Kate Owen Topics List

Date: 12.02.14 &  14.03.14
Location: Greenwich
Interviewer: Jessica Higgs
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List: Gallin Hornick

Audio timing – 01:36:41
Track 1 (21.02.14)

00:00:00       Early life, education. Kate Owen (KO) born West Croydon 1952. Her parents were trained as visual artists, Mother at The Slade & Father at Westminster Art School. He was an illustrator, working in lino prints and wrote about painting, she was a painter & poet, they both taught at the Art School. An only child, KO went to prep school in Kent then grammar school in Crystal Palace; this was ‘great…specialized in art & music’. Left at 17 before completing A-levels, having got into art school in Kingston a year early; also got into Central [St Martin’s] a year early. Kingston – Foundation year. Central – Theatre Design. Parents not particularly interested in theatre. Taken by aunts to see pantos at the Palladium, went with school to a production of The Tempest at Chichester, saw Robinson Crusoe at Croydon Art School (Dad was Robinson Crusoe in it); also taken, by parents, to see Forty Years On [Alan Bennett] & Hair. Liked old movies of musicals a lot. But ‘not a serious passion for theatre at all, really’.

00:06:00      Central School of Art and Design (1970-3), first solo design job, Traverse Theatre. In terms of studying theatre design, Central School was at this time ‘far more modern’ than Wimbledon or Croydon. Ralph Koltai, Head of Design, was interested in concept rather than ‘scenery’. No evidence of the alternative theatre scene. Peter Brook’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream [designed by Sally Jacobs] was on at the Aldwych Theatre. KO worked as assistant to Nadine Baylis (NB) also Ralph Koltai; if you were good at model-making it was easy to get work with internationally-known theatre designers. KO, ‘learned far more doing that than…as a student’. Worked with Maria Bjornsen, David Fielding (DF), Sue Blane. Worked at Glasgow Citz for a time. NB was very into a contemporary dance look, working also in other European countries. ‘We were very laid back about it,’ doing it to pay the bills; they were designers, didn’t really like being assistants…but it was ‘quite well-paid for then’. KO also did bits of prop-making, for Scottish Opera for example. Robert Walker/Lincoln Rep: KO designed A Taste Of Honey [Shelagh Delaney] on her own, NB having had to pull out (1973); also a Lorraine [Hansberry] play (1974). Worked at the Traverse – ‘3 sides, squashy seats, very little’. At that time designers were good at passing on work to each other. As far as students at Central were concerned, there was no real awareness of alternative theatre; most wanted to find their way to the National Theatre or into opera.

00:15:30      York, The Albany Empire[*note 1]. Assistant Designer at York Theatre Royal; DF was Head of Design, invited KO to be assistant. Very easy getting work then, via contacts made through Central. Equus [Peter Shaffer], Hamlet… ‘The work was held up by the design, we thought.’ Given fairly free reign to experiment (and the Health & Safety aspect not as developed then). DF & KO returned to London due to falling out with Richard Digby Day [Artistic Director]. Involved in a big music theatre piece at Snape Maltings also Riverside Studios – written by Vic Hoyland (Berio-influenced) for the Essex Youth Orchestra and 100 Essex school children.
The Albany: Zeppelins Over Deptford – ‘grimy, sweaty, fags on the floor, but full of atmosphere’, seemed like an exciting place for designers to work where the design could fill the whole space. At first Albany shows had been designed by Freeform [a group of Hackney-based fine artists working in community arts]. ‘It was café-theatre.’ In terms of the politics there, it was socialist theatre for local people. What made the Albany special: it had a bar in the space. The idea was that ‘the theatre sort of hugged the audience’; and you could smoke. After the theatre piece there’d be the ‘treat’, like a disco – all in the same space. Food too. ‘Pretty raucous, rough theatre[*note 2].’ The New Albany was already being designed then [*note 3], ie before the other one burned down. Architecturally, there was an impulse to make this theatre beautiful to the point where it would be indistinguishable from, say, a private nightclub or an expensive opera house; that it mustn’t look civic. KO, though not paid much, was paid enough to be earning her living as a theatre designer (buying her first house aged 25); as long as you kept busy and did assisting jobs as well… But the budgets were small, so it was hard to get the desired look for the piece. Pirates – ‘tarry old rope for free, from London Port Authority, catching fire’ then doused with beer. The work there was meant to be mostly for the local working-class audience. The Albany was an early-established community centre, from Victorian times. There were ongoing outreach workers.

