John Fox and Sue Gill Topics List

Date: 13.08.2013
Location: Their home near Ulverston
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Ray Malone
Topics List: David Cleall

Audio Track 1 timings
Lenght 02:45:00
For video timings see John Fox and Sue Gill video Topics List

00:00:00       Personal backgrounds.  Sue Gill (SG) and John Fox (JF) were both from Hull. SG first person in family to go to Higher Education. Loving ceramics, teaching was a way of enabling her to pursue this and to get out of Hull. Then, at 23, Head of a village school in a very isolated community (Hawnby on the North Yorkshire moors). SG & JF got to know John Arden and  Margaretta D’Arcy, who sent their children to her school. Albert Hunt brought some of his students [from Shropshire] out for events – as she let them use the school house to sleep in. JF and SG – ‘childhood sweethearts’ – had gone to school in the same town. JF’s father was a sea captain and wanted him to have a good education. JF went to Oxford (Economics, Philosophy) but always drawn to art (Ruskin School of Drawing). After a Diploma in Education he did a 2nd degree at Newcastle University in Fine Art. There  [Richard] Hamilton and Duchamp’s work were the main influences on students and he rejected that, feeling that it had nothing to say to the people of the area. He staged an event (The Deflation of the King of Fine Art), a happening, that was a critique of all he thought wrong with that art scene and was the start of JF ‘thinking radically about a different kind of vernacular art’. JF and SG had met Albert Hunt and JF was offered a job at Bradford, initially as a tutor librarian and then working with AH. JF discovered ‘another kind of anarchic, carnivalesque art’ which he felt in tune with. SG explains how she came to change her name to ‘Gill’ after settling in Ulverston, Cumbria for a number years.

00:15:51        Early influences. JF (when not yet 18) did National Service in the army working with the Ghanaian army in West Africa. After that he went to Oxford when SG was at Cambridge. She started teaching, they both moved to Newcastle when he did his second degree, SG later moved down to Hornby and he commuted to college (with a truck full of sculptures). For JF the army experience (1957-59) was a ‘huge cultural shock’ and a responsibility. He went out as a Roman Catholic but the experience of different cultures made him rethink his ideas. He responded to the African culture, the drumming and he also learnt about explosives which would also be influential giving him an appetite for site specific theatre! JF’s father was conservative and middle-class – only real early theatre experience was pantomime. As a boy he performed conjuring tricks at children’s parties. SG’s upbringing was very ‘safe, very suburban’ – although ideologically sexist and racist, it did give her a very secure base that enabled her to take risks at other stages in her life. Culturally though it was a ‘desert’. Her influences were the people she met who were living alternative lifestyles. Bradford at the time was a ‘hotbed’ of activity partly down to Albert (AH). At one point SG and JF both got project work at Bradford (College) and started some street theatre. SG cashed in her pension and they bought an ex-Army truck to move everyone about [the student performers]. The following summer they repeated the project and that group became the nucleus of Welfare State (WSI). They were living in a flat, Dan was born and JF took a job as Senior Lecturer at Leeds, so they moved there. They had a nucleus of the company and a truck. They rented a big old ex-doctor’s surgery for the group – to get some privacy JG & SG  lived in a caravan in the yard.
00:28:30       Early Welfare State shows. Their early street theatre was ‘terrible’ – none of them had theatre training but the shows were plenty of fun: masks, costumes, drums ‘but no finesse’! Fantastic learning curve – how to hold on to audience and collect money from them. Early shows: Superman and the Fleas; Hump-back Jester and Arabian Nights. It was ‘good physical rough theatre, street theatre and a lot of fun’. Superman and the Fleas led them to a small grant from Yorkshire Arts. They experimented with ‘processional theatre’ connecting with traditional forms like Mummers plays and seasonal celebrations. The processions got bigger – with huge puppets. Learnt how to structure processions, using a street band, involving transformations. Wore a lot of dramatic black and white face make-up but later decided this was a bit intimidatory. Some work was overtly political and didactic then they reverted to more mythological themes, more pantomime-like. Drew inspiration from the elements – fire,  ice, water. Often focussed a piece on a new skill – such as working with fire. The various sections were collaged together.
00:34:50       Influences of street music on the development of the company’s work. Worked with some good musicians, e.g. Mike Westbrook and Lol Coxhill. Boris Howarth was a seminal figure – they first collaborated with him in 1968 – very versatile and knowledgeable about street band music from around the world. He drilled and taught the company – the music component. His influence was very important and largely unrecognised. Howarth had worked with John Arden on Ars Longa Vita Brevis, this in turn was picked up by AH who staged it at the village arts festival at SG’s village school. Boris’s partner, Maggie Howarth, was making fantastic big puppet costumes. Adrian Mitchell was also based in Lancaster at that time and worked with Maggie (sets and costumes) and Boris on productions. Greg Stephens, was a musical director for WSI who also came through that connection. In the eighties he managed the ceilidh element when they integrated theatre ideas into the barn dance – powerful 5-10 minute interludes between dances such as using puppets to perform Brecht / Weill Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife. Musical influences pushed them in one direction but they  also looked at for alternative vernacular forms of poetry and theatre. They would spend all day decorating a village hall to create what would be called now an ‘immersive environment’ – but with a team of about 12 people it wasn’t ‘cost effective’. Further discussion of Lol Coxhill’s contribution.

