Date: 3rd November 2011
Location: Jan Dungey’s home in Bungay
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List: Susan Croft
Audio length 01:28:14
For video timings see Jan Dungey Video Topics List
00:00:00 Background. Her names is Dungey – with a soft g. She lives in Bungay pronounced Bungey – with a hard g. Born Maidstone, Kent. Family background: Dad was a planner, Mum a farm labourer. Lived in the same house for 18 years and went to Bristol to study Eng Lit and Lang. Then did a PGCE to teach Drama at Bretton Hall. Drama first came in earlier: in Maidstone used to run mad bits of street theatre. Persuaded district councils locally to fund some park theatre – aged under 17 – her Dad had to drive the van. Did a show with Dave Rappaport who was a friend who was at Bretton and Bristol but she knew him before that – can’t remember how they met. She liked street performance and popular theatre as well as conventional. Had seen a TIE company at the school which did a day of Greek theatre – inspired her though the careers officer hadn’t heard of it. Was encouraged to do a ‘proper’ subject but managed to inveigle her way into the Drama dept – they didn’t actually know who was joint honours and who was not.
00:04:01 Shows in the park – clowning sort of things – carried Dave on in a suitcase – she was exactly twice his height – read some commedia dell arte. Playing about. Links with Cunning Stunts work later through physicality. Being 6 ft 2” which was especially tall in that generation – she had used humour to deal with it. She always got spotted when misbehaving at school as she was the tallest – so learnt to entertain people. At University they did some TIE including a version of The Tempest. She was in University Players – went to Edinburgh. Knew Colin Sell who was at Bristol and wrote a very funny song for a revue. She was there 1971-74. Then Bretton Hall: – not at all funny – a culture shock – was in the middle of nowhere and they didn’t do TIE as they’d claimed – they wanted you to become a drama teacher – nearly didn’t get her diploma but then got on like a house on fire with the External Examiner Harry Ray who had been in the French Resistance. Had run-ins with tutor who had very conventional ideas on education unlike Jan. However she improvised with her group of kids that Harry was the mayor visiting the market and he got mobbed by the kids: he liked what she did. Was she aware of feminism at the time ? Yes within the Drama dept – did a show called Why Cling Dual on the Sand in ??? but did not know Sistershow etc which was contemporary with her.
00:09:45 Worked with Stirabout. Came to London and auditioned for Revue type. It was very tough but the best kind of learning curve for any kind of stand-up – prisoners just shouted out stuff all the time – you had to respond and react. Sketches. Met Simon Praeger – they did some singing together. Did it address issues and prison experience? Not really – it was the very early days of prison theatre. It would have been very difficult to confront issues. They caused a riot in one prison when Simon dedicated a song to George Davis because he got out that day (it was at the time of the campaign ‘George Davis is Innocent OK’). The prison went barmy – they drafted in all the screws – it was very volatile. If you confronted things head on you would not have been asked back. Were there repercussions? No but they were warned. Again in those early days you did not necessarily know what all the issues were. None of her work has been very literary – physical / musical comedy – not looking at issues straight on How were the shows devised – a guy called Lenny, one called Chris – 7 or 8 of them – improvised. Company was founded by Corinna [Seeds] the administrator – fairly fearsome. Mostly played in male prisons. Holloway women’s prison was a totally different vibe – Pat Arrowsmith was in at the time for political reasons. Went in with Frankie Armstrong who taught her to sing. If they’d worked just in women’s prisons what they did would have been different, but male prisons made the Comedy Store look like a walk in the park – 100s and 100s of vocal stroppy men – challenging!. A woman called Nancy as well. A few more men than women. You got a lot of barracking as a woman – interesting as a performer – you had to grow up very quickly. Years later with CS we did a tour of working men’s clubs in the North – much quieter. Wives were there but even so… Jan knew they could handle it. Was with them maybe 9 months.
00:17:00 Chiswick Women’s Aid. Went to work with Erin Pizzey. Led to CS because it was so depressing – it was very heavy – the first Refuge – the women were very damaged – JD wanted to do something that made her laugh again. Squatted in several places including Trensham Mansions, Tottenham Ct Rd, round the corner from the Comedy Store. Met Iris Walton in Still Life Mime Theatre – serious. Good – mime and puppets-based – very good but too dark – Jan wanted something funny. Was at Oval House in early days – visual physical theatre – run by an Australian woman.
