Sadista Sisters first show at the Hard Rock Cafe
Jude: The thing at the Hard Rock wasn’t a show, the thing at the Hard Rock was a sort of event… it was a happening. The first show was…the opening, the set was a pair of female legs and a heart shape, in the centre, which I don’t need to tell you what that was, with a cellophane covering, and Teresa and I in pink cat suits with these amazing masks that were across here [indicates across face], that were like with cheeks and dummies on them and we had pink swimming hats on. So we looked like babies or foetuses or whatever, and we tore our way out of this heart, and then we sang this song ‘Baby Doll’, so we turned immediately into…desirable… nubile, Barbie doll baby women.
Sheila: All sort of shenanigans went on, which were very painful. The men objected to it…one of the women who had really wanted to do it …somehow she thought that she could get it [the role] from me. Luckily I was warned about this little move in time and wrote to Trevor [Nunn] and said, ‘I think something is going on here, what’s happening?’ and it was all reassembled. And – ‘cos one of the young male directors wanted to do it, and Pam had said, ‘I would like to have a female director’. And so that was re-established, and then we got together, and then some of the men decided that this was old fashioned writing and that the women’s movement had finished, and really what was all this about? And it was kinda quite difficult, but… so we became fairly factious, which was not comfortable for me, it was very uncomfortable, especially since I joined the company late because I had to finish my filming of the second series of Bouquet of Barbed Wire…and… you know it was very difficult, but the thing worked!
Michael: We, at our college, had a very beautiful theatre, the assembly hall was also a theatre and they didn’t know what plays to put on, they had no plays as such. Drama – they had fantastic poetry, very good prose – but the drama was not developed. When we had parties around this time of the year, Christmas, and Jewish holiday called Hannukah, they had, the main show of the year was directed by pupils for that period. There was no, there was no material so, I don’t know how it happened, but I created a lot of material because their material was geared to Jewish life in the previous generation. I remember going to have my face made up for the next play and the woman who directed us, because I was a child, stuck side-curls on me because that was the only part I could play. I couldn’t play my own generation, so I started to create my own plays and that’s how the interest started.
Susan: So the Ambiance was staging lunchtime theatre starting in the basement…
ED: Of the Ambiance restaurant at No 1 Queensway
Susan: And then you went to the Green Banana and the ICA?
ED: Well, we went to a variety of places, yes. I was working on setting up a theatre, daytime or lunch-hour and evening, on Rupert Street where there was planning-blighted property, and a friend of mine at the time was also interested in setting up a language theatre for teaching English, and he ran a thing called the International House, which gave people certificates in, I guess, TEFL and TESL, and so we set it up there, but he soon backed out of having a permanent theatre company so The Almost Free, which Bob Gill designed the logo for, which had The Free Theatre, and then written in Almost, looking like it was written by hand, with a carrot saying Almost Free since the policy was you had to pay at least 1 penny up to… there was no upper limit by the way, and we found that if you stood there with a playwright or another director, if there happened to be one, you would get a lot more money in because people were embarrassed in front of you for some reason, I don’t know, just embarrassment I guess. So we made a lot more than the average ticket price you would have made at the time if you had charged the average amount for theatre, evening theatre never mind lunch-hour theatre.
Susan: So what kind of space was it, what kind of street was it at the time?
ED: Rupert Street was planning-blighted throughout most of it. It had all sorts of different kinds of businesses, but it had the Rialto Cinema fronting onto, near Leicester Square, I guess, at the bottom of the street.
Susan: But what had the building that you took over been?
ED: It had been an electric bingo parlour I think, and we stripped it out and made a nice small theatre that could seat, I think, 60 but with standing-room it could go up to 100, which it often did at lunch-hour and in the evening.
Susan: Was it on the ground floor or downstairs?
ED: Yes, it was on the ground floor. It was one of those amazing things that you could do at that time with planning-blighted property in the middle of London.
Tony: The form that Interplay picked up directly from Ed Berman, was what Berman used to call the Dramascape. Essentially what the Dramascape is, is a street-theatre procession to get the kids together, street drama within that procession to tell a story, perhaps to create a problem that needs solving over the next two weeks, out of that comes the building of the play-site, usually a big structure, spinning of all kinds of arts and crafts and mini drama projects, based on the drama that’s done on the first days processional work and then it all comes together on the last day, which traditionally I guess usually involved a bonfire, and usually involved the burning down of the structure. I have horrendous, terrifying photographs of those bonfires with a child sitting on top of the bonfire just as the fire was beginning underneath. Health and safety was not a priority, but no-one got hurt. I don’t think you’d be allowed to do it, I don’t think…you couldn’t do that now. You’d be so hedged around with rules that you couldn’t do that kind of work. But the basic Dramascape form was very, very effective.