00:43:00       WSI’s general philosophy, The Bread and Puppet Theater and the Lantern Festival. Welfare State’s general philosophy was that you could ‘make sophisticated, intense and difficult work  but there was always a place within it for beginners’ – this applied to performers but also to audiences. Work was multi-layered – various access points. Collective approach to making work, different from the hierarchical model with the theatre director at top. Their method evolved but essentially drew on the ‘same tricks’ used by street performers: loud music, fire, excitement, audience engagement, melodrama. This was a very visual theatre. Contributors like soloists in a jazz band -working independently on an image/a costume but bringing it to life within the context of other performers. The company attracted dynamic students from art schools and a number of people came from Dartington College. A large number of visual artists in the company that were dyslexic – having a different visual sensibility. WS saw themselves at the time as part of the art world: happenings – Fluxus, Robin Page, Jeff Nuttall and the People Show. They saw Peter Schumann (PS) [Bread & Puppet Theater] performing street theatre in London and this powerful work had an important influence on them they saw his work in London such a wonderful piece called Fire at the ICA (although booed by the audience) and later JF visited PS in America. Ancient forms of theatre, circus, fairground, ceremonies, ritual, the use of elemental forces that  are part of our fundamental being, visceral and powerful.  The Lantern Festival at Ulverston (since 1983) was an example. In the early days of WS costumes and props were fairly small scale and were made in their house. JF & SG now had a second child, Hannah. When they moved to Burnley they erected a building on the caravan site for a bigger ‘making’ space.

00:58:53       London and Peter and Joan Oliver. WS did some work in London with Roland Muldoon and Margaretta D’Arcy. Commissioned by Oval House to do a piece on waste ground with fire-cans and a large bee-hive structure for baking bread made by Di Davies. They were in paper costumes and Lol provided the music. They had met Peter and Joan Oliver at Crowborough through Steven Pinkerton. WS had been asked to work with inner-city kids on a residential scheme in the school holidays – Roger Coleman, a rock guitarist was one of the founding members of WS. Driving around in an old army van with rock instruments and speakers gave them some credibility with the tough kids.  Sweet Misery of Life may have been their first Oval House gig – also done at Stockwell. Quite political, aggressive and negative. A turning point as the company then moved from ‘Brecht to Chagall’ ! JF recalls anecdotes about Peter Oliver [who had died in 2007]. PO and JO had been so radical and courageous at Oval House inviting in the wild spirits of the time like Jeff Nuttall and the People Show – ‘It was a huge trusting environment’

