Date: 17 August 2013
Interviewer: Jo Stanley
Technician: Jo Stanley
Topics List: David Cleall
00:00:00 Personal background. Mary Turner (MT) was born in Northwood, Middlesex on 15th July 1933, father an engineer. Action Space was founded in 1968 by Ken (KT) and Mary Turner with Alan Nisbet (AN) – they were looking for ‘a new avenue for the visual arts’, contemporary music, using ‘creative play’ and unifying different ways of working. They were disenchanted with the current visual arts scene, critical of the education system, the development of high-rise housing and the lack of play space. They were invited by Joan Littlewood to participate in the City of London Festival [visioning future interactive city environments] –focusing on public participation in the arts – they built a structure [The Plastic Garden] that people walked through with recorded music playing but with little money available, it was very flimsy. It provided an initial showcase for their work which led to an Arts Council grant. Their work wouldn’t be described as theatre – it was artists creating experiences for participants. During the first twenty years although Action Space did workshop projects , they saw themselves as ‘producers’ of art – although working in non-art venues and public spaces later the company would be more concerned with working with the community to support their creativity.
00:06:16 The Start of Action Space in the Harmood Street premises. In 1968 MT & KT lived in rented accommodation in Hampstead – their communist landlady charged a very low rent and the flat was initially also their studio. As construction projects became more ambitious they needed more space and they renovated a disused factory in Kentish Town [Harmood Street] that was made available by Camden Borough. They created 3 storeys of studio and storage space. Later they had a ‘free school’ for kids (until it was burnt down) and there was a sound studio for Mike Westbrook. Students came to work with Action Space and as there were vacant properties nearby they were set up in squats – these people were given studio space to work in and also meals. When the company got paid for projects such as local authority commissions from Camden and Tower Hamlets (they had started in Wapping) then they could also pay these helpers. For example they worked with dance students in public spaces and when working in Camden they had official permission to create performances in public spaces within the borough. They also worked in Notting Hill Gate and at Oval House. At this time KT was still working at Central School of Art and MT, now with children, was running a playgroup. As their children grew up they also participated in Action Space events. The availability of space for squatting was essential to Action Space’s success (sometimes this was under licence but not always). Action Space’s events in the late 60s were based on large inflatable structures that you could go inside, colour was an important element and often there would be ‘characters’ inside that the public would interact with. Often there was music and sometimes the event was based on a unifying story. This was prior to the public’s familiarity with bouncy castles – Action Space (AS) had a following of ‘rough’ boys that needed the challenge of exciting (although dangerous) experiences – AS created trampoline type inflatables for this. The structures also provided venues for performance – there were some big events that were planned in detail but on the whole they were quite spontaneous and worked out what they were going to do on a day-to-day basis. On occasions it was difficult working with anti-social lads but they tried to get them on their side as this was part of the company’s ideological commitment – to try to engage those who were feeling disengaged. These difficult interactions sometimes led to sabotage in the form of the stabbing of inflatables. KT had initially developed the idea of inflatables whilst MT developed free play.
00:21:50 Working in Camden and neighbourhood festivals. Camden authority were very supportive with regards to allowing them to do use public spaces and the streets for projects, such as outside St Pancras Station. Individual projects developed into neighbourhood festivals this started in Kentish Town where ‘Inter-Action’ company was also based; Jo Benjamin’s Community Play Centres – as well as Action Space itself. They set up a joint organising committee and this had local people representatives. A member of Camden Council was on the Action Space Board. The arts officer from Camden Council was supportive of their work, and the neighbourhood festivals were the first time Action Space involved the community at the planning stage. Following two successful Kentish Town festivals they were encouraged by the council to work on other neighbourhood festivals such as a Soho festival and a King’s Cross festival. The council tried to convert unauthorised squats into authorised temporary housing. There were some notorious confrontations between squatters’ groups and the council – such as at Prince of Wales Crescent and later Huntley Street. Because the council supported AS’s work [when the time came for the commercial development of the Harmood Street area] they rehoused Action Space at The Drill Hall [Bloomsbury, WC1]. Prior to that MT had separated from KT and moved to a squat [off Charing Cross Road] in Trentishoe Mansions. Later performers and companies (such as Welfare State) visiting London to play at the Drill Hall would stay over with MT at Trentishoe Mansions.
00:30:00 Free Schools and ‘Community Arts’. Whilst still at Harmood Street two members of Action Space – Roy Dodds and Jo [surname unknown] wanted to run a ‘free school’ – but others within the company thought that it would be difficult to offer continuity for the children. A space for the free school was found at Harmood Street but it was burned down and was later re-established at Freightliners, Kings Cross. This was the White Lion Street School but it didn’t last for long – the free school contributed to seminars on art and education at the ICA. Action Space avoided using the term ‘community arts’ as they were wary of reawakening the frustration that they had experienced with regards to the ill-fated, trade union backed, Arnold Wesker Centre 42 community arts centre project. MT describes the gap between the trades union and the arts that they were unable to bridge at that time, although she feels that there has been substantial change now. MT felt that ‘art’ element in community arts tends to be quite minor and limited, with an emphasis more on workshops than the ‘wider vision’ that art can provide. Action Space started to work with people with learning difficulties and this was ‘an eye opener’ for them, both through the clients’ enthusiasm and also in giving AS an understanding of the dominant institutional approach to people with learning difficulties. Action Space have worked with other organisations in challenging this situation whilst none-the-less also running art projects (Action Space Days) in various asylums. This branch of their work was run by Caroline Bagnall and Alan Nisbet.
