Working with Steven Berkoff in the London Theatre Group
Jude: I think that as actors, we were frustrated by, I mean you know, we were in our early twenties, so we were frustrated by the fact that the roles in The Trial, for instance, Kafka’s The Trial, which was the next play that we did with Berkoff, they were very reduced and weren’t three-dimensional characters, you know. And I said to Steven, ‘Why don’t you just get men to play the women’s roles?’ you know, because he would say, how you put on a stocking… everything was very described, he described it, so there was very little room for interpretation. And we know, we all know about the limitations of those sort of roles. So yes, we wanted to do something more than that, but we weren’t experienced as writers. I’d never even heard of Brecht. I mean people said to me, you write like Brecht, the way you combine, you juxtapose images, you use political and personal, and glamour and the contradictions of life and all that. I was just instinctively doing all of that.
Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven at the Arts Lab
Sheila: She’d got this script together and she sent it me and she said Victor Spinetti’s interested. So that’s what we did, at the Arts Lab. There used to be a pub opposite, we used to meet there and have a coffee, and then Jane and I would look at Victor and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I know, I’ve got to go and wake everybody up,’ and there were all these recumbent bodies everywhere, and Jim Haynes, who was one of the three Americans who changed London, at that time – Charles Marowitz and that guy, Ed Berman…
Susan: Ed Berman, of course
Sheila: Three of them changed London. But the fifteen that worked with us were wonderful. They were no Sunday hippies, they were the real thing. The police knew about it, but as Jim said that they knew we were kind of giving them… we were kind of doing social work there really, which they were. They gave them somewhere to stay, they went on the streets [during the day]. Jane directed us and that was okay. They loved Victor so much they hired a tape of the Yellow Submarine and when it got to his big scene, they played it through, then they stopped it, then they played it backwards, and then they played it through again and then they stopped it, then they played it backwards. I mean it was just hysterical. Because Victor and I, you know, were pros and we knew what we wanted from our experiments. It was fine because, you know, Victor was used to working with Joan [Littlewood] who would use all sorts of methods to evolve a production, so this was, for him, just another version of that.
Sheila: And I followed along because he was very sweet. I remember Jane having a kind of, one of her moods, just before we were due to open, with real people coming, plus the hippies – they were going to come anyway – but real people were coming, outside people, and he said, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake Jane, this isn’t Broadway. We can’t stop because we haven’t got the right hats for Act III. Come on, we’re just going to do it,’ and it became a succès fou. I mean someone came from the Garrick to see it, and sat on these orange boxes that were painted black. It’s now a very fashionable and a very exquisite, handmade furniture place. They’ve got lovely symbols hanging outside and I go past and I think, ‘Oh, the snows of yesteryear.’
The Café Theatre, Covent Garden
So my productions started say, for example, Intimacy we did for a month at first, but eventually it went on for about 20 years. We set up a company, called it a Café Theatre, at first because it was really a café. Some of the first productions were around tables with cakes and tea and so on. In the ‘50s we did these plays as a café and we had a good provider of good cakes, but shortly afterwards we dispensed with all this and did plays without food. My philosophy at the time, because everything I do in the theatre, everything I did, was based on philosophy, on ideas, and my idea at the time, and again these ideas don’t come out of the blue, they have to come, they have to be implanted, have to grow from the soil, and I thought what can I do in order to make a success of our work? We have to make a success, we have to make money, and I thought well the best thing to do is to have long runs. You start, you put on a play and you let it run and run and run until it gets a reputation, and then you don’t need any more effort. So, I think the first play to be done on this basis, this was Masoch. Now Masoch is a play based on the memoirs of Masoch’s wife. She wrote a book about her experiences with him and I adapted it, and we called it Masoch. Well after that we did away with the cakes. We had a hard time inbetween, after the cakes we had a spell in a basement, but that was very bad because they had dancers on top of us. The priest, it was a Catholic priest – Pamela being an ex-Catholic helped us a bit – he was a nice guy, but his community was from Mauritius and they couldn’t care two hoots for us, so in the end we had to leave and we were looking for a space – I always started by looking for a space – and we found a space and established ourselves there.
Susan: And that was the pub, the Bear and Staff, or did you go elsewhere first?
Michael: The Bear and Staff, yes we went to the Bear and Staff. The Bear and Staff is in the Charing Cross Road, you couldn’t find a better place.
The Almost Free
Ros: The Almost Free started up when I was there and I used to get people in off the street: ‘Pay what you like but please pay more than a penny’.
Jessica: So that was sort of at lunchtime you would go down and…?
Ros: You would go down lunchtimes and evenings and we had all-night get-ins there. I spent many nights doing – in fact I painted the props for Stoppard’s play that he did for Dogg’s Troupe which was called Dogg’s Our Pet, it was an anagram of Dogg’s Troupe, and he also did for them his 10-minute Hamlet which was sometimes reduced to a 2-minute Hamlet for those with low concentration. He gave us all a bunch of flowers when we did his set – because I was officially down as set designer actually.
Jessica: At the Almost Free? Were there sets there?
Ros: Yes! We did just masses. I mean I was the official photographer too, and you can’t fail to get your pictures in the paper when you are the official photographer for a small theatre because no-one else is there taking the pictures, so if the critic comes they use your pictures, so I felt quite sort of grand doing things like that, and also you know I had to do, within a week of arriving, I had to do a sort of tape/slide synchronisation at the ICA for a hundred kids. I’d never done anything like it before, and that was the extraordinary thing about Inter-Action, it made you do the impossible, in a way.
Fun Art Bus
Ros: Well, it started that year  as far as I recall because I did cartoons for it which went on the inside, upstairs where the advertisements go.
Jessica: On the outside of the bus?
Ros: No, you know, inside on the top deck where they have those sort of rectangular panels, instead of advertisements, which obviously we couldn’t have, my cartoons were up there. But the wonderful thing about it, well, there were many wonderful things about it, but there was a theatre upstairs where Dogg’s Troupe performed tremendous plays, and that would include Pat [Patrick] Barlow, Henry Goodman, Jim Hiley, Geoff Hoyle, Katya Benjamin, a number of visiting actors, all very, very good, I mean really, really good stuff, it was just community work at its best really. So you’d have a theatre upstairs and downstairs would be a cinema showing sort of art films. The bus conductor had tickets which were poems. In those days they used to have long rolls of tickets, so it was past that time when you had little cardboard ones, and you’d gone on to the ones like loo paper only small, and on those tickets were poems by the Liverpool poets – Roger McGough, Brian Patten, all of them, but of course they were free too. Then on the back of the bus there was a huge photograph of all of us, all the Inter-Action people, so it looked as though it was a sort of full bus except of course it was black and white but it just looked very lively. And the bus conductor I think had some sort of instrument, a guitar, I’m pretty sure it was Pat Barlow on the guitar, I’ll have to check with him, and then the driver had a keyboard on the bonnet, so whenever the bus stopped the driver would play keyboard and the conductor would sing and play. You’d get a free ticket. You’d be standing with your shopping because it went on ordinary bus routes, so you’d just think, ‘Oh I’ll just pop out for a couple of eggs and a potato’, and then this thing would come along and you’d think, ‘Well I can’t get on that’, but you could get on it and go your normal route, but you didn’t pay and you got a film or a play and you got a nice poem on your ticket written by a leading poet and maybe you heard a little bit of a song. So it was that whole… [the] ethos of Inter-Action at that time was really taking art into the community, did that was street theatre, did that with the Almost Free Theatre, which was tremendous, tremendous art as you know, Foco Novo, Naftali Yavin all those people.
