Action Space have an extensive production and project history spanning over 42 years. Below is a potted history of some of their projects between 1968 and 1988. For a more detailed account of their work please refer to Mary Turner’s book, Action Space Extended.
1968 was the year Action Space formed. They primarily focused on developing ideas to realise the theoretical explorations of their work. At this time Mary Turner was running a playgroup and Ken Turner was teaching students on a foundation course. The first realisation of their work was with Plastic Garden, an outdoor inflatable structure created for inclusion in the Tower of London Festival spearheaded by Joan Littlewood.
1969 saw Action Space develop the first phase of the Wapping Project. During their work on Plastic Garden they had to make daily repairs to their structures after young people from the Wapping area had vandalised the structure nightly. Interested in pursuing a new avenue for engaging with these defiant young people Action Space invited artists working in the nearby semi-derelict St Katherines Dock studios to join them and embarked upon a three-week summer project in Wapping.
After receiving a little funding from the Arts Council and London Education Authority they rebuilt some of the damaged structures used for Plastic Garden for the Wapping project. They made contact with local youth services, the police, other local authorities and artists working in the area. Each day artists came to perform shows, try out new structures or more experimental performances. Visitors included The People Show and Inter-Action amongst others. They lived on site in the Church House, met with local kids at all hours, talked with their families and begged local industry for scrap metal to use as material for the project. They took the kids out to join the East End playsites procession in Spitalfields wearing triumphant signs and costumes painted with ‘WAPPING MONSTERS’.
In 1970 Action Space experimented with a movement piece using sticks and Laban techniques, led by Pauline Saul in a structured environment at a children’s playday in Finsbury Park. The development of other work in this year progressed through performances at festivals and playsites. They also returned to Wapping during their summer residences work.
In 1971 they began touring their work with inflatable structures extensively at festivals with some support from the Arts Council’s new initiative Blow Up ‘71. They travelled with a large pneumatic structure comprised of ‘separate air-houses and tubular corridors of various heights, each house containing a different physical stimulus’ (pp.43. Action Space Extended) and began trailing experimental work at the Serpentine Gallery in London (which became an annual event for the company). This was also the year they began work on their new base at the once derelict Piano Factory on Harmood Street in Camden. This was one of several empty buildings appropriated by artists and other people with a similar ethos in the area, such as the Old Dairy home to George Street Arts Lab, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Ed Berman’s Inter-Action. Whilst working was being completed they continued to work locally in Camden, Tower Hamlets, Bethnal Green and Islington.
Another notable project this year saw Action Space visit the tough neighbourhood of Kilburn Grange Park. They contributed to an event there called Elementary Particles which saw them experiment with dance, a large airhouse playing the role of a Cyclotron, sound-tape music and smaller inflatable cushions, imaging the movement of particles and atomic physics.
In 1972 their new base on Harmood Street was ready to be utilised and they began running workshops, a school room for truants, developed their practice and opened up the space for other artists to use. Their work with difficult students was controversial, they would offer children risk situations to establish a loyal group dynamic – derelict buildings were sometimes used for this purpose. They continued to work on large structures in this year, building upon previous ideas to create a large tubular corridor structure that allowed people to engage with contrasts in light and shape, with accompanying music composed by Alan Nisbet. In addition to this they worked locally in Camden in playsites, parks and secondary schools. Action Space and the other companies using the Harmood Street base did so largely until 1973 when a fire broke out and destroyed some of the workshop studios.
1973 saw the development of their newest structure Dr Pneuman’s Rocket which launched at the Serpentine Gallery in the summer of the same year. Inspired by space travel the rocket structure inflated and landed in a land of clowns, performers would litter the space around the rocket in a devised clowning performance. The clowning work was inspired by Nola Rae’s clowning workshops being run at Oval House. Other events where they toured with Dr Pneuman’s Rocket saw them visit festivals and events in Calder Valley, Halesowen, York, Harrogate and Bracknell – amongst others.
Later in 1973 they received some support from Camden Council which enabled them to present Lion’s Share on Hampstead Heath, in addition to some other smaller events in the local area. The event was a collaboration between artists working with varied materials in the construction of inflatables.