00:31:00      Gay Sweatshop [*note 4]. Albany one of several venues where lots of theatre companies performed. Gay Sweatshop (GS)/Noel Greig. KO worked with Noel on a kids’ show (written by Tim Webb), a touring show visiting schools; logistical problems. Worked on Albany Empire design after the fire, in the old building. Young Writers’ Festival at Royal Court – DF & KO were asked to work on this. Paul Dart. Beginning to get interested in a type of work ‘that wasn’t particularly the well-constructed play[*note 4]’. Noel keen to get more women working with GS (c1979); were often musicians. KO says Noel thought of GS as like a relay race, one group of people handing on to the next lot; ‘sort of a thread’. Noel very wary of getting to the stage of proper artistic directors and a board. Felt they were offering a public service, and that GS had a house style they had to keep delivering: ‘quite a respectable gay theatre company that you could invite your auntie to’. Not really so much about doing one’s own work, and being too shocking. It was ‘very cool’ to be doing gay theatre, respectful to who it was for; ‘we wouldn’t have wanted to frighten the audience’. Plus they had to please the funders. I Like Me Like This, by Ange [Angela Stewart Park] & Shaz [Sharon Nassauer]; very different from other shows they’d done. Ange played the drums in it. Didn’t work with GS again [she actually worked on Blood Green] until Noel’s Poppies, by which time they’d lost their grant [*note 6]. 2 different productions of Poppies, with different designs. Toured – they, indeed all the companies of those days, had to tour [*note 7]. Project grants. Around a show a year. Never knew if you were going to get your money; booked the tour before you knew..

00:54:30      Management, seeking scripts, people, money. Joined GS management for c5 years (1984). Got on very well. Had all been on collectives when things had ended in tears; cautious approach. KO thinks ‘they thought I was a good chap’. One GS concept: alternate between male-focused and female-focused shows. KO not especially committed to women’s theatre; wanted to be spending her time simply on ‘good theatre’. Would never have worked on something she didn’t agree with. Things got difficult with AIDS & Clause 28. KO felt GS should be expanded. GS got sent a lot of scripts, many of which ‘were rubbish’; compelled to ‘seek out interesting work…interesting people to work with’. Wanted to involve more women who were theatre people. One of KO’s jobs was to get hold of other groups’ databases – which in those days were just old notebooks, handwritten… Circulated a flyer soliciting scripts, not necessarily at all from the theatre fraternity. Seeking money from the GLC. Formed a Readers’ Committee to deal with the scripts; ‘a huge task to read them all’. Sent everyone reply notes (in recycled envelopes). Festivals/reading groups: opportunity for new writers plus new directors too. There was some care given to the look of the readings. A couple of years between the 2 Festivals. Drill Hall started to do something similar as well. Noel was ‘obsessed with the constitution’ for GS. Attempts to win charitable status (failed at first). KO designed quite a few of the GS shows at this time. Company run very well at this time, because ‘we were very good at delegating’. People would be given jobs and report back.

