about… I mean a lot of Performance Art I think is timeless, isn’t it, it can go on for hours and hours and hours or not, its – you know, and I don’t think it has a dynamic necessarily – but the People Show definitely has, without a doubt. I mean, for some reason or other not always but a large, large majority of People Shows are around about one hour and seventeen and a half minutes! (laughter) Why this should be I’ve no idea but that obviously a time frame that we feel comfortable with. There have been shows that were shorter and there have been shows that were longer but generally speaking we go out around about one and a quarter, one hour twenty minutes – why that is I don’t know, but that is what it is, when we finished, that’s it, it always is, there it is. Roland Miller joined us at some point, the show, 1969 or maybe towards the end of 1968, and both he and Jeff [Nuttal], always – and this is great – they were great mentors, in a way, they always insisted that whatever space you are in, the first thing you do as soon as you walk into a building, be it a theatre, be it a hall, be it both – check it out, look at where you’re doing the gig, look at the street outside, look at the streets around you and find what you can use that is peculiar to that space – make it yours. Don’t try and force something unnaturally into a space necessarily and that was great – a great lesson. Sometimes we’ve done shows where that doesn’t quite work. The show is so precise that you do have to try and make its very precise environment, but generally speaking its great if you can use the space as well – see what it can add to the show… sometimes it can, sometimes.. yeh, yeh. Again the large majority of People Shows and it’s not always the case, particularly for me is that the People Show talks to the audience, it doesn’t talk at the audience, we actually have conversations with them, not conversations but we talk, we include them in our dialogue, so in a sense again that’s another flexibility toward the space, ‘cos you would talk about the space possibly or you know what I mean, bring it in, bring in the town you’re in, bring in the day it is – bring the bacon sandwich to play, type of thing.
Working on the boat
Mike Lucas: With a boat you’ve got – you travel with your home, that’s the great thing about it, you travel with your home, you want – if you want a cup of tea, you put the kettle on – you eat at a particular time, and the only stressful thing I suppose – whereas with a van touring company, people are not quite as much on top of each other. On a narrow boat which is, as I say, 70ft by 7ft wide, is not very wide – you have to learn to live linearly, you are on top of each other. You’re constantly with people – except you’re not, that’s the other thing, except you’re not, ‘cos you’re also working outside a lot. You’re travelling along you’re going through locks, you’re getting out, you’re doing the locks, you’re walking on ahead, you’re sitting out the front of the boat. The only time we really did as a company get together properly, was at a thing I always insisted on, which was that we always eat together two hours before the show, and it was somebody’s responsibility – there was only two things we had on our rota, one was cooking and one was steering. So you all… one person was responsible for that day for feeding that meal, shopping for it and washing up it and washing it up afterwards, most important. The other thing on the rota was the steering – and they had to steer, and it was either my or Sarah’s job, my wife, to, to teach them to steer and then they got let off on their own and then they’re steering something that is a – a dangerous projectile really. It’s bigger than anything else on the water waterways and if you hit anything – particularly if you hit a plastic boat, you can sort of destroy it, really. So it’s a big responsibility. So they learnt these skills – these skills that they’d never have learnt as ordinary touring actors, all these extra things and also how to react with the public. How to, you know, very close up. How to learn to work so close to, to the audience, sometimes the front row was literally, I’m acting and you’re my front row – it’s very immediate and (laughs) so that’s another skill, that can sometimes be tricky for actors when they first take it on board. But they learn all that and if they stay for more than one year they learn it even better!
Joe Stanley: So how did it affect the size of the sets that you were able to put on?
