Scarlet Harlets

Company name: Scarlet Harlets

Founders: Susan Paxton, Tessa Crockett and Shelley Graham

Established: 1981

Reason: From Susan Paxton’s desire to develop a show about witch-hunting

Current Status: Continues to operate as Scarlet Theatre

Area of work: Women’s, Experimental

Policy: ‘…provided a space for female practitioners to determine their own work, away from the hierarchies of traditional theatre practice, in which women’s roles were circumscribed and often stereotyped.’ (Scarlet Theatre website)


Based: London

Funding: Cohen Trust, Great London Council Grants after We Who Were Beautiful (1982), until 1985, then GLA (Greater London Arts) and LBGS (London Borough Grants System)

Performance venues: Oval House, UK and European tour, theatre festivals including Fools 3 in Copenhagen, Women Live in London, International Women Festivals in Amsterdam and Berlin, International Keliner Festival in Brno.


Company Work and Process: Scarlet Harlets came into being in 1981 when Susan Paxton approached Tessa Crockett to do a show about witch-hunting. They receive a thousand pounds grant from the Cohen Trust, which was spent on publicity and in a little Morris Minor van for touring. The show, called We Who Were Beautiful, drew parallels between the European witch-hunting massacres of the 16th and 17th centuries and modern times women’s incarceration in mental hospitals. Before rehearsals started, Tessa accepted a part in the movie Greystoke and suggested that Shelley Graham take her place in the Scarlet’s show. Shelley played the witch hunter and Stella, a young patience in a psychiatric ward, while Susan played the witch and Marie, a Catholic mother of three, locked in the hospital because of her severe depression. We Who Were Beautiful premiered at Oval House in 1982 and Scarlet Harlets entered the scene as a strong political, feminist theatre group.

The show was a huge success, touring Britain and some of the biggest European theatre festivals, including Fools 3 in Copenhagen, International Women Festivals in Amsterdam and Berlin, the International Keliner Festival in Brno and Women Live in London. Tessa and Susan had a background in clown mime, street theatre and acrobatics, which influenced their circus-style productions. Scarlet Harlets’ experimental performances were in fact made of highly visual, short sketches, benefiting from a variety of theatrical devices such as masks, giant body puppets, acrobatics, fire-eating and naturalistic acting.

Through their plays Scarlet Harlets set out to explore femininity and the dynamics of female relationships, with a critical eye on the role of women in society. With their own particular style, offset by the recurring use of circus skills, Scarlet Harlets depicted with gentle humour, complex themes such as motherhood, female friendship, seclusion and sexual harassment, whilst exploring new ground for women’s emancipation and self-identity.

Their second show, Out of Bounds (1983), was a ‘tale of three sisters’, with Shelley, Susan and Gaia Shaw exploring female friendship and taboos. The show presented a series of fantastical, macabre and occult images, rendered through the Scarlet Harlets’ original mix of mime, masks, music and acrobatics.

After Out of Bounds, Susan left the company and in 1984 took a teaching job in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile Scarlet Harlets produced another show, Broken Circle (1983-84), exploring the delicate subject of rape. In the play the woman’s violation was juxtaposed to the men’s exploitation of the earth, whilst exposing the violence and myths surrounding the subject.

In the following show, Toe on The Line (1985) the employment of circle skills was still present and was successfully adapted to tackle and universalize a series of autobiographical material: ‘…communication becomes quite literally an exercise in tightrope walking. And physical acrobatics become a metaphor for mental gymnastics-the ability to imagine a different sort of world…’ (Cookson, Spare Rib, Feb. 1986:33).

The next show, 80 Days Soul (1986), was a development in Scarlet Harlets’ practice with a devised script playing alongside mime, strong visual images and acrobatics . 80 Days Soul sees the experience of Hanna, who is facing an unwanted pregnancy. The show presents Hanna’s confused and embattled self, fighting for recognition, while family and friend wrestle to take control over her actions.

