Annabel Leventon Topics List

Topics List taken from her interview with Jessica Higgs, February 2011, recorded by Jessica Higgs
Audio extracts edited by Jessica Higgs

Spokesong and Stewart Parker
Annabel was in Spokesong by Stewart Parker at Kings Head, a very happy experience
Stewart Parker around a lot during rehearsals. Annabel asked him
to write a piece to play at lunchtimes for her and co-lead Niall Buggy to perform
The Actress and the Bishop
was the resulting play which played to packed houses
at lunchtime whilst Spokesong was on in the evenings, from August 1976 – May 1977
Auditioned for the part and felt immediate rapport with the play
Cast of 7, songs and dancing. It transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre
Dan Crawford [who ran the Kings Head] was keen to have a third West End transfer
so that the Kings Head could become a member of SWET [Society of West End Theatres]
But transfer wasn’t a success, lasted only a few weeks after playing to sell-out
houses at the Kings Head for 7 months
Dan Crawford had previously transferred Kennedy’s Children [Robert Patrick] and one other
Crawford was very innovative, the Kings Head was the first pub theatre in London
Only ‘out of town’ theatre beyond the Royal Court
Dan Crawford produced Spokesong and much later in his life began directing
Stewart Parker was a gentle, warm and a lovely presence
It’s always tricky having writers in rehearsals, but he would sit there beaming at them
Very diplomatic, kind and appreciative
He died in his early 40s of cancer
Description of audition and re-reading the play quite recently,
finding it as fresh and sharp as when it was first written

Stanley Eveling and lost scripts
Chat about scripts of plays that have been produced being
registered and held by the British Library
Annabel has the scripts of Stanley Eveling given to her by his widow
Speaks of scripts of some sketches written for Oxford revues, in 1963 and ‘64
by her then boyfriend, Doug Fisher, which they rediscovered in
a box at the British Library when planning a memorial event 5 years ago

Background and Oxford
Annabel Leventon’s  parents were born in London
Mother was a singer and musician
Got married in Hampstead Registry Office, had £5 between
them, went to live in Hertfordshire
Must have been difficult for Mother not having any artistic soulmates
Annabel attended grammar school and got a scholarship to Oxford
These were the ‘Golden Years’ there, early 1960s
There were lot of people there who weren’t privileged, not monied, and they’re still
friends: Terry Jones, Mike Palin, David Aukin, Michael Rudman, Nick Elliot
– all those who run Light Entertainment, Comedy, Drama at the BBC
and every other television company going, and Cambridge people
like Nic Kent who runs the Tricycle Theatre, Richard Eyre
She doesn’t know who of them went to public schools
but once you choose the arts you’re different
The women had to work harder than the men, more was expected of them
She was at St Ann’s
Everybody was interested in the theatre and it was taken very seriously at Oxford and Cambridge
There was an actor, Ian McCulloch, who had an agent because he’d been in the National Youth Theatre
He won scholarships to RADA and Oxford
His agent recommended Oxford as a better training ground for the theatre,
he went to Oxford and thence straight to Stratford to take over from Patrick Stewart
playing opposite Vanessa Redgrave in Cymbeline
When Annabel was at Oxford, 1961-64, women were still not allowed to
become members of the Oxford Drama Society (ODS), but the Union, yes
ODS were the last society at Oxford to let women in
You could however be asked to do a role with them as a woman
Previously actresses were invited down from London to work with the students,
such as Peggy Ashcroft
Slowly women students were allowed to infiltrate
Annabel was reading English
You could join a club a minute, there was so much going on
Colleges would do plays including in their grounds
Saw many new American plays and plays like Pinter’s The Birthday Party
Was cast in a production at the end of her first year performed at the
Oxford Playhouse which was owned by the university
It was Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, directed by Michael Rudman
Frank Hauser was running the Playhouse at the time
His company was The Meadow Players and they played at Oxford through the long vacation
He invited them to join the summer rep that year
Critics from the Nationals came to Oxford and treated their productions like professional ones
Annabel got an agent from a production
Reviews very good. Daily Express said she was ‘Queen of the Oxford Stage’
whilst another in Cambridge proclaimed Miriam Margolyes ‘ Queen of Cambridge Revue’
Way of theatre in Oxbridge had been paved already by Peter Hall and
things like Beyond the Fringe which went to the West End and Broadway
Annabel had acted her way through school, all girls where she usually
played the male parts
Her sister had gone to drama school so Annabel opted for Oxford instead
Singing and acting were very important to her

Experimental theatre at Oxford
There were two big theatre clubs at Oxford
The Drama Society she wasn’t allowed to be a member of,
but was a member of the Experimental Theatre Club and on its committee
She helped steer through a decision to make the club’s work truly
experimental and out of that they produced a very successful show on capital punishment
called Hang Down Your Head and Die  by David Wood and David Wright
Directed by Braham Murray (this production got him started) it went to the West End and Broadway
It used a circus format with songs, music, a ring master, the execution of the Rosenbergs,
used Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley as their theme song
Annabel discovered a lot later that this production, and the fact it
had been put together by students from a university, inspired the writing of Hair
Michael Codron brought Hang Down Your Head and Die to West End
Revues came into West End quite regularly
Discussion about Equity and being allowed to work in West End
and on Broadway as students then

