Thursday, 10 October 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Make a Documentary...

Making this documentary started with an instinct - a desire to re-connect with what brought me into this 'knockabout game' as Joan Littlewood so accurately referred to it.

But what was it that I wanted to reconnect with?

Why this film?

Why now?

I'd come to drama quite by accident.

I was a Generation X kid.  A northern teenager, unceremoniously plopped onto one of Margaret Thatcher's 'Community Programmes' - you remember those?  We were 'allowed' our dole plus a whole extra tenner.  In exchange for this we handed over our self-respect and dignity.  It was one of 1980s capitalisms big ideas. It sucked arse.

However, I got relatively lucky, in that I was placed onto a local video subtitling scheme. Subtitling films by local companies for the Gateshead library service.  The reason I got lucky was that there was a young man, who actually didn't like me very much, but was kind enough to recognise that I might benefit from going along to a youth theatre in the town.

The youth theatre in question was an open-door youth theatre at the Live Theatre Newcastle Upon Tyne.  It was free.  So the price was right.  The young man I'd 'worked with' on the government scheme (I think his name was Andy Bowman) invited me along to join in with the fun.  I was shitting myself.  It's quite a scary thing going into the unknown - and a theatre - especially for a sixteen year old who's been quite recently scrap-heaped by the powers that be.

I'd gone along that night because my instinct told me it might be a good thing to do so. And I had nothing to lose. I'd also been brought up with active play and story-telling in a home where everybody had 'a turn'.  So deep down I was unafraid of making an arse out of myself.  I just needed the courage to take that first step.  I stood outside for quite a while, then plucked up the courage to enter. I nearly didn't go in.  1980s work programmes had a strange effect on those of us who were made to 'participate' in them.  They made us feel like useless, hopeless bastards who had little to offer the world.   Inside the Live Theatre, I went up to the top floor to be welcomed in by a friendly lot.  This was a safe place where a bunch of teenagers could enjoy playing, improvising and generally creating under the guidance of a local writer Steve Chambers.   After a few sessions Steve told me that he felt that I should also try attending another local youth theatre run on a similar basis at Wallsend Young Peoples Theatre.

It was Northumberland & North Tyneside Youth Theatres as run by Spike Hale.  Spike had put out word that they were looking for new members.

As soon as I went into the WYPT I knew that something was different here.  Everybody was in a circle and one lad (Jay Stephenson) was standing in the middle swinging a massive rope, with a knot in the end of it, around at varying heights whilst the others jumped over it. I joined the circle and started jumping, without a second thought.  I knew that I could do this.  I could get out of the way of a rope. It even looked like fun.  If this was the membership requirement, I was 'in'!

Soon I found out that Spike had a 'theatre bible'.  It was called "Theatre Games" by Clive Barker.  Within weeks I was fully immersed into the group.  Self-respect and dignity had been restored.  I was part of something. That something gave me a voice.  Spike would get us all to take turns running the warm-up - which was always play and fun based, then he'd run the improvisation session.

I found out later, when I bought myself a copy of Theatre Games, that Clive Barker learnt his game at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.

Workshop became a massive part of my life.  Workshop was where the fun happened.  Workshop was where everybody was equal.  Workshop is where self-respect and dignity are restored.  Workshop is where you have a voice.  From here you can build it out to devising and theatre-making.

You see, what I believe Joan understood with her vision for the Fun Palaces, which clearly the 1980s Thatcher government couldn't comprehend for a nano-second was this:

Connecting people to each other and allowing them, through playfulness and fun to find their self esteem and as a result to live into their own possibilities is not rocket science -  you just have to make it possible, via an open door and whatever means necessary - you simply get on and do it.  It's called embracing and nurturing people and enabling hope and its not that difficult and its really, really fucking important.

And we humans genuinely do need to connect to each other though play and story-sharing. Through the arts. You see, every single human being is a creative genius, but we bash it out of each other by the age of seven or eight.

Doubt this?

Well!  Don't take my word for it.  Watch Professor Ken Robinson present his evidence that standardised testing kills the creative genius in the vast majority of children:

And if a young person somehow manages to reconnect with their creativity and get a passion for further discovery.  What happens then?

In my case, I had to know more.  After nearly four years in the youth theatre, which had gradually become a full time activity where a small group of us were encouraged to throw ourselves deeper and deeper into learning and sharing the creative process with our peer group.  It was time to expand the vision I'd had for myself and dare to dream.