With Appetite of the Heart (1987) the company gained recognition in the field of performance art. The show, which presented precisely timed images juxtaposed with text and music, explored the multifaceted world of woman’s eroticism, counterpointed with the stereotypical and often passive images rendered by society. In 1987 the company, led by Artistic Director Grainne Byrne, changed its name to Scarlet Theatre.

Scarlet Theatre today employs both male and female actors, and collaborates with artists, writers and performers from the UK and Europe.

Personal Appraisal and Thoughts:
Susan Paxton (2009): ‘Scarlet Harlets grew from my outrage about the millions upon millions of women who had been murdered under the guise of witchcraft throughout Europe. In early 1980 I realised that the witch hunts had been a convenient way to rid communities of any wayward women under the blessings of the Church/State. I decided to do a show about it and started looking for another woman to work with. I approached Tessa Crockett who was also working in London Fringe at the time…’

‘Tessa and I had talked about doing a two-hander with a puppeteer and a technician; four women in all. It would be very physical, using mime, masks, giant body puppets, acrobatics, fire-eating, as well as naturalistic acting. The story would have parallels to women in psychiatric hospitals in modern times. We asked Gaia Shaw to be our designer…’

We Who Where Beautiful
‘Dance, mime and feminist humour at its most panache, guide the cabaret of short acts into a strong feminist indictment of male religion and medicine- and into one of the most powerful feminist plays I’ve enjoyed for a long time’ (Spare Rib vol.120, July 1982)
‘…sometimes witty, sometimes tragic, it is always compelling as it unravels the respective stories of Stella and Maria … in their journey through psychiatric hospital…’ (The Islington Gutter Press, 1982)
80 Days Soul
‘Scarlet Harlets have created a play which has moved beyond the politics of the ‘right to choose’ into the disturbing realms of the personal difficulties of choosing what is right for you.’ (Women’s Review vol. 17, March 1987)
Appetite of the Heart
‘Through a vibrant collage of sounds…startling use of stark colour and very physical acting, here actresses demonstrate the complex desires … that fuel the female appetite…’ (The Independent) ‘… ‘…takes apart male sexual fantasy of the female and reclaims female sensuality and erotica for its own.’ (City Limits)


We who were Beautiful
Devised: Susan Paxton
Director: Jen Ben Yakiv
Cast: Susan Paxton, Gaia Shaw, Shelley Graham
Designer: Gaia Shaw

Regional Britain and European theatre festivals including Fools 3 in Copenaghen, Women Live in London, International Women Festival in Amsterdam and Berlin,International Keliner Festival in Brno.
Out of Bounds
Devised: Susan Paxton
Director: Jen Ben Jakow, Sue Sanders
Cast: Shelley Graham, Gaia Shaw, Susan Paxton

UK and European tour1982
Broken Circle
Devised: Scarlet Harlets
Directorial assistance: Claire Grove
Cast: Shelley Graham, Juliette Marsella, Amanda Owen
Designer: Gaia Shaw

UK and European tour1983-84
Toe on The Line
Devised: Scarlet Harlets

80 Day Soul

Appetite of the Heart
Devised: Mine Kylan
Director: Birte Pederson
Cast: Grainne Byrne, Emma Bernard, Sue Long
Designer: Wendy Freeman
Sound: Sianed Jones

UK and European tour1987
La Folie
Devised: Cindy Oswin
Director: Anna Furse
Cast: Grainne Byrne, Emma Bernand, Sue Long
Designer: Alison Cartledge
Lighting: Patricia Webb

UK and European Tour1989

Links: Scarlet Theatre website

Acknowledgements: This page has been written and constructed by Sara Scalzotto, with gratitude to Grainne Byrne, current creative director of Scarlet Theatre.  Content for this page has been developed from co-founder Susan Paxton’s personal account of the first years of the Scarlet Harlets, Scarlet Harlets show publicity and from the Scarlet Theatre website. November 2013

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.