Location: Stoke Newington
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Sara Scalzotto
Topics List: David Cleall
Video 1 timings
00:00:00 Personal history. Born in 1944,Manitoba, Canada – Kathleen McCreery’s [KM] father was educated in agriculture and looked after the interests of farmers. Her mother’s father was an Anglican priest. When KM was about 3 years old her family moved to Minnesota in the United States. This was in the 1950s – the firm went bankrupt and this long and difficult period of [her father’s] unemployment influenced KM’s later politics. Her mother took work to help support the family (four children) and they were to move to a number of other small towns. She was an avid reader, loved school and from early days performed in little plays. Small theatre, opera and ballet companies visited the town and these together with the child actors that she saw in the movies gave her an ambition to perform. Later, when she was about 14, she was having a difficult time at school and had a sort of breakdown and left school. Through an amateur dramatic company, ‘The Prairie Players’, she got to play, the hysterical, Mary Warren in The Crucible [Arthur Miller] –very therapeutic! She was also intrigued by the politics of the play – her mother was interested in Left politics but there was conflict between her parents over politics. After a brief period at a private (residential) school, where she also got to perform, she then went to Montreal – where her aunt lived – being very excited by the cultural life of the city. She auditioned for newly-formed National Theatre School of Canada. Although she was accepted, her parents said she had to go to university. Through pressure from her psychiatrist, Huron College South Dakota agreed to take her even though she was only 16 and she was happy there and getting on well. The following year she got a summer job (Summer Stock) at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse as a ‘technical assistant’ but she was also cast in acting roles (Polly in The Boy Friend. The director arranged for her to get a scholarship to study Speech and Theatre Arts at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis where there was a very strong drama programme. Prof Arthur Ballet was inspirational, he directed her in Fears and Miseries in the Third Reich [Brecht] and introduced KM to the works of Brecht. There was a large cast, a spectacular set – in the shape of a swastika, a band and the production also used projected film. KM went on to write her graduation thesis on Brecht.
00:28.45 Early political experiences. After college KM got to play Katrin in Brecht’s Mother Courage at a theatre [The Firehouse Theatre] in St Paul, Minneapolis. The director Jay Broad, directed it in a Brechtian way and although her college training had been in the Stanislavski method she began to understand what a Brecht play required. After Rhinoceros [Ionesco] and some radio work, she did some drama teaching with disadvantaged kids from a Black ghetto in St Paul. Through that work KM went to Selma, Alabama, for the Civil Rights marches – a further life-changing experience. What she saw opened her eyes and made her understand the power of a mass of people coming together to bring about change in the face of injustice.
00:41.21 London, Austria and back to London. Working for the radio station enabled KM to save up some money and move to London (1967) where her brother was working and initially took work in a touring educational theatre company performing Shakespeare to schoolchildren as part of an English as a Foreign Language programme (Fortunes of Falstaff). But the project was not set up well and the company became stranded in Austria when funds ran out. By chance they were ‘taken under the wing’ of a young Brechtian theatre company [Die Komodianten] who were ‘wonderful’ – not only performing Brecht but also making their own theatre and performing in a Brechtian way. KM’s future husband, Richard [Stourac], was a member of that company, she joined the company – being prepared to learn German to perform in it. KM stayed with the company for a year, she became politicised through the group (from pacifist to Marxist). The company were very successful winning acclaim and had even built their own (cellar) theatre [at Börseplatz, Vienna], but the audience were middle-class intelligentsia and they were failing to communicate with the workers. KM felt that her future as an actress lay within English-speaking theatre and she moved back to London. She realised that commercial theatre was not for her, and she needed to be committed to the work that she performed. Through Richard, KM met Eric Fried [EF], the Austrian poet [and translator of Shakespeare, TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and John Arden] who had moved to London after the end of the war. Through EF she met John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy and they suggested that KM should see the political theatre group CAST [ Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre] – Roland Muldoon’s group. CAST were very fast, funny and slick (well-rehearsed) but their emphasis on the archetype – the clown – was at odds with KM’s interest in character in a deep way. She also found their theatre quite aggressive, provocative and although she had great respect for them, it was not for her.
