Sue Dunderdale interview

Below are highlights taken from an edited transcript of an interview with Sue Dunderdale recorded by Stephen Abbott in January 2015 about her work with Pentabus, 1974-76. Reproduced here courtesy of Sue Dunderdale.

Stephen Abbott: If I have got this right, you were here at the very beginning when West Midlands Arts set it all up, is that right?

Sue Dunderdale: Yes, they advertised for somebody to do a report on theatre provision in the rural areas of the West Midlands, which covered the five counties.  It was a six month contract, then, and so I applied and did the report.  I think that it had some European funding.

I left university in ’71, I was assistant director of TIE at Watford, Arts Council trainee at Lincoln and I applied from that, and got that. It must have been the autumn of ’73 that I did the initial report that made the recommendations for the company.

I think that we were the last company to get yearly funding from the off, rather than have to go through all the project funding.

I mean obviously they had it in mind when they employed me, although they didn’t know what the report was going to say. Basically the report recommended a touring company which would be based for periods of time in different areas.  We started off in Shrewsbury.  But we travelled the whole five counties. We would take an ‘Environment’ with us to put into the village halls to have the theatre experience, but would also have what we called ‘grass root workers’ – community workers, to be doing projects within communities, and to connect up with the company as well.  So we had a strong community theatre brief, that is what I recommended and that is what we started off with.

SA: So, how many people did you have when you started off?

SD: I was artistic director, and there was a stage manager/designer.  An administrator, and two actors/grass root workers, one of whom was also a writer. Four other actors, and a musician.

SA: Can you remember the early productions?

SD: Yes. Lost in London, which was a melodrama by Watts Phillipps, which we adapted, so we did the melodrama but with the story continued as a music hall.

And then there was a commission from a writer, who was a Midlands writer, called Ian Taylor, (not the Ian Taylor who wrote for radio), a very good writer. I’ll never know if it was a mistake, but we didn’t do it. He is one of those rare working class background writers who never transmogrified into a middle class person. He was a very good writer, he wrote a play set in a rural midlands small town, really about sexual warfare between men and women, an excellent play but quite hard hitting. And by then I knew the communities fairly well, and they are quite – not hard hitting.  So I didn’t do it. In fact, I did it as my first production in London.  A very good play and very successful, and I just don’t know if I should have been brave enough to do it.

So we did a play written by one of our actors who was also a writer, Reg Stewart, it was a more light hearted play.  I think it was called Working Out the End.

And we did The Terry Bull Circus, which was one of our half and half things which was improvised commedia type, but modern commedia, so Terry Bull was the harlequin figure, and there was Isobel Necessary (on a bicycle?) – really sophisticated humour!  And the zany figure, that was Ken.

We did  a play by John Hole’s wife, Ginny Hole.  John Hole used to be the director of Worcester Rep, and Ginny Hole was his wife and she was a writer, a beginner writer, and she went onto do lots of telly writing and she did a children’s play for us, The Magic Map, which we did all over the place.  I think that one of our venues was almost a bus shelter in Shipton on Stour – we just did it everywhere.

So that was the first season, and we did a lot of work on commedia and acrobatics and so on and I can remember damaging my shoulder in Shrewsbury.

And then our first grass roots work was me and Reg and Jonathon settled in Armitage with Handsacre, Staffordshire, it was a mining community, to do a panto with them.  We worked on the panto with the local people and my God, what happens during those!!??  There was an affair between the wife of the local teacher and the local miner, and I think that they ended up in my flat in London getting away from an irate husband, just extraordinary.  There was a feud between the posh man who was playing the piano because the mines had caused subsidence in his house. Extraordinary, but it was great!  It was hard work. And it saved my bacon, because the ‘Environment’, which was a fantastic idea, but it was too heavy. We took a circular  theatre, a theatre in the round, into the village halls, that was made up of flats. You erected it, and the rostrum you used for the seating, and then you used hangings hanging on it for whatever play, and then you did the play in the middle.  It was designed by a very good stage designer that I had worked with in Lincoln. But it was the weight, it was made of wood and it was too heavy and we didn’t have adequate transport.  We had a Landrover, a big Landrover, and a trailer, that was especially made for it, but it also took a long time to erect, and we were very enthusiastic and very young.  It was very tiring to put up and get down. But the killer was I can remember going round the narrow lanes in Warwickshire, the trailer over turned. Nobody was hurt, thank God, but it put an end to that.

I remember having to go after the overturning of the ‘Environment’, to Birmingham, where a senior member of West Midlands Arts was staying, to talk to him about it and he was very comforting. After that, the next thing I know, the board was trying to get rid of me, because of this. There had to be a big meeting of the whole council of West Midlands Arts, where they were going to recommend that I was sent off into the ether.  But what happened is that all the miners of course were very political that we were working with and they went and lobbied the council, and so instead of the council sacking me, they got rid of the Pentabus board, and replaced it with Peter Cheeseman [creator of ‘theatre-in-the round’] as the chairman. It was very bloody.  I am a fighter, because I am from Yorkshire.  But that is why I left after three years. There had been too much blood!  You know what I mean? There had been too much struggle, and it needed somebody else to take over.  So it was tough.

It was a new company, and you go through all kinds of things. But what happened with that first tour and then with Armitage and Handsacre, we could see where the need was and where the work was working.  And from then on it built and you could sense that, that it was going to build.

