Audio extract taken from Unfinished Histories interview with Sue Gill and John Fox in 2013 on the company’s origins
Susan Croft: As you can see from the website we interviewed Albert Hunt, and it sounds like Bradford in the early sixties, and through the sixties and early seventies was an amazing place.
Sue Gill: Yeah, it was a complete hot bed wasn’t it.
John Fox: Yeah it was wild.
Sue Gill: Mainly thanks to Albert Hunt and his vision introducing the first Complementary Studies course, so at the Art School [Braford] whether you were doing textiles, print making, sculpture, whatever. A day a week you did something else, which was brilliant. Also apprentices who were coming in from industry to have day release, they also got engaged. So John was there as the tutor librarian and got some project work and I got project work as well, so there were times when we were both working there and that’s when we actually began some street theatre with some of the students who thought wow this is great. So I kind of cashed in my superannuation and bought this old army truck so we could throw everybody in and toddle around. Then they said this is great can we do it again and we did it the next summer and those people became the nucleus of Welfare State International because they just wouldn’t leave, they wouldn’t go away. They even moved into our house and came to live with us, and when we had two little babies it was, ya know, oh great.
Susan Croft: You were living in Manningham at the time?
Sue Gill: We were living in Manningham at the time, in a flat, that was when Dan was born, and the flat was full of Diz Willis, at the time, I don’t know. It seemed to be a head quarters and a kind of nucleus of project planning so it was a fairly anarchic place, and then it wasn’t a very good place for a toddler once he was mobile because we were on a top floor with a fire escape and there were all these mad artists there as well and you thought someone will just leave the door open and this child will fall down, so we moved out of there. And then John got offered a prestigious job as senior lecturer in Leeds School of Art so we moved across to Leeds.
Susan Croft: You moved into the yard or something?
Sue Gill: That was when we were in Leeds. By then because we’d got the nucleus of a group of makers and performers, we started to get a truck and a bus and this and that to go on the road. We didn’t just get a residential house we rented a big, old Victorian, it had been a doctor’s surgery and residence.
John Fox: The only way we could get any privacy and warmth was to live in a caravan in the yard so we moved into that, and then gradually…
Sue Gill: …and just said, have the house because it was so hideous and cold and chaotic and everything.
John Fox: And then another caravan came in, and then a bus came in and then, a long single decker…
Sue Gill: -coach –
John Fox: A coach, you used to call them charabancs. But anyway, the landlord was a nice guy and said ‘this wasn’t part of the deal, I think you’re over stepping the mark’ and I said ‘I think you’re absolutely right’.
Sue Gill: And also there were oily boys taking engines out all the time and doing this and putting them back in. We were the tenants from hell really. On the washing line were all the costumes from the last show all over the place.
John Fox: And then what happened was Mid-Pennine Arts, Jenny Wilson and Rory McNeil were running that over in Burnley and they said would you like to come over and be resident fellows and tied in with that was Nelson and Colne College. So we suddenly became respectable because we had this kind of whatever, and we moved onto a rubbish tip in Burnley.
Susan Croft: Before we get on to that I wanted to hear more about the kind of work you were doing and what it looked like…
Sue Gill: It was dreadful, absolutely dreadful. None of us had been to drama school or had any sort of theatre training. And we would leap out of the van with some masks and costume and a bit of a drum kit and roll up, roll up, and pull a crowd, with good fun making with big masks and surprises and stuff, but really the finesse of the performance was pretty crap. And you would notice the point that the audience would start to walk off and you’d go, ah, alright, and we’d think ok, we’ll rework that, because we’d do the one show over and over. And we’d also go round with a bottle, to get the money to get the fuel to get back home again, so we’d need to keep the audience until the end. So as a learning curve it was fantastic. We would do Superman and the Fleas, or what was the other one?
John Fox: Humpback Jester. That was from the Arabian Nights. We did a version of Punch and Judy as well.
Sue Gill: Did we?
John Fox: Yeah I think so.
Susan Croft: So the Humpback Jester, did you use the story as the structure?
John Fox: We did three or four very short cameos, little folky plays with a lot of music and a lot of energy and a lot of strong costumes. Superman and the Fleas, it’s a corny old story but it’s quite good fun. A ringmaster has lost his circus and he collect fleas them from children’s heads in the audience and puts them onto an oil drum, and starts doing the flea circus, and then one of the fleas escapes and there’s a scientist gets hold of it, who is doing experiments with a giant syringe, and he injects the flea…well it becomes a monster.
Sue Gill: From the back of the truck emerges a giant, big back pack puppet monster flea.
John Fox: There’s a big yoke, like a horses yolk or something, was on his neck, and he was also on somebody’s shoulders so you also get this kind of get this ten foot high kind of monster with ten heads. It was very terrifying.
Sue Gill: So there was a lot of showing off and shouting really.
John Fox: But it was good physical, rough kind of theatre.
Sue Gill: By the end of the second summer we even got a tiny grant from Yorkshire Arts because we’d been careful about documenting it, and getting little reviews now and then.
John Fox: It kept us going for about a year that show.
Sue Gill: Only in the summer.
Susan Croft: Was there a division of labour, did everybody perform or did some people perform, some make?
Sue Gill: Most people did making, I think virtually everybody performed and everybody loaded the truck and did whatever, yeah I think so.