01:07:02       Burnley, alternative living and schooling. [About 1973] an invitation from Jenny Wilson (Director Mid-Pennine Arts) to take an arts fellowship, leading masterclasses at Nelson and Colne College – as they  were being evicted from Leeds this was fortuitous. They found some unused council land in Burnley and negotiated with the council to move on to it with their caravans, trucks, etc. – they stayed about five years! Established a rough and ready caravan site, outside stand pipe, improvised plastic awnings to give them some shelter. Later, a generator, could only afford to run it for a couple of hours a night. Shopping bags gaffer-taped to the children’s clothes to keep them dry. Further buildings were improvised, designed or acquired – including a schoolroom. The children ‘home schooled’ as part of their political stance, (see book What Shall We Do With The Children? by Cathy Kiddle). Company members were paid £5 a week – this came with somewhere to live, heating and lighting. Not a commune in so far as there were individual living units and on the whole they ate separately except when on tour. They were picked on as being gypsies or hippies. Gradually the facilities were improved: a shower block etc. School inspectors looked favourably on the schooling arrangements. The communal approach favoured the breaking down of limiting gender roles. They had thought that most other theatre companies would make similarly choices – but it didn’t happen on the whole. Examples of a school curriculum drawn from their working situations. Community at Burnley was mainly ‘working-class Tories’  and WS’s work didn’t go down very well. They used public baths, but the staff didn’t want ‘dirty hippies’ using the facilities. The tie-up with Nelson and Colne College also collapsed after a few days – their work was seen as neither art nor education. They were learning on the road – by acquiring  showmen’s living wagons they achieved better community relationships.  

01:22:58       Important contributors, growing recognition and Beauty and the BeastThey were touring much of the time. Beauty and the Beast was a summertime installation on the Burnley site but often they were away in the Winter. Boris Howarth (BH) from Lancashire, his father was a musician. Boris and his partner Maggie finished art degrees in Reading and moved back to Lancashire. BH worked with Hells Angels ‘and other waifs and strays’ producing dynamic happenings. Had a strong architectural sense, knew scale and could frame a piece of work. Later BH became deaf and abandoned making music. Moved into stone carving, photography, digital imaging and MH became an expert in pebble mosaics. JF and BH worked together well over many years. In 1981 they came up with an iconic work  Tempest on Snake Island for Toronto Festival on the Toronto Islands. Both ‘very anarchic spirits’. BH brought a wide range of skills to WS, the giant sculptural fires were BH’s ideas as was Parliament in Flames [Catford,1980]. BH brought in Tony Lewery, Andy Plant and Tim Hunkin [1979] terrific makers and inventors. Maggie would make a giant skeleton head if that was required. David Clough’s pyrotechnics were also important. Shows would be built around skills that people brought to the company. They brought in specialists when they needed them such fire eaters, sword swallowers and tightrope walkers for part of WSI’s contribution to The Cosmic Circus Show in London with Mike Westbrook. Some specialists from the old variety circuit such as ‘The Original Peter’ a gymnast and acrobat who worked on Circus Time in Bradford. Most of the skills they had to learn for themselves – often in a clumsy way. Arts Council funding came quite late although at £173 grant from Yorkshire Arts funded some of the early shows. Golden time in the 1970s and 80s when students union’s had a lot of money and WS would get well paid commissions, cash in hand. Later, when WS Iwere more skilled and ambitious they would often work for half what they had once got. WSI had long tours of Holland –  street theatre and site specific work – again, well paid for large blocks of work. Ratio between earned income and grant income was then at its healthiest – too much reliance on grants makes one vulnerable to shrinking budgets. WSI started to be recognised on the international circuit. Ted Shanks, an American academic visited them in Burnley to see Beauty and the Beast. They had worked for 3 months on this – an ‘immersive experience’ – a labyrinthine structure providing a ‘walk-through’ audience experience – very dark, gothic journey with strange fairground type booths and finally there was ‘a sort of Shangri-La revelatory ending’ – an attempt to make a mythic structure. On last night of run  the local fire brigade sprayed white foam to create an ice kingdom. There was always an artistic director coordinating and this role was passed around although it was often JF and BH. Whoever was ‘in charge’ they always worked collectively. There evolved a ‘house style’ and there was always considerable amount of improvisation. Peter Stark was their first administrator.

