Interviewer: Dr Jo Stanley
Technician: Alistair Macdonald
Topics List: David Cleall
00:00:00 Getting started on the waterways. Mikron started in an ‘offhand way’ in 1963 when they took The Bubonic Plague Show to the Edinburgh Festival – continued on an irregular basis until 1972 when Mike Lucas (ML) had the idea of taking shows on the waterways to people in areas where there weren’t theatres. They wanted the theatre to be affordable and they wanted to address subjects not dealt with in the theatre – initially about canals, this could be seen as a radical way of doing educational theatre. ML was brought up in Coventry and studied law at LSE – but at LSE he spent more time with the Drama Society – society presidents were Lindsay Anderson, then Arnold Wesker and then Vanessa Redgrave. ML became politicised through this experience and also through CND marches. After graduating he went to Drama School, then rep theatre and a lot of television – especially comedy. Living at Camden at this time Mikron Theatre Company started with The Bubonic Plague Show that they took to Edinburgh [Festival]. The company was Mike Lucas, Danny Shiller (aka Ron Legg) and ML’s wife Sarah Cameron so the name was a contraction of their names – but also means small. They performed on a very irregular basis – ML wrote some of their plays. They were one of the first companies to perform at the Arts Theatre Club, St. Martins Lane (run by Sarah Evans) and one of the first places to put on lunchtime theatre but they couldn’t interest theatre critics in reviewing lunchtime shows. In 1972 they started ‘water-based pieces’ – first at Little Venice [Maida Vale] then at Camden just off the Regents Canal, at the Engineer’s Arms (a difficult venue). Later they performed at the lock by Camden Market. Their most regular venue in London became the London Canal Museum at Islington – an ex-ice-cream factory – where they still perform. They also perform at The Pirate Club also on Regents Canal. ML explains his original idea of basing the company on a narrow boat and performing in village halls etc near the canal. Rather than the usual touring van, the canal boat was their home. They had rotas to ensure all took turns in steering and also cooking – always sitting down together for a meal two hours before a show.
00:18:24 The Mikron style. The venues were very small and the actors had to get used to working directly in front of people – the style of the performance was dictated by the immediacy of the space. Little in the way of sets – usually a screen – props had to be carefully chosen, after the show everything had to be packed back on the narrow boat in allotted spaces (they didn’t perform on the boat – it was too small). When they started this Sarah and ML had a nine month old son, Sam who toured with them for six months of the year every year until he was 16! Sarah did the bookings and PR using phone boxes when they stopped. The early performances in village halls were sometimes poorly attended – then they realised that the canal side pubs were where the people were and they took to performing in these venues – in the pub garden if the weather was good, sometimes in a function room but often crowded into the pub itself which wasn’t always appreciated by the locals. Because of the limitations of the waterways the planning of the tour at the outset became vital. The touring was quite ‘remorseless’ – although they tried to give themselves one day off after six. They were members of Equity and paid Equity wages and did six monthly tours. One problem with canals in the winter are the stoppages – repairs to the canals. Canals enabled them to carry their home with them, their lifestyle was a promotion of their work and the canals were the subject of their work as they became a ‘documentary based theatre company’. Life on the waterways had some hazards – ML recounts various ‘frightening’ canal incidents including performing with a strapped up broken shoulder for four weeks.
00:48:22 Relationship with ‘boat people’ and early shows. By 1972 the last commercial regular runs using canal boats had stopped. The ‘boat people’ had taken to the land and tended to cluster in communities not mixing much. However they did turn up to Mikron shows and after a period of about 5 years there was enough mutual confidence for Mikron to build a show about their experiences: I’d Go Back Tomorrow. Like a number of their shows it used a central female character in this case an 80 year old boat person. There was a very positive response to the show by the boat people who found a pride in their lifestyle that they hadn’t recognised or acknowledged themselves, even in some cases to their children. For the first few years the subject of their performances was canal history (perhaps about ten plays?) – using the working man’s perspective. About 1984 they did a play about a family holidaying on a canal boat. They made very good friends with people that lived by the canals, all over the country. The lock-keepers were very supportive and would go to the shows. The canals were also popular with alternative communities – ‘hippies’ – who came to shows and also with working people who lived by the canals. Audiences tended to be quite local, within about ten miles. Mikron ran two different shows each season and audience would often catch the second show at a venue further down the waterway.
01:02:10 Mikron shows. The performance spaces dictated the style of the shows – the show had to be accessible – a serious intent but ‘wrapped in a lot of humour and a lot of tears’ an integrated use of original music and original songs – and it had to be adaptable to a variety of settings. Costume changes would be within view of the audience. Venues include community halls, canal-side gardens, prisons, tunnels, dry docks and schools. Recently the company did a show about allotments and this has given them a whole new range of venues to perform at. In terms of the politics of their work they didn’t feel constrained by addressing a rural audience that may be seen as being conservative. They did tone down swearing as there would usually be large numbers of children in the audience. Pub landlords would invite them to drink with them after shows – knowing the locals was good for a repeated visit in future years. In the early days ML took a key role in deciding on the idea for the next show. He would lead the group in researching the subject and it would be devised by the whole company. In the 80s it was felt that for the sake of cohesion it was better with one writer. By then the company had moved on from doing solely canal subjects – a wide range of subjects were explored such as The British Amazon about Mary Ann Talbot a woman who dressed up as a man to go to sea; Imogen’s War about middle-class women assigned to war work on the waterways in the Second World War and their relationship with the boat people; In Mrs Brunel they gave her perspective on her famous husband. Other topics have been beer, travelling, railways – they’ve done shows about engineers such as [Richard] Trevithick and [Thomas] Telford, about lace –makers, the cooperative movement – recently they’ve done one about bees. They were trying to get people to think about subjects in a way that they may not have previously – to learn from history.
01:19:26 How the company evolved. They started as innocents, there was the battle to keep it going – the funding element – they got to understand how to maximise audiences and they got better at choosing company members who would fit in effectively. Every year they would create at least one original show – usually two. Some shows lend themselves to being more political than others – but there hasn’t been a change in the company’s stance. The show about the cooperative movement was inspiring to do and ML believes politically in this as a way forward. Funding is the ‘eternal nightmare’ – early on Greater London Council gave them some funding (starting tours at the ‘Narrow Boat Pub’ Islington). In 1975 they got a small Arts Council grant and then Regional Arts Association grants. In 1984 their grants were cut – and since then they’ve had no reliable external funding relying on audience income. The ‘Friends of Mikron’ organisation was set up to support the company including raising additional income. They also get charitable donations from trusts. Recently they have had some funding once again from the Arts Council. ML and Mikron Theatre Co. have been based at Marsden, West Yorkshire since 1978. It was important to be part of the community and they worked for 10 years to get the ‘Marsden Mechanics’ restored and established as an arts centre and since they’ve brought in touring theatre, dance and visual arts exhibitions. They had much positive impact – but there was some resistance from a minority in the community. In 1993, ML started a jazz festival there. The feedback from touring shows on the canals has always been immense – audiences are responsive to their professionalism, the impact of the closeness to the performers and with outdoor shows the setting is special. Working in the company has had a lot of impact on the actors. ML finds it gratifying that the young couple that have taken over running Mikron have maintained the same ethos that there always was. Currently changes to canal-side pubs has made some difficulties with venues and funding is an on-going problem. Mikron’s legacy has been their body of work – subject ‘niches’ and the canal basis of touring company.