00:54.45 Agitprop Street Players. Richard Stourac [RS] joined her in London, they saw a young company, Agitprop Street Players, performing sketches about the Tenants’ Strike in East London – although the company was very ‘rough and ready’ KM and RS were impressed with their ability to reach the kind of audiences that they aspired to reach and joined the group. There was a long-running protest at the time about rent rises that had been brought about the GLC [Greater London Council]. Tory MP, Horace Cutler being Chair of the Housing Committee – about 1969/ 1970. The plays that they devised during the dispute used, as their starting point, accounts of events that were actually happening and then went on to give political explanations as to why. They were propaganda ‘in a good way’ – creating understanding and by imagining what the GLC would do next, helping activists to resist this. They often performed outdoors at demonstrations and marches, but also venues such as at Hackney Town Hall. They used humour to engage the audience. Recurring characters in the plays were a proletarian couple, Joe and Lil, and a dream sequence, with Joe & Lil, as Adam and Eve showed them being tempted by a ‘Horace Cutler’ snake. Initially the company’s personnel had fluctuated but now it was felt that stability and commitment from a smaller core was required. Company members were financially dependent on ‘day jobs’ (KM was a radio journalist). The company was Chris [Rawlence] (CR), Peter [Dukes], RS and KM – also perhaps Richard Seyd. The shows were devised by the company and initially it was usually CR who wrote them up. In addition to being involved in the Tenants dispute, the company were working with the squatters movement, KM remembers one performance concerning squatting that took place in an East End market – some stall holders took against them. RS was performing on a red ladder (to become a favourite prop), when the police arrived. RS and KM concerned as they didn’t have permanent residency in the UK. As well as dealing with themes of homelessness the company tackled racism in an (outdoor) play supporting the ‘Stop The Seventy Tour campaign’ [Peter Hain chair] against a proposed tour by the South African cricket team.
01:10:50 Working with Trade Unionists. KM and RS met the docker, Mickey Finn (MF). He was interest in their work, could see that they were getting better and that they were committed. MF introduced them to the Institute of Workers’ Control [a Marxist group bringing together shop stewards and militant workers] – this led to the company being involved in creating a longer play (at least 45 mins – previous pieces being very short). The Productivity Play was about workers’ control – this was a time when Trade Unions were a powerful force (popular resistances and uprisings). A toilet was used on stage to give the workers in the play an opportunity to express their thoughts directly to the audience. KM played Britannia. But the indoor setting also enabled then to create more developed believable characters. It was first performed at the IWC [Institute for Workers Control] centre in Birmingham and it was very successful.
Video 1 ends 01:15:46
00:00:00 At this point KM adds details to the earlier discussion of The Firehouse Theatre Minneapolis productions. Marlow Hotchkiss together with Jim [James Faber]. Interested in experimental theatre and set up a theatre in an old fire station, bringing in friends from New York such as Joe Chaikin, Sydney Shubert Walter, Megan Terry [Viet Rock] Richard Schechner and Sam Shepard. They ran workshops in improvisation and their work was ‘of the moment’ topical, radical, political work. KM was part of the improvisation group ‘there was a tremendous freeing of the body and the voice and the imagination’. Sidney directed a production of Danton’s Death [Georg Büchner] – KM was cast as Marion, ‘I was absorbing a lot of this influences that I brought to my work in Britain’. KM talks of her parents in later life, her mother joined a radical group of older women ‘The Raging Grannies’ (originally formed in Canada) that were involved in demonstrations and protests. KM also recalls her father being with her and Richard [S] when he was researching his thesis [that became the book Theatre as a Weapon] and they interviewed a veteran of the British Workers’ Theatre Movement from the 1920s and 30s – Charley Mann [1905-1989].
01:13:47 Red Ladder Theatre Company and The Cake Show. [By about 1971 Agitprop Street Players were known as Red Ladder Theatre Company]. It was the The Productivity Play, at the IWC, that took them into the Labour Movement. They made a play called The Cake Play – an outdoor play using strong, simple visual images such as the red ladder and the national cake and how the wealth of the country was divided and the proportion that the workers got. This was at the time of Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act [of 1971] and there were many rallies with hundreds of thousands of trade unionists protesting in venues such as Hyde Park – where they performed The Cake Play sometimes as many as eight times a day. The company were shown as bakers, baking the national cake, they had a giant knife to cut up the cake. These visual elements partly came out of the art school background of some of the group such as CR – this became important in their work – doing what Brecht called making the invisible – visible.
00:18:40 Funding and the Trade Union Weekend Training Schools. The success of The Productivity Show in Birmingham lead to them being invited to perform at many political events, especially trade unions: NUPE, GMW, the dockers, with the engineers (TASS). In 1973 they were still unfunded when they were advised by a member of the Drama panel to apply for Arts Council funding – it was probably about the time of their Sack Play about unemployment. When they were invited to perform at union meetings, demonstrations, trade councils initially they didn’t ask for funding, but later they did get paid by the unions (as well as Arts Council funding). Importantly the unions started to use Red Ladder for their trade union weekend training schools (usually based at hotels at coastal resorts). Initially the theatre group was part of the social events on the Saturday evening but Red Ladder asked to use their plays as the starting point for discussion and eventually it was seen as a valuable aspect of the education programme. Through participating in the education programme Red Ladder were fully integrated with the delegates and the company themselves learnt much about industrial relations, which in turn fed into their plays.