ML: …very much so because that in fact dictated the style in a sense because we had limited space on the boat – we had the roof of the boat and then we had various – everything had to be organized, so something went somewhere – it always went there. The box of programmes went there, the props went there – we had various little areas which, outside of the boat, which had got… which you could lift up and put stuff in. But everything had its place. So when they finished a show – they all had to go back into that place, some of them were quite tricky like all the instruments all had to go onto the back bed, the bed had to be lifted up and – imagine when you have done the show, you’ve got to do all that as well. It’s hard! It’s hard work! So that limited us – so we always had a small set, just tended to be a screen which was designed so that actors could go behind it if they wanted to – although a lot of our work is done in front, even the changing, very quick changes. And props of course were also, had to be very carefully chosen, having nothing that was too big or wouldn’t fit on to the boat – so that dictates it, and helps to dictate the discipline of the show I think.
Prevailing Racial Climate
Mustapha: I was out of work, I was unemployed for quite a while, and what I did was, I eventually got a job at a garment factory. I thought I would get a job that didn’t challenge me very much, so I got a job in a garment factory. And I began writing then. At the lunchtimes I would go and borrow a typewriter and use it and type out a play I was writing – an idea I had. At that time there was also a wave of black consciousness that was coming over from America, and it was feeding into the black scene in London at the time, and there was people like Michael X and other – they were part of the Black Panther party in London – and they were feeding off the American scene as well, too. I got a job at Helena Rubinstein factory, in the storeroom, there was lots of Jamaican guys working there, and we was having a ball. We were packing cosmetics and testers to go out to chemists and so and so, and lunch time we’d get together and beat drums with the boxes, empty boxes. It was all, a black consciousness, a period of black consciousness that was happening. It was just banter, but the banter, there was a subtle message beneath the banter and we were aware of what was going on and our position in the society and how our presence was registering and the effects of that registration and so, we were aware of that. [Susan Croft: And what kinds of racism did you encounter?] It was subtle because people didn’t want to discuss it or bring it out into the open, so it was all subtle, but it was subversive on the white side, in as much as people were placing obstacles before you, without acknowledging the effect of the obstacles until you brought it up, like some big discovery that, Hooray! look at what you’re doing, Oh I didn’t, oh really? It was like that; you know, it was a lack of honesty and openness that we were experiencing and aware of because of travelling. I mean the thing is we had come from the Caribbean with a suitcase to England, without any plans or places to stay or -’No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, No Coloureds’ – I mean, this was the society we were coming into, and this was a society that a few months or years, a couple of years before was welcoming labour and soldiers to fight for the Empire. So it was this kind of strange, schizoid, attitude that we were having to deal with and, you know, we were simple folks coming from the Caribbean who, you know, we call a spade a spade, and we didn’t have any deep subversive attitudes – that came afterwards, when we discovered the people who pretending not to know knew what they were doing and the effects of what they were doing.
The Productivity Play
Kathleen: The very first performance, I should say, of The Productivity Play took place in Birmingham at the Institute for Workers Control and it was an absolute hit and we just, I can remember the elation when it was over because we had no idea, whether we were – and it was the longest play we had ever done up until then. Our plays had always been short, they were, you know 15- 20 minutes (laughter), this was at least 45 minutes if not an hour so it was a proper play. It had a toilet on stage and the great thing was that because they were working on a production line, out front, the two main characters – they could go into the loo, mime shutting the door, and then they could talk to the audience and they could reveal their inner most feelings because – from the loo – because that was the only place where they had peace and privacy and quiet, and it worked very well, and I played Britannia in the play. So I was the image of Britannia and we also had, let me see, I remember doing … I used to sing Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again because I was a symbol of everybody all pulling together for the nation and all of this. I hope there’s a script, I think there is a script somewhere but it was, it was a great show and it was much more complex than what we had been dealing with, it was actually looking at the state of the nation-type issues and it was also – you had these characters, who were, it was no longer just the very broad cartoon-like slightly caricatured characters that you had to have for outdoor work or for big rallies, whatever, this was much more intimate, and the characters were actually quite believable… and you were moved by them… and quite … it was a real quantitative leap for us in terms of the kind of work we were making.