Inter-Action in Chalk Farm Road
ED: Well we had a shop front and it kept going, and then it went up a level, and there was office space, and then you went under that and in the back there was quite a large rehearsal space.
Susan: So you had different companies with, The Other Company and…?
ED: Well, The Other Company [TOC] was there, the Dogg’s Troupe was there, eventually the Fun Art Bus was there, which incorporated the Dogg’s Troupe.
Susan: Was there a workshop space for building things and that…
ED: Yeah, in the back we had to dual use it. The first year we slept there, it was very cold, it was like now. It was a very cold winter and we slept on the desks.
Susan: And when you say we, how many were you? who was involved?
ED: There was probably 10 of us, that was the beginning of the commune or the co-operative we called it. I guess there were about 10 of us then. After the first winter we lost 3 or 4 people so we were down to 6, the Dogg’s Troupe, TOC, Naftali [Yavin] and myself, there was about that number, but there were a lot of people milling around us, wanting to do things and we were people who would do anything. We started a publishing company, we started all sorts…
Susan: And how did people get involved, they just kind of came along and…?
ED: Well, we did get a lot of publicity, we had television things because what we did was rather novel at the time, and we had occupied 50, it was a total of 50, derelict houses in the area, and we had all sorts of people come and stay there because we had plenty of room. These were in Chalk Farm and West Kentish Town, almost entirely council housing in that area. East Kentish Town is the kind of fancy privatised area.
From Inter-Action to Interplay
Tony: Ed Berman, he came over I think, in about 1968, and he was part of that wave of Jim Haynes, Charles Marowitz – the Americans who came over. He worked as a play leader in Notting Hill, and I think – this is a whole area of kind of research that I’m really interested in finding out about – I think he bought something of that Jewish, summer camp, the kibbutz culture with him. As it were, the campfire culture, the circle, the very, very important sort of formation for working with kids. And I know he was working with very heavy kids in Notting Hill. He hooked up with a Leeds-based teacher, called Carrie Goorney. She’d been doing some teaching at Jacob Cramer College, an art college in Leeds, and she had in turn – she’d done some work with Stephen Joseph, in Scarborough, again it’s that something about the circle, something about the formation of the in-the-round thing there, that I think she had in her DNA, and perhaps also I think she had in her DNA something of that Jewish culture of – I’m speculating now about this, but I’m interested in where all this comes from, particularly for Ed, and the games. So Carrie worked alongside Ed in Notting Hill for at least a summer and became very, very attached to his way of working, and when she went to Leeds, she developed the idea of doing street theatre, of doing games as a way of developing a creative moment with groups of young people. And also I know an idea of Carrie’s in this respect is about the games session creates a community, if it’s only a community for an hour, it creates a community and there are certain in-built dynamics within a circle which are innately democratic, where everyone gets a go and therefore you give every member of the circle equal respect, so there isn’t the same pressure that more conventional youth theatre, drama performance would have, which be about being excellent at your part or being a good actor or whatever. So I think there was something new that came in with Ed at that point.
First Women’s Festival at Action Space (now Drill Hall)
Kate: Nancy [Diuguid] goes to the Drill Hall and asks the collective, ‘Can we do Voices by Susan Griffin?’, which I directed. Then she said she’d like to do a festival around it. And what happened was that we got a bit of funding for that and there’s a programme somewhere where for three weeks we did Voices the play, everyday there was a concert before it where you got people like Jam Today and Frankie Armstrong, Victoria Wood and loads of other people. Julie Parker did workshops. Barbara Britton, who’s an artist and Mary Moore arranged crafts and art exhibitions, Ria Naval did photography. I directed the play and did the overall administration and booked the theatre groups. There was also a crèche that went with the workshops and it was like every space in the Drill Hall was used for every minute of the day.
Kate: People came with backpacks from all over the world and had to dump them in the space somewhere – they’d read about it – and when you see the calendar, it’s just pages and pages of listings
Starting Mrs Worthington’s Daughters
Anne: We decided we would throw the rule book out. And the rule book, which was the rule book about collectives – which by that time had evolved into a practice, there was a practice about what you did and what you didn’t do – chucking that out. We would be a production company and we would hire in, and we would retain the power, and we would hire in actors, crew, directors, designers and all that, as and when we needed them. The company would have a mission to rediscover work, forgotten work by women, and we had a wonderful time. We all got tickets to the Reading Room at the British Museum and we went and pored over the Lord Chancellor’s collection, you know, sometimes opening these parcels that hadn’t been touched. I think The Oracle, Stacey [Charlesworth] and I found, and that’s what we started off with.
Susan: So you were looking through the catalogues and finding…
Anne: Yeah, yeah, yeah, literally when we found names of women playwrights, we’d have a look. We’d go through piles of stuff. I mean, that’s when my stuff of reading plays for the Royal Court stood me in good stead because I’d had a lot of background in that. And we decided it was based on friendship, that we wanted to work with people we wanted to work with, and that was the most important thing, apart from, you know, the mission of the company.
Anne: We had such freedom because we were being paid and we were supported – you know, we had official support, which is now so hard to get – in The Women’s Theatre Group as a regularly funded organization, which was for six, seven years? We had the freedom to take risks and experiment. In Mrs Worthington’s Daughters we used the experiences of all of those experiments with form to look at how, look at employment practices and that was very exciting work, and that informed my later career choices a lot, you know, actually looking at ways to work, which I think is one of the key areas that I’ve taken with me in my career, you know, ways of working and ways of ensuring that people have productive and happy working lives that fit around the rest of their lives.
Setting up and running Theatrescope’s Lunchtime Theatre
Sarah:The Little Theatre Club in Garratt Yard off St Martin’s Lane was one of the theatres that were listed in our Theatre Perimeter, so we knew of its existence and although they had rather amateur and slightly mad productions in the evening, including a jazz club, they didn’t have anything happening during the day. So Bryan [King] thought we should launch ourselves there.
Susan: Who was running it in the evening?
Sarah: It was under the wing of Jean Pritchard who’d been bequeathed it by a rich uncle as a kind of hobby. She was the landlady and she ran it in conjunction with somebody else, but it was a kind of ad hoc amateur thing. So she was quite happy for us to run lunchtime theatre there because it was rent for her and nothing else was happening. It was up 3 flights of stairs in this ramshackle office building which still exists but it’s been done up. I think there was a company doing technical instruments on the floor below because they used to really complain when we did our theatre because it would throw all their instruments out. And ours was the attic, and it was just totally ramshackle, there was a fire escape looking on to a yard and I don’t suppose it had changed much since Victorian days, and there were double doors leading into this very small theatre space which was probably about the size of our sitting room, you could just about get 50 people in there plus a stage. It was equipped, just about, with the dressing rooms at the back. It was a very small little space, dingy. Bryan had quite a clear vision. He wanted it to be a shop window for any project that we thought was worthwhile and he wanted to do stuff of his own as well, because he was a director. We printed off the literature – ‘cos we had all this machinery in the office where we did the guides – we had no money at all, nobody had money then and actually you didn’t think about capital or investment, you just did it. I don’t know, it was a reflection of the times really. So we printed off our programmes and our plans and we walked around all the offices, selling the notion of coming to see a play in your lunch-hour and we offered luncheon vouchers. So we offered lunch and a play, a professional play, for 5 shillings that’s 25p, and we would take luncheon vouchers because it was densely office workers, and we sold membership which I think was, you know, probably 12 and a half pence, 2 [shillings] and 6, and so through the subs money we managed to be able to raise enough to be able to pay the actors the minimum Equity rate which I think was 7 pounds a week then. We had Vanessa Redgrave, we had Peter Sellers, we had Peggy Ashcroft and Kenneth Griffith – I think that’s who it was – so we had these four patrons and you know they might just lob us a tenner or something and then of course we had the proceeds from the actual performance, it was on a complete shoestring. So for 5 shillings, whatever that is now, about 25p I suppose, you’d have a lunch, a cup of coffee and a play.