00:20.48 Cunning Stunts. Has no idea how they got the material together – devised and played around. Erin [MacDonald] and she did lots of the song writing. Margot did lots of songs – they just knocked ideas about. They first rehearsed in Oval House, later Drill Hall. Oval House was a fertile place: People Show were there, Gay Sweatshop. The Odyssey was the most coherent – using an existing structure – taking the mick out of conquering heroes. They wanted first to deal with physical comedy – there were no female comics – it was before Comedy Store. There were women doing serious work – Monstrous Regiment, Women’s Theatre Group – men were allowed to be physically funny – Ken Campbell Roadshow etc.
Iris – small and stocky – an acrobat but also incredibly dangerous – once there was a firework effect didn’t go off so she lit it in her hand. She fell about and knocked herself about all the time – without serious injury – like when you’re kids and you fall around and find it funny. Lots of male groups were doing male comedy . One year at all the fairs and festivals they played it seemed like all the male companies were taking their clothes off and finding it screamingly funny. JD announced ‘In this show, nobody will take all their clothes off’ and got a roar of approval. One show they had a pack of women going round like flashers in plastic macs and rain hats and did a song Everyone has One or Two Nasty Things They Love to Do dedicated to all the women who expose their labia in public places – which of course doesn’t exist! There is no such thing as a female flasher. They just subverted various things. It was a gang called The Others. There was JD, Iris, Erin, Margot Random, a fiddle-player – Debbie and Gillie Capper. They put an ad in Time Out or something – can’t recall how they found each other – though she remembers interviewing Debbie – she played Shostakovitch. They had some good musicians. Agrees they were looking for women of different physical types, skills, instrumentalists – people who made us laugh for whatever a reason –personality, character.
00:28:57 Funding and Touring. Arts Council funding and Greater London Arts – then run by the man who went to the Gulbenkian – can’t remember his name ‘nice man, like the arts, lives in Sleaford’. Starting points were in the songs often – Margot started a punk band later called ‘Margot Random and the Space Virgins’ – very Margot. Coincided with punk – agrees that the energy, grotesquerie, liberation from feminine stereotypes were similar. They were never going to be the classic female woman next door etc They were an odd assortment and revelled in it. Compares them to Spiderwoman – though they were much more striking but you could see their performance had evolved from their being strikingly different. Started by touring street shows, avoided theatres – reaching ‘ordinary’ people but as it went on did more festivals and theatres. It was when the international circuit was starting. Did shows in Holland and Italy – tours for the Italian Communist Party, then Scandinavia. It took off – got seen at the Oval by two women and booked them to play in Berlin. Saw extraordinary places. Well-paid. Hilarious. Generally in these civic theatres where mayors booked them. Played in by local brass bands We always translated dreadful bits into the language – can say things in Italian and Danish. One night they decided they would learn brass band instruments – they were truly dreadful but played very earnestly. Some got better which was a shame. Mercifully Jan’s soprano sax got squashed somewhere in France. Iris was no good either on trumpet. But Sarah became very good – a proper trombonist. The first time they played Ithaca You Are My Home – the audience fell about and the group were offended because they thought it was serious.
00:37:5 Ham Fat on the Turn. To do with the pharmaceutical industry. Included Farmer Cutie Gals evolved into a European potentate played by Erin. The Vassellini Brothers? Probably, but why she has no idea. Gang of strong women. Did they have designers? Later – a woman called Wendy, but mostly they devised things together. Was there a director? When they did the Tricycle show Jan directed it. Prior to that ‘we inflicted it on various audiences as work in progress and then chucked stuff out that didn’t work’. Generally they evolved. No written scripts: a nightmare for archives. Audience involvement. Entire audiences involved eg when the conquering heroes return from the Ithacan wars the entire audience had to hide under their seats and then burst out with party-poppers for a surprise party. When Erin was a dinosaur and needed more energy the audience was given a mesh of strings and cabbage leaves to pass along to each other to give them more energy. Very well-received. Hugely liberatory – we didn’t care what we looked like. There is something very liberating about working with a group of women. When people did funny or daring stuff – it is hard to imagine women being as strong and funny in a mixed group, though when she got an ACE bursary she worked with Circus Oz, a mixed company, and they make each other laugh and that but it’s still more difficult.