01:49:28       The South West Tour, King Real and Titanic. SW tour went from Glastonbury to Marazion, Cornwall (‘a long way’) in 1972: The Travels of Lancelot Quail. The final exit was on HMS submarine ‘Andrew’ (photo by Roger Perry) the bourgeoisie depart on a submarine with Lancelot Quail (Jamie Proud) and the Fool left behind. It was about making an Exodus from England as it was not a very creative place. Along the route of the tour promenade performances in a circus tent and events in the story staged at various points. It became a sort of rites of passage for the company including crazy things like crossing Dartmoor at night. ‘A comic mythic journey interspersed with tribal rituals’ – a lot of Mike Westbrook music in it. Extended processional piece that lasted three weeks. Tried to involve the various communities but that aspect didn’t work because they didn’t stay long enough. There was a film made about it (London Film School). A rough scenario had been laid out from the start – some scenes scripted, most improvised. Peter Kiddle was their administrator at the time and he made the arrangements with the navy for the submarine, later the captain of the submarine was court marshalled for running the vessel aground.

01:53:52       Community theatre projects Raising the Titanic and King Real .Marcel Steiner [creator of The Smallest Theatre in the World] collaborated with Welfare State on a film playing King Real, in King Real and the Hoodlums (1983). Also that year Raising the Titanic also with MS – a political allegory of Thatcher’s Britain, but also had a mythic style. Sue Hill (from Kneehigh) performing. There was a set of giant puppets, giant shark’s heads and skyscrapers came out of Limehouse Dock. The spirit of light in the form of a ship of lanterns drove away the capitalist forces. WSI were working with Elizabeth Lynch [A Team Arts] who was very good at bringing in groups from the community to work with them. Very demanding project, living on the dockside for six weeks. Planning was very difficult – the final scene with the iceberg and the lantern ship involved a lot of rowers (who had to be trained) moving the models around on the water in the dark. There was an irony that they almost had to create a hierarchical structure to manage the production that mirrored the Titanic hierarchy that they were criticising. The production’s ‘ice giant’ needed a specialised refrigeration truck and generator. Andy Burton worked with them for years – he was a very good, delicate Buster Keaton type of clown. Adrian Mitchell wrote quite a few of the songs. WSI were interested in a different model for theatre  – such as one would have experienced outside a medieval cathedral. They created many related events, so it would go on for a long time. Comic and the esoteric would be put next to each other – ‘a sort of Brueghel carnivalesque quality’. Ended with a social dance celebrating the coming together of the Limehouse community to make something. Stylistic it was a strong piece – the set was a cross-section of a ship’s hull created by container trucks piled one on top of another to create a doll’s house effect. A 500 seater theatre had been built on the dockside. They would keep losing money on these shows – the ideas always outstretched the budget. They had almost gone bankrupt [ that was in the late 1990’s – wrong decade here!!] They got very adept at evaluating a space and understanding how that could be used to stage an event.

02:22:30       Welfare State and IOU split and the Australian tour. There is discussion about the 1975 split into two companies when about five of WSI left  to form their own company I.O.U (Independent Outlaw University). Very difficult for all, nonetheless it was the right thing to do. [IOU] did good work, but had a more traditional structure of ‘the blokes going off on tour and the women and children staying at home’. Some of the tension that had led to the split were issues of whether WS was a collective or whether JF led company. In retrospect JF felt he had not been clear about his role. Also differences about whether community projects arise from a community ethos or whether ideas should be imposed on them. The chair of the board at that time was Peter (Lord) Feversham –  he suggested the 50/50 split of the Arts Council grant. The work IOU did was a bit rarefied – it was brilliant, but different to from the work that WSI did. Boris stuck by JF. JF brought in ‘Idaho’ from Holland – partly visual artists and partly a band – to complete a contract that WSI had to honour in France. Some very good stuff in the show, it was quite poetic but it was small scale and not what the commissioners were expecting. They took this show to Liverpool and Glasgow where they worked in quite hostile conditions re local kids and the show also went to Leicester, Milton Keynes. It worked in some places but not in others! Boris became Artistic Director for a year while SG and JF went to Australia – took a year’s sabbatical from the company (1978-79) During that year Boris changed the name of the company to Welfare State International WSI. Initially SG/JF worked with Magpie a TIE company in Adelaide across the Nullabor Desert staying about a week in each place, the show was The Return of Billy Gilligan and the various communities would get involved by making something or staging an event such as unveiling a statue, schools may get involved. JF and SG were offered a 5 months interstate tour running residencies and masterclasses ranging from 1 week to 1 month. It was on this tour that they got interested in the barn dance work that they later brought back to Britain.

