Spin/Stir Women’s Physical Theatre Collective

Company name: Spin/Stir Women’s Physical Theatre Collective

Established: 1990

Founders: Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor

Reason: To produce new writing by women for the theatre. ‘The Canon of classical drama as it now stands was not written for women and clearly it was not written by them. The roles written for men outnumber the roles written for women about seven to one and the plays written by men outnumber those written by women about ten to one. For the most part the roles that do exist for women have been imagined, developed and created by men. The classics do have a few major roles for women but for a feminist directing and performing in these plays is often an out of body experience, like being in a room in which people are talking about her but not to her or with her. (Upstaging Big Daddy – Ellen Donkin and Susan Clements)

Current status: Disbanded 1998

Area of Work: Women’s Theatre

Policy: A physical poetry company, fusing skin-script-sound into a visual event, there are no rules. Commitment to new writing from women for the theatre, to be developed into original productions. Concentration on the ‘Theatre Process’ and the training of women in specifically under-represented areas: directing, writing, lighting, sound and set design. Questioning the hierarchical structure of contemporary theatre. Redefining and discovering fresh performance techniques, using the notion of gender as a performative act upon which to base explorations. Research into feminist aesthetics and issues, which is unravelled to members of the community via a series of outreach workshops, specialising in diverse theatre skills. Funding is sought from both public and private sources and operates as a profit share company. Spin/Stir support a stringent Equal Opportunities Policy, and positively encourages applications from women of all races, sexual orientation and physical ability. All performances of productions and workshops will take place in accessible venues. Spin/Stir’s theatrical style is feminist in aesthetic, cyclical, multifaceted and physical.

Structure: Company formed as a partnership between Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor, Artistic Directors and co-founders; inviting other members to join on a temporary/production basis. The Collective was so called because each member would receive equal share of the box office and would be encouraged to learn a new skill of their choice. i.e. a stage manager could also be assistant director, a sound operator could also be assistant lighting designer. All ideas, creative and practical were welcome and group discussions commonplace. Joelle and Vanessa had completed the fourth year director’s course at Kent University and Vanessa had also studied theatre direction at Trinity College Dublin. This had included directing full-length productions on public stages so we were in a position to be able to train others. Members were employed according to traditional roles within the theatre and according to their experience, training and skill: Director(s), Performers, Set Designer/constructor, Stage Manager, Deputy Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Manager, Lighting Designer/Operator, Sound Designer/Operator, Costume/Props, Music Design. Marketing, fundraising and publicity was taken on by the Artistic Directors and members of the collective according to their schedule. Other roles included a get in and get out crew, riggers and film-makers. When we became funded we were able to pay performers equity minimum wages. Ironically this meant that many other roles were completely unpaid and voluntary. An equal box office split was no longer viable. There simply was not enough money to pay everyone an equity minimum wage. We had to rely on volunteers and good will, which went against our initial ideology. The Collective, was becoming a Company.

Based: University of Kent and London

Funding: The first productions that we worked on together were part of our degree course at Kent University and funded as such. Upon graduating we earned our own budgets by teaching A Level Theatre Studies devising workshops at schools and colleges. Our earnings were spent entirely on the productions and we did not take a wage. After our first production we were awarded a Baring foundation grant, and subsequently we were funded by the London Arts Board.

Performance Venues: Gulbenkian Theatre, Oval House Theatre – Upstairs and Downstairs,  Cooltan Arts Centre, The Battersea Arts Centre café and site specific locations. Schools, Colleges and Charities.

Audiences: Spin/Stir invited self help groups and women’s groups from all over the country to attend productions that were based on specific women’s issues. Discussion groups and Q/A sessions would happen after performances or after the run. Audience members were encouraged to talk to the cast and often invited into the dressing room after a show, if no alternative venue could be provided by the theatre.

Company and work process: Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor met studying Drama at The University of Kent at Canterbury and were particularly influenced by a course entitled ‘Women In Theatre’, led by Dr Jill Davis. In 1990, during her 4th year at Kent, Joelle cast, then second year student, Vanessa Lee as The Hero in Angela Carter’s Vampirella. This groundbreaking, cross gender casting, physical adaptation of a radio play exploring the monstrous feminine, hailed the beginning of a working partnership, the beginning of Spin/Stir. Vanessa then spent a year studying Drama at Trinity College Dublin and returned home with a new play Smile Loudly Scream Softly, and a new baby daughter. In 1992, during her 4th and final year at Kent University, Smile Loudly Scream Softly, (a chilling exploration of domestic violence and the Mother/Daughter relationship through the eyes of a 14 year old girl,) was produced in The Gulbenkian Theatre, exactly the same venue as Vampirella two years before, and Joelle was invited to work on the production as a script consultant. It became increasingly obvious that this partnership had the potential and enthusiasm to continue and in 1993 Spin/Stir Women’s Physical Theatre Company was formed.