00:44:50 Arguments? Ideological differences? Politics? We didn’t deal with things intellectually though we did benefits and protests including a show in the Central Hall, Westminster about the abortion bill – the vote was going against it and we marched over and did a sit-down protest. We did stuff but didn’t necessarily debate it. We did read stuff: I was inspired by Mary Daly Gyn/Ecology and Monique Wittig’s Les Guerrillères so we read stuff and I guess we did talk about it but my memory is not of us discussing issues. Gyn/Ecology I think had quite a strong effect – the women flying in at the end – and in Berlin there was the Hexenfest so I think those things fed in.
00:47:33 Work on The Odyssey or Wild Nights. Stories of male heroes going off and doing all these things. As a kid I had a magazine called Finding Out which had a serialised version of The Odyssey with the Cyclops, but never any women doing all these things. They thought it would be good if a bunch of women got to go round and do all these things. Series of events e.g. Circe’s island – Margot wrote ‘Hello my name is Circe and here are my dancing pigs / We tour the Grecian islands doing all these gigs’. Jan was the Cyclops. Travelled round various island s and returned to Ithaca. It was the most coherent starting point – existing episodes we reworked. With others we started with, say, colour theory which Iris was interested in at the time – and improvised – Sammy and she devised an almost dance piece around red. With yellow they made hats like giant lemon-squeezers. How did you structure the pieces together? A word like Structure and the Stunts is not the best word for describing anything – we’d do piece and we’d go onto the next – the structure would be around practical things like who could come on next – not very profound. But back in the early days of the Comedy Store there were some very odd funny things happening there – which didn’t have a structure to them just a male stand-up comedy thing e.g. Rik Mayall before he became famous as an ‘angry poet’ or Alexei Sayle would so stuff about being mistaken for Bertolt Brecht – no messages but people trying to grapple towards different ways of expressing things. Can’t recall what the colour show’s title was. Runts on the Stoad – may have been a show when Jan was in Australia or a collective name for various sketches. They’d devise and then tour a show for about 4 or 5 months and it would then run out of steam and they’d then start work on the next one. Except for at the Tricycle. Di Robson became their administrator and her idea was that they work in a circus tent.
00:55:49 Devised piece. They decided they all turned up at this particular fair dressed as they imagine they’d be when they were 80 – they would find each other in this fair – changed their names to begin with an F – Dungey became Fungey. Not very convincing except for one Stunt who was completely believable. They were doing a show which had nothing to do with this but they did this to amuse themselves.
00:57:40 The Desert or What’s For Afters? 1979, and others. Remembers mostly the group of Egyptians – one of Iris’s interests was Egyptology – they had rather beautiful masks – birds, jackals – did a strange Egyptian dance. Plume was a sort of Northern landlady having dreams about the desert. A song called the ‘The desert calls you yoo-hoo, yoo-hoo’ And ‘what’s for afters was dessert – you have to remember that wherever there was an awful pun to be found they found it. A dinosaur featured – how you imagine yourself to be – being apart from the crowd – Erin. (In the Opera she was the Fabulous Beast. Jan was the Queen, the bossy one.) Erin imagined herself as odd, eccentric and one of a kind – a dinosaur who had come back to find the rest of her kind extinct. She wore a long piece of gas piping and was into knotting, nets, networks- and energy food – cabbage leaves – our characters fell in love and had a mock folk song ‘ I give to you my knotted ropes all in a tangle’ – Morris Men- style. Agrees they were commodious shows – anyone could bring in their particular preoccupation. Jan loves spiders and could do a very good spider impression. Her love of spiders pervaded a number of shows – spinners, spinsters – extraordinary magical creatures – linked with the Mary Daly theme.