On tour with Gay Sweatshop
Noel: But there were always incidents with Gay Sweatshop. I mean, when we were doing The Dear Love of Comrades at the Birmingham Rep and we were staying in Birmingham and we were making our way to a gay night club. We’d obviously had been followed from the theatre. We were walking along and this van burst open and all these guys came with iron bars and attacked us. A lot of people got hospitalized. Things like that were always happening on Gay Sweatshop tours. That was a very extreme – you know the attack by the gang in Birmingham, but you know right from the start Gay Sweatshop would turn up and the person running the B&B had discovered who the company was saying you can’t come in here. That was always happening, that was quite unique amongst the theatre companies at the time. I think we just sort of took it as part of the deal really. When we did that show Iceberg, when the women and the men were joined together. – we did the political cabaret in ‘78? We took it to Northern Ireland and Ian Paisley’s party organized a torch-lit parade on the venue, at night holding flaming torches and singing hymns and we had to be protected by bouncers. And then all the students sat down outside and there was a riot. We’d perform the play with all the bouncers around. I think we were more afraid of the bouncers than Ian Paisley’s lot. But that’s where the phrase, do you remember SUS, Save Ulster from Sodomy? Well that was because of Gay Sweatshop. We’d come to sodomize Northern Ireland. Yeah, things like that were happening all of the time.
Susan: How did the police take that? Did they take it seriously?
Noel: They were fine. Absolutely, Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, you know, the fact that around that period, you know, I am being very subjective and looking at certain plays of mine, As Time Goes By, Dear Love of Comrades, Poppies, Gay Sweatshop was a new writing company that toured all sorts of venues, including repertory theatres and including big European tours, and was seen as a leading new writing company, and I think that said a lot really of where the company was at and where the public perception of homosexuality was at.
The Arts Lab Drury Lane
Jim: The main building was a gallery, a cinema in the basement with no seats, it was just foam rubber and carpeting. And then the first floor was a restaurant, which we also used for site productions. And then in the back were the dressing rooms and I also lived in the back. In various corners of the building people lived. In the cinema, people lived in the cinema and the projection booths, what have you. It went, from Drury Lane it went all the way, I don’t know if you know the building, where it’s, in the back of Drury Lane, where it’s, adult education classes are back there. City Lit – it went all the way back to City Lit. A depth of 40, 50 metres long or 60, maybe a 100 metres, it’s a long building. And then just suddenly, without warning, ‘without fanfare it opened’, and of course word of mouth went whoosh, like that. Then all of London and all of western Europe started coming. I wrote duplicated letters, it was duplicating machines then, to a Who’s Who in British Theatre, Who’s Who in British Cinema and asked them to be patrons, at £50 a year I think you could be patrons, or a member for £2 or £5, a student member was £1. We got about £30,000 rolled in for that. A lot of people became patrons like Peter Brook and Tom Stoppard, he gave me a £50 cheque, and many people gave £50 cheques. I remember Berkoff coming in one day, he was like a young boy saying can I produce a play I’ve written in here, and I said, ‘Yes, when do you want to do it?’ and he said, ‘Well…’, I said, ‘Next week?’ He said, ‘That’s a little soon, how about 10 days from now?’ ‘Okay’, I said, ‘10 days from now. You’re scheduled, 8 o’clock, Theatre One’. He wrote about it in his autobiography and said he was completely shocked, fully expecting a No and suddenly had to do it. So I did his first production. There were all these little theatre companies, there were dozens of little companies that were using this, of course, we talked about him earlier, the mime [artist] Lindsay Kemp, and the People Show and there was a women, Nancy [Meckler] she started… Freehold, and Pip Simmons, David Hare, the Brighton people – the Combination people, they started coming, everybody starting coming. Then Arts Labs started opening up in Birmingham, and Manchester and all other cities in Britain started creating art. And it was really exciting times. We really felt that we do anything.
Broadside Mobile Workers
Julie: Richard [Stourac] and Kathy [Kathleen McCreery], particularly Richard because of his background, he knew his Left Theatre aesthetic really well.
Susan: His background was?
Julie: He was Austrian I think. But he certainly had, but he actually ended up with the same PhD supervisor as I did in Ted Braun and he then wrote the book about German and Russian agit-prop and certainly that’s where he was coming from, so I found him…and Kathy brought some of the American knowledge with her. I found that a really stimulating environment, again nowhere near the women’s work, but we did do a show called The Lump which was about the building industry and we performed that up and down the country on building sites and that, you know, I’m really glad I did that work because it was absolutely on that basis, I’d been working within the youth area to work alongside the trade union movement – we did a show about the aerospace industry and a show about the building industry, and the premise was, you found in any community the vanguard, the political vanguard and you worked with them and so it was deep, it was really strong political line, but I must admit when we performed sometimes I felt for those poor audience members who were so patient with us you know as we did our, we performed, our incredible… – and I always think of that marvellous stuff that Augusto Boal would talk about, about when he went into a village and was performing and they had fake guns and they were saying you must go and fight the revolution and the people that they were performing to said, ‘That’s marvellous come with us now we’ve actually got a fight going on over the hill’. And he said, he had to say, ‘Well actually uhm I’m sorry…’ and they said, ‘Well you’ve got guns, bring your guns,’ and he said, ‘I’m afraid they’re only props’, and then they said, ‘Well that’s alright, we’ve got other guns, we’ll give them to you’, ‘Well I’m afraid we’re only actors’, and then whoever it was said to them, ‘So you’re only a prop too’. And I thought you know there was much of that at that time that we were inspired by our ability to go in with the correct line and we had very patient audiences all over the country who said ‘Oh these young people, aren’t they sweet? – they really do care’, but it was a reverse of what one imagined. But on the building site stuff it did have a…, there was a lot of good information in that show, and the whole idea was that the union travelled with us and signed up people who weren’t in the union, and you did feel theatre here is making a difference. We just had a scaffold. It was absolutely, you know, you look at the pictures of the Russian and German agit-prop and that’s what we were doing. Absolutely iconographic you know, archetypical…
Susan: Workers and top hats?
Julie: Exactly, workers, tableau, music, basic information but again a strong kind of Brechtian influence in there as well so it’s a lot of music and so you were trying to find a way in which you would grab attention that was very visual, very gestural, I mean in that kind of Brechtian sense. The gesture that summed up the class position if you like, and they knew their stuff.