When we went on tour with Any Woman Can, we asked people – Nancy Diuguid was in this tour, and she actually was asking people at the talk out, ‘What would you like to see representing your lives?’ Cause you know, Sweatshop was to hold a mirror up to its audience, to reflect their lives which was not represented on stage. And two things came out, job discrimination, and… at work, discrimination at work I should say, and also custody cases. And it seems like there were more incidences of heartbreak over custody cases than anything. So then we started to do the odd interviews after the show, and then once we’d finished we’d go out and meet other people and do tape interviews. And then we got a company who improvised together and then Michelene [Wandor] came in and we stuck all the interviews on the wall and we’d say, ‘Oh that can go there, and that can go there…’
People just met. They discussed local issues, and they sent…I mean it was really good, and I mean it now has a branch movement, because there were no branches, Equity was so centralized and autocratic. There was no…there was no devolution or discussion, there was no debate, there was no information, you know…. and we started branches in, I think, and I was heavily involved in the North London Branch. And then I think just because, because becoming involved with Equity I met lots of other women, and I knew them from the theatre as well and we decided to start the Women’s Committee. I didn’t stay with it for very long…
Susan: And was that unauthorized as well, you say?
Anne: No no no, I think that was authorized pretty quickly, it might have been unauthorized very briefly at the start, but I remember it was…because by then…
Susan: I guess you took it to AGM and…
Anne: Yeah – no, no it was….I think it was unauthorized for a bit, you know we did just start it, but it was sanctioned. I do remember, which is interesting, that we were heavily involved in promoting more roles for women. We commissioned research, that’s right, we did commission research into you know, women’s work, women’s Equity members and pay differentials, and all that, so we were concerned with that, but we were concerned with the wider issue of representation and women writing and all that.
Noel: Well, as I said, he was one of the founders of it [Gay Sweatshop] and I think he was involved in that Homosexual Acts season at the Almost Free, and then when they did Mr X and Jill Posener’s play, Any Woman Can, he was there. But then he went, quite soon after that, he went to work at the Royal Court to run the young people’s programme there, hugely successfully and taking/bringing his…you know,,,taking all his philosophy and ideas from Gay Sweatshop into that arena. So he was…I think he personally was involved in the development of youth theatre in this country and then he particularly in the area of working with young people, mm, yes.
Jim: It was my first production in the bookshop in 1960, and I date the Traverse [Theatre] beginning in the bookshop because it wasn’t called the Traverse it was called The Paperback Bookshop, but it was nevertheless my first production. It was David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and Harold Hobson wrote in the Festival of 1960, Sunday Times, about – most of his column, I mean he had a big, a lot of space in the Sunday Times –he said I saw the greatest production at the Festival this year at a tiny bookshop off the George Square, and he just raved about it – also at the Edinburgh Festival ‘this year is Peter Brook’s so and so and so….and you know, the Royal Shakespeare Company… He named all these other companies that were there, but the whole space was to…. and you know I can hold 60 people, and people sat on little benches, and I gave them coffee afterwards and threw it open to discussion. The throwing it open to discussion is what really got Harold Hobson, he got involved in the discussion and he really loved it, and you know, people were arguing about this and that, various points, and it was great.
Transforming spaces– designer Mary Moore
Julie: What she brought into it was the capacity to transform any space that you toured to – and this is very true of Soap Opera, My Mkinga, Aurora Leigh – and transform the space for the audience, because we didn’t just carry sets, we carried spaces. So you went into a hall to see Soap Opera and you didn’t know you were in that hall any longer because the actor/performer relationship was created in what was toured, to the point where that communication spatially was happening. It was no longer set as functional, or what you needed to do the play and go in somewhere, it actually created theatres, so Soap Opera I think was a breakthrough. It came out of Mary…obviously after that I kind of caught on to it and yes, that became part of what I valued, you know. We started working together in a way that was more if you like interactive, but I think because she had brought that experience from Stoke-on-Trent, because, you see, we were working in-the-round with that show, I mean the understanding of space she’d brought from a different tradition, so you’re seeing somebody who’d been working in the mainstream coming in and bringing in an enormous amount of knowledge into that and actually working there, so… because the show I’d done before that of trotting round the country with How The Vote Was Won still had flats behind it, so it’s definitely… that’s the input. But once I think in Worthingtons [Mrs Worthington’s Daughters] and in The Women’s Theatre Group her influence started, then everybody kind of got hooked on it, then that’s what everybody wanted, but you know, it was – I don’t think we had that before. I think we were wandering around with our props and tarting things up in halls or the scaffold: we weren’t changing space, we weren’t using space as a theatrical dynamic.