After an intense period of fundraising by teaching A-level Drama workshops, interspersed with Vanessa training in Contemporary Dance at The Place, and Joelle furiously script writing, Naming was produced at The Oval House Theatre Upstairs in March 1994. Naming is about child sexual abuse and naming that abuse; set in a land beneath the bed. ‘The A-Level Theatre studies students that we had created workshops for came in groups and reviewed the production as part of their coursework.’ In August 1994 Vanessa gave birth to a boy; her second child. The critical and box office success of Naming, together with the support of The Oval House, Artistic Director Deborah Bestwick, led to Whorror Stories 1, (a tarantella of rage and desire,) being produced in The Oval House, Theatre Downstairs in May 1995, which led to funding from the London Arts Board to produce Whorror Stories 2 in Oct 1995, also in The Oval House Theatre Downstairs. Then followed a series of Spin/Stir salons at The Battersea Arts Centre and a funding application for two new productions Milk Token and Angels With Dirty Fingernails. In 1997 Laura Bridgeman invited Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor to perform in and direct Loonatik at The British Festival of Visual Theatre in association with The BAC. Loonatik tells the tale of four women who have gone missing. They board the same train and meet at the end of the line.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor: ‘We wanted to work across antithesis and across stereotype….If something horrific was happening we’d be smiling and dancing.’ (JT) ‘We put dance and film and sound and pedestrian theatre into a very heavy epic poem type script…our plays were very, very text based but our theatre was always terribly physical, visual, high impact.’ (VL)

‘Joelle showed me Naming…it just blew me away, the truth in it, the quality of writing, it was absolutely amazing, it lifted the lid on child sexual abuse. It was the operation Yew Tree of Feminist Theatre. When we came up against this wall of rejection, time and time again, even when we were approaching feminists and women’s theatre spaces, we were told it couldn’t be staged.’ (VL)

‘Originally the reasons were…because I was dealing with the subject of…child sexual abuse….it had to be done in a certain way, a non cathartic way. You can leave a theatre feeling moved and can then switch off; we wanted, demanded action. An intellectual approach so audiences would go home and do something to help themselves and others. And the certain way that Women’s Theatre and Feminist Theatre and Agit Prop Theatre handled these things was in a didactic way and it didn’t look at the absolute truth….We were very experimental…very funny…very twisted and sinister….dark comedy. A comedy of realisation…..Nobody had seen anything like it before.’ (VL/JT)

‘The thing…I’m most proud of those two young women, I was living in a bedsit, you had a child and was heavily pregnant and…we didn’t blink, we rehearsed in the bedsit…we didn’t have a space, we had babies in our rehearsal space, we had to do childcare as well…we had no money…we didn’t have funding. But nothing was going to stop us.’ (VL/JT)

For more from Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor click Spin/Stir personal appraisals cont
and Vanessa Lee Reflects on Spin/Stir

‘While Spin/Stir TC is sure that childhood sexual abuse is guaranteed to fuck you up, this is no victim’s lament but a gloriously surreal and often hilarious journey through the tangled neurons of an abusee’s mind.’  (Time Out, March 1994)


Written: Angela Carter
Directed: Joelle Taylor
Cast: Vanessa Lee, Christen Sussin and Vici Wreford
The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury KentJune 1990
Smile Loudly Scream Softly
Written and directed by Vanessa Lee
Script consultant: Joelle Taylor
Cast: Johanna Allitt, Sarah Banville, Lucy Miller and Ashley Wengraf
The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury KentJune 1992
Written: Joelle Taylor
Directed and Performed: Vanessa Lee, Joelle Taylor
The Oval House Theatre UpstairsMarch 1994
Whorror Stories 1
Written: Joelle Taylor Directed: Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor
The Oval House Theatre DownstairsMay 1995
Whorror Stories 2
Written Joelle Taylor Directed: Sian Stevenson
Cast: Tin Frederickson, Vanessa Lee, Caroline Pegg and Joelle Taylor
The Oval House Theatre DownstairsOctober 1995
Written: Laura Bridgeman
Directed: Joelle Taylor and Vanessa Lee for Boy/Girl
Cast: Tracy Bickley, Laura Bridgeman, Vanessa Lee and Helena Lymbery
The British Festival of Visual Theatre in Association with The BAC at Wessex House1997

Interviewee link: Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor.

Existing archive material: Vanessa Lee

Links: Spin/Stir

Reason for company disbanding: In 1998 Spin/Stir lost funding. Vanessa Lee spent the next ten years working in Television comedy production for Peter Fincham, Griff Rhys Jones and Ash Atalla, at TalkbackThames and in 2007 setting up Roughcut TV as Company Manager. She now works freelance as a writer, producer and voice over artist.  Joelle Taylor works as a writer, performance poet and Slambassador UK Artistic Director and coach. Her new book Ska Tissue is available from The Poetry Society.

Upstaging Big Daddy – Ellen Donkin and Susan Clements (University of Michigan Press, 1993)
Ska Tissue by Joelle Taylor (The Poetry Society)

Acknowledgements: This page has been constructed by Lucie Regan from copy written by Vanessa Lee, (Founder, Artistic Director and Company Member 1990-1998) and an interview with Vanessa Lee and Joelle Taylor (Founder, Artistic Director and Company Member 1990-1998). Unfinished Histories would like to thank them for their time in helping us draw together the above material.

The creation of this page by our volunteer Lucie Regan was created by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.