Clive Barker and using theatre games
It all began with Clive [Barker]. At that time he was, he was going round the country looking for- I mean he worked with Joan of course. He was one of the key people working with Joan, Joan Littlewood. I’d been to one or two of her shows and I mean, she was God as far as I was concerned, you know. And this guy turns up who’d been working with Joan Littlewood. I think I must have been in Swaffham when I first met him, I’m trying to remember…I mean he just influenced my life totally. When he started the group, the theatre group, I talked to Clive about how, if it was your first session that you had with a group, what would you do with them? And he said, ‘Oh I’d play games.’ And he told me one or two games that he played, and I borrowed Dorothy’s Girl Guide Games for Girl Guides book and studied that, and I went to the first session with this theatre group, the young people’s theatre group, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I thought, oh we’ll try playing a few games and see what happens. And I suddenly found that….all at once they were talking about games they’d known as kids, and you know, for weeks we just played games. I mean it was the opposite result from what I’d expected, I thought I would try ‘em out with games and see if we can get warmed up and do something… and it worked the other way around, I mean we played games and then we started inventing new games, and the games eventually were turned into pieces – the first pieces of theatre I had ever did with the groups, both in Shrewsbury and in Bradford, arose out of games.
Female Trouble at the Arts
Bryony: So Caroline Eves came and we threw this thing together and it started in the tiniest place, I can’t remember, it somewhere off the Strand. But then it moved to the Arts Theatre and we were going to give women a good night out and that was the brief of that. So it was, we just made people laugh. We had far too little time to do it, to write it. I mean the last sketch, we needed a bit, we needed about ten more minutes work and they said well, we can’t learn it. Well I said okay, I’ll think of a way of writing something that we don’t have to learn, and we simply had this sketch where we’d say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a message from women from the past,’ and they were literally on rolls of paper and they’d read them out, and we kept it like that, but the very first time they scarcely knew what was written on it. I think people just wanted a good time. They were three very different people and they just did a number of sketches and songs.
Experimental work at Oxford University
Annabel: But I became a member of the experimental theatre club and was on the committee and, actually I do take credit for this, it has taken me years to realise, to know actually, but, I was instrumental in saying, ‘We talk about experimental theatre but we don’t do it’. We should be doing something truly experimental, and then people started talking about total theatre, we didn’t know what it meant, but in the end, the committee that I was on, steered through a production where it would be, anyone who wanted to design could design, anyone who wanted to act could act, anyone who wanted to write could write. And then we had a small steering committee to choose a subject, and cut it down to about 4 or 5 subjects and in the end hit upon, finalised, capital punishment which was, was it still going in 1962? But anyway it was still quite an important subject because not everybody agreed with it being abolished, apart from anything else. So we did a piece about capital punishment which doesn’t sound very jolly but it was done as a circus with a ringmaster and with songs and all kinds of music and circus tricks and it had the Rosenbergs’ execution in America, and it was a very, very big project, directed by Braham Murray which really got him started, and that transferred to the West End.
Jessica: A student production?
Annabel: A student production, and then it went to Broadway, it went to Broadway. David Wood and Joanne …..they went to Broadway and did a season there. I know you can’t imagine it, can you? It was called Hang Down Your Head and Die which was – you might remember that song – ‘Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Hang Down Your Head and Die’ – that was the theme song from it. I wasn’t in it: all I did was actually help get it together. But I discovered years and years later that there were two actors sharing a dressing room up the road from where it was on, I think they were doing Hamlet, American actors, and they said what are we doing?, what are we doing sitting on our arses when here is a play that’s got onto Broadway not even by drama students, just student, students and it’s got on, why don’t we write something? and they wrote Hair. So in a way I’m godmother to Hair .
With La MaMa in New York
Annabel: We were a new group, so this was another guy running it, he’d been in Amsterdam for awhile and he’d seen some Grotowski, he’d met Grotowski, who was the iconic experimental theatre guy and so when I arrived I didn’t know what it was going to be because it wasn’t Tom O’Horgan, but it was always very, very physical theatre. We didn’t have too many plays, but the first thing we did was – I arrived in mid-January and it was 20 below and snow everywhere, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, and we started rehearsing, I’d joined this group that had been going for a month or so before I got there, and we were rehearsing in a concrete basement with no heating and what we started doing were the Grotowski-based yoga exercises – the cat, you know, the cat – when you start… head stands, shoulder stands, slow motion back bends, everything was in slow motion. I was hopeless, I mean LAMDA had helped me a bit with movement, freed me up a bit, but you’d never seen anybody so stiff, but I had to go for it, and slowly, slowly out of that exercises would develop and then a boy called Jan Quackenbush brought a play, so we did that and then we rehearsed some more and then Andy Robinson wrote a play ‘cos he was in the group and so we did that.
Jessica: So the work was arising out of the group?
Annabel: Yes. It was arising out of the work we did.
Jessica: … brought together, work together…
Annabel: And then you’d evolve, you’d evolve, how you’d do a play using all the exercises that we tried out, being puppets, doing the slow-motion stuff is very powerful. You know all the possible exercises we did were in order for us to translate the play into some kind of different reality I suppose. What happened slowly was that the work itself got so interesting and so completely involving for the group that they stopped really wanting to perform it and get it out to an audience and I found that in the end didn’t work for me. Yes I loved it, it was wonderful work to do, but in the end you’ve got to show it and test it against other people, and it got more and more enclosed I think and then…
Jessica: What there were pieces that weren’t being shown?
Annabel: Yes, yes, they didn’t seem to want to. They were just happy doing it, you know.
Jessica: Were there other groups doing shows in the evenings?
Annabel: Yes, yes there was Tom’s group, our group, and there was another group I think by that time.
Jessica: Oh right so there were groups who were showing but some groups were just…
Annabel: …it became more and more sort of internal and narrow I thought, enclosed, and I got frustrated by that and then you know it was the height of summer and New York in the summer is not only very, very hot but very, very humid and I didn’t have air conditioning, and I thought I think I’m going to go home now. I didn’t want to but I didn’t know how to stay.
Ruth: And it was a skills-sharing collective. Skill-sharing collective meant you swapped roles and generally, as it evolved, it meant you didn’t do what you were good at. So, for example, there was a band, and we swapped instruments in the band and you would teach your colleagues to play the instrument that you were good at. And we were very proud of the fact, and I think this was marvelous, this was probably one of the best things we did, we could take any group of young people, and in a two-hour workshop we could make them sound like a band. So we were very proud, we could actually give them just the rudiments so that they could just be cool and play, which was fantastic. But in terms of the band it meant that I took up the saxophone for this, because I had played the French horn at school which is absolutely useless in a band, and it meant I didn’t play the saxophone very much because I was endlessly teaching someone else to play the saxophone, and then I got reasonably good at drums, actually, so then I didn’t play drums very much either. Then the bass guitar I quite liked, so I didn’t get to do that after a bit.
Susan: There were a lot of frustrated people.
Ruth: Yeah, no exactly, but then we would also swap roles. It tended to be that I would do administration for one tour, and then maybe write, and then I’d perform the next time. I was rotten at performing. But so, skills-sharing, multicultural, socialist, feminist collective.
Ruth: This was completely, naturally, what you did in those days.
Joining Theatre Centre
Libby: What can I say? Well the first thing I can say about Theatre Centre always amazes me is that even then even in the mid to late 80s we had a situation where there were full-time company members, most of whom were actors. That seems.. I don’t know – is there is anywhere else now where that is the case? You had a, for the most part you had an, indefinite contract so, if you joined the company, after a certain amount of time you were a company member, with holidays and all kinds of things. So you walk in as a director to a situation where … You’re walking into a situation where everyone is on the same wage, where there are company meetings and the director is supposed to be guided by the will of the company. I found that I was very familiar with that situation from, you know, the 70s, and in many, many ways it was wonderful, it means you can kinda just slide in you know, you are not the one who is suddenly expected to come up with the brilliant ideas. Wonderful work, I can’t remember the shows I think there was a Nona [Shepphard] play Getting Through or something or maybe there was a Lisa [Evans] play, anyway there were lots of really good plays. Noel’s [Greig] play Laughter from the Other Side, there were a number, like I walked into a really healthy situation. Also during the years that I was there I had a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, admin team – Angela McSherry, and who went on to work with LIFT and recently with Tipping Point, so probably one of the best Arts Administrators in the country, I just walked into it and there she was. Richard Morgan who is now at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Noel Greig who I think, was resident writer there or he was writing a lot for them you know, Bryony [Lavery], Nona [Sheppard] and Noel [Greig] were around as writers and Phillip Tyler was a company member, also I think beginning to direct. So a fantastically talented good-hearted group of people that I just walked into. It was thrilling, thrilling I don’t know what to say, — and well-funded – how thrilling was that!