Without knowing the link to Joan Littlewood (I swear) I'd auditioned for an Essex based drama school called East 15.  I'd fallen in love with their prospectus which had sections on childhood and fun and truth.  It didn't appear to play the fame-game.  It looked like the perfect extension from my years in open-door, Clive Barker & Keith Johnstone inspired youth theatre.  It was also run by a woman known to some as Maggie Bury, to some as Maggie Greenwood, to some as Leila Greenwood and to me as Maggie Walker.  I wanted in!  Which was lucky, because she accepted me!

In the meantime, the 1980s Thatcher government had discovered another way of informing the young people of my generation that we had no value, no worth, no use to society.   They scrapped discretionary grants.

This was where again, being surrounded with amazing human beings brought me more luck than you could shake a stick at.  My friend Trevor Todd took it upon himself to mount a campaign on my behalf.  Off his own bat, and tirelessly on behalf of a friend Trev contacted local theatre makers and actors asking them to write notes of support.  As a result of this my local arts community came through and I had a huge pile of letters to take to my appeal.

One of those letters was from Mike Mould who runs Bruvvers Theatre Company.  In his letter, he told the council that if they gave me a grant he'd employ me in his company on my return from training (a promise he kept) and I was given a full grant.

Mike Mould had grown up in the East End of London and as a boy had watched the shows of Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford East - in 1967 he'd attended East 15 himself.

So I went to East 15.  I can't help but feel that in some way, this was my destiny!

And yes, that sounds wanky but it kinda feels that way looking back.  And it's some of the reasons why I had to make "Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan"


Enough with the personal stuff!

There are other reasons.  Bigger reasons.  Better reasons.  But it's always good to start with your own truth and work your way out of it to the bigger picture.  I've only just begun to realise what's been happening in my sub-conscious mind (the tricky little git) during the production stage of this film!

First of all, production has been overwhelming and inspiring in equal measure.

Each participant has entered their interview wholeheartedly and with gusto.  They've shared memories, thoughts and feelings which run the gamut from funny to inspiring, from jaw-dropping to playful and told stories spanning from 1946 to the present day.

Joan Littlewood's legacy reaches far, far beyond a lovely old theatre in Stratford East and deep into the heart of communities the length and breadth of these isles and I can vouch for that as someone who felt the benefits and side-effects of her legacy when I was a teenager in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Her impact on our society is beyond immense and mounts up to one hell of a lot more than the brilliant "Oh What A Lovely War", "A Taste of Honey", Macbeth in Moscow or "The Hostage". It's about getting EVERYBODY to reconnect with their own creative possibilities. Across the generations and beyond the work of one brilliant and much acclaimed company.

There's a famous TED talk by a conductor called Benjamin Zander.

It spoke to the very core of me when I first watched it.  In it, he talks with great passion about 'engagement' - he says to a man in the audience "Shining eyes!" He goes on to explain that if you are passionate about your craft it is your absolute duty to convey that to others and how can you tell if you've got through to them and inspired them?  If they are fully engaged, their eyes will be shining.  It's our responsibility to make the eyes of those around us shine.

You can't make the eyes of those around you shine by setting up a focus group.

You can't engage people in a moment of expression or play by filling in a form which quantifies how you plan to go about doing it.

You simply have to take the plunge, risk yourself, dive in, muck in and get on with it.

How would we walk?

How would we talk?

If everybody engaged in theatre and needed to express through play?

Now that's a possibility for us all to live into and I'm 100% sure that we won't make ourselves wrong in trying.  You see, you cannot use up your creativity.  The more you use, the more you share, the more you get.

One of the participants in "Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan" is theatre-maker Mike Bradwell.  Mike really made me think, long and hard, about where my discomfort with the current arts funding set up lies. His thoughts and ideas about what Joan stood for and what we need to get on with doing now are extraordinary.  See the finished documentary for those (she said, in the hope that somebody out there might wish to track down a copy of the documentary)

In my opinion, inspired by Mike, I think that arts funding is largely designed to anaesthatise artists and to control theatre makers.  Quantifying art and generating the myth that all art should be a commodity to be traded like oil is utterly offensive and ludicrous.  But that's where we are.