00:26:34 Red Ladder, the company and the shows. Their aim was ‘taking theatre to people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre.’ So they had to be portable. Visually, the red ladder was a very useful prop, especially outdoors where you need to elevate yourself above a crowd. They travelled light, using various vans to store their props and costumes. Eventually they used portable lights, but always the set-up had to be manageable within an hour. At this point the main company was Chris Rawlence (CR); Kathleen McCreery [KM]; Richard Stourac [RS]; Marion Sedley [MS] (MS was one of the writers of the women’s play Strike Whilst The Iron’s Hot ); Glenn Park [GP]; Steve Trafford [ST]; Noreen MacDowell [NM], Peter Dukes and Carlos Wanita (known as Charlie) – Richard Seyd had left at this point. Their general approach to the company was to be non-specialists – everyone should do everything (although Marion Sedley didn’t perform) They all took on admin tasks – KM organised bookings, they had no premises, the company working from someone’s room. The first Arts Council grant was for £7,000 – not enough to pay everyone – some received the grant money, others signed on the dole and they all shared it out. KM and RS had some insecurities through not being UK nationals – they had married in 1969 and about 1974, KM got UK resident status. They did a play about public services – mainly housing: KM played the Housing Minister. It was performed in a marquee at a miners’ gala in Chesterfield and the company continued to perform The Race Play. Red Ladder , Banner Theatre and North West Spanner [in the Manchester area] all had genuine engagement with the workers, whereas ‘[most other political theatre companies] ….rarely if ever, got near the workers….From the beginning Red Ladder believed that you couldn’t dictate to the workers what they should be doing’. A Women’s Work Is Never Done or Strike While the Iron’s Hot – was the last play KM was involved in making with Red Ladder. The impulse to make this play was the Women’s Movement. KM returned to America regularly, and saw many radical women’s theatre companies such as The Alive and Trucking Theater Company [ref. Alive and Trucking Theater founded in 1971 by Lori Hanson and Ray St Louis ]. KM and RS travelled to California and met up with political theatre companies such as San Francisco Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino – the [Mexican] Farm Workers’ Theater.
00:42:58 The Women’s Movement and Red Ladder. The Women’s Movement was having an impact and KM was personally very involved in many Women’s Movement campaigns. KM had at one time been the only woman performer with Red Ladder and that caused some struggles within the company but with Fran [?], GP and NM joining – in making the play they had to spend much time considering and debating their own positions – there was a tendency for the men to dominate. Red Ladder went to a World Youth Congress in East Berlin this focussed KM on a feeling that her and Richard had, that Red Ladder was a bit provincial in its outlook and ‘wasn’t seeing beyond British shores’. [In 1974] A Women’s Work Is Never Done or Strike While the Iron’s Hot – a feminist play, was made out of a process of discussions within the group and also through interviewing working women. KM initially played the central role of Helen, later GP played the role. Some of the company were sceptical about the part being played by a non-British actor. KM played Helen with a Welsh accent. Helen was shown as an ‘ordinary’ woman going through everyday experiences – problems with money, childcare, working with discriminatory wages. They modelled the play on Brecht’s The Mother. The women in the company were the sole writers (KM, MS and GP) the cast being these women and ST. It became the best known of Red Ladder’s work and was published (script version by Michelene Wandor) being widely performed including Conway Hall, London and Hackney. Differences within the company were starting to be apparent, this was partly linked to changes in the power of the trade unions (as the male-dominated heavy industries lost their power) and also partly to do with the personal relationships within the group. KM explains that she wasn’t a very easy person to get along with. For example, ST and KM had a difficult relationship at one point, however it is in the nature of close-working groups – especially ones that were self-analytical, non-hierarchical, etc – to be unsustainable in the long term. KM was unhappy with herself at this time and benefited from therapy. RM and KM were concerned that if they moved from the trade unions, to more general audiences such as in working men’s clubs, the work would be compromised. KM and RS left Red Ladder, staying in London when Red Ladder moved to Leeds. KM felt that Red Ladder’s work at this point confirmed her fears that they would be driven to popular entertainment – albeit with a political content. KM and RS believed in the Brechtian model – radical content needing radical forms.