01:19:30       Finishing; other companies/places, New Heart. KO finished [with GS management] around 1988 [actually 1990], the others went at about the same time: ‘I think we were exhausted, had had enough’… Because funded by Arts Council, there was a limit to how political they could be; GS couldn’t be seen to be championing particular causes… There was a general feeling it was very difficult to get hold of lesbian actresses… Heterosexual actors would occasionally be involved to cover particular skills… What KO would have liked to have seen happen: future of GS should have been in youth work – could have persuaded other companies to face the adult work – it would have been hard to get the funding, but ‘it would have been great’ if GS had become more of a youth theatre company. Other alternative companies or buildings KO worked for: Traverse, Kings Head, New End, Old & New Half Moon, Drill Hall, Royal Court Upstairs, Made In Wales, Live Theatre (Newcastle), New Heart, Theatre Centre, Blood Group, Albany, Oval House, Lip Service.. Little Theatre (St Martins Lane), where she worked very early on (1970s), The Resisters, Shared Experience, Second Wave, Double Exposure, Shape, Women In Theatre. New Heart (NH): happened during a gap in GS. Began as a brand new company at the Oval. Since there was a feeling there wasn’t money around, had a more risqué, provocative attitude. KO as performer: only once, in ‘Ventriloquies’ (‘I was never a frustrated performer’). The Gorgeous and the Damned. The Story Continues. Kate Crutchley: a lot of her work was quite traditional, but she allowed people who did much more wacky work to rehearse and even open their shows at the Oval… Might have called NH cabaret theatre but it was much more visual theatre.

Ends 01:36:41

Audio timing – 01:59:09
Track 2 (

00:00:00     Up until the Albany, KO had been chiefly interested in where the most appealing design opportunities were. The Albany put on work that would deal with class issues, attracting an alternative kind of audience. ‘The way space was used was almost a political issue as well’ – KO found this interesting. The old building: ‘looked like a scruffy old warehouse with tatty old murals all over the place’, but the theatre space completely reconstructed with each new show. You would walk in and be amazed – ‘Where am I? What is this space?’ This was an idea brought by Jenny [Harris]& Noel [Greig] from Brighton.

00:05:45      Miscellaneous theatre of an alternative slant; favourite designers. Previously, at Central School, KO assisted on a production used space in a new way and interacted with the audience. Maze, smoke… Vic Hoyland’s musical theatre piece: Xingu, about ‘a day in the life’ of a South American Indian. ‘Way ahead of its time.’ Orchestra on stage, which was situated below the audience seating. 100 Essex schoolchildren, on stage and in the auditorium. The conductor from York University, which had an interesting music department. Co-designing a Tennessee Williams play (at Roundhouse & Phoenix) – unpleasant aspects of mainstream theatre. Designers KO admired: Ralph Koltai – very much about concept; designs as metaphors. Maria Bjornsen, Sue Blaine, Philip Prowse (with a ‘whole look’ approach).

00:17:00      Involvement with the Albany. At the Albany: with David Fielding (DF) – early on, sometimes designed together. DF loved the Albany but really wanted to do opera. It was a given that you’d produce a design that filled the whole space. A lot of local people worked at the Albany, eg behind the bar. Parties & cabarets: sometimes involved local people as performers – required 100s of costumes, so other designers would be brought in to help. All the Albany stuff had music, they were all musicals. Other groups performed there too. KO always freelance; just concentrating on that one show but never knowing if you’d be invited back. Budget: money available to cover employing ‘a proper designer’. Production week often entailed ‘all-nighters’.

00:27:00       Albany Fire & aftermath. Albany fire: though the public thought of it as an awful thing, a lot of good things came out of it. A chance to rethink how the space was used. KO asked to redo the interior design (old building), with architect Tim Ronalds. Rebuilt very quickly; upper gallery, for the first time. The bar became a fixed space. Pink and silver. Mural behind the bar. Could still put the set where you liked. Disagreements sometimes about size of set; if very large, couldn’t get so much audience in. Old building closed down (due to road-widening project) 1 year before the new was ready…which was also about the time the Arts Council grant was discontinued. Amazing closing party – ‘the parties were great’; Jenny Harris & John Turner were excellent hosts. The Albany was ‘like a nightclub’. Jenny: did a lot of circus stuff between the Albany & the National. After the fire she was very into the design of the whole building – not just the performance area but all the attendant areas too. The theatre experience was conceived as starting way before the stage – in the street, in fact, with the publicity. Elements of the fairground in the design.

