David Cleall Topics List

Interviewer & technician: Jessica Higgs
Bethnal Green offices
Topics List:
Gallin Hornick

Audio timing – 01:24:42

00:00:00      Early experience in photography & film; London New Arts Lab (NAL). David Cleall (DC) born in London 1951, moved to North-East England. Left school in 1969, got job as photographer in Bedford; this meant access to the London cultural scene. Started as assistant photographer at the MOD, which also entailed some film-making. Sent on day-release to Central London Polytechnic 1 day a week. Very interested in film-making. Before Bedford DC had visited Edinburgh Festival, encountering the London Film-makers’ Co-operative: American underground, some British films; also fringe theatre. In London, headed for the Drury Lane Arts Lab [see Jim Haynes], ‘the mecca for counterculture at that time’ – but found it had closed down. Tracked down the London Film-makers’ Co-op (around Xmas ’69) at London New Arts Lab where David Curtis programmed of American underground films and other classics. The membership card for the Arts Lab aka  IRAT – Institute for Research into Arts and Technology used rat imagery on posters/flyers. They were based in a building identified by Camden for a short 2-yr lease. DC understood that the Drury Lane Arts Lab had collapsed (scandals, squatting problems, legal problems re payment of rates) – this was in Sept/Oct 1969, by which time the core of people there had moved out. Camden: large factory premises, 1 Robert St, ‘a labyrinth, warren of different rooms, different levels’, 4+ storeys. Very large gallery space on ground floor, behind which was the cinema. In 1969 the cinema was probably the main thing there; busiest at weekends, closed Mondays, Tuesdays were open screenings, Wednesdays were archive nights, also visiting international film-makers. Problem was always money; no public money put into it. Early 1970: Paul Morrissey films brought in some money, which facilitated the creation of a bookshop-type reception which ran an underground press; also a macrobiotic restaurant. IRAT driven by a multi-media agenda, e.g Jeff Keen whose screenings were more like performance art. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins ran TVX – early use of video recording equipment, and Malcolm LeGrice  film processing and printing. An offset litho press created distinctive in-house publicity.

00:11:45      Theatre groups at New Arts Lab – The People ShowThe People Show (PS): entrance to theatre was halfway along the gallery space. ‘Everything started late, then, if it ran at all’; 8pm came and went, all there was was the queue of people for the PS – suddenly a big noise, and the appearance of a drunken waiter-type person collapsing on the stairs – general mayhem on the staircase, everyone puzzled by what was going on and keen just to see the show…but after approx half an hour realised ‘this was the show, and we were actually in the show’. Also, as well as the price of admission, audience members were required to hand over something else to persuade the theatre group to let them in. Inside the theatre itself there was nothing. The theatre was quite small, seating approx 50 – organized in the round. 4 players in the PS; Mark [Long] & Laura [Gilbert] were most identifiable. Not much structure, and worry setting in for audience members about getting their possessions back; ‘anarchic…everybody completely unsure about how it was developing, where it was going to go’. DC interested in Andy Warhol’s ideas about time and film, and here was a theatre event requiring you to ‘relax into a different kind of time’ and ask yourself what you could be getting out of theatre. Theatre of this period was often challenging the relationship between the audience and the performer. When the PS appeared again, it was a completely different event; like a series of images, still lives, working with the theatre lights and sound tapes; but ‘again, they really specialized in wrong-footing you’. The PS was ‘exquisite and slightly surreal’. In the early days, the NAL theatre was organized by Roland Miller; when he moved out it was run by Martin R Russell, who in a June 1970 programme referred to it as ‘a new theatre space in London’ which would concentrate on experimental theatre work. The Nab Show [Brighton Combination].

00:22:45      Closing of NAL, The Studio, Oval. By Xmas 1971 everyone very aware that the building was about to be demolished. The theatre did run into the New Year, with groups visiting from Sweden, US & France. Triple Arts Theatre.  At Oval House companies could rehearse free – as long as they agreed to perform the play, with takings split 50/50. From 1968/69 the Oval had no clear policy re alternative theatre there was a mixture of amateur/student/community theatre such a Teachers’ Training College production of Oh, What A Lovely War  as well as alternative theatre companies. These companies moved  freely from one venue to another. When the New Arts Lab  closed many companies transferred to the Oval. When the 2 venues were both running, in terms of audience there seemed to be a regular Oval crowd and a regular Arts Lab crowd. A different atmosphere at the Oval – much more community-based. Peter Oliver: always around in the foyer, front of house role. Oval’s programme became less diverse, more focussed after the Arts Lab’s close. Handke’s Offending The Audience – ‘a superb production’ of a play attacking conventionality [by TOC – The Other Company]. DC remembers a very plush velvet curtain that made it look more like the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which gets torn down.
Roland Miller (RM) & Shirley Cameron (SC) – performed in non-theatre spaces like the Oval House café. As with the PS, each audience member had to hand in an item of clothing (to be washed!). Played very loud music. Shouting from RM & SC (‘there was a lot of shouting in those days’). A menu was laid on too – while the laundry was being done. Quite often with these kinds of performances there’s not a clear start, certainly no clear end; so you have to decide how long you’re going to stay, when you’re going to leave.