In April of 2013, the arts minister Maria Miller, whose job should surely be to nurture and encourage artistic expression and playful experimentation as a top priority for us all as a nation, said in an interview with The Guardian "Art and culture should be seen as a commodity, a compelling product to sell at home and abroad" - I'd rather encourage a gorilla to projectile vomit into my face than to reduce everything I feel and everything I know about the creative process to being a market tradable commodity.  That's the opposite of what we should be abou in the arts.

In Joan's name, we should be fighting this perspective with every fibre of our being.

Mike told me a Joan legend which concerned a banker who'd offered Joan the funds to take the company to a theatre festival in Paris, in exchange for a credit on the poster. Joan responded by telling him to fuck off as she didn't take money from usurers.  She had the vision and intelligence to realise that this would be a slippery slope.  Of course, the company weren't best pleased as they had to go the cheap way, carrying bits of set onto the ferry!  But what she had kept intact was their integrity.  Nobody from the establishment (who should wonder about and sometimes even fear the artist) could buy her company.  Nobody from the establishment could influence their work or consider it a commodity they owned to buy and sell like a barrel of oil.

How many arts practitioners in the last thirty years have been left dismayed by the tick box process of the ever expanding quantifying forms and papers that we now have to fill in just to run a play-based workshop?

How many individuals and small scale companies, doing stellar work out there can't afford to hire a full time arts administrator to fill out impossible forms in order that they can do the very work they'd have got on and done if the forms didn't exist in the first place?

How many artists have gone under because they were forced and financially bullied into becoming competitive business people?  And they weren't business people.  They were fucking artists.

How do I begin to fill in a form quantifying how I might create a piece of work?  How the fuck do I know what will occur before I've done it?  Whether it's a workshop or a play?  How many times have I heard the advice: "Just play their game" or "Bullshit them"

NO!  I will not!

I'd rather take a leaf out of Joan's book and keep my integrity and remind myself of what and who brought me Into this knockabout, spontaneous game.  And honour them by doing the best work that I can on this documentary.  Or whatever it is that I'm doing at that moment. That's DOING. Not pre-quantifying.

Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop toured this island for a full fourteen years before they came to be based in the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1952.  Times were tough throughout - they didn't have a penny in funding.  But still they built their company - one of the most important theatre movements in history (or in this case, theatre HER story).  They took risks and they had as many failures as they had successes.  However, they were determined that what they were doing was creating a style for their group to express themselves through and exploring the human condition, as to them, this was vitally Important.  They believed that politics was important. They felt that fun was important. They knew that people mattered. They did it all because Joan had vision. They did it because they believed in sharing the work of writers in a new, fresh way.  They were at the vanguard of devised work and improvised theatre. And they didn't fill out one form quantifying what they wanted to do.

But guess what?

We all have a story.

There thousands of tales left to be told.

We all need to feel valued.

We all need to share.

We need to remember.

But most of all, we all need to play...

If you doubt this then don't listen to me - listen to Dr Stewart Brown:

When I think of Theatre I don't think of quantifying, I think of playing - Shakespeare's actors were called 'players'...

It's fun to create.  It gives you hope, it nurtures you and enables you to nurture others.

Theatre is best done in groups - it is indeed a shared experience.

When I think of theatre I think of words like:

Instinct. Nurture. Intuition. Magic. Need. Mucking in. Shining eyes. Play. Fun. Child-like. Awe. Sharing Hope. Possibility. Muse. Feeling. Risk. Bringing together. Listening. Experiencing. Doing.

Quantify that!

In fact, feel free to take your quantifying model  - which shifts and alters according to the marketing and financial flavour of the hour and shove it where the monkey shoves its nuts.

Finally, if you are an artist out there, ploughing away on your own. Take solace in the fact that Joan Littlewood blazed a trail before you - without any help from the establishment, and often with a bit of hinderance, she built a company and created an artistic legacy by simply getting on and doing it whether the powers that be, the establishment, liked it or not.

Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan will be edited and good to go in April 2014.  I hope you see it and more than that I hope you enjoy it...I hope that Joan wouldn't have minded.

Friday, 10 August 2012

I am BATTLE-AXE Hear me roar!

‘The Battle-Axe’

The battle-axe is understood to be a domineering, outspoken & powerful woman who embodies traits previously seen as “masculine” - she's a forthright, practical and blunt person. 
She is the epitome of courage. 
The courageous warrior-woman Britannica, with her huge bosom and ‘go-get ‘em’ attitude, could well have been the original poster-girl for the battle-axe look!
Yes, the battle-axe has a ‘look’! 
The battle-axe is a woman of great stature who could in no way be muddled with ‘the hero’s prize’ and nor would she wish to be! 