Roland Muldoon 1
Roland: Apart from a cultural thing, and I really did get turned on by rock ‘n’ roll and performance and the way that went, and I loved the Goon Show when I was a kid and there was a group called The Alberts. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard, but they were probably the very first ever alternative theatre company – Bruce Lacey and Neil. The Alberts, they gave birth in the end to a band called The Temperance Seven which did a spoof version of old traditional jazz. But the Alberts we saw at the Unity Theatre, and also I’d seen a sort of cartoon version of Ubu Roi at Bristol University, which I liked the way they played directly to the audience at that time, and this was all sort of bubbling under and we were quite intellectually into it and we were reading Bertolt Brecht, and we were reading all the things you could read about this sort of subject matter; and the other thing was that Unity was brilliant at Music Hall. They’d had a wonderful Old Time Music Hall revival idea and we just took on to that idea of playing direct to the audience and playing characters and of course pantomime did that, and it was sort of evolving into a – the other thing we realized, that young people weren’t really interested in theatre, and if we were ever going to go to them as an audience we had to have a style that approached them.
Roland Muldoon 2
John Muggins Is Dead
Roland: Many times in our life as a theatre group people would tell us the different styles we should adopt. We’d already found out in our Music Hall, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Commedia Dell’arte, comic style how we wanted to develop our own theatre and it made sense for us; and I can remember the day we found it out, in the Working Man’s College [Mornington Crescent, London]. We’d decided that we would, that the four of us would do a play, and it became John D Muggins Is Dead. And it all fitted in quite easily, and we lived off that for ten years. [Les Enfants Du Paradis] was very important to us because we just loved it, you know, and Claire learned to do that moonwalk thing Jean-Louis Barrault did. Just the idea of being a complete – and the dialectic between the spoken actor and the mime actor. It just was wonderful in the film because the actor has got all the words to say and isn’t free, and the mime artist is not allowed to speak but he’s freer with his actions, or becomes freer, and it’s a wonderful film. In the end we used to say that people couldn’t work with us unless they’d seen the film, because it just imbued our spirit – although it wasn’t our style. John D Muggins Is Dead really – I mean it was almost the theme of every movie afterwards. He was conditioned from buying plastic nappies or whatever it was to going through schooling, through auditions, through seeking jobs, being alienated. Very fast fast fast fast cut cut cut scenes. The objective of the play was to say to make sure we don’t go into the war in Vietnam, and we hoped by doing this play we could say, ‘Look what’s happening to GIs’, we could say to our audience, who’d recognize all the clichés of American life which we were beginning to adopt in Britain, but it’d be about America; and he goes to Vietnam and he’s dead and in the end they send his body to the moon. And he’s completely alienated and the play asks why did he die, what was the purpose of his death? And we could play this in folk clubs, which at the time were kind of like restrained – they didn’t really want poetry let alone theatre; so we’d get in in the interval and they’d say, ‘Now a theatre group’ and we’d rush in and do the play really fast: ‘John D Muggins Is Dead, for what reason did he die?’ – snap snap snap, and get quite moving, and Red would be very funny and Claire with the movement and Ray and all the rest of it and I was John D Muggins. And it became a popular thing, and we were going to be booked all over the place, we even played the Royal Festival Hall, Roundhouse. Peter Brook filmed it for his film US. So it was a very good, little fast piece, you know, twenty minutes total.