00:38:15   Dance, multimedia. The Place opened about 1969 – an attempt to be a multimedia arts centre based on film, theatre and dance (‘over-ambitious’). New Cinema Club had a weekly screening there. London Contemporary Dance Theatre; dance classes. The theatre was ‘very plush’ compared with the Arts Lab or Oval House; ‘built like a proper theatre’. TSE (from Buenos Aires, based in Paris): placed a lot of emphasis on the visual, a common thread in alternative theatre of the time – fantastic costumes and make-up. Moving Being (Cardiff-based): mixture of film projection and sound, really slick. Overall, there was a huge variety in alternative theatre, from the amateurish/anarchic to exquisite, slick productions.

00:43:45      Inter-Action; King’s Head. Dogg’s Troupe: street theatre with an alternative education angle. Phil Ryder: William Shakespeare In Person – going into schools [Community Cameos]. Venues ‘springing up and dying all the time’ – King’s Head (KH) theatre important for a time, around 1971; a number of lunchtime theatre venues appearing. At KH, adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector which ran many months and gave some confidence to the management. Soho Theatre had a foothold there; Dynamo – ‘a very scary and powerful piece’, involving KH being set up as a sort of Soho strip club, an enticement for the audience subsequently subverted by the action, i.e. police torture/interrogation. It was as if the audience were being challenged on why they’d come, on what their involvement was.

At this time some fringe theatre had become established as mainstream, particularly if the subject matter was salacious. (1970 was when the boundaries in this respect were really being pushed.) Examples were rock musicals which might have a 4-week run at an alternative venue, then if successful transfer to the West End. DC also remembers seeing at KH Kennedy’s Children [Robert Patrick], and An Evening with Quentin Crisp.

00:55:45      Roundhouse. Roundhouse (RH) in the 1970s was ‘a scruffy, sensational rock venue…housed loads of interesting theatre’ – arising out of Pink Floyd/UFO happenings. Poor sound, and not very hygienic. 1974-5: a series of ‘outstanding and outrageous’ things coming through the RH. Recognisable American influence Living Theatre; also, an interest at RH in international/European theatre. RH an ideal place to stage the large companies. Lindsay Kemp/Ballet Rambert’s Cruel Garden with its bull-ring. Seemed that European fringe theatre enjoyed better funding, frequently going on tours. Jerome Savary’s  Le Grand Magic Circus ‘circus theatre burlesque’ was ideally suited to the RH space – different from the ‘small, intense’ productions which were prevalent on the alternative scene a few years earlier. Also elegant, dance-based productions. And a number of ‘sumptuous and amusing’ satirical compilation pieces.

1:03:45      Living Theatre, Open Space. Living Theatre  ‘very rock ‘n’ roll, mythical themes’, taking literary text as starting point for improvisation, maybe meditation, involving the audience. Mid-/late 1970s at RH: Prometheus – exploring concepts of freedom. In 3 sections, quite a long performance: 1) spectacle, 2) audience brought in to the action, 3) demanding release of prisoners of Holloway Prison…outside, at the prison! Provoked questions as to what political theatre is all about; and again challenging you as a member of the audience, what are you doing there? The Open Space: DC had only experienced it as a cinema.

01:13:45     Main theatres reacting to fringe development, rise of inflatables. Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court (RC), which seemed to turn into a fringe venue. In late 1960s, main theatres wondering about what to do about the fringe explosion. Traverse Theatre. Bill Bryden & ‘Come Together’, a 3-week festival of fringe work put on in1970. The People Show had a big input; they had the Main House at RC, other groups had use of the other spaces like the Theatre Upstairs. Other little festivals ran, eg at + Oval House ‘Nine Days In May’; and GLC put up some money for the London Fringe, a week of alternative theatre. Victoria Theatre (Stoke-on-Trent): good documentary theatre (VT also put on standard repertoire eg Ibsen). PS/Polytechnic of Central London: used an inflater sphere as their environment. Excitement about inflatables/plastics; Arts Lab had an experimental plastics laboratory, where inflatables were created. The theatre scene overlapped with the rock festival scene; inflatables would appear at rock gigs. Fringe companies would also take productions to the National Student Drama Festival; Roland Miller & Shirley Cameron doing stuff in the foyer at the SDF (maintaining an emphasis on using non-theatre spaces).

Interview ends – 01:24:42

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