Designing Female Transport and with Monstrous Regiment
Andrea: The thing is that I came back with the reputation that I’d been working with the Jane Howells and all of this, and that reputation of the theatre [Northcott Theatre, Exeter] went before me. So as soon as I came back I had people ringing, offering me work. And the first one was at the Old Half Moon at the synagogue in Alie Street, and that was Ron Daniels who’s now or was a very big director. And that totally was off the back of what I had been doing at the Northcott. So I did Female Transport as my first show and that was at Alie Street at the Half Moon, and because of my training at the Northcott – I mean you know we’d design, but we had to build and paint, I just learned how to do theatre. So Alie Street, I did the same automatically without thinking. So we’d rehearse in the space all day and then at night I’d build the set, Chris [her husband] occasionally came and helped me, and you’d just stay up all night and then for breakfast you went down Brick Lane and had breakfast, and it was very hands on. And theatre was, I fear it is not as much now, but you know we did do everything, and certainly Female Transport was a huge success. I got more work from the Half Moon. Monstrous [Regiment] was very soon after that. I went to those early meetings with Chris Bowler and Gilly Hanna and all of that and we started Monstrous. The first play was Scum which took us a year to put together. The writers were Claire Luckham and Chris Bond. It was Claire Luckham really but I can’t remember at what point it was decided that it was both of them. So they rehearsed with the writers coming in and out and improvised an idea and they’d go away and write it, so there’d be a gap then. And we had very little money so the set – in fact on Scum I did a lot of the designing while it was being written. So I’d turn up with all these sketch-books of ideas, which I talked to Claire and Chris about and sometimes they’d incorporate bits in and sometimes they didn’t. And then there must have been a gap, it’s a bit like Joint Stock used to work, there’d be a gap where people went away and did their own things. But certainly set-wise and costume-wise, because it was set in a laundry, we needed vast amounts of costumes, and we just spent months looking for things for nothing, and in those days it was possible. We went to one, an amazing sort of expensive trendy shop somewhere and they gave us bags of stuff that they didn’t want, so you’d open them up and there would old Victorian night dresses in, which at that point nobody wanted, so we just spend time accumulating, and then you’d be doing other bits of work as well.
Oval House Print Shop and South Circular magazine
Chris: I sort of became slowly aware of all the action groups and all the groups that were working for…like the Troops Out movements and the Legal Centres that were opening up and the things that were going on at that time. So we became unionised and although we still produced work for all the fringe groups, theatre fringe groups, they were considered bread and butter really, and also a lot of them were politicised anyway. Young Vic and Royal Court we did a lot of work for and we had this kind of tiered costing thing of whoever could pay the most actually subsidised people who couldn’t afford anything. So we did a lot of free stuff and a lot of stuff that we charged a lot for and then there was all this stuff in between. And obviously all the Oval stuff was done for free because they gave us the space. We also became the main printers for Putney and Peckham Labour Party. So we did all the election stuff which was great earner, which was brilliant, and we started to publish some magazines and books ourselves. We met a guy who illustrated the Beginners Guide books and he needed an outlet for cartoon series, so we produced cartoon books. The first one was called Intellectual Bull and then Urban Paranoia was the other one, they were little magazines. Then anybody who was going abroad would take a stash with them and spread them around. We had stuff in Calcutta and Europe. And a magazine called South Circular which we produced, sort of news coverage of Left of the Labour Party basically. We printed them ourselves, we pasted them up ourselves. A lot of people gave us stories, quite good stories, scoops and things. They came out every two weeks and distributed the food co-ops, the newsman on the corner by the station [Oval tube] we gave a stack to, and them sometimes we forgot to collect the money, it was all a bit haphazard. It was good fun and after a while people wanted to know when the next issue was coming out. We had a circulation of about a 1,000. I was the photographer of the magazine and I ran a music page. It was all South London bands at the time – Ian Dury. The knack I used was to kind of, right from the first phone call, I’d notate everything and then transcribe it, as it was, straight into the magazine. So with everything. Some of the band we would get absolutely sponko going around there and we ended up with this tape full of, ‘Ah yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’ – all this sort of stuff going on, you know, which was all transcribed and people loved it. They were relishing for the next edition.
Designing My Mkinga by Kate Phelps
Mary: Personally an important design ……. because it’s always challenging to know how you are going to …. most of these shows are touring shows and you have got to think about the cast usually arriving, putting the set up – you know you don’t want them exhausted before they start doing the show – so all the time you have to think about… and the materials to be put up can’t be heavy – they don’t have trucky mechs, with big muscles to do this – they had to do this themselves. And when we started to work on that, Kate Phelps… my memory of this is, is that Kate was brought into it after it was decided that the company were going to do a piece about drug dumping in the Third World… because there was somebody who had written a wonderful book about this, but when Kate provided us with the first draft it was set in a hotel room, and Jules and I had this conversation about, really if you’re going to go to Africa, shouldn’t you really go to Africa? Because that would be much more interesting than just a hotel room…it could be anywhere. So that’s what happened, it was set in a village in Africa. But the company only had one African actor in it, playing a nurse or…and the rest of the cast were Europeans who were going to, I think, a conference on this issue (health in the Third World). So Jules and I were discussing how do we actually set up the village?’ – because we didn’t have any families running around the place to show that we were in a village in Africa, and we had to think through what makes, what is the difference between, what is the essential difference between, Africa, a visual image, between Africa and London? And there was an exhibition on, which we went to – which may have been in the Africa Centre – but it was certainly about Africa and we realised it was the light, the sun. If we’d been living in Australia then we might have got it quicker, and so the notion of this village being bathed in sunlight – how could we use this? And it’s the design then – set the audience as the villagers under the shade. So there was a big canopy hanging over the audience that filtered light, so it didn’t matter what their ethnicity was, they were therefore defined psychologically as villagers, and the canopy spread out into the playing space and the actors all came from out there in the sunlight, their entrance then came towards the shade, which obviously was the most sensible place to be and therefore the play took place in this area of shade.
Letter Written in Anger
Natasha: And we were sort of really negotiating around childcare, and if he [Dusty Hughes] was in, I was going to be out and if I was out, he was going to be in. And we were not meeting at all and he was saying, Well, I wasn’t earning, therefore… you know this whole sort of thing of – childcare isn’t paid for then it doesn’t sort of count as real work. I wrote a letter to him, which I never sent, which is called Letter Written in Anger, which I have subsequently read at various, sort of, functions and it’s about this thing of needing a room of my own. And it lists what has to be done in the house. What needs doing. It lists the priorities, and you know, it lists Number One, Number Two, and finally, it says, if in all this we manage to get time to do something that is beyond mere day-to-day accountancy, perhaps we might find some way, in which we might possibly meet. He and I spent so much time trying to survive in our own worlds that there was no time for us to find out where we were. And I wrote that letter whilst Lily, I mean in order to write it, I had had to leave her in her pram, in the garden, long beyond rest time, and I was still in my dressing gown, and it was three o’clock in the afternoon, and it was snowing. And it’s like, how can we solve this? I think what I liked about the letter was it says ‘This is the problem, what can we do about it?’ It doesn’t say, ‘And therefore… ‘You know, it wasn’t a campaigning letter, it was, ‘Is there anywhere to go from here?’