00:39:15       Figures KO worked with – John Burrows. Kids show with Noel (NG). NG had worked with Paul Dart (Gay Sweatshop), had enjoyed it. Some tricky stage directions eg an inflatable shopping bag. John Burrows, a resident writer at the Albany. Very visual, as he had been a designer. Took Sondheim working methods as a model; working together as a little team while the piece is being written – KO came to prefer this way of working; hard to work with directors who wouldn’t let you in on the lighting. Teddy Kiendl (who’d been a soldier in Vietnam); Live Theatre Company. Used to argue a lot in the pub and ‘it was very creative and good’. KO’s shows with a feminist slant – was able to bring this in as an influence. Jools Holland’s parties, The Squeeze. Dire Straits. The Deptford music scene very much part of the Albany after the fire.

00:50:30       Other companies. Blood Group, Theatre Centre, New Dance/Laurie Booth. Shape & Amici/Wolfgang [Stange]. KO did 5-7 shows a year, with odd bit’s of teaching – Curtain Theatre (East End), 1978 – Theatre Design module put on A-level syllabus. Tricycle Youth Theatre 1980s. Anna [Furse]/Susie [Gilmour] productions; dance-based (a la Pina Bausch); and music was an important part of Blood Group (BG). Dirt – women in the sex industry, the theatre of sex. BG, thought of as performance art, appeared at ICA (though it was more visual theatre). Did research properly amongst sex workers. The piece was made in rehearsals, with a lot of stuff being thrown out; and when being performed, the order in which it was performed was constantly changed (something Noel found interesting, though he himself didn’t work in this way). KO found British theatre ‘far too wordy’. BG parallels with Gerry Pilgrim. Loved Rose English’s work.

01:01:03     Women’s theatre, Gay Sweatshop. Experimenting with form was thought of as a female thing, something which feminists brought to the theatre scene; KO not sure how true that was. Get-in time quite long, sometimes a few days. Extreme tours – venues of extremely varying dimensions, with limited get-in times. Very difficult getting money to do BG’s kind of work, which was hard to categorise. Sweatshop’s I Like Me Like This, toured everywhere. All GS shows funded, all had to go on tour. For a designer, being touring shows, not much opportunity to do unusual stuff. Noel always liked consulting with people at an early stage during his writing; ‘found it very difficult to be an artist in a garret’. Paradise Now And Then – KO had an input in the form it took. GS period 1979-1990 (ie end of management role, with 2 more shows after that). Frustration of designing touring shows: interesting at first, logistically, but became more annoying, restrictive. Not just designers; quite a lot of people found the touring mode restricting after a while. Use of a story-telling style. Casting could be a problem, eg finding someone who was gay, black and could play the cello.

01:17:15       Half Moon (HM), more other groups (Theatre Centre). Bob Ringwood, Rob Walker (Artistic Director of the old HM). Old HM very small; a lot of alternative things took place in tiny spaces. The new HM building – Jenny Harris thought it wasn’t different enough from people’s ordinary experience of their day-to-day environment. RW had been quite involved with the design of the new building, but had already gone by the time it was ready. KO worked on several New Writing Festivals – Made in Wales & Gay Sweatshop; did a lot of work at Theatre Centre (TC). Met Libby [Mason] through Noel. Associate Designer for 1 year. KO never liked doing workshops, either running or being in them; TC loved them. At that time TC sited over Hanover School [Islington]; ‘felt good’ to have the kids below in the playground. First show for TC was a devised show directed by Libby: When The Bough Breaks. Attempted to do an interesting design for the tour – a story-telling tent, made of multi-coloured silk; performed in school. ‘Always trying to find new, clever ways of holding stuff up’. Familiar Feelings – KO, Noel & Philip Tyler (Asst Director at TC). Meeting: all just said what they’d like to do for children. PT interested in finding a new way of visually presenting children (ie not using adults); KO suggested using large puppet-style dolls (as had done with Laurie Booth). The dolls strapped onto the performers, who you could see but your attention was focused on the dolls. Dialogue was worked on in rehearsals. Live sound effects, [Maggie Nichols – composer] produced vocally. 3 productions of ‘Familiar Feelings’, KO directed the last one; also put on by other companies. Kids liked it. Intended for age 5-6. Feasting on Air directed Anna Furse, co-production with Paines Plough. Did about 10 shows for TC in 1980s. The Visitor – KO invited to choose someone to work with; Max Eastley, a sound sculptor, an improvising musician who is also a visual artist. Kids loved it (more than teachers did). It was about the world of a child artist, a bit SF, set in a kitchen which is also a speaking character.

