Location: West London
Interviewer: David Cleall
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Video timings – 1:42:20
00:00:00 Personal background. Nancy Meckler (NM) childhood on Long Island, New York; neighbour’s dance school: ballet, acrobatics and tap; ‘performances’ with neighbourhood children and younger brother; ‘obsessed with putting on shows’; University [Antioch College, Ohio] – opportunities to direct, act, design at summer theatre festivals. Ambition to be actress, but stage management gave overview of productions.
00:05:55 LAMDA, Schechner, Chaikin and La Mama. After Antioch – internship Arena Stage [Washington DC] one year – Kennedy assassination . New York – acting classes Herbert Berghof Studios. Audition for LAMDA [London] – course in ‘classical acting’. NM stayed in London two years – inspirational teachers: Michael MacCowan (verse speaking) Hugh Crutwell (Shakespeare). Acting work didn’t happen – enrolled on new Masters programme at NYU run by Richard Schechner [RS was editor of the Tulane Drama Review] – course very free-thinking: Grotowski exercises [00:10:35 technical readjustment of microphone]. Ref. to RS’s Dionysus in ’69 at the Performing Garage [New York] then RS formed The Wooster Group. Joe Chaikin’s (JC) Open Theater (OT) – ‘extraordinary’ ; New School [New School for Social Research,NY] where JC was teaching. NYU programme visiting speakers: JC and Hal Prince. Living Theatre touring so NM didn’t see until later (London and Rome).
00:12:40 La MaMa Plexus. New La MaMa Company being started by [Stanley] Rosenberg (SR) who had worked with Eugenio Barba [founder of Odin Theatre and again influenced by Grotowski ] in Denmark. NM joined La MaMa Plexus; Grotowski’s The Cat exercise – physical approach was liberating – La Mama performances [1968 The Cylinder, Complexions and Inside Out] with NM assistant director. Previously had been Production Secretary on Broadway musical [Illya Darling opened in 1967], based on Jules Dassin’s Never on Sunday [with Melina Mercouri] .This work came after LAMDA and prior to NYU Masters. Intense 10 month period with La Mama Plexus. Then NM directed couple of plays for Trotwood Summer Theatre [Ohio]
00:20:22 Drury Lane Arts Lab. Visited London [August 1968]; NM met David Aukin – decided to stay. Arts Lab with new La MaMa type company – the Wherehouse company. NM joined as assistant director; Jim Haynes; rehearsals Drury Lane Arts Lab; ref. to Portable Theatre; rehearsed George Birimisa’s Mr Jello, a play Beth Porter (BP) brought in. ‘Hippy culture’ arriving in London 1968 – later Hair– many influences were American; BP and Peter [Reid] at Arts Lab; Ann McFerran [later theatre critic and journalist] and Stephen Rea; group like-minded in wanting to break down barriers in theatre; initially mainly men. Ref. BP’s cousin Hugh Portnow musician; people had casual jobs, bar work to get by; low cost of living – but it did feet cheap! Dedicated feeling of group – part of a collective – deeply idealistic. Ref. Stephen Rea.
00:30:20 Setting up of Freehold. NM didn’t like Mr.Jello – a compromise; BP returned to US for filming of Futz; NM worked with company on Alternatives – ‘owed an awful lot to The Open Theater [Joe Chaikin]’; description of Alternatives; ref. BBC television programme. BP return from US -wanted company with ‘no directors’. Actors backed NM and Wherehouse was effectively disbanded. The Freehold – new name suggested by Neil Johnston (NJ) – picked up prior bookings for Wherehouse. Small audiences; no money from bookings; Traverse sent van down from Edinburgh to get them; use of sound in productions; exploring vocal range – connecting each other through sound.