The People Show at Chapter Arts, Cardiff
Natasha: We did it at the Chapter [Arts] in Cardiff, so that would have been January ’79 because I had her [Lily] in September ’78. So I went back, she was not even four months old, and we were performing in the Chapter. We had lodgings that were about twenty minutes walk from the Chapter. There was a lot of snow, there was a good eight inches of snow. I’d a pram, a baby, a day’s worth of nappies, food, everything that had to be taken to the Chapter every day. I was lucky in that the room that I had in the lodgings that we had, had a gas fire which wasn’t attached to a meter, so I could keep it on all night, and she slept in the bed with me. Tony Jackson was in the show, he joined us and Tony Jackson is someone who’d worked with The People Show before, he lived in Newcastle, and he had MS, and he couldn’t walk very well. Then he came with me because he could lean on the pram, so there was Tony Jackson with a walking stick leaning on the pram, and me and the baby and all that. So we, we were a sort of theatre in ourselves.
Natasha: The show, it was an ambient show that moved throughout the Chapter Arts Centre, which was an old school, and it started in this room, which was quite a cold room, but it had a fireplace, so I lit a fire. So there was a fire, and it was me and Tony in the room, and Lily, the baby. Lily was by the fire, actually by the open fire, a bit like a sort of baby Jesus thing in a way, it was slightly nativity scene. So I found myself dressing in a rather sort of Mother Mary sort of way. So I was Mother Mary if you like, and there was Baby Jesus, and then there was Tony, this sort of punk, S&M, Newcastle poet who was dressed as a baby. So people came in and they glimpsed this and then moved off somewhere else. Tony and I and Lily joined them somewhere else along the line where I was pushing the pram and Tony was hobbling after us shouting. Sort of something else happened, there was a outdoor sequence and that was the end, and then I’d have to pack everything back into the pram and go back home, fall asleep, and give her her eleven o’clock feed and her four o’clock in the morning feed.
Touring with Gay Sweatshop
Julie: There was the women’s company [Gay Sweatshop] and the men’s company. So we would whiz off and we’d meet up with them to do double-bills of Any Woman Can and Mr. X on alternate nights, and the very famous bit when we went over to Ireland and we played the Project Arts Centre, which was being run at the time by Peter and Jim Sheridan, and we had bomb threats, and we were arrested by the Garda and the theatre was mobbed. And we’d go to places in England and again the local right-wing would come out and picket and threaten, and there’d be all the letters in the papers, and people heckling in the audience, and then, there’d be all of the women, and where the men were concerned, the men, who would come up to you and talk to you afterwards and who were in tears at the show and said, ‘That’s me, that’s my story, that’s my life,’ and ‘I’ve never met people like you before.’ People would come out and you would understand why you were doing it.
Debating women’s roles in theatre
Eileen: We actually went into debate with each other, amongst ourselves, about our role in the theatre and our role as actors – what we could do and what we couldn’t do. Should we only ever be mothers, grandmothers and da, da, da? Now again to give him his due Gavin [Richards], he did have one woman being a convener in a factory, a very powerful woman. He produced The Mother, and so we had The Mother, Brecht’s Mother. There were always strong women, but we were still subservient to the idea of, ‘the only way to tell the story of the world is through the eyes of men.’
Susan: It seems also linked into the politic of the time within the Left, where women’s issues had to kind of wait until after the Revolution.
Eileen: Oh, absolutely, ‘When,’ like Alex Glasgow, ‘When the last pub closes the Revolution starts. When the Revolution’s over we can talk about the women’s issues.’ Yes, very much so, and we bought that for a long time, and the men in the company, when we started getting together with the women, felt undermined, I think because they thought, ‘Why should you have, like a women’s…?’ we didn’t call it caucus because we didn’t know the word, but ‘a women’s caucus and a meeting without men. What have you got to talk about that we can’t be party to?’ And it was difficult at the time to gather your ideas and your rationale, to reason for yourselves as to why it was necessary for you to talk amongst yourselves and report back if you like, but not have the men there. It was not because we were slagging the men off, it was just because we needed to talk amongst ourselves.
Ellen Stewart and La MaMa
Beth: We have to flashback now to when she first started to wanted to provide a venue, it was for a guy that she calls her brother although it wasn’t her blood brother, his name is Fred Lights. And so she had enough money from the fashion thing to rent this basement which was teeny widgy, teeny widgy, not in the greatest condition, so you know if you brushed your hand against the wall the plaster might fall off and you might get a noseful of dust, you know, it was that kind of place. But for her it had possibilities, you know first of all it was a place, and people could come in and you could do things in there. I mean she tells a story herself of the time that she was setting it up and everything, and there were these guys coming in, you know playwrights and out-of-work actors wanting to help, and the neighbours called the police because they thought there was this Black woman, she is being visited by white men, she must be running a brothel. So you know she got over that but she still knew nothing about theatre, I mean it was this generosity of heart of wanting to do something without really understanding the way you’re supposed to do it.
Susan: So what do you think ignited that desire for theatre in her?
Beth: It was this guy she calls her brother who had been trying to get recognised up-town, which is the only place you can get recognised in those days, and he would take plays to agents or producers’ offices and if they didn’t physically throw him out they were emotionally throwing him out because he was Black. You didn’t do that, you didn’t trespass over that colour line then. And one of the things that she knew was that if you did something, you know, there it was, it was done. And then people could say what they wanted about it, but that was a lot more fulfilling than sitting around saying, ‘Oh I wish I could do something’. So she just did it and there’s a funny story when the people around who were interested in theatre, you know, the word spread quite quickly, so people would come in and there was one person who came in and looked around and – it was as I said this tiny weeny little place and it was just big enough for some audience, maybe two and a half people to come in, and room for a bed, so all the plays that happened, happened on the bed, in the bed, under the bed, around the bed – they were bed plays and I think there was even a play called, The Bed. But there was this guy came in and he looked around to see if this was for him and he saw that the lights that were hanging from the ceiling were just normal domestic ceiling lights, so he said, ‘Do you have stage lights, do you have gels for the lights?’ and Ellen said, ‘Just a minute honey, let me look’, and she goes into her handbag and rummages around to see and she didn’t know what they were, and she rummaged around like she did know what she was looking for and turned to him and said, ‘I don’t think we have any today’. So that was how it started but boy, did she learn after that.