The Original Poster Girl for the Battle-Axe?

Throughout history, the battle-axe has been much maligned and criticised – and she’s been the brunt of many jokes:
“She’s a right battle-axe!”
This phrase is often used in British culture as a put-down for strong, no-nonsense working-class women over the age of forty, who possess any of the battle-axe traits. 
Frankly, the time has long past that we reclaim the ’insult’ - battle-axe!

Fighting Battle-Axe Women

“Let’s hear it for the battle-axes!”
If a woman outstrips expectations when it comes to what’s believed possible for her sex – she’s labelled as a battle-axe.  Perhaps this is an attempt to ‘shame’ her.  It was almost certainly always intended to demean her.   
Well, no longer!   
In the spirit of ‘Spartacus’ I declare:
"I am battle-axe! Hear me roar!"
Let's re-word Helen Reddy's magnificent song!
The Battle of the Sexes
An important point to note here is that the battle-axe is not a misandrist – she actually enjoys the company of men - viewing herself as their equal. 

This is a waste of time to the Battle-Axe.
She's already equal. 

When a woman shows battle-axe traits she’s understood to be overbearing and annoying.  When a man shows these same traits he’s seen as King Arthur! 
Yet the battle-axe is a woman who has risen above gender stereotypes & embodies pluckiness at its best.   
She is wise, spirited, resilient & incorrigible!
Things that the battle-axe is called:
  • Dragon-lady
  • Harpy
  • Harridan
  • Shrew
  • Hatchet-face
Things that a man who displays battle-axe traits is called:
  • King
  • Boss
  • Warrior
  • Hero
  • Rugged
Oh give me an axe, and I'll teach you the facts!

Origins of the Archetype

According to WIKIPEDIA:
“The prime example was the militant temperance activist Carry Nation, who wielded a hatchet and made it her symbol, living in Hatchet Hall and publishing a magazine called The Hatchet.   She became involved in the suffragette campaign for votes for women and this campaign further established the archetype”
Fascinating isn’t it? 
A tough, fearless woman, unafraid to fight for her rights and she gets written in history as a person to be suspicious of, at best.  Yet, if a man possesses these same traits - he's labelled a HERO!
Draw your own conclusions!
On a recent BBC Radio 4 programme by director Jude Kelly; ‘The Battleaxe’ they looked at the history of the label – the following is an explanation from their publicity:

“A battle is an armed fight.  And an axe is a tool for cutting trees.  The two words were joined in the early nineteen hundreds.  During those days, people began to call a fierce-acting woman a battle-axe.  Soon the saying became popular.
But some people say calling a woman a battle-axe may not be an insult.  Almost two thousand years ago, the Goths used battle-axes.  The axes were very strong and sharp.  They could cut through heavy metal armour worn by Romans to protect themselves.  The battle-axe permitted the Goths to win battles against the Romans”
BATTLE- AXE – The Roll Call of Honour!
There's few who wouldn’t be proud to fit in amongst this lot.

The Battle-Axe as Matron
Hattie Jacques
Carry on Matron
The Battle-Axe as Busybody
Irene Handl
A life-time of battle-axes!
Prunella Scales
Playing Sybil Fawlty

Violet Carson
Playing Ena Sharples

Mollie Sugden
Playing Mrs Slocombe
Kathy Staff
Playing Nora Batty
The Battle-Axe Who “Wears the Trousers”
Yootha Joyce
Playing Mildred Roper
Patricia Routledge
Playing Hyacynth Bucket

Flo Capp
Long-suffering wife of Andy Capp
Peggy Mount
Another career in the service of the Battle-Axe!
The Battle-Axe as Mother-in-Law
Stephanie Cole
Playing Sylvie Cropper (Coronation Street)

Maggie Jones
Playing Blanche Hunt (Coronation Street)
The Battle-Axe as Fishwife
Cushy Butterfield