Albert: When we were doing plays, I always looked for two things to start with. One was, and this goes back to, a little bitto what you were talking about subjects earlier and propaganda you know, I always looked for what was the subject we wanted to tackle and felt it urgent to tackle, and what form were we going to tackle [it in]. And the form was important you know, because, and that’s what most political theatre groups ignored…I think – I’m probably being unfair, but I mean I have seen so many political plays where the message was obviously there, but the actual drama was so boring that nobody was going to take any notice of it anyway, you know, and you knew what the message was from [the beginning]. So, whenever we began a piece of work we always began with an idea that we wanted to approach and a form that would approach it in and [John Ford’s] Cuban Missile Crisis was a very good example of that.
Susan: Were you then… you were trying to start working as a playwright?
Bryony: No not at all, no, because I simply didn’t know I could. I didn’t know people earned a living that way.
Susan: So you were trying to find a direction at that point?
Bryony: I guess so, yes, and I didn’t really have one. I went into teaching, but it was simply to earn some money, and once in teaching I discovered how much I loved it. And so I did…I did teach for about five years. When I left teaching that’s when I thought, ‘Well, I might try and write.’ But it wasn’t until I became the administrator of Incubus, which was then a small fringe theatre, that I suddenly thought, ‘There’s this whole world I didn’t know about, of little groups living on people’s floors…’ and that’s when I started doing theatre.
Ruth: But I remember as theatre writing officer, one of my big triumphs was giving Ken Campbell, Ken Campbell money to commission Heathcote Williams to make a play, quotes ‘play’, underwater, which was going to use revolutionary speakers and take place – the performance was going to be in swimming pools where the audience had to come in with their snorkels. And it was about endangered whales, and I remember sending the then Arts Council officers to go to the trials in the swimming pools in Liverpool, and the Theatre Writing Committee, who included actually Steve Gooch, taking me to task and refusing to accept this as a proposal because it didn’t have enough words. And me writing a furious defence, about Beckett…I mean this fantastic tradition of drama, and how many…how many words did you need? Anyway, it turned out that it became a poem by Heathcote Williams, a very famous poem about whales [Whale Nation]. We did fund it and I’m pleased we did and he rightly thanked me. And we redefined what a play was for the Theatre Writing Committee which I think was probably a very good policy moment actually.
Ruth: ….yeah, but in all seriousness I guess another theme, you know, for me has been, well let’s push at some of these definitions.
Libby: Again one of my most favourite directing experiences, beautiful, beautiful play – I don’t know if you know it – quite autobiographical in the sense that he was writing out his relationship with his father: he killed his mother [in the play] which is interesting because his mother actually, Dorothy, is still alive 90-something I think. A beautiful mixture of – as Noel was always so good at- like writing about very personal things but it was about, the 80s, Thatcherism, Greenham Common – he managed to combine that social and political atmosphere with the story of a young man discovering that his father had had gay relationships so it was a beautiful blending, a beautiful blending of a number of different themes, and again I don’t know what to say about it. Like theatre, theatre lives and it dies, right. And we did it; it was great, it’s gone and it’s gone in a way that it won’t come back – I think because it was so tied to its era. I think it really was a play tied to the 80s, the early 80s, a play from the context [of] that kind of Tory regime. I don’t know what else to say. I met some really great actors, I mean and again it was a magical group of people: Simon Deacon who was a wonderful now composer and musician, Julie Wilkinson who is now mostly a writer, a guy called Orde Brown – don’t know what happened to him, a women called Val- don’t know what her name was- but anyway again it was magical. It was one those experiences, like a magical group of people, wonderful writer, wonderful actors. I don’t remember anything about it except it was entirely pleasurable. I may have rose-coloured spectacles – it was a glorious piece of work.