Kate Owen 1
Kate: It was about five years that I was on the management. Eighty-four: new management committee formed, which was made up of Noel Gregg, Philip Timmins, Martin Humphries, Kate Owen, Philip Osmond, and Tierl [Thompson] sort of came on board not long after that. Yeah and actually we got on really well. I mean I think we were very careful. I think we’d all been on collectives where things had ended in tears – I mean often because people had had love affairs with each other, you know and all of…and then still had to go on tour; but we were very cautious. And also, to begin with I was the only woman on that management – and I quite liked that, if I’m honest. I mean it was quite nice, you know, it was a bit like being with Dad’s Army, you know, it was…they were all very sweet, though cautious, and very keen to have me. It was… there was a very clear concept which was that one would alternately do a male-focused show or a female-focused show. At that time I was asked to do quite a lot of different things, I mean it was my era, you know, it was my…I mean, the eighties for me were a very good time for work. I had a lot of work, I was asked to be on things, I was on the Dance & Mime panel, I was in Blood Group, I was…I mean although Blood Group never actually had a management in the sense that Sweatshop did, I mean there was a short period of time when there were a group of us who did Blood Group. So I was asked to do it and I wasn’t that sure that I particularly wanted to or that I had the time to do it, and I just thought, ‘Oh I’ll give it a whirl’, you know, ‘I’ll see how it goes’. And then of course what happened, very quickly, was, it, well it felt like this and I may be mis-remembering this, but it felt like suddenly there was AIDS, there was Clause 28; it was a bit of a poisoned chalice and one couldn’t hand it back. You know, that one had just got to roll up one’s sleeves and do it really well. And what was very difficult was that the gay community – whatever that was, whoever they were, wherever they lived – you know, people did, I think people really did think they all lived in a…coz there were some gay squats, weren’t there, but I mean, you know, I think that there were a lot of people, a lot of gay people who would have given their eye teeth to have worked with Sweatshop and thought of us as really lucky people who’d got all this money to do all this work, and if only they could be given a chance to work with us, you know and of course it wasn’t like that at all, you know we didn’t, we weren’t the Post Office, d’you know what I mean? We weren’t…we were just a little group of people, sort of trying to keep this little boat afloat really. The point is that it was very…I don’t know how it happened that I felt that we should expand Sweatshop. I look back on that now and I think: What is it about me that has to go and do that, that why couldn’t I have just done what I’d meant to do, just gone to a few meetings to see what it would be like. I’m just not a quitter so once I’ve started something I feel I can’t give it up. We used to get sent a lot of scripts, Sweatshop, and often they were rubbish. This is a terrible thing to say on a tape but I do think that’s true. We wanted to involve more women that were interesting theatre people. Noel [Grieg] loved a grand idea; you’d only got to have a couple of drinks with Noel and have a mad idea for it to kind of multiply itself. So somehow it happened that we were going to, then, we were going to do a festival. What we realized was that we had got scripts but we weren’t that mad on them. What we felt we had to do was to seek out some interesting work, we had to seek out some interesting people to work with; because in the past, you know, you were doing a show you’d either invite people to come for an audition that you already knew or you would advertise. And I think we felt that we’d got to actually make a real effort to meet some new people.
Kate Owen 2
Kate: The New Albany was already being designed, really early on; was nothing to do with it being burnt down, no, it was always going to happen that they were going to…they’d said they wanted to widen the road. So I can remember being shown a model of the New Albany. So the Albany had then had that fire, and I think that the public always thought of that fire as a more awful thing. I’m not saying for one minute it was a good thing, but there was, there were a lot of good things that came out of it. It was really the roof, the roof just was shot in the fire, and so they got insurance money, and it was a chance to redesign and rethink how the space was used – drawing from the design that had already been done [for the new building]. And I got asked to do the interior design of that space, after the fire. I did the new building as well, but I did the old building after the fire…with Tim Ronalds, who was a young budding architect working at HKPA who were designing the new building. It was all very quick, it got rebuilt really quickly, and the two Terrys, who used to build the sets, did the work. So that was when it had the Upper Gallery for the first time. I think for me, I wanted it to be the opposite, really, of what a traditional…I just wanted it to be a modern version of a treat place, so it was pink, it was shocking pink and silver. And then we had a mural painted behind the bar. You could still put the set where you liked, but you couldn’t move the bar any more. Jenny [Harris] got much more into being able to squeeze as many punters in as possible – so there was always a bit of argy-bargy about that. That was fine, I got that. But sometimes other designers did shows there and would think that, you know, would put the set, fill the whole theatre space with the set leaving enough room for like ten people, and then was made to throw it away and start again, yeah. Sadly there was a gap of a year. The new building… new buildings always run over and so the old building closed down. It was because they were pulling down the old building to widen the road and the new building wasn’t finished, and so they did a touring show. The new building, as I say, had already been designed before the fire, so I was involved with it and worked a bit with John Partridge, who was the main…there’d been another architect from HKPA who’d died, sadly, in a car accident. Jenny Harris was very, very involved with the whole design of not just the theatre space but the whole Albany building and she was very into that. And she remained interested in theatre spaces. What I learnt from Jenny was, was to think of the theatre experience beginning far earlier on. So the flyers, the posters were always beautifully hand-printed screen prints. So it would begin in the street, so often there’d be, would be somebody in the street dressed up. We would think about what the foyer looked like, I mean the box office in the new building when it opened was like a fairground box office – a pastiche, a sort of arty pastiche of a fairground and there were elements of fairground, you know, in the design of the Albany; the light fittings were those, you know, those ones like you get in a funfair. I mean everybody’s doing that now but the thing is, then nobody else was doing that in buildings that had money from their local council, nobody was doing that in arts venues then.