“She’s a big lass she’s a bonny lass and she like her beer and the calls her Cushy Butterfield and I wish she was here!”
The Battle-Axe as Campaigner
The vicious Anti-Suffrage post-card campaign
The Suffragettes were often derided in postcards and newspapers as being angry, rough, ready & bitter women – akin to the male-vision of the battle-axe.
The Battle-Axe as Warrior Woman
Queen Boudicca
The Battle-Axe as Virago
Most of the Nuns from Sister Act
The Battle-Axe as Tyrant
The Psycho-Biddy
The Harpy
The Battle-Axe as Witch
Molly Weir
Playing Hazel McWitch (Rent-a-Ghost)
Agnes Moorehead
Playing Endora (Bewitched)
All Hail the Battle-axe!
When it comes to enthralling, absorbing women who aren’t afraid to fight for what they believe in, the battle-axe has to be up there with the best of them as a character archetype to be celebrated and reclaimed as a SHEROE!  
There is precious little written about this subject; shameful when you think about how important the archetype is within our culture - as well as the contributions made by amazing battle-axes through the centuries! 
Long live the Battle-axe!
You were once wild here, don’t let them tame you – Isadora Duncan

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan DOCUMENTARY UPDATE

The Background

Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan is a documentary currently in co-production between Springboard Arts & New Strides Productions.  Or put less formally, it's a film by myself and Ruth Uruqhart who met over twenty years ago whilst attending East 15 Acting School! 

Here are a couple of snaps of myself and Ruth talking to Maggie during our visit to her French home in 2010. 

Wendy Richardson & Margaret Walker (Founder of East 15 Acting School)
We're looking at pictures of Wilf's dad & Maggie's mum. 

Ruth Urquhart & Margaret Walker  (Founder of East 15 Acting School)

They're taking a break whilst I was changing the shot. 

To explain how Ruth and I came to be making this film I feel it best to give you a little background.   

Whilst we were students at East 15 Acting School we were in a production of Lorca's 'House of Bernarda Alba' - doing this show was a really useful experience which gave me a passion for Lorca and his work which simply won't go away!

[Recently, along with Stewart Pringle of Theatre of the Damned, we worked with a group of Year 4 children in London's East End.  Their topic was Spain and so we entered the world of Lorca and what it was like to live in Franco's Spain, we then explored Lorca's poetry - the kids loved it & went on to write letters of dissent to Franco!]

If the East 15 legacy does anything, it ensures that so many people continue to create theatre for all - no matter what background or status, people should have an opportunity to experience live theatre.  I think Joan Littlewood would like that.

Back to those rehearsals for 'Bernarda Alba'! 

We'd been doing a lot of improvisations and exercises surrounding character relationships - on one occasion I remember being blindfolded & roped together with 'my sisters' then taken for a walk by our mother, Bernarda Alba (Babs Millington) who led us with the front of the rope.  We stumbled and tripped about and the exercise gave us a real sense of oppression and how important (or not!) obedience was to each of our characters. 

We did many many other improvisations, but that one sticks in my mind as I remember running the scene directly afterwards and our energy was immense.

Performance OR Skydiving Practice?!

Back Left: Wendy Richardson Back Right: Hazel Barnes
Front Left: Samantha Roberts Front Right: Ruth Uruqhart

Roll the clock forward another ten years and Ruth & I are back together working on SAB! - a production for which we begged, borrowed and even sold posessions, including Ruth's fridge! 

We took the show to the Edinburgh Festival. 

 The huntsman's horse from SAB!

We then played at a pub in Belfast, where we accidentally gate-crashed a Patrick Kielty gig that the BBC were making a live recording of.  You'd think the landlord would have mentionned this.

We only had four guests, so, joined by a man dressed as Margaret Thatcher (Tiran Aakel), we hurlted into the bar led by Roger the Fox (guilty as charged) shouting, in dulcet Geordie tones:

 "Help!  Morda!"

The plan had been to chase Roger the Fox around the bar for a couple of laps, then drag some bemused drinkers upstairs to see the show - the reality was that we were met with a stunned silence - it was only as we shot out of the bar that we noticed the BBC crew. 

Patrick Keilty was agog. 

And if by some bizarre stoke of co-incidence he turns out to be the second reader of this blog then I'd like to extend my utmost apologies - we had absolutely NO idea.  

L to R Ruth Urquhart, Jem Rycraft and Me

Rehearsing SAB! in a Harrow park (2000)
It's a glamorous life!

Hopefully this gave you a taste of who we were...and possibly of who we are. 

The reason we want to tell Maggie's story is simple, we feel connected to her and we want to share her story more widely.  We both have strong political views and want to chart our journey into discovering more about our own theatre heritage as women, as citizens & as practitioners who trained at East 15. 

