Iris Walton video Topics List

Date: 03.05.2016
Location: Tufnell Park London
Interviewer: David Cleall
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List:
David Cleall

Video timings
1hr 41mins (the last few minutes of the recording are lost please refer to the audio recording for missing material)

00:00:00         Personal background. Grew up in Glasgow – when 7 years old at  Kelvingrove Fair given anti-vivisection leaflet – appalled! Mother said ‘…don’t just complain Iris, do something about it’ so street ballet Stravinsky’s Firebird – raised £5! Tap dancing since three, ballet since four. Ran away from home at 16, as parents wouldn’t let me be an actress! ‘….They were actually lovely, but I was a bolshie child’. Lived in a real ‘kids street’ doing lots of things. Neighbour’s elocution lessons (LAMDA exams) and drama and  IW took it seriously when other kids stopped. Dad: ‘failed businessman’ – Mum housewife: ‘nice young girls aren’t actresses’. IW middle kid of three. Ran away from home to be an actress at 16 – wanted to do things her way – letter: ‘let me discover for myself – what to do and how to be and don’t come looking for me’

00:03:51         France. Ran off to France – inspired by fav song Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? Peter Sarstedt (1969). On boat met girl who gave IW her address near Marseilles. Busking in Paris went to Marseille. Girl was daughter of artist Guy Toubon (GT). GT was friends with Jean-Marie Serreau ‘revolutionary’ theatre director’ and GT’s son Dominique Serrau (DS) ran theatre in Paris. IW hitched back to Paris and was taken in by DS’s mother (writer Geneviève Serreau) and DS’s sister – actress Coline Serreau(CS). Through them found out about Étienne Decroux and Jacques LeCoq and they encouraged IW to train. She looked after CS’s baby, Sami and also taught English etc to finance the mime classes. Two years full-time study with LeCoq, then DeCroux (morning classes and Friday evening improvisation) – very disciplined work. Long waiting list for Decroux but ‘Scottish’ background helped get taken on – Jessica Lange in class also  Avner Eisenberg [aka Avner the Eccentric] in class with LeCoq. Mime, physical theatre and started acrobatics. Workshops with [dancer] Ella Jaroszewicz (ex-wife of Marcel Marceau) Martha Graham technique and with Jean-Louis Barrault. Saw Peter Brook’s Ubu Roi [perhaps later,1977?] and Ariane Mnouchkine [of Le Théâtre du Soleil] at theatre La Cartoucherie [former munitions factory]. AM brought 1789 to The Roundhouse [1971]. IW spent five years in Paris till 1974 had kept in touch with parents and visited mother when she was ill. After staying with the Serreau family shared apartment with Michael Robins [who founded Illusion Theatre] and Lin Bennett of Toronto.

00:13:05         Returning to England and Still Life Mime Theatre. Returned to London c.1974. Didn’t know anyone, room in Baron’s Court. Saw Gina Levete (SHAPE est. 1976) on television re creative work as therapy for people with disabilities, wrote to her, they met and got on, gave IW  job at Roehampton Hospital using physical theatre techniques with thalidomide and spina bifida children. Then IW taught mime and theatre classes in Covent Garden [The Dance Studio]. Encouraged by her students set up theatre company – Still Life Mime Theatre (SLMT) with Ross Foley, Lyndal Jones, Shirley Wilchek, Barnaby Gale. Rationale was ‘exploring’ – physical theatre, miming + take show to Edinburgh – Between Four Walls. At Edinburgh same venue as Miriam Margolyes who was attracting audiences, SLMT: good review in The Telegraph and Roundhouse booking. Between Four Walls used giant puppet heads, a love duet (‘straight out of Decroux’) – a Shamanistic journey, and broke the fourth wall – more connection with an audience – this characteristic of CS. Lindsay Kemp and IW had workshops at Roundhouse. (Before IW left home had seen some alternative theatre companies at Citizens Theatre Glasgow and she ‘sneeked off’ to workshops at Citizens – getting positive response from wkshp facilitator about running away from home).

00:22:30         From Still Life…. to Cunning Stunts. IW living with Ross Foley (RF) at Dalston – renting from Andrew Haig [photography lecturer who went on to design all the Cunning Stunts posters]. SLMT were rehearsing at squat in Hampstead – met Jan Dungey (JD) who was living there.  JD asked if she could join SLMT- big changeover. The second show with monkey characters [Wee Beasties and Small Supporting Acts] quite dark – it was JD’s first show with IW – probably ‘dark’ through the influence of Lyndal Jones. IW and JD formed a new company – an extension of SLMT…..the name had to go, as changed personnel changed so did style. RF still in company. JD told joke: what’s the difference between a policeman’s baton and a conjuror’s wand? One’s for stunning cunts and ones for cunning stunts. The new name! Initial line-up IW, JD and RF (and a ‘viking’?). This was around 1st April 1977 [Queen’s Jubilee year]