You know, I wanted what I wanted to do to work.  In my belly, I knew that the solutions we were coming up with for the transport were not good enough, but I didn’t confront it at the time because I just wanted to get on the road and get it working.  But what we were able to do was to get over it.  We didn’t have the ‘Environment’ any more, but we got beyond it and made it work fine.

I came into the world of seventies fringe theatre in London and so I was doing very different stuff.  Lots and lots and lots of political work.  Not that Pentabus wasn’t, it was in its objectives.  We were very aimed at doing popular theatre, more with the Joan Littlewood touch.

I remember doing one of our children’s’ show, Giant Kippernose [Joyce Cheeseman], doing a wonderful thing, we had a beautiful big puppet head and stilts made for the actor in one of the pub gardens at Ross on Wye, and it got darker and darker when we were doing it, and everybody got torches out to shine on it. Oh, there were some wonderful, wonderful things.

The second season, Joyce Cheeseman did a play called A Cottage in the Country for us and it was about evolution of history through rural areas, you know, to do with the enclosures and all that and it’s impact on rural people and the other thing that we did which was very successful.

And we did The Charlie Chaplin Show which was very successful as well.

And that is when we did The Terry Bull Circus, the commedia. We used to not do it in a show, we used to go to fit in to their events, so like we went, I can’t remember which village, to their ‘strawberry supper’ and we joined in their ‘strawberry supper’ as the characters, and then out of being part of the supper the show would be improvised out of it. We did traditional commedia work in terms of how we rehearsed it, except as modern commedia characters and they would get up and rehearse out of the situation and that kind of thing was fantastic to develop.

Terry Bull Circus was a good piece of work because you could adapt it, you could adapt it for a children’s piece, whatever, or as we did with the Strawberry Supper a family piece, or whatever.

As you probably know in the 60s and the 70s as well as all the political theatre, there was a big movement for community theatre and so on and of course, I was being of that generation was very influenced by Joan Littlewood and so on, and again it centred as much on the performer, the skills of the performer to contact, as the writer. And for me, that is what excites me, still, even now, and I think that got lost.

It was a fantastic period. And also I come from a very poor working class background.  In the 60s, when I went to university in ’66, of the percentage of people who went to university there were a lot of us comparatively from the working class. And for a brief ten to fifteen years it looked as though this terrible class division in our country was crumbling a bit.  And that has gone.  That has really gone.  They have taken control again with a vengeance.

And what I mean by that is the kind of person that I was, most usually now isn’t coming into theatre. Usually they are middle class girls and boys and they come from different background and they have a more literary ethos.

What I would hate, and I hope that hasn’t happened with Pentabus, is any sense that ‘we are taking good plays to the rural communities’ – that was absolutely what we were against. We were about making theatre within those communities, and that was the exciting thing about the mix of making the work and touring it, but also then making work with local people. But it is expensive to do.

…there was far more subsidy in theatre.  I came out of university and my first job was assistant director of TIE at Watford.  I got fifty quid a week and it was more than my father had ever earned in his life.  His pension was nine pounds a month from British Rail. In the Guardian last week the average directors annual salary £5000 a year! They have rich mums and dads!

It was fantastic, I went on an Arts Council bursary which worked out at about twenty quid a week to Lincoln and then I got the job at Pentabus. Talking about it now, I see what a gift it was. I would hate to have gone through, being driven thinking I have got to do this and this, because I was able to do things in the moment and create them in the moment.  It does mean that I have time in the wilderness… It was bound to change.

I feel privileged that I was able to work in the 70s.

SA: When you describe the company at the start, you didn’t have people like producers on the list.

SD: They didn’t used to exist then. That is a new phenomenon.  It is about the managers taking over the world, that is what it is about!  And it is about people who don’t act or create finding jobs for themselves, isn’t it? Everywhere has a producer now.  I mean, look, I ran the Soho Poly in the 80s, and there was me, my associate director and the administrator.  Have you seen the administration list at the Soho Theatre now, and when do they produce a new play??  We used to produce six or seven new plays a year, and now, it’s basically a touring venue and a comedy venue.  I want to go out there with a placard!

SA: What was the most ground breaking piece of theatre while you were there?

SD: My favourite piece was The Charlie Chaplin Show because it combined all our commedia and entertainment skills but it was quite hard hitting aswell in terms of his political life. But ground-breaking – strangely enough, I think: The Terry Bull Circus. Not intellectually, but in terms of ways of working in communities, with performers sitting down and being part of a community event and emerging from it.  In one sense it is not groundbreaking because it is as old as commedia or touring theatre. But in terms of the work being integrated within the community and fulfilling the needs of the community.

That was our aim with part of the work was yes, to be true to ourselves as directors and writers and actors but also be something that could be a function within the community.  You can’t be part of it because you are not going to settle, but to have a role that could be part of that community for the time you were there.

We used to, we used to do a children’s show every year.

SA: Do you think that is important?

SD: Yes, and we went into schools with it.

Because also if you are going into quite small communities and to villages, if you are doing a show for the kids in the afternoon, it is much more likely that parents will come along in the evening. Giant Kippernose was wonderful actually,  I think that was the best one I did.

I suppose we were about trying not to have that thing of ‘we are different people from you, coming in and doing something and going away’.

The one thing about commedia which we couldn’t follow through which we were beginning to do, because after my third year I went, was we also went into mental institutions. Because with a commedia character you can work one on one, because in mental institutions that is really what you need to do.

We went into a school for very, very disabled, both learning and physically disabled children and that was fantastic because the characters just worked individually with them. But then you are going into a whole area which you don’t have the funding for.

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