Do Not Disturb
Geraldine: Hesitate and Demonstrate got invited by Mick Flood at Chapter Arts Centre to come and do a residency at Chapter Arts [Cardiff] – so we moved down Lizza [Aitken], myself and Alex [Mavrocordatus ] and Tom [Donnellan] . What happened was with Do Not Disturb was all this people that I really didn’t know we went down and stayed at Chapter Arts Centre and I got to know them and exactly the same thing as I was saying just then, because we were all staying together we were able to sit up until four o’clock and talk and Do Not Disturb was inspired by a painting – by [John]Singer Sargent, I think, of two young girls – Victorian dresses on a very large carpet and the scale of which – they are next to very large vases – blue and white Chinese ceramic vases and I was absolutely inspired by that picture. Aand Lizza understood my sensibility of the Englishness of this picture, about what I was trying to create and Lizza and I created a piece with Alex that was inspired by a hotel – a very English hotel and I went back to frozen moments. I went back to the idea of using very famous British classics of music that had been used for adverts, but using it in a way that would be this soundtrack, of the beginning of the narrative for Do Not Disturb, and I love hotels, I love afternoon tea, I love hotels, I love the fact that they are… you are allowed to be anonymous and things can happen and they’re really extraordinary places. So we created a set, we built a set, we designed a set and we built it there of an English hotel and it was about a mysterious stranger that arrived at the hotel and things would happen and it was about the undercurrents and the stories of everybody in it. And in Do Not Disturb these two young girls on this this rug were the embodiment of me and Lizza and it went really well and it got me my confidence back in my own language and that I still had ideas and Lizza was really good to work with. And we began – between me, Lizza and Alex – we began to form a new language which was very different from the one I had had with Janet [Goddard], but it worked and Tom was a brilliant lighting designer and added an extra energy and John Darling still made tapes, it was John Fiske my boyfriend at the time I think made this tape, but John [Darling] was still a part of Hesitate and Demonstrate and we toured Do Not Disturb and I began to realise that I had a new company.
Jane Boston, Tash Fairbanks, Debs Trethewey, Jude Winters:
JB: Pulp: sexuality, what else? That’s what everyone else was doing – desire, sexuality. Women were, lesbians were exploring what it meant, not, it, you know, it’s that transformation where issues are not, it’s not just out there, it’s what’s within.
JW: Very different, very, very different from any of the other shows. The most popular, the most successful, and it was much lighter, and it was romantic, and it was a bit of a thriller.
JB: It was a thriller, yeah…
TF: A lot about betrayal.
JB: That’s right, it wasn’t light.
TF: It was set in 1950s McCarthy, part, and also 1980s, as well, and so we had a very glamorous bar singer in Magda and she was in some kind of mafia plot that then –
JB: I never did understand the plot really.
TF: She’d never understand the plot!
DT: She said, ‘Who did kill so-and-so, was it me or was it…?