00:28:42         Early Cunning Stunts Shows and Oval House. Once A Knight’s Enough, Hullaballoon and children’s show Here There Be Monsters at this point Cunning Stunts (CS) not an all-women’s company. IW teaching acrobatics, mime and physical theatre at Oval House, got free rehearsal space as long as you opened your show there. Oval House ‘was magnificent time’,  all different companies Pip Simmons, Kaboodle, Lumiere and Son, People Show would hang out, watch each other’s rehearsals, socialise (in café). Once established you had to move on. Opportunities to experiment, see different styles of work, a friendliness. IW and JD [6’2”] were different physical types – part of their comedy. IW’s malapropisms. Feeling of freedom, innocence – IW loved comedy – influence of Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton (from Paris days), female version Monty Python. There had been a lot of humour at IW’s home, despite fighting, father a great comedian, played piano, frustrated artist. Early shows IW would ‘busk’ King McKong, JD – legs over shoulders as spider. Madness, walkabouts, costumes. Structure of shows: an opening number or dance routine A was to be following by B – but the road from A-B was flexible. Liked to upstage and surprise each other – leading to a different routes from A-B. Some bits really tight, rest was ‘playing with each other’. RF left (‘for the sake of their relationship’). Rix Pyke a musician joined and JD brought in friend, the blues musician Simon Prager. IW could sing (and learnt to play instrument) but others were better, IW was the ‘daredevil’.

00:36:21         Wish You Were Here. Late night cabaret [November 1975] at Oval House – showcase for a number of companies.  IW as ‘Cosi fan Tutti’ stripper. Enjoyed wearing vintage clothing from Cornucopia. A stripper of, grapefruit … Peeling off the skin, feeding the audience, started as titillation moved to broad Glaswegian on tables, with men and women – audience not knowing where it was going].Other items: 3 gangsters archetypal spoof + JD and SP played blues. Emil Wolk in audience: ‘great to see three powerful strong women’ Helped them clarify the Cunning Stunts philosophy: resistance to femininity, [body fascism] through being powerful rather than being explicitly ‘feminist’. ‘Which bits of my body do I not like, right I’m going to expose that bit!’ Women playing brass instruments! Taking the piss out of themselves and everybody else, that was their uniqueness!

00:43:09         Ham Fat on the Turn.  Bookings for Comic Women’s Festival in Italy (Tuscany) and German venues. – pushed them forward. JD and IW ran auditions: Gill Cappa, Debbie the Donkey [Hall], Eric Steel (ES), Margo [Random]. Farmer Cutie-Gals Spare Parts Works [poster designed Andrew Haig, but show actually became Ham Fat on the Turn]. Cumbersome sets, pyrotechnics for IW (she had ex-student who made the pyrotechnics) blew her thumb up, walkway with ladders, IW played poisoner [Hunchback character ‘Quirk’] , strong women. ES as Ham Fat wore long winkle picker shoes and fantastic hat. Vaselini Brothers, the birds [ostriches] . CS known for fast costume changes, could enter stage from anywhere when in costume – part of the chaos and energy.

00:49:05         Touring with The Stunts. Arts Council grant. Toured extensively for five months. Van for touring had no seats then got old ambulance converted with bed – it was wild. Remembers it fondly but emotions would sometimes erupt. Plume [Tarrant] lying on floor. Not demure. IW was a bit rough, got in trouble for being bit violent on stage! Different audiences in Holland: Shaffy Theatre, Melkweg ‘Festival of Fools’ and Paradiso. The Stunts had a following. Enjoyed hanging out with Spiderwomen at Comic Women’s Festival in Italy – together a large number of them and they ‘took over Italy’. Festival of Fools in Cornwell and Devon, CS organised a cabaret where different companies joined them – known for this.

00:54:18         Odyssey and The Last Resort.1979. IW was Odysseus as Glaswegian. Devising process – read book! Improvise, How are we going to do Circe and her pigs? Lets have dancing pigs! Then Margo would write a song, right that’s that scene! Lets have a Heroes song with trumpets.etc. Each scene had song and dance routine. They all played a main part and also all the other parts – wrote scripts for their own bits. Rehearse all day, up all night writing their own bit. They’d then improvise, change it. They all had specialisms and would work to include this. As different musicians joined music styles changed. Different line-ups, created new energy. They were a collective – all had a voice. Core group JD and IW, ES – Fish [Sarah Krish SK]  and Plume [Tarrent -PT] –when they stopped performing they made props and costumes for them – Gill was a stunt –once stunt always a stunt. Once you had ‘made it’ as theatre company it was time to move on from Oval House – so someone else can use the space – so from [about 1979] they hired rehearsal space at Drill Hall. Mary Turner – Julie, Gail. Other women’s theatre companies based there. Monstrous Regiment, Beryl and the Perils, Clapperclaw, It was 70’s – [protest and conflict] IW not especially political (at this stage) they were creating theatre [not necessarily in a ‘women’s theatre movement’] however IW had got arrested at parliament – A Woman’s Right to Choose [probably October 1979]. Musical influences on The Stunts from all over, PT brought punk type influence.

