Location: Oval House, London
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List: David Cleall
Audio and video timings
00:00:00 Getting started. Norma Cohen, teacher of dance at Woodberry Down Comprehensive, auditioned and joined Sidewalk about 1973 when she was 27 and initially retained the teaching ‘day job’. Sidewalk had been started by graduates from Manchester University – making plays that related to young people and adults – the early work wasn’t overtly political or community theatre-centred. The company were based at Oval House, at the time being run by Peter Oliver. He was very encouraging to make things happen, and NC also started workshops for teachers, there were creative playwriting workshops and also circus skills and clowning workshops (American clown Django Edwards was involved). Oval House was a hotbed of activity – probably about 20 companies used Oval as their base – including Steven Berkoff’s company (working on East). There was a lot of community work on the local estates. PO held anarchic workshops and was the ‘antithesis of an establishmentarian’.
NC was still teaching, as Sidewalk, at this point, didn’t have funding. They did a Brecht play. The times were such that one felt one could do anything. Collaboration and cross-fertilisation between different companies was common – NC would go on to work with Monstrous Regiment, Pirate Jenny and other touring companies. Freehold theatre company did classical theatre in a very visual style. Red Ladder were an issue-based theatre. Sidewalk started doing Norse-based legends – such as Till Eulenspiegel [based on German folklore trickster figure]. Later when Sidewalk got funding, the Arts Council stipulated that the work should have a community ‘edge’. Theatre companies also needed an administrator to work with the Arts Council. Sidewalk got their own premises – an ex-factory in the Stoke Newington area. The work was now largely community theatre. After the Brecht play there was Till Eulenspiegel – based around a Lord of Misrule type character. They had writers working with them and typically a production developed from improvisation to scripts.
00:09:13 Sidewalk personnel and involvement in other work. NC was Laban-trained and had done a lot of mime, clowning and comedy. John Burrows was involved (playwright and set designer); John Dove (now a well-respected theatre and opera director); Chris Johnston (community projects); Tash Fairbanks (went on to write novels) and Sarah Boyes (also a teacher). The company went through many changes and later Clair Chapwell (Spare Tyre) joined. [As with any company] there were some incidents of ‘explosive tension’ – not ideological conflicts but more a case of ‘big personalities trying to thrash things out’. People say after seven years things started to change and for NC the ‘change’ included her getting married, having a child and that led to her not being able to tour. But other people came in and it was probably as a result of that that the company became more issue-based. Whilst she was with Sidewalk, NC started working at the Cockpit, as choreographer. There she worked with Maurice Colbourne from Freehold on Euripides’s The Bacchae. Her first paid acting job [independent of Sidewalk] was in the Flying Phoenix Theatre Company a theatre-in-education company – this wasn’t very successful, but she got an Equity card. She did various acting jobs and did some work for Unicorn Theatre such as The Amazing Johnny Banger by Chris Langham. She also started directing, for a spin-off company from Sidewalk in a play Polly Jaunty – for under 5s (perhaps for Spare Tyre?).
00:14:50 Son of a Gun, touring and Oval House. NC remembers seeing Freehold at the Roundhouse directed by Nancy Meckler [Shared Experience] and wife of David Aukin. [This might be late night performance of Antigone 19th Nov 1969]. It was a very physical performance, ‘very visual with huge group shapes’ and very powerful. With regards to Sidewalk, in retrospect NC is not sure how innovative they were. They moved from being a very small company, to getting a grant and touring London and the rest of the country in a bread van, that they had acquired and adapted. Then they toured Holland. Son of a Gun was one of their better known pieces – it ‘excavated’ their ‘growing up years’. At this initial discussion (at the Red Lion pub Islington) they discussed what each of them wanted to make a piece of theatre about – Tash [Tasha Fairbanks] had had difficult home circumstances and prior to her coming out; Ken [Gregson] who NC later married, and who went off into The Flying Pickets [a cappella vocal group, founded in 1982] had been in the army for 9 years and so had been trapped in a different way. NC drew on her Liverpudlian background. Following improvisations John Burrows scripted it and they took it to an International Theatre Festival in Rotterdam and also The Melkweg in Amsterdam. There they met a Danish company called Solvognen who had been involved in direct action events with regards to the [alternative] community of Christiania in Denmark. (Later Son of a Gun was resurrected and directed by John Caird with different actors) . The life with Sidewalk was ‘uncomfortable’ and they weren’t paid much – but it was exciting because ‘they were living on their wits’ end, talking ideas and alive’! It was partly the zeitgeist and partly the particular people and the network she had access to. When touring they went to the Third Eye Centre, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow [founded in 1973]. They worked outdoors a lot such as on estates etc. and it was tough – they did pieces on housing issues, property speculation and also issues around health. They worked a lot in schools. The Oval House audiences were fantastic – ready to accept and also to challenge. Children’s audiences were trickier. In Holland as a result of Guy Groen (later Guy Holland) being a brilliant entrepreneur they played more mainstream theatres – they also performed in shopping centres in Amsterdam. NC recalls a tragic incident, involving Paula Melbourne who did a one-woman show on a trapeze. NC knew her from clown workshops – her partner was Emil Wolk, of The People Show. When she died [in a car accident], there was a wake in the open space outside Oval House – Mike Figgis played a very moving [trumpet?] solo. Final memories of Oval House – the space was very vibrant, like walking into a party with its own rules, the café – Alfie [Pritchard] and Ros [Prior], who also worked there, were amazingly innovative.