1974 was a transitional year for Action Space which saw them forced out of Harmood Stree to pave the way for a new Council Estate. With support from the local council they made a temporary move to the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) where an event called Inflation for All was organised, ‘to show the relevance of this way of working to the concerns of artists’ (pp89. Action Space Extended). They also developed a Soft Room there too and began to teach otheres how to work with inflatabels as they made plans to move away from big structures. They continues to tour playsites across London with their pieces Archaeological Dig and Time Travellers. Other significant events included an ecological project aimed at exploring radical approached to liveing, food production and shelter making, undertaken at Groundwell Fram in Swindon – they also spearheaded the development of the Brighton Cycle Rally amongst other projects. This year also saw Action Space develop their work with people with disabilities. Working in big London institutions they worked closely with the charity One to One. The ‘work was based on improvisation with the aim of changing the environment and stimulating participation through music, movement and story’ (pp95. Action Space Extended).
1975 was another growth year for Action Space as they began to move closer towards a method of working akin to devised theatre. This change in practice grew out of their extensive work in street theatre, their time supporting the development of artists at the old Piano Factory, leading to a enthusiasm from some members to search for a new venue where they could develop an artist-run centre. With major redevelopment plans taking place across London the search was not easy, but with a little support from Camden Council they found the Drill Hall near Tottenham Court Road. Rates and rent were waved by the Council in exchange for Action Space seeking out their own funding for the redevelopment of the building. They secured a reasonable grant from the Arts Council to help and undertook a lot of the work themselves. Most of their time was focused on the renovation but they still maintained their work on the London estates, their work with people with disabilities, special events for under 5s and sunday performances in a newly developed Soft Room. Funding was a major problem around this time – policy changes under the Thatcher regime saw them struggle to keep afloat.
In April 1976 they were able to offer artists the use of a studio theatre, cafe, video studio, rehearsal room, a small super 8 cinema, a soft room and an exhibition space. It was a facility where artists set the agenda and experimented on their own terms. Their focus was on developing new audiences and productions and being a venue that was of relevance to the local community. Spring workshops called Over the Top offered participants the chance to explore improvisation techniques. They had also attracted over 100 for playwork, special needs work in hospitals and schools and community festivals. They also found time to tour work in Essex, Norfolk and Holland.
Although Action Space was primarily commissioned for children’s events, they developed a challenging adult focused piece for the Fitzrovia festival in Soho and Winchester Hat Fair in 1976: a movement piece called Jack the Ripper in which there were giants mirrors that reflected three women under threat from four men. Other work saw them trail more experimental and anarchic practices at the National Scouting Camp in which they disrupted the normal order of events by the removal of the boys scouting tools whilst searching for an invisible shield. They even disrupted their finale event in which the boys typically assembled military style by appearing as Super Heroes inside a large inflatable structure (known as a rollie) that they walked into the centre of the event. The boys broke rank and began engaging in creative play with the structures and performers. Several other large rollies were developed for use in protest events like blocking Oxford Street and jeering crowds in Trafalgar Square and drew upon elements of Carnival to detract attention from the large volumes of people involved. Protests were related to the concerns of the company members on topics such as Gay Rights, Homelessness and Arts Council Cuts. More obscure performances like Ken Turner’s Washing Cycle were also devised and were performed alongside these large structures.
The Drill Hall was officially opened by the Mayor of Camden in November 1976 and other performers who contributed to the inaugural opening event titled The Festival of the Audience. Their opening season saw presented work from thirteen fringe theatre and five dance companies including The People Show, Les Oeufs Malades, Incubus Theatre and Phantom Captain – and numerous musical performances. A wide range of workshops were offered, from clowning to dance and drumming, and developments in film making and screening grew too. Action Space themselves even found time to present a new show War Memoirs, devised by Ken and Mary Turner. The piece demonstrated the changing face of British culture from the wartime mentality to the emerging consumer driven popular culture of the 70s.