Mary: Kate’s [Crutchley] rehearsing, I think probably The Lady or the Tiger at the Orange Tree. And there is a young woman who is working there as the stage manager/technical person, and she’s, I think she’s 18 and her name is Jill Posener, and she goes, ‘Oops here’s two people who might be interested in my play’, so she approaches us and – this is how my memory of this happening – that she approaches both of us and says, ‘I’ve got this play, you’re gay, would you put the play on? You’ve got the experience and the means to do this.’ And we went, ‘Oh! Okay, we’ll think about it.’ Anyway we read it and thought there was nothing like it before, had no real connection to political theatre in a way until that moment, and when we read it we thought, really when we read it, the best place to do it would be somewhere where there was a middle-class audience like the Orange Tree, and Sam wasn’t interested in doing it, and pretty much at the same time of thinking about where it could go on, Kate met Gerald Chapman. I’m sure it was Gerald who said: ‘Hey, I hear you that you’ve got this play, you ought to be doing it with Gay Sweatshop’ – because the men had already done a season before. Anyway we were not sure whether that’s where we thought we should do it, but eventually we realised, that yes, probably we should, so Jill and her girlfriend at the time, Janet, and Kate and I formed the women of Gay Sweatshop, joined the men and put that play into their season.
Susan: Had you been much involved in gay politics up to that point?
Susan: Women’s politics?
Mary: Not really, no.
Natasha: It started with a wardrobe, I was very interested in wardrobes and I remembered lying in bed at night as a kid and watching – I was a bit scared of wardrobes. I didn’t… I mean I was born in 1945 and I didn’t like the word ‘war’ anyway, and there was something about the fact the word ‘war’ was in ‘wardrobe’. And…I knew that when …when car lights, streetlights moved down the road or whatever the wardrobe sort of appeared to move, because of the light. So I invented this sequence in which, which would open the show with the wardrobe and the light from…and Rick Fisher, who is now one of the best lighting designers in the country, who was working at the Oval as a lighting designer…and we created a way for the wardrobe to appear to dance…and it danced to Edmundo Ross playing ‘Fernando’s Hideaway’…and it was great.
Julie: The building here [Drill Hall] was run, as I said, by a company called Action Space, who were artists, which would have been Mary Turner and Ken Turner and various people who were connected with…
Susan: So what would they do normally then?
Julie: What they did, they were artists who did site-specific work. So they would build huge outdoor structures and the performance would be created, and they would also do lots of alternative music things, and they used this space to make, what you now would understand as, what you would call the…what’s sadly become things like the kid’s bouncy castles. These were huge art structures that would be used effectively as scapes and landscapes and spaces to create movement, performance, music, art, so it was effectively, if you like, you were seeing a Live Art performance. They would tour out to all kinds of festivals both here and all over Europe. There was another part where wherever we went to, they went to – they did lots and lots of touring to kids’ playgrounds over the summer. That’s what they did. And they also did a certain amount of performance in the building. It’s where people like Phantom Captain first performed and companies like that. I don’t know if you remember those people?
Susan: Yes, yes.
Julie: And…I’m trying to think of who else is still going…I mean it’s sort of, the heritage of that work is based, probably most closely these days in the sort of stuff that Arts Admin houses and looks after. That would be its natural successors.
Polly: But then we went on to do a third one which was Women in Crime, and there was, there had been a book published at the time called Sisters in Crime about women criminals. And we did this, and it’s a laugh, we were invited to do this for a women’s conference on criminology at the University of Chichester or something out there…or…Colchester, Colchester. And so we just, all we did was research it and we had little bits of mini crimes that we’d committed ourselves you know. But at the end of it, and of course we, it was Thatcher’s time, at the time as well, so we were able to present her as a criminal, and also stories that we got from books that we read and women that we talked to. And at the end, because it was quite entertaining, that was our job, we had all these criminologists…asking us questions in order to enlighten them as to women in criminology!
Jacqueline: I had a love for the theatre, and I just felt I had to express myself, you know, and I had a very close friend called Helen….I don’t recall her name – Helen Dallington – and we had an extremely great relationship. It wasn’t nothing physical, just a very, you know, sisterhood relationship and it kinda inspired me, and I find myself involved with loads of women, very supportive, and I just had a deep love for women, and that was it. And I wrote Friends Like You. I founded Imani-Faith, the black women’s theatre company and it had ten black women in there, and it was just simply awesome. It was like, you know, we were all, I suppose being healed to a certain extent, where everyone had a freedom to express themselves, you know, their pains, and we could understand one another. I suppose it was like having a therapy, one would say, counselling now, but it was women just releasing themselves and talking about their hurts, and no-one could judge them.
Adele: One of the first things I had to do was try and get rid of my Leicester accent because I used to say “uhs”, I didn’t quite say ‘grass’ and ‘bath’ [flat a]. But I remember when I went home on the holidays, my friend’s mother said, “Oh God! listen to her, you know, who does she think she is?” because my accent had started changing, because of course, in those days you had to speak with a middle class voice if you wanted to work in theatre.