Wherehouse La MaMa in London
Beth: Jim Haynes had very recently been established at the Arts Lab, I don’t know whether he saw us in Edinburgh or not but he certainly had met Ellen, you know the name La MaMa was not strange to him, and we said we need a space and we don’t have any money, and he said, ‘Well if you bring me coffee every morning you can have the space for free’, and it was a lovely, you know it was a great rehearsal space. There were cushions with fleas in them… but okay that’s what we did, and not only did he give us the space to rehearse but by the time we got a company together and did our first presentation, I’m not going to say it was a production because it was always conceived as the presentation of works in progress. Now the company that we had at the time was Stephen Rea and Dinah Stabb and Maurice Colbourne, Tony and Pete and myself and then we had these kind of workshop participants like Tim Thomas and Hugh Portner was in there and the other person was Nancy Meckler. So we did this presentation at the Arts Lab. The things we did were called Street Piece, which evolved out of a workshop exercise of walking at geometrical angles and choosing or not to encounter verbally or not with somebody that you happened to meet at the corner of your turning, and you know it was very evocative of urban life you know. I don’t want to make it sound like it was some epic or anything, it was a simple thing but it was very effective, and we did the witches’ scene from Macbeth but in a Tom [O’Horgan] way, you know so we had very strange kind of cacophonations of sound representing the witches, which weren’t just played by one person, sometimes they were like a chimera of people and that was strange and wonderful. I really liked that, I remember that. And then there was a piece that Ellen had given us to come over to do by a playwright called George Bernissa, it was called Mr Jello, and it was a very interesting play about the disappointments of personal relationships, that’s really what it was about, but funny and weird and very liberating in the way that of what it demanded of actors. Again we did it without a director so we each would take turns to oversee, you know we were trying to put into practice the kinds of things that we had absorbed from Tom [O’Horgan].
Mustapha Matura and 1970s plays from Black writers
Roland: How a lot of it came about was, in his usual way, Ed Berman said, ‘We’re going to a Black and White Power season, Roland.’ ‘Black and White Power Ed, what’s this?’ ‘Both peoples want power so we’ll give shows about them,’ and they were all American. I said, ‘This is ridiculous, you’re doing a Black and White Power season and you haven’t got an indigenous black writer,’ which to his…I mean he was right…it was difficult, there was difficulty in finding… [any indigenous black writers]. We did Chiaroscuro by Israel Horowitz. He did a couple of plays himself and then, I had from The Electronic Nigger and the other of Ed Bullin’s plays at the Ambiance, I made a great friendship with Stefan Kalipha, which I still have. I’ve done more plays with him than any other actor. Anyway, I said, ‘Stefan, we’ve got to find someone who’s from the Caribbean who’s writing plays.’ Barry Reckord, didn’t really – I don’t know why he didn’t come up. Anyway, Stefan turned up one day in Inter-Action, with this guy who worked in a factory in, not Feltham, something like that. Anyway he came with little, A4, yellow pages, all separate. He was holding them in his hand and he said, ‘I’ve got some plays. I hear you’re looking for plays.’ And he’s still got his khaki coat on that he wore in the factory, I remember this vividly, and he gave me these plays. They’d got no pagination. I thought, ‘Christ, I’d better not…’ And they were written in patois, and I just read the first page and I knew this was someone who could really write, and so we squashed these six plays of his, some were only a page long, into 50 minutes of virtually one play. In the cast was Oscar James and Stefan Kalipha and T-Bone Wilson and Alfred Fagon, and Alfred said to me, ‘If that man can write, Roland, I go write!’ He did and we did 11 Josephine House not long after.
Money to Live at the Royal Court
Susan: In terms of the production Money to Live though, it came first didn’t it?
Susan: How did that one come about? Did that get commissioned by the Black Theatre Co-op?
Jacqueline: That was commissioned… yeah, the Black Theatre Co-op, and it was done at the Royal Court. Max Stafford-Clark wasn’t it? Yeah. Gordon Case directed Money to Live. That was fun. That was an interesting play for me because it was very real to a Black woman trying to find herself and trying to make money that she could look after… and a different standard of life, but that was the only way she could achieve it really. It was an interesting production and it was different, it was new, it was a play that many women could identify with. I think even in those days. I’d met a lot of women that had, who were, striptease artists or were prostitutes, who wanted to make money to live. And sometimes we can get on our very, very high moral attitude, but there are people who have to do anything to make money, and that’s where the whole theme came from really.
Spare Tyre, Equal Rights, Equity Women’s Committee
Adele: I’d seen their advert in Time Out and I was very nervous about contacting this feminist theatre company, but I was quite excited and I wanted to find out more about it. So I went along and got involved, and they were doing this amazing work with this woman called Suzie Orbach who’d written a book called Fat is a Feminist Issue and it started to turn my thinking around. I started to become politicized on women’s image, why we behaved certain ways, why it was acceptable to be this way, not acceptable to be that way. The show that we did was called How Do I Look? So it began to question the whole image thing, women’s image, why we dress in a certain way, to please, to charm, to be attractive. Small touring show, perhaps about six of us. It had Clare Chapman [now Chapwell] in it and Clare had been one of the original founding members of the Women’s Theatre Group, so she was quite, a sort of, politicized person. And part of that, later on in the Women’s Theatre Group, part of that politicization was that we should be paid properly as actors and as women, workers. So, thankfully, it was quite unusual, you know. Because when I joined the Women’s Theatre Group, I had a paid job for two and a half years. For a young actress, twenty-six years old, I guess I was, that’s quite a nice thing, I was able to get a mortgage. You know, no a bad thing really, at that age, I got my first flat in Hackney. So we were determined to, make sure our working conditions were right. That was also a part of a strong movement within Equity. The Women’s Campaign for Real Equality in Equity, and things like that. The Women’s Committee in Equity. We were trying to campaign for more parts for women. But Spare Tyre was doing this type of political theatre, where you went into…, and again, the types of places that we toured to were dramatically different. We went to some really poor areas in Sheffield and Bradford, and places like that, but there were some real, good, political women’s groups that invited us there, you know, that were campaigning for women’s issues and on all sorts of things like women’s reproductive rights and it seemed to be a very energetic time. There were lots of small campaign groups like that and they supported women’s theatre groups because they invited them to these various places and the other thing that supported the women’s theatre groups and the alternative theatre groups was GLA of course. The Greater London…GLC, sorry, GLC. That gave a lot of small grants out to support gay and women’s theatre, so there was this great, fantastic, mushrooming of small theatre companies.
Content and style of early Graeae work
Nabil: Sideshow at the Riverside [Studios] was the culmination of several years of work. In a sense it probably began as these amateur student producions that we did at Hereward College. The first show, which I wasn’t involved with, was called Never Mind You’ll Soon Get Better. Then when I got involved with the drama group that Richard [Tomlinson] was running I suggested a new name which was Ready Salted Crips, but it was pretty much going along the same formula or idea of Never Mind You’ll Soon Get Better, which was just a collection of sketches, each one dealing with a certain aspect of a disabled person’s life, or disabled people’s lives, which were issue-based in a way. So it could be about the relationship between a disabled person and their family, or education, or employers, trying to find work, religion, very tentatively- sex – that was still quite a taboo subject generally speaking. The issue of sex was kind of treated in a very kind of jokey, lampoonish, almost seaside-postcard manner, but the more… the medical issues obviously, loomed large. And these kind of sketches were influenced by the Monty Python style of comedy because obviously at that time Monty Python was fairly fresh and we were all influenced by that, certainly Richard and myself were. So for example we had a funny walk competition as one of the sketches which was parodying the Ministry of Silly Walks. But the thing about that joke is that here we’ve got real people, with real funny walks, which actually kind of disturbs the audience, you know, before they thought it was hilarious to watch John Cleese and Eric Idle and Co do these walks, which actually remind us of people with cerebral palsy or whatever kind of mobility disabilities they may have, and are therefore not quite so funny. So, you know, we deliberately set out to make the audience feel uncomfortable about the fact that they had laughed in the past. And that was the kind of weapon that we used frequently in our sketches.
