Date: 6th July 2015
Location: Bethnal Green
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List: David Cleall
Video timings – 01:57:18
Audio timings can be found at Emil Wolk Topics List
00:00:00 Personal background. Emil Wolk (EW) born 1944 Brooklyn, father opera singer / principal baritone Covent Garden. EW sent to ‘very proper’ public school Surrey – holidays travelling to Italy or the US – other side of the family. Watched Dad perform Covent Garden [Opera House] – ‘a world of gigantic gargantuan figures’ contrasted with traumatic boarding school experience. ‘Part of the greatness of alternative theatre was in fact that it allowed me a voice that was born of a kind of dysfunction’. Failed exams – later diagnosed as dyslexia – education saved through being moved to liberal / humane [International School Eerde] international school in Holland (1962-64) when Dad took job with Netherlands Opera. EW admired Dad as a performer and this gave EW an affinity for the stage. Dad Verdian singer (Rigoletto and La Traviata) – also tackled challenging ‘modern’ role in [Berg’s] Wozzeck. EW felt he had no musical voice. Parents very involved in father’s career and not really aware of how unhappy EW had been at school. Dutch school – mixed and very diverse. Family now in Amsterdam and EW ‘was gallivanting about in the nightclubs and being or trying to be a lad.’ Very liberal – aware of emerging alternative scene.
00:10:34 European aesthetic. Germans & Dutch appreciated UK alternative theatre companies’ importance before UK did. When EW with Pip Simmons in An Die Musik at ICA the critic Harold Hobson saw it as too intense, too physical ( European aesthetic rather than UK literary tradition). Other example: Eastern European companies’ productions of Shakespeare less restricted by respect for the language.
00:12:25 Acting school and early career. International school – EW became very excited by dance – although not especially talented! He also loved writing and literature through the influence of a Welsh teacher, Mr. Garlick – he influenced EW’s next move to Cardiff College of Music and Drama of Literature [now the Welsh School of Music and Drama]. Whilst at college worked as a waiter Chinese restaurant. Traditional acting course (c.1966) then Belgrade Theatre Coventry rep. such as Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest. Lot of fun but traditional scripted work wasn’t going to work for him. Met mime artist (Ben Benison) encouraged to develop his physical theatre skills – Paris – Jacques Lecoq. Traverse Theatre Women Beware Women / Max Stafford-Clark / Box and Cox [John Maddison Morton] with Tony Hagarth and Comings and Goings [Megan Terry] then off to Paris in 1968.
00:22:10 Paris. EW – Paris – rioting 1968 – no work and hence no money -couldn’t afford Jacques Lecoq fees – but went to Étienne Decroux mime school – ED staunch socialist / 8Fr a day – after a few months became part of his corps of demonstrators. Also EW worked on circus skills with Tudor Bonno (Romanian acrobat) – Bonno and Decroux influential on EW’s attitude – left of field – that’s what attracted EW to Pip Simmons and The People Show. EW was apolitical and quite naïve the student protests etc. Friends in Paris were diverse – Moroccans and Brazilians – a documentary filmmaker (Anne-Marie Lallement) made a film with her. Saw Grotowski production Akropolis by hiding under the seats – impressed by its physicality but didn’t understand it. Later attended talk by Grotowski – thought him over intellectual, bit of a poser. Connection noted that An Die Musik and Akropolis both have concentration camp setting. After Decroux some training with [Annie] Fratellini [founded Circus School in Paris few years later]
00:36:42 Returning to UK and Edinburgh Festival. Ros Clark – Theatre Workshop Edinburgh [later Theatre Workshop Scotland] very dynamic. EW did two children’s festival shows with her and also a solo show Shh!! – they did very well. At Edinburgh Festival EW first saw The People Show (a street theatre piece) – they were so exciting – stuck in his mind. Later in Edinburgh: Reg Bolton and Annie Stainer (dancer) had founded Suitcase Circus [and Edinburgh Summer Circus School]. Together with EW they did shows using circus skills as ‘The Long Green Theatre Company’ At Edinburgh Festival: Arthur and The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (Fringe First award). EW (Mariner) and Annie (albatross) – a lot of aerial work. Met Peter and Joan Oliver – Oval House. Circus skills starting to have voice in alternative theatre. The Feast of Fools with Paddy Fletcher (PF) at Oval House then The Roundhouse. The People Show, Pip Simmons and The Freehold all rehearsing at Oval House [early 70s]. Met Nancy Meckler (NM) of Freehold – ran some physical theatre workshops for her re Antigone – cast included Stephen Rea. Later EW joined Freehold for Pantagleize (at Edinburgh). PF took EW into Incubus Theatre Company for The Madman at Rotterdam.