Audio Track 1 ends 02:45:00

Audio Track 2 timings
Length 01:22:18

00:00:00       Settling down in Ulverston – a new approach to working in the community. Conclusion of the The Return of Billy Gilligan discussion performing in outback Australia, making fire pictures – iron pole-framed animal images placed at a distance in the desert ascribed with a fire trail outline. JF and SG had sold their house in Burnley so whilst in Australia considered settling there – and were offered jobs. However partly through commitments to aging relatives they returned to UK and settled down in Ulverston. Discussion of the move from home-schooling their children to state secondaries. Various circumstances conspired to make Ulverston seem the right choice (including lighthouse imagery). Rest of WSI company dispersed around Britain and beyond and the Fox family at Ulverston. They re-established grants, rented rehearsal space, got an administrator (Howard Steel, working from Liverpool). New team began to move into the Ulverston / Barrow area: David Clough (pyro-technician), Ali Jones (visual artist), Mike White (development director), Pete Moser (musical director). Key things happened about 1983 – the year WSI Titanic, seven years at Barrow (83-90), Ulverston Lantern Festival (83-84). Desperate for space from which to base their work they raised enough money to buy  a Victorian building ‘National School’  at Ulverston, that would later after substantial Lottery funding become  Lanternhouse  [without ‘The’] At this point they wanted to apply some of the aspects of ‘social dance’ that they had used in Australia into a Cumbrian setting. They no longer wanted to take community theatre to village halls hoping to find an audience, disillusioned with ‘jet-set jestering’ and the Titanic was a turning point – ‘it was community theatre on the hoof’ but they now understood that work needed to evolve from a long-term relationship with a community. In Barrow-on-Furness (a Trident submarine town) they became ‘a flagship for Northern Arts’ (run by Peter Stark). Ulverston [about ten miles away] was ‘a different kettle of fish’ – a working town but it was starting to decline. They reinvented Ulverston as ‘The Festivals Town’ – starting with the town carnival and creating Carnival Night with its outdoor Barn Dance So mainly working in Barrow and Ulverston, but they still got international invitations (Japan and Vancouver). As well as large scale work they did small scale – Winter 1987, The Lantern Coach – a coach was adapted by Greville White to be a small theatre (20 seater). Working with Whitewood and Fleming,  they used pantomime themes and puppets. Big international events were made to work within their established local calendar. Summer schools on the shores of Windermere served to ‘pass the word on’. Once they got the building (the National School) they did a lot more courses (‘How to Run a Carnival’ , ‘How to Make Willow Sculptures’ etc). In Barrow about 1987 they started ‘The Barracudas’ – carnival street band and a choir [MD Pete Moser]and through Lanternhouse they did more locally based activities. WSI always created a celebratory climax for The Lantern Parade – fireworks, giant puppets, etc. as a ‘gift to the town’.

00:29:11       Barrow-in-Furness projects. 1999 in Barrow The Golden Submarine was the big carnival finale to Shipyard Tales – a showcase of 14 productions for the work that had been done in many workshops and summer schools. It had its own discrete team – Rachel Ashton (from Trickster) came up as a performance director (and is still here running the Ashton Company), Deborah Warner, Adrian Mitchell, Maddi Nicholson (visual artist now Founder/Artistic Director of Art Gene in Barrow) contributed and WSI’s job was to stage it all. With Barrow’s link with the armaments industry, this was a topic that couldn’t be discussed – leading JF with Kevin Fegan ( playwright) to write an opera Lord Dynamite, composer Tim Fleming, Gilly Adams directed it in Barrow. It then toured and led to them going back on the road and nearly bankrupting themselves (again). The Barrow projects had started with King Real – a community film from a script by Adrian Mitchell – involving a lot of young people and local people including shipyard welders who wanted to be involved customizing vehicles Mad Max style. It was a sort of Cinderella / King Lear story. Barrow wasn’t a cultural desert but what was there – amateur dramatics, opera, choirs was middle-aged with nothing for young people. The trouble was youngsters grew up, then left the town. JF and SG had a Barrow project ‘DIY Theatre’ in an old cinema giving people the skills of setting up and running their own theatre companies.