01:04:55 Cunning Stunts: The Opera. Had some quite dark, scary things in it at the start – they lightened it up later as they freaked themselves out and didn’t want to. Each came up with an epic creature. Jan’s Queen character was very spider like with a spidery ruff. Helen (Crocker) was an Owl, Verity [?] was a Raven – powerful female symbols mythically. Helen is Welsh – the Owl features in The Mabinogion. They were all in this court and gradually left – bleak song. An Australian improvising cellist did the overture – 7 mins 14 seconds – extraordinary which got a bit tiresome. Erin wrote this extraordinary song ‘Welcome all to the Monarch’s Hall’– a strong and powerful song – Simon Praeger would know it. Erin the main composer by then. Some very dark bits: Verity’s Raven screamed and screeched with soprano sax. Worked with Sue Broadway and Jane from Circus Oz – pushing the physical skills further – which is how she got to know them. Sue was a Monkey in the show. She devised an aerial piece on a net – which was the set. Helen was the domestic, cleaning things in the Court. Scenes included the bamboo forest – beautifully choreographed by Helen – very mysterious – with bamboo poles – they were Amazons in the forest – they came in balancing these 12 ft bamboo poles on their hands – Helen works with people actually having to do actual things and what follows from it. Lots of sections were not at all funny – quite a departure for the Stunts.
Susan: ‘Was it expressing something in the group or the world outside? The nuclear issue comes up in the next show.’
More to do with the new people coming – Sue, Jane helped devise it, Verity, Sarah – the improvising cellist – a great woman but not funny! – the people who are there will take you in the directions they are interested in. Some sections were intense. It’s tricky – when you’re known for comedy. It was emotionally draining in some bits.
Susan; ‘Was there more musical content than before?- it was called the Opera.’
‘Lots of fringe companies were doing opera at the time so we thought we’d call it that. It toured though she can only remember the circus tent in Battersea Park – a beautiful ‘tensile structure’ – built for Lumiere and Son who hired it to them.
Relationship with Di Robson, Administrator. Di Robson thought they should do this as a popular theatre company. She was great at breaking new ground. People chipped in with ideas – no tensions.
01:18:27 Christmas Show at the Tricycle. Jan directed it and wasn’t originally in it but in the end couldn’t bear not performing. Large company 9-13 people including Bernie who played cornet and was very acrobatic – more circus skills – they liked Circus Oz – they were the first new circus – influenced the company. Costume designer – they were rather good. Lots of tumbling, human pyramids and so on.
01:20:36 Jan’s next steps: Australia and Bungay. Then Jan got an Arts Council bursary – they don’t exist now – to pursue a special line of interest – in popular theatre and women’s theatre – did some work with Circus Oz and Women’s Circus, directed a devised women’s show for Sydney Festival, then became very interested in aboriginal arts, went to the central desert for a bit – experimenting with various life things – for three months she wouldn’t handle any cash – madness – did workshops for barter. She had barter lists – necessities, luxuries, neuroses – people could give her anything they wanted or nothing gave her extraordinary things like coach tickets, plenty of places to stay – six months of adventure. She had never felt so safe as doing all these barmy things. What she brought back, because the aboriginals don’t have any division between the land and themselves she moved up here – part of the same thing to Bungay – when did it get fractured over here. She set up an environmental arts company – became eventually the Company of Imagination – another women’s company. They devised work for ancient woodlands, uphill sites – trails – performance walks – quite a lot of people do them now – guide walks – Jan was always the guide – they would work out a route through a place and make up work on the way. That was 1980s – she moved to Bungay in 1982. Didn’t have any involvement with Cunning Stunts – they split not long after she left
– 1982 is the last date Susan has listed after Big Nuclear Show and Winter Warmer.
01:24:40 Albion Fairs and later work in East Anglia and Kent. Cunning Stunts did shows there – part of the Festival of Fools – West Country version – all started about the same time – Albion Fairs were the East Anglian version. Company of the Imagination continued till about 1990/91. They had funding from ACGB, some from Eastern Arts, Countryside Commission, Development Commission, Gulbenkian, all sorts. Living in Bungay – wanted to be in a place forever. An old boy on the streets said to her ‘You weren’t born ‘ere, were you?’ and Jan said ‘No, but I do intend to die here’. And then she got a proper job. Her Mum was not very well – her dad had died many years beforehand and she had not been there – she wanted to be there with her Mum and the only way was to get a proper job and she became an Arts Development Officer for a number of years, in Kent and a Consultant. But it was not a barrel of laughs – for a long time – very challenging but meant she could keep on the house up here, be with her Mum and make work happen on the ground. Various hairy things happened as well. The Chief Exec at her last job said ‘It’s been a joy to work with you. But I’ve never worked with anybody as dangerous!’ Work she made happen that she was pleased with – they did a big show with 500 people, had to close a harbour – with helicopters and ships – a near death experience! The awfulness was that the show wasn’t good enough – which wasn’t down to me.