01:06:03         The Colour ShowAKA Runts on the Stoad – ‘pure’ improvisations based around one colour, then the next week another etc. no story. In white section they went mad and not used in show! Green section garden, IW was Mugwort – acrobatics with buckets on feet cartwheel down the stairs of the auditorium, Sally Davies on stilts, the gardener, PT a bee, SK compost heap. Red was fiery IW did ribbony thing. Yellow they had a lemon song. They had talked about having their own CS tent, but don’t think it happened. Different audiences. Open prisons, psychiatric units. In Bonn Germany the booker had thought they were getting a girly pole dance group – it was a venue for soldiers – but CS stuck resolutely to their show and by the end they had won them over! But usually they did adapt to audiences. Odyssey in a women’s open prison the show’s audience participation element – boxes of matches hidden under seats prior to show ran into trouble with the guards.

01:13:20         Skills Sharing and Iris Leaves The Stunts. Shows combined with workshops. They brought in people with very different skills and they had to learn each others skills. IW no good at juggling. SD and IW loved the acrobatics. IW was very strong. They all sang. [Late 1980]. IW woke from dream – internal questioning – ‘if I didn’t have The Stunts did I have a creative idea in my head?’ IW was very Aries and no sooner had she had that thought , she knew she had to leave. Also The Stunts wanted to do the Nuclear Show [aka as Cunning Stunts Christmas Show] –IW didn’t want to do it. Immediately afterwards IW took call from Daniel Revie (sp?) [ex-Friends Roadshow] who was at  Fabrik, Berlin [ufaFabrik cultural commune in old ufa film studios] he wanted to book CS show –  not ready – but IW was free to run some workshops there in Berlin. Stunts quite shocked. IW ‘yes, scary…but also scary not to do something new.’

01:19:53         ufaFabrik, South of France & The Last Stunts Show. ufaFabrik -Goebbels old film studios now commune, lot of practical classes eg woodwork etc. – there was a circus in the commune. Took part in DR’s circus/cabaret. Commune quite male dominated, the women asked IW to run women’s workshops. Stunts came over with show [probably The Opera?]. Lived there for 6 months then IW stormed out of commune – very male hierarchy. Left with Bert, now father of her son, hitched to South of France where months later bumped into the Stunts at Avignon festival. They encouraged IW to come back into The Stunts [around this time JD left The Stunts and went to Australia. IW was pregnant for this last Stunts show Gogol’s Overcoat (aka Winter Warmer). She was happy to be in the show. Was Winter Warmer a move more towards visual theatre and less comedic? It had some comedy, they followed the story (a bit). Sally Forth [Circus Oz and Australian Dance Theatre], Sally Davies – there were a few new people. PT and SV did costumes and lighting. IW did improvisations with rhyming couplets. IW was tap-dancing heavily pregnant. Gogol’s Overcoat was not a comedy ‘it might have been more comedic the way we did it!’

01:30:24         The End of The Stunts. IW had son in Spring 1982. JD wanted to bring The Stunts over to Australia. IW didn’t want to travel to Australia without Bert. However if Bert went other Stunts wanted their partners to go – it would be Stunts and their partners ‘ but what are these men going to do?’ At next meeting PT and SV definitely didn’t want to go wanted to pursue music. IW wanted to be a mother for  a while – also worked with dancer Jacky Lansley (who also had a baby). The Stunts – ‘It came to its end ‘cos it was meant to come to its end’ – there was not a big fallout. South Bank farewell show – PT and SV took a show to Edinburgh – but that was not The Stunts. There were two Cunning Stunts Schools and JD may have been back for the second one. IW worked outreach for the National Theatre then took a break from theatre and circus for 5-7 years. Then (for about five years) taught in lots of places, set up Young People’s Circus Programme in Circus Space, Hoxton (now National Centre for Circus Arts).

01:36:42         Africa. IW also taught evening classes in acrobatics for adults {in London] using West African music. Erin Steel had gone off to Zimbabwe and encouraged IW to come out. IW visited ES – now living in village in Gambia. For five years IW took her acrobatic students from London to Africa to explore music, dancers, acrobatics. In c.2000 IW moved to Africa, lived in the bush for a couple of years but the need to earn money took her to the new university in the Gambia – met the Vice-Chancellor (V-C) and mentioned the Serreau family who the V-C had known and admired. IW taught drama, creative writing, public speaking and acting at the university. Worked there for 8 years. Gambian woman Janet Badjan-Young built the first theatre in Gambia, and set up first training programme for Gambian actors. She asked IW to join her – teaching and directing shows for graduation. Also worked with Guinean acrobats – finding ways to bring contemporary ideas to their work which was very traditional. Senegal is far more advanced IW worked with the Norwegian School of Dance, doing cultural exchanges in Senegal. IW loved Africa- there for a total of 15 years – came back to UK just under two years ago.

01:41:15        Arts Council Funding.  The Stunts powerful part of IW’s life. Great time – with great freedom. Jessica Higgs asks re Arts Council funding. When IW approached Arts Council re SLMT they were just setting up a mime department  IW demanded they give her funding. IW remember wonderful Arts Council officer Jonathan Lamede very supportive of The Stunts.

Recording ends 01:41:45 (last few minutes are lost, please refer to the audio recording for missing material)

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