00:35:53 Towards Antigone. Grotowski exercises; expressionistic way of exploring scenes; Stanley Rosenberg use of Oedipus Rex with La MaMa Plexus; witches scene Macbeth; NJ brought in Peter Hulton – PH had had internship with Living Theatre; PH at workshops; Freehold’s open attitude to collaboration; PH’s girlfriend [Dorinda] voice specialist; evolution of Antigone re collaboration. ‘Cross fertilisation’ at Oval House – e.g. The People Show (TPS); Dinah Stabb link with Traverse Theatre Edinburgh; circus tent venue Edinburgh Festival for Antigone; Jim Haynes brought Artistic Director of Akademie der Künste Berlin – booked show for Berlin!; article on Freehold in The Guardian; growing success of Antigone; David Aukin’s Come to The Cockpit at Christmas Festival. Small venues but queues to get in; Berlin venue – 600 seater theatre!
00:47:00 Living Theatre’s influence on Antigone and the burial of Polynices. Peter Hulton and Living Theatre (LT) aesthetic e.g. directly addressing audience; PH took idea from LT of dead brother Polynices lying at the front of stage being replaced by various cast members, at end of play invited audience to help ‘bury’ Polynices – a political act; comparing responses from UK and German audiences.
00:50:45 Workshop techniques and Duchess of Malfi. NM’s application of Grotowski’s The Cat – Rosenberg (SR) adaptions of G’s techniques; free flowing states leading to improvisations; physical explorations prior to building in the text. Working on Duchess of Malfi (D o M) – PH had moved away; difficult text to adapt; worked on it three months; NM felt it was something of a failure; Antigone the guards as clowns speak gibberish – ref. to Will [Spoor] or Ken Campbell? Burden of following the success of Antigone; NM remembers devising of D o M as agony! D o M opening season of Young Vic theatre [October 1970]; heavily pregnant NM rehearsed Bruce Myers (BM) to replace Maurice Colbourne; BM’s Richard III audition piece for Peter Brook.
01:00:00 The break-up of the first company. Some actors left; NM had baby; guest directors; Michael Rudman Pantagleize at Traverse. Aukin (DA) administrated various alternative theatre companies from basement office in their house; Roland Rees‘s Drums in the Night [Brecht]; breakdown of company – a lot of unhappiness during rehearsals for Jacques [Jack, or The Submission by Ionesco]. Harlequin and Columbine [at Oval House] Emil Wolk.
01:02:25 Creating a new company. NM tried to keep company going – ‘when it fell apart it was a big shock’ . Arts Council funding still in place for next tour [Arts Council drama: James Saunders and Martin Esslin]. Original company wouldn’t come back [apart from NJ]; so auditions – ref. Maureen Lipman conversation re recommendation of actors from Stables Theatre Club Manchester [under Alan Dossor] – Marty Cruickshank and Paula Dionisotti; NM also knew Jennie Stoller (through Philip Sayer) who now joined company. Ref. to alumni of the Drama Centre – movement teacher, Yat Malmgren. Wolf Kahler and Chris Ravenscroft applied / auditioned via Time Out advert; Dinah Stabb later returned to Freehold.
01:06:20 Company devised pieces and working with a writer. Trained-up new company; Roy Kift (RK) Mary, Mary – ‘dark’ subject matter. M,M played The Roxy [rehearsal space Gospel Oak rented from Time Out critic John Ashford] then got booking for Theatre Upstairs. Genesis shows influence of Open Theatre i.e. The Serpent –‘absolute agony too!’. Difficulty of devising when collaborating with writer at same time. NM explains Joint Stock’s approach to devising and collaborating with writers. [JS – theatre company founded by David Hare, Max Stafford-Clark and David Aukin in 1974] NM not happy with Genesis but company committed to extensive (European) tour.
01:10:18 Commitment of company to experimental texts. ‘New’ company totally committed to an experimental way of working – ‘playing with form’ ; There/This/ Move Michael Kirby (ref. MK and The People Show and Tulane Drama Review); Sam Shepard’s Icarus’s Mother; expressionistic ways of working; ‘very off the wall’ plays.
01:12:15 Marrying physical theatre with texts. Liane Aukin (DA’s sister) adaption of Beowulf – ‘too big a disconnect between the script and how [Freehold] wanted to work’. PH’s wife (Dorinda); PH ref. Dartington College. ‘couple of phenomenal scenes but we didn’t really bring it off’. Jungian interpretation and iconography from company, but wasn’t really in the script. Freehold never really connected with the writers that could have helped. Ref. Howard Brenton; physical theatre accused of ignoring the words – something NM rejects. Ref. unrealised project Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience.