JB: I liked the songs, you know. I’m trying to find if there’s a picture; but this is a lovely bar. This was the atmosphere, we were really exploring sensuality and betrayal. It looked good –
DT: Yeah, it looked good.
JW: That was your best set design ever.
DT: We were all getting better and better at what we were doing, more slick, and we had…
JB: We had a director, and we had more costumes, and we had a good set.
JW: And we played at the Drill Hall –
DT: That was peak – two or three weeks?
JW: Sold out.
Others: Return run.
JW: And that was exposure to more mainstream alternative lesbian network, even if, you know, the fringe –
JB: 1985 now, aren’t we.
JW: So I think that was…
DT: It was, it had a lot more lesbian romance in it, and so I think in terms of the audience, especially at the Drill Hall…
JB: There were moments, weren’t there –
DT: People would be stamping their feet –
JB: Moments of audience response were so electric, and the humour was so – weren’t there points when it could hardly go on?
Others: Yeah, yeah –
JB: Was that for the right reason or the wrong reason?
JW: But it was about passion, and flirtation, and betrayal, and of course it was about Pulp Fiction, in terms of you know, trash, but also we read a lot of those early lesbian Pulp novels and so we really referred to some of those tragic endings where they could never be happy, and there was nobody who was going to be successful if they were a lesbian; there has got to be betrayal, there’s got to be death, and there’s got to be unhappiness, and so we were referring to –
TF: And the betrayal of the McCarthy, because there was that political thing as well; and then was the Eighties and there was the betrayal in that… These two played lovers who worked for MI5 or something like that and there was a betrayal there, and then also they had a neighbour next door who was this German woman and she had been in the camps and, but then it turned out that she had been a Trustee, so she was in some respect a guard even if she’s Jewish – although people thought she was Jewish it wasn’t actually said. So we actually got a lot of upset in some quarters from the kind of Jewish lesbians who thought that having a… We never specified that Monika was Jewish but they, I think it was taken as understood in some way.
JW: We were saying things that were uncomfortable, and it was almost…
JB: About betrayal?
TF: About betrayal. There was a whole theme about betrayal, and often the people, you know, it’s not always that simple to say it’s this or it’s that, that sometimes things, you know, for whatever reason, get complicated.
JW: And for the first time we moved away from gender politics in terms of knocking men and we looked at relationships between women, and women being the baddies.
JB: Yeah that was it.
JB: For us it was a move away from, it was about, you know, we don’t need to say that any more, we need to look at ourselves in society and see where in fact we’re behaving badly, or we have done errors, or you know…
JB: We were implicit in the action we created.
DT: It was quite a sexy show, I find.
JB: We allowed ourselves to be a little bit more glamorous.
DT: There was quite a lot of flirtation. Hilary played the detective in a trench-coat, it was a bit of a sort of Inspector Clouseau kind of character who would peep out from behind the flats every now and then – I mean she was hilarious, and that was a very, so it was also very funny.
JB: I think that’s the thing. We really walked that line, a comedic sense of working, knowing how to work the audience now, and style, and what was working and this entertainment thing really growing so we were perfecting our ability to move the audience in certain kinds of ways, particularly I think with humour, you know.
Mary Turner 1
Mary: They were based around the large structures that you could go inside, inflatable structures; and then inside the inflatable structures there was sometimes character interchange with the public as they came through, or sometimes music. Sometimes the whole thing was a story in itself. We’d come with a scenario that we were exploring, and they wouldn’t be certain that it was a performance to start with; so it was infiltration. We wanted them to experience the structures, the colour, the changes; the fact that it was like walking through a sculpture is what we talked about. But we also built some, not bouncy castles but more exciting than bouncy castles but most likely more dangerous, [?] beds, which, because we got such a following from the rougher kids particularly the boys, that they needed a physical challenge. It was no good saying to them ‘Just look how amazing it is as it changes from light to dark inside’. They needed to be able to leap about, and so we built, we got a high pressure fan that we could – they were like trampolines, much more exciting than bouncy castles (nowadays course they wouldn’t be allowed to), and there were no walls so people fell off onto the ground, and we didn’t really think about health and safety, we thought of challenges. They also acted as a venue for us as well because there were themes like the Victorian theme and a flying theme where we actually had trapezes in them – it’s difficult to remember all… the scenarios were by the day, I mean it wasn’t that you’d do anything for a season or anything like that. Somebody would have an idea and you went and did it. There would be, ‘We’ll go as this, we’ll do this, we’ll…’. There were some big ones obviously where we did have rehearsals and so on but on the whole the daily things were done round a table.