Susan: When was this?
Adele: Well, it was 1976, so, you’d think by then we’d moved on but actually we hadn’t. And again, at that drama school, there were only two…two, no three non-white people in a class. It was a class of about 30. So, again, I was in a minority, and it was still that kind of thing of, spread over the expectations, that really you had to try and fit into what was already existing rather than make theatre based on your own experiences. You were trying to fit in, to be able to play Noel Coward or Chekhov or this or that, and there wasn’t this idea that you could play those characters from your own background, race, class, heritage, whatever that was. You had to fit in with the main …
Susan: Existing expectations?
Nabil: I said, we need a name. We need a product, a mark, a trademark, and we need a logo in order to sell it. So he [Richard Tomlinson] says, ‘OK, what name?’ So we discussed what the name should have, what kind of meaning behind it and I said, ‘Well look , you know, we are in… theatre as we know it today has its origin in Greek traditions, Greek theatre. Also perceptions of disabled people is mainly created through mythology and legends. So, therefore, we should have a name that perhaps comes from Greek mythology. And as we’re in the business of myth breaking, we should definitely have something like that. So what disabled characters or deformed characters are there in Greek theatre er Greek mythology whose names we could use to encapsulate what our theatre company is about?’ So we came up with things like Centaur, Cyclops, Hephaestus, and so on, but none of them really worked. I said, ‘What’s the name of those three sisters that had one eye between them and got cheated by Perseus of their eye?’
Susan: And one tooth.
Nabil: I didn’t know about the tooth, I only knew about the eye. So I said, ‘If we could find out what their names was maybe that’s the name for the company. So Richard went back, did a search – in those days we didn’t have the internet or Wikipedia, so it took him a bit longer. Eventually he came back and said, ‘They’re called the Graeae or the Stygian Sisters. I said, ‘Graeae, I think that could be it.’
Lily: So we pranced off to Trafalgar Square with a cartoon, doing a little sort cartoon of … I was the Church and Buzz [Goodbody] was Capitalism, and we had this big chain, and a woman pushing a pram along, inside the chains.
Susan: How were you dressed as the Church?
Lily: I had a long sort of surplice and a dog collar and all that, and Buzz was probably dressed in a top hat and a dress coat, you know. And Michele Roberts was pushing the pram, a sort of suburban housewife chained in by Church and Capitalism of course, you know, into subservience and depression. And the placard read, ‘Fuck the F**ily’, in other words the obscene word was not fuck but family, so it was a kind of protest against family values, the sort of family values being promulgated by the likes of the Festival of Light – and we promptly got arrested.
Michelene: But what I’m saying is I had this absolute certainty, conviction, that documentation was vital. Not just…not consciously for archives actually…I think I was probably thinking about it from two slightly different angles. One was the professional angle, that if you were a playwright, having good work published and available for other people to do again was vital, but the other thing was also the proselytising, the feminism, the influencing, the spreading the word kind of stuff, and documentation is very important for that, publication is important. So it was for those two reasons. So there was The Body Politic – I didn’t do another collection like that. Then there was wanting to see the plays published, the Red Ladder and all the others, that was eventually published by Journeyman [Press] under Strike While the Iron Is Hot…and then there were the plays by women. So I was always convinced that that was important to do, and I enjoyed the editing and I enjoyed the selection and I enjoyed writing the introductions. And for all those plays by women, I instituted an Afterword, I asked each playwright to write a brief afterword to her own work. So their voices as the writers were in there a bit saying whatever they wanted to say.
Hilary: The first show that he’d done was The Pit which I did, I took over when it was done again. What that was, it was a pit, it was square, walled area. The performers were inside, four performers, and there were three sections to the enclosure and they had little holes on the mid-section, so you could have
thirty two audience looking in. And a number of sort of master-slave type, psychoanalytical games, and the relationships were played by the two men and two women inside, and as the performers opened themselves up to each other, so the walls came down. So eventually you’d just have the audience sitting on chairs with all the walls taken down, and then after that we would do a workshop with the audience. So this is sort of ’69 quite early, and then after that he did a show called The Journey which was more political in relationship to what was happening in the world. We did it at the Oval and it was divided into different areas and audiences would go in, at one at a time, they’d go a cubicle to be questioned, and they’d go on to somewhere else, and then something else would happen to them, so it was quite experiential as they went through, hence the journey…I can’t remember. I think we probably did a workshop with them at the end. So it was quite a small audience, I think we had an audience of 14.