01:38:30       Live Theatre. 6 shows with them. To Be a Farmer’s Boy, CP Taylor.  They didn’t have a venue then; toured. But they had a building which they began to turn into a venue. Not into working with a designer at all at first, but KO ‘wooed’ Teddy Kiendl into it. Actors were local working-class people who hadn’t been to drama school. Proper community theatre. A lot of the guys had been builders, so would hump a whole theatre around in the van, for just 1 performance. Very much a writer’s company, who ‘wouldn’t have mucked about with form’. ‘They thought all Southerners were poofs’, favoured the pub every night. It’s when KO entered a workingman’s club for the first time, which was a privilege.

01:46:00      Albany again. ‘The Art Of Regeneration’ – a 4-year project, KO invited to be part of. Jenny Harris raised money for this (she was still at the National). Chrissy Tiller  was in charge of the project based at the Albany. [Jenny Harris visited one day a week] Cardboard Citizens: began with the Bubble/Adrian Jackson, who was ‘very clever, very difficult, totally passionately into the difficult work they were doing’ – people homeless a long time, had lost discipline. Based in a Hackney hostel. The gigs were homeless hostels; couldn’t assume there’s be lighting. First thing KO did was a panto. The work was Forum Theatre.

01:51:15       Who/what stretched KO, appraisal of alternative theatre. Blood Group work difficult, never knew what kind of work it was going to be. Teddy Kiendl it was who pushed her the most. ‘As a designer, your third idea is better than your first.’ One thing KO would do was try to visualize a design ‘treat’ for each scene. Until New Labour got in, KO felt she and the people she worked with were alternative, lived in a different reality where they ‘had a job to do’. Believed in the work, what it was saying. Theatre has a different job now, because internet/TV represent what people are like much more.

Ends 01:59:09

1. The old Albany building in Creek Road was known as The Albany. When Jenny Harris and Noel Greig joined the Albany and made the main hall the theatre space, that space was called The Albany Empire. These two identities, one referring to the community work, the other theatre, remained when the new Albany building opened in Douglas Way. At the time of The Art of Regeneration – National Theatre project the Albany Board decided that they should drop the word ‘Empire’.
2. Rough theatre was a term coined by Peter Brook in his book The Empty Space
3. HKPA were the architects employed for the new Albany building. They had previously designed the Young Vic and Christ’s Hospital School theatres
4. See Philip Osment’s Gay Sweatshop – Four Plays and a Company [Methuen 1989] for a comprehensive look at Gay Sweatshop from 1975-1988
5. The ‘well constructed play’ had a beginning, a middle and an end
6. Gay Sweatshop and the Albany Empire lost their funding during the so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives’ Arts Council cuts in 1981. Overnight the Arts Council withdrew funding from many of the radical theatre companies of the time, informing them by telegram. This was Thatcher’s Britain. The phrase ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ refers to an event 1934 which  saw the wiping out of the SA’s leadership and others who had angered Hitler.
7. There were great and new challenges for designers when it came to touring – how to create a design adaptable for a range of spaces, light enough to carry but solid enough when in place, compact so it would fit into the van when dismantled.

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