00:35:36       International projects, money problems and the Lantern Tower. Meanwhile WSI went off to Expo 86  in Vancouver for 2 months to create a new site specific work Mirrorman. They took on other big projects such as the Glasgow Lantern Festival [Glasgow City of Culture] – an 18 months and £300,000 commission was to create the parade, but their outgoings were £330,000! They involved the schools and foolishly said that they would provide all the materials and then also had the bill of transporting Scottish children from all over into Glasgow on the night, the weather was terrible and the drains got blocked, they had to pay to get these cleared. They lost a further £30,000 on Barrow projects so they took on a corporate piece for Cardiff docks development (Light Up the Bay) to clear some debts – they staged a piece for 5-6,000 people but the event was over-hyped creating an audience of many thousands [apologies for the exaggeration!!] resulting in most people being unable to see or hear anything! But they managed to keep the bank at bay. They had started doing a lot of arts and environment work. Discussion of ‘the house project’ and the building of a cruck barn next to Lanternhouse. An account of the process of the Lottery funding re the development of the Arts Centre (1997-9): creating an Artists’s Forum, two years of planning, preparing the application, selecting architects, project manager, technical consultants, temporary move to another site – application presented in an artistic fashion to the Arts Council and everything that they had put in was accepted. They were able to keep a presence going in the town during this development – bands, workshops, festivals.

00:50:10        Welfare State International  journey and Mr Punch. Taking an overview JF talks of their particular ‘journey’ – trying to find ‘a creative way of living that uses theatre’ – one recurring image that seems to run through all is that of the Punch figure – the psychotic male – who continually crops up in society, such as in the role of the arms dealer, the property developer, etc. JF explains how the Punch figure was used in a triptych of exhibitions at Lanternhouse concerning both ends of Morecambe Bay with Barrow at one end and the burnt-out Morecambe pier at the other. Against this context of the psychotic dominating male they are trying to use energies to create something that gives you peace of mind, ‘a kind of creative well-being’ Longline was the result of a 3 year project – gathering stories from around the bay. It was a community gathering, about 500 were involved, choirs, drummers, theatre workshops, ideas were tried out earlier in Bare Bones and eventually it came together in a circus tent. It was a process for the people who contributed their stories but it was also a rite of passage for Welfare State. There were five performances for 300 audience members – some people had crossed the Atlantic to be at this final gig. The day after, when WSI was brought a close, one powerful image in the closing ceremony used cut-up pieces of canvas from an early WSI  circus tent stencilled with a lighthouse image. Company members placed their selected piece in a large bowl, this was paraded and finally raised, whilst on fire, lifted by silver angel’s wings (by means of a crane) against a pyrotechnic display designed by John Wassell [now Walk the Plank with Liz Pugh]

01:02:00       More Barrow projects.
JW had also been the production manager on WSI’s The Golden Submarine (their last performance in Barrow) – ‘moving the Trident sheds and revealing the cuckoo inside that had devoured the creative souls of the apprentices within’. It was a big project £30,000 from Gulbenkian Foundation – local reception to this show was quite positive. The town was sympathetic to what they had done for the town, even if it wasn’t sympathetic to their politics. JF describes the earlier Town Hall Tattoo at Barrow, hung around the centenary of Queen Victoria’s visit to the Town Hall – pinstriped ‘civil servants’ abseiled out of the town hall windows. There were elephants, a gun carriage and choirs. Wildfire portrayed the shipyard as a one-armed bandit slot machine. Then it was Shipyard Tales and finally The Golden Submarine.

01:06:10       Dead Good Guides. Dead Good Guides was the imprint under which JF & SG produced a number of  books on subjects such as naming ceremonies, funerals and time capsules. It became their company name after they archived Welfare State International, ran workshops etc. Ken West from Carlisle a specialist in natural funerals, an important mentor who wrote the legal chapters for the Dead Good Funerals book. They’ve now been doing ‘rites of passage’ summer schools for 12-15 years. Also involved in the delivery of an M.A. course in conjunction with Bristol University (where the WSI archive is housed). DGG Workshops have been delivered in different parts of the country for a variety of clients – these are secular ceremonies. SG comments on how she draws upon all her WSI experiences in her role with DGG. JF links this work with WSI work in that they are concerned with ‘re-engaging with the river of vernacular expression ….which involves looking at points in people’s lives when they value art, such as at times of loss or change’

Audio Track 2 ends 01:22:15

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