Art & Events Interview Caro Meets

Susan Croft: Restaging Revolutions

By | Published on Tuesday 12 November 2013


If you are a true lover of theatre, then there’s an exhibition and series of events on at Ovalhouse this month and next that you really ought not to miss.

‘Re-staging Revolutions’ is the work of Unfinished Histories, an organisation dedicated to preserving the history of the alternative theatre movement of the sixties, seventies and eighties. We spoke to Susan Croft, director of Unfinished Histories, about the alternative movement, and about what we can expect from the exhibition.

CM: ‘Restaging Revolutions’ shines a light on the alternative theatre movement. How would you describe this movement, and what made it alternative?
SC: A new generation of theatre-makers and art students were intent on asking fundamental questions about theatre and performance – who should it be for? Where should it be performed? Who should be involved in creating it? What should it look like? Most of their answers led them outside traditional theatres to find new audiences in new performance spaces from streets to parks to schools. New arts centres were opened all over the country to extend access to culture.

The Arts Council, influenced by the commitment of radical arts officers, at first supported the work and funding grew in response to demands such as for increased regional touring and the growing community arts movement. So it set itself up as providing alternatives to the mainstream conventional answers to those questions. It was also a time of questions, change, revolutions, alternatives in culture, society, dress, hair, questioning conformism.

CM: What do you think caused this movement? Were there significant events in the sixties that kicked it off?
SC: It came out of the upsurge of cultural change that included burgeoning protest movements for Civil Rights in the US and against the Vietnam War, liberation struggles in former colonies, Czechoslovakia and Northern Ireland, Paris 1968, the contraceptive pill, pop culture and multi-media experiment.

Also, a post-war generation with access to higher education who increasingly brought that questioning into the institutions of the day, whether universities, schools, Arts Council, other government departments, the BBC. There was a refusal of passivity which had women, working class, black people and other minorities questioning their role in the culture and demanding a voice.

CM: The exhibition focuses on the two London boroughs of Camden and Lambeth. Why and how were these two boroughs so instrumental in the movement?
SC: Oval House, or Ovalhouse as it is now called, goes back to the 1930s, a boys’ club in depressed South London. In 1963 Peter Oliver, was appointed `Warden’ of Oval House and gradually, with his wife Joan turned its focus towards arts, starting to bring in experimental performance artists. They too were young, investigating new artistic possibilities and sharing them with local youth groups with no distinction between amateur and professional in the anarchic, playful, carnivalesque work generated.

It was in an area of London where there was a strong vein of radicalism. Lambeth in the 1970s was also a centre for experiments in alternative living. Brixton became the base for gay men’s groups part of the Gay Liberation Front which refused passively to accept police brutality, heterosexism and other provocations. Other squats were feminist in emphasis or leftist heterosexual. Brixton’s black community was also becoming increasingly radicalised. Squatters and community activists set up adventure playgrounds, education projects, local newsletters and campaigns.

Camden was the centre of one of the largest squats in Britain. Squatting was a huge support to the movement, both in providing living accommodation to theatre company members but also spaces to devise work, offices and a space for experiment in every sense. Camden also had a long-standing tradition of radicalism and radical theatre in particular including Unity, the workers’ theatre, set up in the 1930s, Theatro Technis in the 50s, even Arnold Wesker’s less successful experiment in the 1960s bringing culture to the working class, Centre 42.

The borough became the base in the late 60s for the initiatives of three radical Americans, as Charles Marowitz established the Open Space on Tottenham Court Road, Jim Haynes set up the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, and ED Berman recruited numerous supporters of Inter-Action, a major initiative which created the Talacre Centre, the first bespoke-built community arts base, the first City farm, lunchtime theatre, the Weekend Arts College, the first Community Media Van and much more. But numerous other venues: Action Space, the Drill Hall, New End Theatre, Hampstead Theatre (originally a fringe venue), The Diorama, Pentameters, The Place, The Roxy, all these and more were based in the borough. In 1979 about 50% of London-based companies listed in Cathy Itzin’s vital Alternative Theatre Guides were based there. Alternative communities also provided other support in both boroughs such as community print shops, food co-ops, free schools and much more.

