Cunning Stunts: women’s theatre in the 1970s and ’80s

The Unfinished Histories CD provides a tantalising window into the history of women's theatre troupes, says Red Chidgey

, 8 December 2008

monstrousregiment-1-1.jpgThey had fiesty names like Cunning Stunts, Beryl and the Perils, Monstrous Regiment and Gay Sweatshop; their goal was to use theatre to question power structures and shake down patriarchy. Reclaiming the work of female playwrights – or ditching single-author gigs altogether to devise work collectively – these pioneers claimed big, juicy roles for women and immersed their personal experience into their performative acts.

“Some companies put emphasis on the message and getting it to new audiences to serve a feminist revolution,” explains Susan Croft, author of She Also Wrote Plays: An International Guide to Women Playwrights, reflecting on the surge of women’s theatre companies in the ’70s. “Others emphasized the art form, exploring the possibilities of female language, buffoonery, wild satire, mockery of ‘positive images’, and darker hidden desires (liberated from images of nice girls).”

In collaboration with Jessica Higgs, the artistic director of In Tandem TC, Susan has swung her vast knowledge of women’s theatre into managing the first phase of Unfinished Histories, an oral history project recovering histories of radical theatre practitioners from the peacenik ’60s to the Tory recession, via women’s theatre in the ’70s and ’80s. Destined for the National Sound Archive, the V&A and the Bristol University Theatre Collection (with a multi-media website), Susan tells me that “the next stage of the project will focus more broadly on political theatre, with experimental, gay and lesbian, black and Asian companies of the period as well as more women’s companies”.

To help with the proceedings, the project has just released Women’s Theatre 1970s and 1980s: Recollections and Reflections, a 46-minute CD of interviews destined to raise some much-needed cash. With punk-rock sized excerpts (mostly a few minutes each), a swathe of cheeky stories zaps the listener into an unapologetic place of women’s innovation – where dominant representations of female roles were thrown out and protests against ‘The Man’ were imbibed with spectacle-generating happenings. (There’s truly great stuff here. The first public Women’s Liberation Movement protest at the Miss World contest in 1970 saw the Women’s Street Theatre Group standing in line with lit up nipples and crotches, laughs interviewee Lily Susan Todd on track five).

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Adele Salem, one of 14 women sharing her experiences on the CD, relates that she “wants to tell the stories to the younger women, so they know. That’s heritage.” The daughter of an Afghan father and an English mother, Adele studied acting at Bristol Old Vic before joining the theatre companies Spare Tyre and the Women’s Theatre Group. She remembers the thrill of discovering a female troupe for the first time:

I had seen [Spare Tyre’s] advert in Timeout and I was very nervous about contacting this feminist theatre company, but I was quite excited and wanted to find out more about it. I went along and got involved, and they were doing this amazing work with this woman called Susie Orbach who had written this book called Fat is a Feminist Issue. And it started to turn my thinking around…The show that we did was called ‘How do I look?’ We began to question the image thing… why we dress in a certain way to please, to charm, to be attractive…

Feminist theatre strongly challenged traditional roles of women in society. Part of Adele’s politicisation was questioning what ‘femininity’ meant. She found herself newly capable and self-reliant in the mid-1970s, as distinct sex-roles blurred:

We wore dungarees. I remember having a Khaki flying suit when I was in the Women’s Theatre Group. We could do what men could do. We [could] carry really heavy equipment, drive the big Mercedes van. It was a point of honour to us – to be seen by the young girls when we went into the schools carrying the equipment, setting up electric guitars and all that kind of stuff. Saying yeah, we could do this. You can do this too. Look, we’re doing it. That was very radical, very exciting, and very tiring – carrying all that stuff around.

Feminist theatre groups toured youth clubs and deprived areas, hoping to offer new ideas and role models to young people. Local Women’s Liberation groups also invited troupes to perform, which provided financial support for them alongside small grants received from the Greater London Council. (Somewhat predictably, Thatcher stopped all this lefty-art spending and abolished the council in 1986.) Adele relates how feminist theatre collectives raised her consciousness about economic issues:

Part of that politicisation was that we should be paid properly as actors and as women workers. Thankfully. It was quite unusual… when I joined the Women’s Theatre Group (aged 26) I had a paid job for two years! We were determined to make sure our working conditions were right. The women’s campaign within Equity was trying to campaign for more parts for women. But Spare Tyre was doing this type of political theatre where you went in to places that were dramatically different, some really poor areas in Sheffield and Bradford. Some real good political women’s groups invited us there – who were campaigning for women’s issues, on reproductive issues. It seemed to be a very political time and they supported women’s theatre groups as they invited them to these places.

Working within women’s theatre groups offered Adele a greater possibility of expression, which exploded the narrow lines of ‘acceptability’ presented in her earlier training:

I went to drama school with people who had been to public school and things like that. One of the first things I had to do was get rid of my Leicester accent; because, of course, in those days you had to speak with a middle-class voice if you wanted to work in theatre. At drama school there was only three non-white people in the class of about thirty; I was in the minority. There was still the expectation that you had to fit in with what was already existing, rather than make theatre based on your own experiences… there wasn’t the idea that you could play those characters from your own background, race, class, heritage – whatever that was – you had to fit in with them being white, middle-class.

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Jacqueline Rudet, who has a London East End and Dominican background, was part of the socialist companies CAST and Belt and Braces before forming Imani-Faith in 1983, a now-defunct theatre group for and by black women. Jacqueline speaks of the power she felt within the punk scene when she directed Wet Paint:

They were punk theatre companies. To me it was really exciting. It was being Black, being a punk, being a woman. I was extremely radical in those days… With Wet Paint, it gave me an inner strength. It was a bit dangerous, there were a lot of fascists around…Being a token Black I did exploit in a sense; I would stand in the midst of a sea of white people and I just felt so strong. It was quite pioneering, for a young black woman to endeavour to do anything because she just wanted to make a stand.