After Oxford Annabel went to LAMDA for two years
Michael Mc’Owen ran it and Norma Ayrton was Vice-Principal
Good tutors, voice tutors who had studied with Iris Warren like Clair Davidson
Most from Oxford went straight into the business
but Annabel felt it was essential for her to get some proper training
Jonathan Cecil and Sam Walters [Artistic Director, Orange Tree] had both gone to LAMDA
Mainly at Oxford she had worked with very good directors
who made her fell safe when acting and she hadn’t really thought too much about it
But in one Shakespeare production (cast included: Oliver Ford Davis, Michael York,
Braham Murray, Neil Stacey, Michael Elwyn, Giles Block) she found the director
very unhelpful and she was left all at sea. Standing on stage she felt she couldn’t do it,
that her body and voice would reflect what she required of them
It was a wake-up call
Training at LAMDA was excellent
They trained them in a way to go out and change theatre,
as a group rather than individuals, with warm-ups and devotion to craft
But in rep she found she was doing old fashioned and boring plays
which were very frustrating and with conservative actors
who weren’t interested in doing much else

Traverse Theatre
She left her first rep to go up to Edinburgh to be in a musical
at the Traverse written by David Wood and David Wright
They had asked her to play the lead
Gordon McDougall was running the Traverse then,
Max Stafford-Clark was his assistant
This was in 1967 and she did a 6 month season with them and
stayed on for the Festival where she was in plays by Stanley Eveling and Stuart Conn,
and a late-night sketch programme hosted by David Frost at the Traverse
which was written that same day
The festival was smaller in those days but they still
worked from 11am and congregated in the Traverse bar after hours

La MaMa at the Festival and going to New York
La MaMa had been invited to perform 4 or 5 plays that year
Annabel went to see Futz directed by Tom O’Horgan
[see Beth Porter interview for further description of production]
It opened her eyes to what theatre was and what she had been looking for
She saw all their work which was extraordinary, Grotowski and yoga-based
The first US company seen in Britain was Living Theatre
The second two were Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre and La MaMa
She hung out with the La MaMa company and they invited her to work with them in New York
Spent the next 3 months working and saving up (was earning £6 per week then)
and bought a £100 return to get there
She planned to stay forever but ended being there for 8 months
Had her return ticket and £5 pinned to her bra in case of emergencies and that was it
She was part of a new group they were starting at La MaMa
Already knew Nancy Meckler and Andy Robinson who were there from LAMDA
Began by staying with Andy Robinson in East Village but that didn’t work out
In the end Ellen Stewart [who set up and ran La MaMa] said to Annabel:
‘I don’t know who you are, and why you’re here, but you obviously need
to be here, and I’m going to pay your rent’, and she did
Ellen Stewart never saw the work but would make a speech before productions
saying La MaMa was the home of new writing, a hat for contributions was passed round,
and Ellen Stewart would leave

Being in New York
Very vibrant at time, people very open, generous
Went to a bar and got talking to manager for the Woody Herman orchestra
who offered her 7 weeks work sorting out the orchestra’s touring receipts
Always being told don’t go there, don’t do this, but she had no choice
One day shared a cab up town with a man because there were no buses
much to the horror of her friends
She seemed fine because she was confident and very idealistic about New York
and La MaMa being where it was at and never seemed to come to any harm

The La MaMa work
Was part of new group that had formed at La MaMa led by a
man who’d met Grotowski and seen his work. Annabel arrived in
January when it was 20 degrees below and snow everywhere
The group had been working together for a month previously
Rehearsing in a concrete basement with no heating
They did Grotowski, yoga-based exercises like The Cat, headstands,
shoulder-stands, back-bends, often in slow motion, and
very slowly from these acting exercises developed
People in the group would bring in plays and they’d do them (mentions Jan
Quackenbush and Andy Robinson).
The resulting performance work grew out of the group work,
being puppets or moving in slow motion etc were used in the plays. Andy Robinson
and Nancy Meckler were in the group
In time the work itself became so interesting that there were very few performances
which suited many in the group but was frustrating for Annabel
who needed the involvement of an audience
Tom O’Horgan was leading another group who performed
and there was another group working and performing then
After 8 months Annabel felt it was time to go
Stories of a lawyer working to help her get a Green Card and being invited to be
part of the Hair touring company in the US, but she’d had enough
As much as she got a lot from the being there were some big costs –
her youth, being alone in a foreign city and naïveté

Hair in London
She was given a contact to audition for the London
production of Hair that same year, 1968. She knew all
techniques at play in the production because of working
with La MaMa and Tom O’Horgan in New York. You could
also see how the ideas had emerged from Hang Down
Your Head and Die
as it was all about the Vietnam war
Physically it was very shocking for the audience
There had been nothing like it on a main stage before
Tom O’Horgan took away the plot and turned into a big physical happening
Feels he’s never been given full credit for what he did in the production
Discussion about 2010 London revival
Then, Annabel thought it was a great beginning but in fact it was the end of something
Hair opened in April 1968 in New York and in September that year in London
to avoid the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship (which was about to be abolished)
Annabel had seen the original New York production on Broadway three weeks after it opened
She was in Hair for a year in London
Asked to re-direct Paris production and ended up performing in that production
in French for six months
Hair was a very different animal in France
Talks about how productions of Hair were products of the culture they were playing in:
London – gentler, easy going, lyrical and poignant,
Broadway – very in your face, lot of genitalia,
Paris – vast amount of energy and a lot of ego.
French are individuals so group-led piece didn’t sit very well with them
Tells how in the Israel production, at the point where the  company take
their clothes off as a gesture against authority, soldiers (this was just after
the 6 Days War) in the audience,stood up and started taking their clothes off
Reflections on how early career has impinged on where she is now
One never knows what is going to happen from the work
It  moves off and then changes the landscape and you have to let it go
Nancy Meckler came to London in 1968, fell in love and stayed
At first she worked with Beth Porter’s company Wherehouse La MaMa,
out of which Freehold evolved, which has led to 40 years work as a director
Discussion of Nancy Meckler’s work with Shared Experience and more
recent shared worked experiences with Annabel and how Meckler’s style
of working links right back to Tom O’Horgan and La MaMa

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