00:44:00 Oval House. One-man show at Oval House, The Warrior led to him working with Ian Hinchcliffe in Playmobile in Oval project based at various local adventure playgrounds. ‘Ian took risks that were unbelievable’, EW dressed as comic convict’s uniform and sporting a semi shaved head (from The Warrior), told the kids he had escaped from prison. Parents called police, who arrived with dogs. EW arrested – Peter Oliver had to bail them out! EW saw IH’s company IOU when they came to London. [Jumping forward to 1980] Mark Long (ML) asked EW; Jose Nava (‘who was an important figure in my life’) and Chahine [Yavroyan] to build an elaborate set of a cantilevered bridge for The People Show: The Bridge in dry dock venue (Rotterdam?) set which they did – being with The People Show building for The Bridge Show however it burned down over night before they could use it – sabotage?*
00:49:50 Joining Pip Simmons Theatre Company (PSTC) and the alternative theatre practitioners network [About 1974]. Pip Simmons(PS) asked EW to join his company for a year’s residency in Rotterdam – two shows: PS wanted one on holocaust theme. EW’s then partner Paula Melborne working on The Aeroplane when EW started PSTC rehearsals for An Die Musik – a ‘landmark’ experience for EW [EW first show with PSTG was actually Dracula]–– exciting to be in something that was driven by the music of Chris Jordan . Peter and Joan Oliver left Oval House (with Alfie and Ros to run it in their absense) to also join the PSTG. EW income came from workshops and also important he benefitted from friends’ generosity – such as Jose and Mica Nava (JN & MN) – EW stayed with them for seven years (Hampstead.) MN very politicised, Jose as a Mexican fisherman had been very much taken from his cultural context. EW had visited Mexico and JN became a dear friend. Cultural mishmash of other The People Show (TPS) personnel: e.g. George Khan was Pakistani (GK). Various alternative theatre performers and their partners (Dinah Stabb, ML’s partner) constituted an important social network at Oval House where EW ran workshops – Pierce Brosnan(PB) and Sal’s Meat Market (Ray Hassett and John Ratzenberger). EW worked with Brosnan on The Bullfighter of Balham and also with RH and JR on double bills where EW did The Warrior but also collaborations such as on an Oval House (anti) Christmas Show. Also at Oval PF’s The Feast of Fools – refers to celebration prior to crusaders setting off and they had a celebration – moved to Roundhouse [December 1973] – some local youngsters from Oval also involved e.g.Jim Sweeney. Pierce Brosnan’s comedic talents – cigarettes / bullfighter. Stephen Rea (SR) in [Freehold’s Harlequin and Columbine] (SR), The People Show and The Abbey Theatre and Field Day Theatre Company [Brian Friel & Stephen Rea 1980]. SR involved on a casual basis with TPS. Roland Miller also at Oval – some workshops together. People weren’t rigidly categorised as teachers or technicians or performers e.g. Chahine Yavroyan (CY) theatre designer but with TPS became performer.
01:02:56 Paula Melbourne and joining The People Show. Paula Melbourne, EW partner: The Mermaid Show –passion for aerial work, PM’s negative experience with South African flying trapeze act (in France), and PM’s shows on aviator pioneer [Harriet Quimby] using diaries as text / Steve Whitson did lighting and an ‘underwater’ trapeze piece The Mermaid. Paula’s tragic death when travelling down from Edinburgh with EW to see People Show at Hampstead. EW was traumatised by the accident. After that TPS took EW ‘under their wing’. (Door Buzzer interruption)
01:09:08 The People Show. EW had seen / admired their work – a Traverse with ML – his patter was very astute, funny – challenged audience to make Laura Gilbert laugh. She had an incredible sense of containment, quite unique – they exposed themselves to the audience – it was ‘raw’ , no ‘plant’ in the audience. Jose also had this quality – JN hacking at skeleton in The Guinness Show  – startling and shocking – real meat, a real machete, real dripping blood. TPS used objects found objects and developed show around them – or in The Guinness Show stacks of Guinness bottles everywhere. The various elements were somehow linked to make some kind of sense for you the audience – this revelation could be deeply moving. TPS also put together disparate personalities and created sense of unity. Whistlestop with Jeff Nuttall. Johnny Hutch (JH) also worked with TPS: it is the circus without the sawdust. EW compares contemporary where production values are high – so much money is involved no one will risk the unknown. TPS was always ‘work in progress’ / sometimes it went wrong.