Mary Turner 2
Mary: A lot of the people that worked with us had done workshops in Lambeth, particularly the clowning workshops that Nola Rae was running at Oval House, and so we’d been to shows there and, well, we knew one another. And when we decided that we wanted to do our first step into performance, we produced a piece called Play Optional and they put it on at Oval House. The audience walked around from one performer to the next, who offered some engagement, sensual engagement or playful engagement. We even had my daughter, who was a little girl, tucked up in bed asking people to tell her a bed-time story. And I think I was chopping onions for some reason. We had a live goat, billy goat, that was the first thing the audience met – it really smelt to high heaven. There were people who’d built a sort of structure in which they were playing chess, there was a nude woman painting on a mirror, and eventually had been painted on her body. There was music participation, then they went inside an inflatable structure at the end where something happened, but I don’t remember what happened inside. So people could stay as long as they wanted to engage themselves in some of these activities. I can’t remember if there was a finale or anything. I can just remember people passing around and around and coming in, trying to find out what the hell we were doing.
Alan Wakeman 1
Almost Free Theatre and opening season
Alan: It [Almost Free Theatre] was underground so you went down some stairs, so you went in off the street and downstairs. My memory is that the stairs were down to the right, but – I mean these are the things of memory that are the least reliable, really. Then there’s the foyer, but I don’t remember a Green Room. I remember that the backstage area was really very tiny and quite difficult, and in some of the plays people had to lurk at the back behind the scenery, waiting for the next entrance, because there wasn’t really anywhere for them to go. That again may be a faulty memory but I do have that memory. So there must have been this foyer which would be for the audience to gather in. I don’t remember them selling food and drink at the theatre at all; no, but we had kettles in the staff area, you know the theatre staff area, we could make our own cups of stuff. It had a window display, Almost Free Theatre, and a big sign saying ‘Almost Free Theatre’. The building was semi-derelict because the Trocadero was semi-derelict and it was all part of the Save Piccadilly Campaign to be demolished – all of it was, you know – and on the corner had been Lyons Corner House. Now Lyons Corner House was huge and I think some of the upstairs bits of the Almost Free would have been part of the original Corner House. I don’t know. A large chunk of that stuff got demolished; the Trocadero, it did get redeveloped. Okay, the press launch: Ed [Berman] has got the national press to turn up, and they’ve turned up in droves, in ways that, I mean, he got quite good attendance of the national press for the Women’s Season and the Black Season [Black and White Power Season] but they were all there for the Gay Season – basically because nobody ever talked about that. It was the one taboo subject and here we were saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gay – so what?’ and having the audacity to put on plays about what life is like for gay people. So it got attention. Anyway, we’re all there for the press conference, the press conference is supposed to be Roger [Baker], Drew [Griffiths] and Gerald Chapman, and at the last minute Drew says, ‘I can’t go on, I can’t go on, I can’t go on, no, no, please – Oh, Alan would you go on for me?’ So I said, ‘Of course I will; I mean, you know, after GLF this is nothing.’ Anyway, that’s why I’m there [Alan is referring to him being in the existing photo of the press conference]. And the first question – I would like to think it came from The Sun but it probably came from The Daily Mail – was, ‘Is there going to be any sex in it?’ – which got a laugh because the whole of the set was a big double bed. It’s very hard for me to remember what Limitations was about, except that it was extremely intellectual. It was about people on a bed talking about sex, but it was a man and his girlfriend and his boyfriend, all talking about how impossible the situation was. What his position was I have no recollection at all. This may not be an adverse comment on John Roman Baker’s play; it could be because I was too busy with the sound and visual cues, you know. They weren’t at the time showing an evening play, there was no evening play so it was just the lunch-hour theatre. And that became an issue, when it became obvious that the season was just gonna go on and on and on, that Ed wanted his theatre back. Initially, I think Limitations was extended for a further three weeks; so Limitations ran for six weeks, so already the season is now three weeks late, so Thinking Straight starts three weeks late. Thinking Straight opened and the success continued – queues round the block, people being turned away at every performance. Ships opened, after, Thinking Straight had been extended for two weeks; erm, but Thinking Straight moved to another theatre over a pub on the corner of Brewer Street and Great Windmill Street – Duke Of Argyll? I think it might be that – and I do vaguely remember going to see Thinking Straight there, er, just to see how it would work. That might have been because they were saying, ‘Well, where are we going to take Ships?’