1977 saw the company’s funding avenue change from the Arts Council Visual Arts department to Housing the Arts – a sore point for the company members who focused on the visual arts activities of the company. After much discussion the company refocused their efforts on indoor projects, like the Soft Room, outdoor community-based work and touring work. The second priority was the use of the Drill Hall as a venue for artists and the public to engage with music, workshops, performance and film. With the exception of The Additional Music Festival (a fringe of the Camden Festival) and the ADMA Festival of Dance, performances by other companies at the Drill Hall ceased for a short time due to financial pressures. After these events the main space in the Drill Hall was utilised for the development of the Silver Citadel structure by Ken Turner for the Serpentine Gallery and The Bonn Festival in Germany. Other work this year included the Charms of Lasciviousness by Rob La Frenais and Mary Turner. Performance was now as important as structure building to the company and was reflected by the occasional unification as with the production The Apotheosis of Monet. This was also the year that Ken Turner retired from the company.
1978 was Action Space’s 10th anniversary and their commitments to working with children, the local community and people with disabilities continued. They toured widely and were producing a lot of new work. The Drill Hall was successful and saw over 300 people a day pass through its doors to engage with the varied programme of events taking place within. Alan Nisbet’s music theatre piece Donkey was revamped and toured again. Sexual politics was high on the agenda and Gay Pride was run from the offices at Drill Hall. Gay Sweatshop ran numerous events at the Drill Hall as part of their Gay Times Festival. Hormone Imbalance attracted big audiences from the Women’s Movement when performing as part of the Drill Hall’s Women’s Festival. International connections were being made with artists from Poland, Switzerland and New York presenting work there. Action Space produced a variety of work with structures and theatre pieces, such as The Future of the Past in which they transformed the large hall space to envisage a vision of the future the lens of the early 20th century. They toured Northern Ireland with a piece called Disturbing the Peace.
In 1979 Action Space applied for an increased grant on account of their previously full and successful year but the Arts Council plans for the development of Drill Hall in 1980 by pulling their funding on the grounds that they needed too much money to ‘do the job properly’. The company found itself in serious financial difficulties and as a result they took direct action by protesting outside the Arts Council (amongst other actions) until they agreed to pay of their deficit. They continued to perform, run workshops and tour during this time but eventually had to (albeit temporarily) close the doors to the Drill Hall until later that year.
In 1979 the nine remaining members of Action Space decided to stay on in the Drill Hall, rent- and rate-free from Camden Council, and split the activities they offered into three companies: the Drill Hall reopened as a venue; Action Space (London Events) was formed to direct their London-based children’s and disability work; and Action Space Mobile for their touring performances and residences. Action Space Mobile toured extensively throughout the year in Northern England with a playsite piece called The Expedition in Search of the Lost Tomb and another environmental piece called Pollution at the University of East Anglia. 1982 saw the newly developed Action Space Mobile relocate to Sheffield when the Drill Hall decided it needed to rent their office space out to generate funds. They were predominately touring outside of London at this time so it seemed like a logical move for some. With limited funds in 1982 and they relied heavily on volunteers and survived on bare minimum during these early years in Sheffield. During their first summer tour they visited Tyneside, Manchester, Merseyside and Yorkshire with Victorian Time Travel. Visual artists Less Sass and Steve Hughes joined the company and influenced the work greatly. They organised banner making and large scale puppetry workshops for people to use at protest events.
The Boat Theatre Company was born out of these weekly workshops organised by Action Space Mobile and continued to experiment with visual arts in association with (but independent of) Action Space Mobile for years to come. At this time Action Space Mobile had also developed the Professors of Nonsense that used bunraku puppetry and shadows. They turned down funding from South Yorkshire County Council because they were unable to guarantee that their work would not lead to any riots in the area. They sustained themselves with work for the Sheffield Galleries, the Mappin and the Graves in which they would work alongside children, arts students or women’s groups. They had worked with adults and students from colleges and universities in the area and began developing work with masks for street theatre performances and Garden Festivals. They developed fire shows and at one event burnt a large Margret Thatcher puppet on a bonfire at Norfolk Park, Sheffield. They choreographed for giant puppets and a sea battle with fireworks to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade played live in Platts Fields by the Northern Wind Orchestra for the event Wind Over Water.
1984 saw them get involved with the local community during the miners’ strikes and they lost their final stock of inflatables in a fire at their Hurfield store. 1986 was their most extensive touring year with their piece The Ways of the World or Sod’s Law . In September that year they produced a large-scale event for the Manchester Festival called Firestorm. 1987-1988 was a difficult period financially. They went through a restructuring period and ceased street theatre work and eventually relocated to Barnsley in 1990 where they continued to work extensively in the community.