01:16:55 Few female director role models and juggling family life. Difficulties in developing new material; few women theatre directors role models ref. Joan Littlewood [Theatre Royal Stratford] and Jane Howell [director at Royal Court and Northcott Theatre Devon]; female protagonists in NM’s work. NM not to tour whilst caring for baby; the effect of this choice – didn’t want to leave company unsupported; decision to finish Freehold. NM contrasts early 70s theatrical climate with the current situation that is more accepting of experimental non-naturalistic ways of working.
01:21:49 Bringing The Freehold to an end. Touring Beowulf; The Three Sisters promenade production at NM’s house; description of working method for this naturalistic text – but approaching it experimentally; ref. David Hare and Max Stafford-Clark and promenade productions (including Chekhov).
01:24:28 Sam Shepard Action. Gap before second child; limited job offers as freelance theatre director; Sam Shepard (SS)’s Action – Stephen Rea and Jennie Stoller [from Freehold] – NM knew SS’s wife, O-Lan, from workshops; SS knew Freehold actors. Required different approach from that of physical theatre – NM invented exercises and improvisations; getting into the ‘Sam Shepard mind-set’ Action ‘about time passing’ – ‘characters inhabiting inner space that was very disturbed although the exterior space looked very normal’. After the difficulty with devised work, NM enjoyed ‘very strong script’.
01:28:55 Loyal contacts, but frustrations of being freelance. Hard to get work partly because NM’s association with ‘fringe’. DA was running Hampstead Theatre with Michael Rudman – over eight years NM did about eight shows there – three of these transferred to West-End. Sometimes work came from writers – Pam Gems (PG) – ref, to Cockpit Festival  Betty’s Wonderful Christmas [directed by Roland Rees]. PG’s The Project Soho Poly [lunchtime theatre 1976]; The Tax Exile very successful for Jonathan Gems (PG’s son) at the Bush Theatre  – George Devine award. Many successes through writers but not so many from theatres; Uncle Vanya at Hampstead1979 [adaptation Pam Gems – Nigel Hawthorne and Ian Holm] phenomenal success – but it didn’t lead to job offers! Should NM have marketed herself more at these moments? Michael Rudman connection led to Pam Gems first full-length play Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi at Hampstead (West End transfer) and National Theatre (NT) first female directed show Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ref. to unrealised NT project – Lilian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine.
01:34:17 Leicester Haymarket. DA leaves Hampstead Theatre in 1984 and moves to Leicester Haymarket. NM becomes associate director there running studio company of young actors + directing 2/3 production in main theatre shows; opportunity to do the classics (PG adaption Cherry Orchard ) and from DA idea The People Show are cast as the Mechanicals in NM’s A Midsummers Night’s Dream  – sell-out success – Emil Wolk ‘Bottom’ ref. also Andrew Dixon and Jeremy Swift.
01:37:15 Shared Experience (SE). NM becomes Artistic Director of Shared Experience (1987-2009). [Mike Alfreds (MA) founded SE in 1975]; Initially wary because of touring nature of company but inspired by new rehearsal premises [the Soho Laundry London] and felt she worked in the tradition of the company i.e. MA’s actor-centred approach with simple sets and costumes. NM use of physical theatre exercises in preparatory workshops; return to Greek tragedy The Bacchae – ‘It was like coming full circle’. Ref. back to Leicester studio company. With Shared Experience, NM’s work was supported by strong scripts such as with Helen Edmundson’s work. Ref. to Polly Teale. 2011 Arts Council cut funding for SE – never fully explained.
01:42:12 Reflection. ‘I just feel very fortunate …. when I first joined that La MaMa Plexus company and was introduced to this very non-naturalistic expressionistic way of working because it became a passion and it took me on some fantastic journeys, I was just really lucky that I just walked into that..’
Interview ends 01:42:20