Alan Wakeman 2
Alan: Right, what happened was, at one of our meetings, by then we were meeting always in the Almost Free, usually in the evenings, when there weren’t performances and sometimes in the afternoons – but we were meeting at the Almost Free all the time, we’d stopped meeting at Roger [Baker]’s altogether – at one of the performances this man Robert Patrick came and said, ‘You can have one of my plays if you like’. And, to my astonishment, the others were all star-struck. Now I didn’t know about Robert Patrick but he had a play on at the time called Kennedy’s Children, which was on at the theatre underneath the Roman Catholic church in Leicester Street – I’ve forgotten what that theatre’s called, it’s still running as a theatre now, anyway, he had a play on there called Kennedy’s Children [This production has transferred from the KIngs Head, Islingtoni. It was entertaining, I remember it; but it wasn’t really a play, there was no drama in it. It was a series of monologues and none of the characters interacted with one another at all – which as far as I could see was fairly true of all his work I’d read, really (I wouldn’t put him down, he’s still alive). But he was a pre-GLF playwright, American, he said, ‘I’ve been writing gay plays for years’ – yeah: about gay stereotypes. Straight people loved to go and see plays about gay stereotypes that they can feel sorry for or laugh at, but that’s not what we were supposed to be doing. And we had this argument, which Ed [Berman] turned up at and we were all at loggerheads with one another and saying quite a few things we probably regretted. But I do remember saying, ‘We should not be doing plays like The Haunted Host, which are plays that reinforce gay stereotypes; we should be challenging the stereotypes – that’s what I thought we were about’. And I got very frustrated because they either didn’t agree with me or said they didn’t agree with me, but they didn’t seem to see the point I was making. And by then someone had submitted Passing By by Martin Sherman. This I do remember very clearly. Gerald [Chapman] and I read Passing By to the rest of the group, and as soon as we read it the group were absolutely ‘Gonna do this. But, when are we gonna do it?’ And so, Gerald and I were saying – and Roger, as it turns out – were saying, ‘We do Passing By as the third play of the season’. And the others were saying, ‘No, no, we do Robert Patrick, he’s a star’. And I got so frustrated with them that I came home and wrote a letter saying, ‘I don’t want to stay with the group; I thought we all shared a common idea about what we were about, but I see that you’re just interested in bums on seats’. But this is extending the season, how to extend it. And Ed turns up during this fight and says, ‘Well, what if we do both plays?’ The others all said, ‘Oh yes, okay, right’. And then, I don’t remember Roger saying anything but I do remember Ed turning to me and saying, ‘Will you agree to us doing The Haunted Host if we do Passing By, Alan?’ And I do remember saying, ‘Oh I suppose so, so long as Passing By gets put on’ – but at the time I wasn’t happy and when I came home I thought, I can’t be part of a theatre group that’s putting on gay stereotypes, I cannot bear it.