00:39:00 Action Space Company. At this point in the interview further details of the early Action Space Company are given: from the beginning, with MT and KT there was Alan Nisbet (interested in music and sound) and two students of KT – Rick Harper and Gus Geddes. The company grew with various other specialisms being brought in including that of performance. During the Harmood Street period,1971-1975, there was growth in the number of projects AS was asked to be involved in such as the neighbourhood festival projects. MT describes the process of devising shows through workshops at the weekends with the whole company and also brought in outside workshop leaders such as speech, singing and movement workshops. There would be planning for the coming week, discussing venues and planning taking into account the various environments. There became more performance work and MT contrasts the type of drama that is ‘not real’ i.e. ‘creating characters’ and Action Space performers that ‘animate spaces’ and create events for real. By way of example MT describes a recent event created by Action Space Mobile working with adults with special needs in Sheffield to illustrate the role of the performer as animator. Early work was more based on creating something ‘for people’ whereas this project is an example of facilitating people to achieve something ‘for themselves’.
00:52:10 Action Space and ‘theatre’ at Oval House. Action Space were not involved in community theatre because they never saw themselves as being a ‘theatre’. They offered space to others doing theatre. However through various projects in the Borough of Lambeth such as the clown workshops [run by Nola Rae] at Oval House and in 1972 AS decided to take a step into performance with Play Optional at Oval House. In this event the audience moved around the space where various performers engaged them in ‘playful’ experiences – a built structure contained chess players, a nude woman was painting, MT was chopping onions, a little girl in bed asked to be told bedtime stories and there was a live goat. The concept of ‘adult playgrounds’ with regards to this type of work is discussed. Another performance at this time had three performers: KT, AN and Kathy Hinchcliffe (?) and used a sound tape to structure an event based around an old man, this played at Oval House and elsewhere.
00:59:16 The Drill Hall. From 1975 -1980 Action Space were moved into an enormous space – The Drill Hall, in Chenies Street [by Camden Council, after a short time at the ICA] AS did most of the conversion work themselves and this took over a year – installing toilets, putting ceilings in, cleaning and painting. Although they were excited by the potential of the space, they didn’t realise how much work converting and then managing such a space would take. The idea was that visiting theatre companies would come in to put on a show and would run all aspects themselves – however this didn’t work as visiting companies expected front-of-house and other management functions to be done for them. So slowly AS had to build up an administration structure. As the Drill Hall became a complex arts centre it changed what AS could do with their time – for example MT became an administrator and fundraiser. Whilst they would have liked it to be a workers’ co-operative, in practice, KT and MT were running it. They had planning meetings on Mondays where everyone was expected to help making decisions. Each of the areas whether it be video, printing or photography would feel that they needed the very limited funds. It was the performers who were bringing the money in, supplemented by grants. They were lively meetings! About 1979 the Arts Council suggested that they employ a full-time administrator, but this proved a disaster as when MT returned from a break she found chaos and an overdraft had been taken out to meet the bills. It was a very serious situation; this administrator left and the Arts Council did clear the debt. MT found herself in a difficult role – the ethos of the place was itself anti-establishment yet she had the task of managing it and would inevitably be accused of being bossy or nosey. MT discusses the impact on Action Space of KT leaving in 1977 – although his role in designing and constructing structures was filled by others, there now seemed less flexibility and spontaneity and that led to longer tours of the same piece.
01:15:32 The 1981-1988 period. In 1979 Action Space were dealing with the deficit discussed above, then in 1980 they lost their Arts Council grant. With no money coming in they had to ‘cease trading’. They decided to split Action Space into three parts. The Drill Hall was taken on by Julie [Parker]; MT took on the touring part of Action Space and the third arm was Action Space London Events which continued the special needs work and was run by Caroline Bagnall. These last two enterprises both retained a base at The Drill Hall. MT felt quite liberated to be on tour with the inflatables and the narrative work, but it was hard work being on tour constantly. Jeremy Shine did a great job on the bookings side: he had moved up to Manchester already. Later AS lost their London base at the Drill Hall and they moved to Sheffield where they got free accommodation in two small rooms and they had contacts previously established in the area. It was a very difficult time, many of the Action Space team came up temporarily but they didn’t want to move there permanently. There was a lot of work but it was initially difficult, partly as a result of cultural differences between the North of England and London. AS recruited a number of good students from Sheffield art colleges and many of these people stayed with the company. However Action Space is once again being reorganised following cuts in funding.
01:22:26 Final reflections. Some highlights : the early days at Wapping; visits to Romania, the performances War Memoirs , The Future of the Past  and a video performance piece Electron Eaters [c.1978], all at The Drill Hall. MT feels that their special needs boat project and other recent work with mental health clients has been particularly worthwhile. The amount of effort and time required to bring money in to keep the work going has been a very difficult and negative aspect of MT’s working life. Reflecting on a life with Action Space, MT feels it has been a lot of fun with some horrible bits in the middle(!) and AS has made a difference to cultural attitudes and to artists. In 2012 MT published a book Action Play Extended – an account of Action Space’s history and AS have deposited the Action Space archive with Sheffield University. MT makes a concluding comment: ‘To make social change or a change of heart in general you need to be very open and flexible and when you have constraints that are too great, it limits what you can do and what people can understand [of] what you do and one hopes that people will have the freedom to experiment.’
Interview ends 01:32:49