New possibilities summed up women’s theatre during these decades, especially for those who often found themselves marginalized within the burgeoning feminist movement. Jacqueline wrote Money to Live about prostitution for the Black Theatre Co-operative:

It was different, it was new, it was a play that many women could identify with, I think, even in those days. I met a lot of women who were strip artists or prostitutes who wanted to make money to live. Sometimes we can get on our very high moral attitude but there are people, basically, who have to do anything to make money. And that’s where the whole theme came from.

anywomancan.jpgJulie Parker also engaged in theatre work that raised visibility. Trained at Central School of Speech and Drama, she went on to perform in Gay Sweatshop’s first women’s show Any Woman Can. She recounts an event from the Women’s Festival in 1977, at a venue that was later to become London’s premiere lesbian and gay venue, The Drill Hall, under her tenure as artistic director:

Seven days a week, from nine in the morning to gone midnight, this entire building – it wasn’t a theatre at the time, just an old marching hall with staging at one end – was awash with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of women. We showed lesbian sex films upstairs – educational, of course! Remember this was the ’70s and politically that was where we were at, this was about information. It was very hot and sweaty in those rooms…

I remember showing those and the little pin – obviously it was old-fashioned film, running on the projector – the little pin slipped and came out. So I sat there, with my finger in this camera with the film running over it, for about 45 minutes. Marguerite [McLoughlin, from the community group Islington Bus Company] went and bought a small bottle of whisky and feed me whisky whilst I sat there! (laughs)… It changed our lives, doing all of that… There was the Women’s Movement and Spare Rib happening and the Earlham Street Women’s Collective, but this was a lesbian-based event. We called it a Women’s Festival, and of course lots of women came, but is was predominately lesbians for the first time coming together. Hundreds and hundreds of them, coming from all over Europe.

The Unfinished Histories CD is full of testimony like this, providing a delicious insight into the personal and collective practices of women’s theatre groups, most of which no longer exist today (Sphinx Theatre being one of the notable exceptions, morphing out of the Women’s Theatre Group and following a broader trend of dropping ‘women’ from its title). With the furore surrounding this summer’s Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s suffragette offering Her Naked Skin – the first play by a woman to be seen on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre and doused in F-Word criticism for being a clichéd lesbo-trauma and a little bit wanting in feminism – a re-engagement with women’s feminist theatre seems on the cards. Susan weighs in on the current situation: “I think there are legacies in the role models of playwrights and the confidence it has given to a new generation; but much has been lost in terms of questioning processes and structures, exploring and experimenting, and in taking theatre out to new audiences and venues,” she says. The old haunts of the Women’s Liberation Movement-fuelled theatre collectives “reached women – and men – in the spaces they frequent – mother and baby clubs or whatever, at very low cost. What is missing now is this sense of social engagement and obligation.”

With a December event planned for the Actresses’ Franchise League centenary – the AFL were instrumental players within the suffrage movement, not least for lending their costumes to organisers on the run from the police – Susan is taking on the forces of amnesia and reclaiming feminist theatre trouble-makers from yore. Casting an eye over the histories, she’s also honest about the nitty-gritty power struggles that happened between women then and now. “We also need to remember the bad things,” she advises. “The pain, destructiveness and absurdity of some of the self-critique; company meetings where the ‘enemy’ that got attacked was the one across the circle with whom you differed rather than the real powers / structures outside the room.”

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So what made these women’s collectives feminist at the end of the day? “It was a combination of factors – a focus on women and a willingness to ask questions politically and artistically,” ventures Susan. Belfast-born Eileen Pollock, who co-founded the women’s company Bloomers after finding Belt and Braces too masculinist, believes that feminist theatre is a struggle which should not be given up. “I think nobody should deny the legacy of the theatre women’s groups and the stance that they made in order to tell the stories. It was brave. You were rocking boats and going out on a limb… And you had to be – to some people – a little bit ugly because you were not being the nice girl you were supposed to be,” she says. “I think that anyone who’s gone through that, it kind of binds you together. So what I don’t like is when people say, ‘Oh it was only a phase’ or ‘It’s not necessary anymore’.”

Listening to these testimonies certainly gave me a timeless fizz of feminist energy and rekindled my love of women making mischief throughout the ages. The stories also left me itching to see what contemporary queer/anarcha performance artists and troupes like Jet Moon, Rebel Clown Army, TransAction Theatre Company and Scary Little Girls will come up with next to match the inspiration and tenacity of such heras. Let’s hope the next installment of unfinished feminist histories hits the streets soon.

The Unfinished Histories: Women’s Theatre 1970s and 1980s – Recollections and Reflections CD is available from In Tandem TC for £10. This covers postage, packaging and a £5 donation to the next phase of the project. Orders to: Intantc[at]aol.com or In Tandem TC, 41A Barnsbury St, London N1 1PW.

An event celebrating the AFL and the launch of Susan’s new edited volume, Votes for Women and Other Plays, is taking place at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond on Saturday 10 January with staged readings from the plays. A new website, www.suffragettes.org.uk and community group workshops are also on the boil.

For more information about Unfinished Histories and other women’s theatre history initiatives, please see www.susan.croft.btinternet.co.uk

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Images courtesy of Unfinished Histories, used with permission

Red Chidgey likes finding out about the past, especially when it involves rad women making mischief. She is part of the open-to-anybody Feminist History Group at www.feministactivistforum.org.uk

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