CM: How do you think the work created during these decades has had an impact on the way we make theatre today?
SC: In all sorts of ways – improvisation and devising processes of numerous kinds were pioneered then. New visual and physical vocabularies were explored. Some methods of play creation have disappeared as they were deemed too costly – like the Joint Stock method of creating plays through an extensive and carefully structured writing / devising process – though they resulted in incredible work, like many of the plays of Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton and others – the pressure to turn out work in 3 weeks removes space to play and explore.

But many of the physical/ visual companies today like Frantic Assembly, dreamthinkspeak, and Punchdrunk are indebted, whether they know it or not, to those schooled in the alternative theatre movement; applied theatre today in prisons or schools or elsewhere is also rooted there, and the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics could not have happened without the work of groups like Welfare State International, IOU, Action Space, not to mention Graeae.

The presence of black writing in the National Theatre and elsewhere has built on the history of black theatre demanding cultural space and a voice which was part of the 70s and 80s. The same applies with women writers and directors, and many more groups who demanded change.

CM: Do you think that fringe theatres of today are hosting similarly alternative material, or has the scene become less radical?
SC: There is new experimental work, but not the sense of a cultural movement there was then. The key issue is  money; renting a space to put on work is very costly, rehearsal space is hard to find, never mind free, the cost of living in London means people don’t have the freedom to explore and make work they did have.

However, there are huge issues facing society and young people especially, and they will find outlets and new vocabularies and audiences which need them. I am very inspired by pop ups, site specific work which continues to create new spaces, lots of initiatives in young people’s theatre. Cheap tickets and making work accessible so it is within reach of ‘ordinary’ communities, not in the West End or Islington, remains vital.

CM: The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of talks and events. What sort of subject matter will be covered in those?
SC: On Mon 18 Nov We have a discussion with some of the key theatre makers then, associated with the Oval, about the dazzling work that emerged there in the 60s and 70s: the People Show, Lumiere and Son, Hesitate and Demonstrate and others.

On Mon 3 Dec we celebrate Kate Crutchley, who programmed the Oval in the 80s and encouraged numerous women’s companies, gay and lesbian companies, as well as black and experimental work. She died earlier this year, so we are paying tribute to her with a reunion of many of the companies form that period.

On Thurs 5 Dec Theatre Centre, the young people’s theatre company who are celebrating 60 years, revisit key scripts from writers of the 60s, 70s and 80s including those by Brian Way, David Holman, Bryony Lavery, Noel Greig and others.

On Fri 6 Dec we have a discussion on Black Theatre in the 70s and 80s, looking at some of the early initiatives, like the work of Black Theatre Co-op, Carib Theatre, Black Theatre of Brixton, Theatre of Black Women and Umoja, collecting the accounts of those who were there while they are still around.

On Mon 18 Nov we also have Alternative Pantos Revisited – celebrating the sexy irreverent hilarious feminist , gay and lesbian deconstructions of the genre that happened at the Oval House and Drill Hall in the 80s, foregrounding the inherent gender confusion of the genre as Principal Boy meets Girl…

CM: Can you tell us what about your organisation, Unfinished Histories, and what it does? What motivated you to stage an exhibition?
SC: We have been going since 2006 when I and my colleague Jessica Higgs set up the organisation to record the history of the alternative theatre movement, collecting oral histories and archive material, recording key individuals’ stories while they are still here – many of those active in the movement are now 60, 70, 80. We also host events, workshops, and readings.

Our biggest initiative is a website full of images, information, resources, detail about the interviews, extracts and as of this year, courtesy of Heritage Lottery funding and the work of our brilliant team of volunteers, 50 web pages detailing the untold stories of some of the companies who were active then, from Sadista Sisters to Stirabout, the Brixton Faeries to The Phantom Captain. The exhibition allows us to show some of the glorious visual material – beautiful silk-screened posters for example – that we have found and some weird and wonderful artefacts. The web site and the exhibition book allow us to tell more of the story.

CM: What will happen to the exhibition once its time at Ovalhouse is finished?
SC: It goes first to Kentish Town Community Centre for 10 days where we will host an event focused on Inter-Action, the ground-breaking community arts organisation of the 70s and 80s, and then to Camden Archives and Local Studies Centre from February to the end of April, where there will be a further events programme, to be announced.

It is then available to tour. We are keen to create other versions elsewhere looking at other regions and boroughs.

The exhibition is on at Ovalhouse until 21 December and is free; group tours are also offered, see Unfinished Histories for more info. For booking information on the accompanying series of events see this bit of the Ovalhouse website. 

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