Looking for Maggie

For the past five years myself and Ruth Urquhart have had quite an adventure as we've discussed & researched the idea for this documentary - we've talked to everybody we knew and then chatted to everybody they knew too! 

Theatre Workshop arrive in town and look who's with them!
I love the placard: The Theatre is HERE!

We began ACTUALLY shooting the film just over two years ago - in true 'Theatre of Action' meets early 'Theatre Workshop' style - we didn't have much of a penny between us but we decided to do it anyway! 

At the start, we managed to beg, borrow and steal enough dirty-moolah to hire a camera and sound kit on the cheap. 

We were 'relying' on the fact that one of us had spent a few years working in media production along the way!  We had a two-man production crew - and we were IT! 

Photos of Margaret Walker

(also known as Margaret Bury and Margaret Greenwood in the past)

Filming got off to a flying start - and aside from some unfortunate sound problems it otherwise went very well...the discussion had started!

We spoke to Maggie about her early years, of her first ever encounter with Joan Littlewood, of her relationships with various members of Theatre Workshop - particularly her good friends Yootha Joyce and Harry H Corbett. 

We talked about what it was like to be a part of Joan's company, we spoke of her journey to playing Lysitrata, we spoke of her husband Wilf & we discussed the founding of the school. 

We went on to talk at great length about East 15 - the processes that were developed there & the people Maggie encountered across the years - staff and pupils. 

Maggie shared with us both her part in the Theatre Workshop story as well as her founding and running of the East 15. 
She was a complete joy to interview and had prepared many old photographs, flyers and programmes for us to see. 

She looked after us for two nights and three days, feeding us and staying up late into the night as we wandered down memory lane...we were like three naughy school-kids sitting under a blanket for a midnight feast - except without the blanket and the midnight feast was Maggie's memories! 

The entire experience felt like a colossal honour. 

One of the many photographs that Maggie had looked out for us to enjoy.

We have no idea who these people are (but we'd love to know if anybody knows where they are now)
They are possibly rehearsing the Mechanicals Scenes. 

Since interviewing Maggie, we've gone on to irregularly interview a number of people who were involved at East 15 as tutors & directors and also as students.  They have all been incredibly generous with their personal memories and seem to have understood the spirit of the film, giving their time willingly and with grace, they include: John 'Ginger' Halstead.  Simone Vause & Maureen Sweeney. 

We'll publish an extensive list of interviees & others involved once we get into our next big push September. 

Maggie with the dog which preceeded Clifford.

Again we'd love to know who that is rehearsing in the garden behind her. 
And what the pooch was called (perhaps Maggie can tell us that!)

The project has been on haitus for around six months due to the arrival of a child - Sally & the launching of a new company - Springboard Arts but we are now ready to roll again and complete things. 

We have gained so much in learning this amazing story and we'll continue to do so as we continue with production for the next ten months - the coming year will also take us further into the past as we start to tell the story of Joan Littlewood, making the link between Theatre Workshop and East 15 as clearly as we can.

One final note, to everybody who has not appeared in the film but who has helped us along the way - we owe you a debt of gratitude!
Howard Goorney who wrote the wonderful book "The Theatre Workshop Story" also wrote this very good blog: http://www.wcml.org.uk/contents/creativity-and-culture/drama-and-literature/political-theatre-19281986/

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Joan Littlewood's THEATRE WORKSHOP Manifesto

The great theatres of all times have been popular theatres which reflected the dreams and struggles of the people.  The theatre of Aeschylus & Sophocles, of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, of the Commedia dell'Arte and Moliere derived their inspiration, their language, their art from the people. 

We want a theatre with a living language, a theatre which is not afraid of the sound of its own voice and which will comment as fearlessly on society as did Ben Jonson and Aristophanes.

Theatre Workshop is an organisation of artists, technicians and actors who are experimenting in stage-craft. 

This was the Theatre Workshop Manifesto in an early form.

Joan Littlewood as 'Mother Courage'
& if I'm not badly mistaken Harry H. Corbett playing with her.
I'd love to know who the third man is!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I believe the third man to be an actor called GEORGE COOPER (AKA Mr Griffiths from Grange Hill) the research was done for me by an actor from the year above me at East 15, Simon Arnold.  And here is a delightful link to an interview with him for the THEATRE ARCHIVE PROJECT - he begens to discuss Mother Courage on Page II.  http://www.bl.uk/projects/theatrearchive/cooper2.html

So, Joan always wanted to create theatre which was a vital force in society - just as it had been at other points in history. 