01:06:10 Broadside Mobile Workers’ Theatre Company. KM and RS set up a new company in 1974, getting an Arts Council grant and taking on new people, such as Andy Hudson, a pianist. They decided to make a play about The Big Lump – the ‘lump’ referred to cash-in-hand workers, used in the building industry, that were neither trained nor unionised or covered in the advent of accidents at work. Broadside followed the approach that KM and RS had established in Red Ladder – there was an extensive period of research, interviewing people and also getting technical advice on brick-laying at the rehearsal stage. They performed the play at building sites all over the country and at union meetings.
Video 2 ends 01:13:31
00:00:00 The Working Women’s Charter Show was a revue- type play written in response to a number of women’s issues – in the style of a ‘Living Newspaper’ [The Blue Blouse was an agitprop theatre collective of the Soviet Union in the 20s that created a form based on news stories]. Broadside kept it in their repertoire for quite a while because it was a flexible form that enabled them to easily adapt it to particular circumstances or audiences, it was very topical and also popular. They went through a number of changes of personnel in Broadside, Lorna Edwards was with them a long while, Rosie Blair and Maria Tolly joined them later. The Working Woman’s Charter Show mixed humour and serous pieces such as [Hanns] Eisler’s song Ballad of Paragraph 218 [ protesting laws against abortion in 1930s Germany]
00:03:26 On Writing, Montage Theory and the Portuguese Revolution. KM became more confident in her writing at this point and contributed more of the scripts as the company recognised the value of a certain amount of specialisation – rather than everyone having a go at everything. The first play KM wrote entirely, was the play about Portugal, following the Portuguese revolution in 1974. This became We Have the Power of the Wind (1977) it used a ‘montage’ structure – rather than being a revue – this montage structure was a dialectic process whereby the whole became stronger than the sum of its parts. In this respect they were influenced by Eisenstein and Brecht. RS and KM had travelled to Portugal to research and interviewed people. The play ends with a surrealistic scene where Mário Soares dies and is being judged on his actions on Earth. They used a lot of puppet and masks at the time made by a South African theatre designer in the company, Trish [Patricia] De Villiers. This play was performed in various venues, one was a Plessey [telecommunications] factory in Kirkby, Merseyside that was occupied by the workers. In one scene Lorna Edwards plays a Portuguese worker whose eyes have been damaged by the fine work on electronics that she was doing, and she was sacked: it was very moving that the audience completely empathised with the international nature of political struggle. Broadside’s plays were rehearsed at premises rented very cheaply from NUPE / UNISON at Clapham and they also worked at Oval House – rehearsing and performing: they were very good to the company who could sometimes pay, but at other times couldn’t. Eventually, when their Arts Council grant got bigger, they got an office in East Ham. KM discusses the difficulty that full-time commitment to creating (touring) political theatre presents in relation to becoming a parent. Whilst on tour the company usually were ‘put up’ (accommodation) with organisers of the events, and their friends. Broadside still saw the discussions that developed around performances as being a very important part of the process. They were especially aware of the need to encourage women to come forward and express their opinions and not to be dominated by the men – ‘our discussions changed people’.
00:25:07 Other Broadside Plays. Now You See It Now You Don’t was about the economic situation of the time. KM played Desmond Dough [capitalist] and there was a Harold Wilson character, and the show used masks and magic. Ian Saville, a conjuror, had joined the company and he started integrating his tricks with the socialist messages. Divide and Rule Britannia had been done with Red Ladder and was revived with Broadside as it was a simple piece of street theatre that was very suited to demonstrations. With no Black actors in the company and a desire to make a play on apartheid, Broadside created a ‘shadow play’ with projections on a screen called ‘Apartheid: The British Connection’ . It had a ‘strong poetic’ narrative addressing issues on apartheid in South Africa; one performance was set up by Bernie Grant in Haringey. Another play was created in response to a dispute by the chambermaids of the Grosvenor House Hotel with Trust House Forte. KM describes a particularly crucial time in the dispute when Broadside staged a benefit performance for the chambermaids and it was followed by a spontaneous performance of Fado-influenced songs about the experience of emigration by ex-chambermaid, Isabel Bartolomeu – this led to the strengthening of the strikers’ political resolve.
00:37:05 Kathleen McCreery leaves Broadside. Around 1980 the company was going through various internal conflicts, and KM had had a daughter and took some time off. She wrote a play about the NHS and another one about housing, but didn’t perform in them. KM explains the difficulty in recruiting and sustaining the right kind of members for the company – for example many young members had no knowledge or experience of the trade union movement, felt it was time for her to leave, and Richard then also decided to leave – although it was very difficult for both of them as they had set the company up. The company carried on, but the Arts Council grant was soon cut – although this would probably would have happened whether KM and RS were with the company or not as there had been a political shift in Britain. KM and RS moved to Berlin to work with RS’s brother
Video 3 ends 00:46:56