01:17:03 The People Show Cabaret and The Hamburg Show. EW brought his love for vaudeville and physical work to TPS – JH brought in to develop vaudeville material for People Show Cabaret  – cast: GK, EW, ML and CY. Some friction amongst the company but to some extent was ‘the gravy of the piece’ – people had personalised connection with the material. EW discusses the process whereby The Hamburg Show  was devised, what individuals brought to the show and what the set was like. ‘It was one of the most poetic of shows’. ICA and Hampstead Theatre favourite venues – but also doing site specific work. In The Billie Holiday Show  Mike Figgis was musical director. Stan’s Band and Jim’s Gym at the Bush Theatre – EW’s acrobatic skills as he tried to ‘reach for the stars’ – an idea developed into Channel Four film [Starwashed,1984] – film was flawed but some unique moments.
01:29:35 Pip Simmons Theatre Group cont. An Die Musik was EW first show with PSTG [actually second, see above]. Had quite an impact: audience sat on benches / quite uncomfortable – show had been very harrowing so afterwards Pip to do a celebration of life – a comedy – The Dream of a Ridiculous Man [based on the Dostoyevsky story] – difficulties in devising i– not merely tell the story. Roderic Leigh(RL) played the ridiculous man – and it was a liberation of this character as an individual. EW played Doctor Death on stilts – Chris Jordan’s (CJ) music important – opened with song [which EW now sings] accompanied by the company doing Tai Chi movements. More formalised ‘voice’ to the PSTG shows than with the TPS which were more personal. Essentially it was Pip’s vision that they would realise – PS, CJ and RL did much planning before bringing in the company. An Die Musik , CJ had already done work on the music, performers knew it was going to end with the gassing of Jewish band. Devising a piece was like series of questions that PS would ask of performers, how they could realise the outcome? Reference to break.
01:33:46 Pip Simmons knew how to stir up an audience. When in a show you don’t get a sense of the whole picture –this was the case in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. EW remembers PS had something that he was working towards but EW wasn’t always able to tune in to it. Ridiculous Man opened at Cardiff – it was a great surprise (to EW) that people loved it! EW always wanted to get his circus skills stuff across well. EW: Doctor Death on stilts – studded like a punk rocker he had a shaven head – very ‘rock’ – PS knew how to stir up an audience, An Die Musik was disturbing and in Ridiculous Man there was a lot of nudity, not gratuitous – just the situation that the character was in – RL being exposed when turned upside down in his nightshirt! Took break from the devising process – to imagine paradise and company went to an island off the English coast – picnics, bit of dope and got dressed up in their idea of paradise – a break but connected to work. Dracula played entirely to musical score whereas Ridiculous Man had musical sections – in both musicians on stage – very dynamic, Positive, dreamy and whimsical in comparison to An Die Musik. In contrast to TPS, Pip was central to the whole concept – however wasn’t dictatorial – he wasn’t always sure of what he wanted- a very freewheeling director, it was a matter of selection. Pip’s notes [feedback after a performance] were also fascinating – ‘sometimes you might think it was a shit performance but actually he had loved it’. (Microphone drops off 30 secs crackling and laughter!)
01:41:24 Dracula. Dracula was great fun. First tried to make it very unorthodox. Rod Bedall a ‘rock’ Dracula – quite fetishistic but then they re-thought concept playing up the Victorian orthodoxy of context to contrast this very sexual Dracula -made it more understandable. Set large ‘cobweb’ under tension – very difficult to get the structure to work. Example of design concept having been planned independent of cast started to work with it. Story straight forward – piece of popular rock-based theatre. CJ’s score like a movie score. Ridiculous Man was EW’s last work with PSTG – always a desire to move on and do something different.
01:44:45 Freehold and leaving The People Show .The conversation moves back to improvisations with Freehold such the ‘corridor’ exercise – presented actors with a challenging spatial restriction to improvise large group actions – used in the prologue to Antigone. Further reference to Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen at Oval House workshops. More on The People Show Cabaret and then The George Khan Show. EW last TPS show in Greece – event for the Theatre of Nations then EW again felt the need to move on from TPS. Also wanted to explore more mainstream work and make some money! Finances always a struggle! Touring! Father died in States, died and when EW rushed back from the funeral he ‘did something stupid on stage’ – injured his back – in agony and couldn’t go on – no re-crimination from the group. He now looks upon the People Show as being like his family. At the time of this interview, EW has returned to UK to work on a celebratory short film – 50 years of TPS.
01:53:52 Working in mainstream theatre and opera. This worked out well – Olivier award for ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ (Kiss Me Kate) – EW gets more nervous doing mainstream work – demands a formula, carefully choreographed, all about getting it right – different from alternative theatre. Played Puck in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream also worked with the Met on the vaudeville context for their I Pagliacci. Life a full circle -from childhood experience of opera world – now he has performed at La Scala Milan and worked at the Met – he is to direct I Pagliacci soon – also strange to be happening at a time when he is revisiting his People Show roots .
[*If I said the bridge burnt down before we could use it, it is not strictly true, but much of the set was burnt and the props, however the bridge remained in tact. EW]
Recording ends 01:57:18