The influence of Bill Gaskill
And the third influence then, I suppose was Bill Gaskill and the Court. Now Bill came up to Edinburgh and saw a couple of plays I’d done, he was very impressed that men took their clothes off as well as women, I seem to remember, and he asked us down to the Come Together Festival. However, we didn’t have a play in our repertoire to bring, so we didn’t take part in that festival, but I did make a friendship with Bill, and later we did bring some things down to the Theatre Upstairs, a play of Stanley Eveling’s, which was very successful, and indeed we had a band – this was La MaMa’s influence really – a band in Edinburgh who were part of the Traverse Workshop Company and they were a band who already had a certain following. A kind of folk/rock band called Breads Lovin’ Dreams …and they and their very skilled lead guitarist were part of our company. That guaranteed that the Traverse Workshop Company got terrific houses in at least. And we came down and did a rather hippie show in the Theatre Upstairs and I met Bill from that, or re-established connection with Bill. I came from quite a different discipline. I mean the Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble meant nothing to me. But Bill came from, you know worked within a prosc-arch, whereas I’d worked…and Grotowski and Polish Theatre and Promenade Theatre was not totally foreign to me, so Bill said, ‘Why don’t we do a period of work together?’ ‘Yes’ I said, ‘That would be great!’ So we did in, I think, probably, ’70 or 71, do a workshop together which lasted, I think, 4 weeks, in which we worked with a number of actors on Heathcote William’s book The Speakers, and we cut it up on the floor of his flat in Fitzroy Road, and made a kind of play out of it and cast it, and we had simultaneous events going on at the [same time]. And the set was simply a scaffolding tower which lights had been hung from but the bottom half of which was a tea trolley. So the audience could get cups of tea at any time during the performance. And often there were two or three speakers performing simultaneously, so the audience had to choose which event they wanted to go and watch.
Lily Susan Todd
Women finding their identity and voice through creativity
Lily Susan Todd: I think, we were all of us, I mean the Street Theatre Group and those groups who were starting to try to make performance in the street or elsewhere, or indeed within various alternative theatre routes like the first Women’s Season at the Almost Free Theatre in Soho, I think we were all really, really sort of groping for an identity as women creatives. I think we were looking to make a space within which we could work as creative women and find our themes, really, find our ideas, and find our themes. There wasn’t a coherent intellectual background, or coherent theory, it was just a bunch of women coming together, bunches of women, groups of women coming together to do things with a majority of women, within those groupings.
Lily Susan Todd
Women’s Liberation meetings and The Women’s Street Theatre Group
Lily: The period between 1971 and ’73, or ’70 and ’73 was very active from the feminist point of view. It was when everything began to kick off. A woman I knew who was a very active communist took me along to something called the Women’s Liberation Workshop, to a meeting. And it was a group of women from all over Europe and America, and they were kind of giving papers, little papers, reports on the Women’s Movement in America and Holland and you know, and she said I think you really need to know about this, so I went along and I was quite astonished to discover something so organised, something that existed in really quite an organised network way. And so Buzz [Goodbody] and I got talking, and at some point after that we went along to a meeting at Jane Arden’s house. Jane Arden was very rich and had a beautiful house in Little Venice. There she held some kind of soiree. Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven? Yes, that was Jane. I began to know about those kinds of things dimly, and at the meeting at Jane’s house, a group of slightly disaffected, Left-wing women got themselves into a sort of bunch, slightly saying, ‘these bloody rich women’ you know, ‘arsing about doing bits of whatever it is they’re doing’, we were rather self-righteous, it certainly wasn’t political enough, and this group consisted of Michele Roberts, the now-revered, national treasure novelist, and Dinah Brook, who was also a novelist, Alison Fell, another novelist, a journalist, who was then had not long left Leeds Art School, Buzz, myself – I think that was about it. A group of people that sort of assembled itself and we began to meet and through those meetings, which were sort of our version of consciousness raising meetings, we decided that we’d form some kind of street theatre, guerilla theatre, and we called ourselves, inventively: The Women’s Street Theatre Group. We began to do, sort of street cartoons, and so on, largely inspired by Alison, who’d been to art school and had, had much more idea about sort of performance events, Buzz and I had no idea about any of that theatre, no idea at all, so we were introduced to the idea of performance events and we did a series of events, one or two of which were quite bold. We did an event at The Miss World Contest, and there’s a photograph of this in the not very long-lived magazine Seven Days, and there’s this very nice photograph of this line of women standing in the dark with lit up nipples and crotches with little lights flashing on and off.
Women’s Liberation meetings and conferences
Michelene: It was quite a domesticated encounter because my kids were at a nursery school up the road, and I’d met a woman who had moved in down the road, and she had twins who were the same age as my eldest, Adam, and they were at the same nursery school, and so basically the kids got friendly. I met her in the street. She was already quite in touch with sort of lefty, arty people, and she’d moved from Islington and she was part of one of the first Women’s Liberation groups in this country. I think they were four in London at that point, and when she moved to live here, she, I can’t remember quite how it worked, but anyway, she kind of set up a group in her house. She’d split up from her husband with her three kids, and I started to go to meetings in her house, and started meeting women who I had, you know, never met anyone like that before, and we were reading lots of mainly American stuff because there wasn’t really any English stuff. And there were, in this group, there were I think at least two women who were American who had come to live here, who were against the Vietnam War. I don’t know if there were any draft-dodging husbands, there may have been. So the influence of American thinking, which post-Betty Friedan, was already much more developed than here, and then there was the first Women’s Liberation conference at Ruskin College in Oxford in 1970, which I went to, and out of that came the Body Politic which was the first collection of Women’s Liberation writings published in this country, which I ended up editing.
Lumiere & Son working process
Hilary: The material that we did, and I would say even when I continued on to do the shows, I think, were mainly to do with the sort of dark insides of people and their desires, and their appetites and their dreams. I think that was certainly the area that the sort of people that we depicted, if there were any characters, there were always something peculiar about them. I think in terms of my relationship with the material, I think that Dave [Gale] and I would talk an awful lot about what we were doing, so it wasn’t that he would write a play on his own and then deliver it, far from it. I think what I was getting more skilful at and that would also help Dave in his writing: I was quite good at bringing out what people could perform, you know their persona, their characteristics, what would… you know, because I think we never really thought that we worked with actors. We sort of worked with odd people, people that had some… some performing… something that they could perform within the sort of parameters of Dave’s writing and what I was interesting in doing. Quite a lot of the things that I’d be doing would be to try and see how this could come out by doing improvisations on talking, on moving, on jokes, we used to use a lot of jokes. So that was something that was developing over the time. I would also… we used to use pre-recorded music then, that was before we worked with composers, so I would spend quite a long time getting the right music. So I’d do quite a lot of stuff with choreography and music, and design, design was quite high up on our list. And so yes, we were beginning to define our spaces. I used to do stuff – I think it was something I used at drama school, we were taught Laban, Laban efforts where it divides the components of movement into fast, slow, direct, indirect, and heavy and light, and I used to do a lot of stuff on that to do with emotions and do with text. So often characters would come out of the person, so they’re not actually seeing a character that’s distant to them that they are going to inhabit in any way. I would set up something like that and if something worked then we would take that out. I also did stuff where you’d do extremes of emotion, either with text or without text. So attitudes would come out from there. So that sort of thing, I’d do workshops. Sometimes if things came out Dave would incorporate that into his writing. Although really the scripts weren’t improvised, except for the street work, which was quite so to a certain extent. Quite a lot of the material and the characteristics of the performers would come out in these exercises that I’d set up and Dave might incorporate some of those into the script, into the text.