"Joan liked to think of us as taking the theatre to the people who were robbed of their theatre – dispossessed sort of thing" - George Cooper.

For me, the Theatre Workshop manifesto demonstrates Joans utter belief in her actors and her passion to inform, represent and entertain her audience.

I wonder if Jimmy Miller (better known as Ewan MacColl) had a hand in developing this particular manifesto - there is no doubt that he had a massive influence on Joan Littlewood.

"Dirty Old Town" as sung by Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger

During the 1930s, Ewan MacColl had started a performance group called the 'Red Megaphones' who'd been putting on songs and sketches for the striking workers during some tough disputes.

After a time, they changed their name to 'Theatre of Action" - they sought to create full-length plays and stated in their manifesto that they would only perform work which "expressed the lives and struggles of the workers" - it was around this time that they appeared on the radar of a youmg Joan Littlewood.  

Joan had studied at RADA.  When she graduated, she detested what she viewed as 'cosy theatre' - so rather than look for work in London, she travelled to Paris to find out more about the theatre in Europe. 

On her return she spent a short time working in Rep in Manchester and on a BBC Radio documentary about the building of the Mersey Tunnel - it was probably whilst working at the BBC that she met Ewan MacColl and joined Theatre of Action. 

Now a bold force, MacColl & Littlewood tried to get visas to visit Russia in order to study how they approached theatre in Moscow - but they didn't get visas and so they set about working on a manifesto for "Theatre of Action" - it was to include their belief that "theatre must join the battle between the oppressor and the oppressed" - Not a million miles away from what the idea that the late great Augusto Boal was to go on to develop in Brazil.

Joan Littlewood's portrait as can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.

Inspired by Copeau, Joan and Ewan didn't want their actors to be merely be trained in body and voice, but to educate themselves in political thought, classical literature & theatre technology. They wanted them fully educated and empowered!  This is how they worked for a time.  And then came the war. 

WWII dispersed the group, but a few of them continued with the educational work they'd started & which was of huge importance to the group philosophy.  At this time Joan returned to BBC Radio where she met Gerry Raffles who would become the love of her life and her husband until his death in 1975. 

After the war, Joan wrote to each of the "Theatre of Action" members asking them to reunite - and from this point on the story of Theatre Workshop is best told in the beautiful "Theatre Workshop Story" by Howard Goorney -  a MUST for anybody interested in the history of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.  The book is currently out of print but copies can be found from second sellers on Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Theatre-Workshop-Story-Howard-Goorney/dp/0413487601/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344362325&sr=8-1

It is worth noting that Theatre Workshop was set up as a collaborative venture and whilst Joan was their director and a huge source of energy and inspiration for the group, she did not set it up as HER company, rather as a workers co-operative in which they all drew the same salary, all had an equal voice in the decision making process and were all an equal part of the ensemble.  And it was on this basis that Joan made a famous quote:

"I do not believe in the supremacy of the director, designer, actor or even the writer.  It is through collaboration that this knockabout art of theatre survives and kicks"

Finally, here is a link to a lovely tribute to Joan Littlewood in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2008/mar/04/joanlittlewoodwillneverbe

Joan Littlewood 1914 -2002

SOURCE OF MOST OF THIS INFORMATION: "Directors Theatre" by David Bradby & David Williams.  A superb book which looks at the importance of process to seven major practitioners, including Joan Littlewood, Peter Brook & Ariane Mnouchkine.  Unfortunately, it is currently out of print but available from second sellers on amazon UK:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Directors-Theatre-Modern-dramatists-Bradby/dp/0333294254/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1344361021&sr=8-2

"If we don’t get lost, we’ll never find a new route" - JOAN LITTLEWOOD

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Alice Guy-Blache

Alice Guy-Blache is one of my all-time SHEROES.

There are many, many reasons for this, but mainly because between 1896 and 1920 she directed 400 films.

You read that correctly. 

In a time when women in film were thin on the ground (to say the least) Alice Guy-Blache was directing film after film after film & leading the way in the development of the medium as we know it.  She started out in France for the Gaumont Company and was their first film director, then she moved to the U.S. where in 1910 she set up her own production company, SOLAX, in New York and went on to build a studio in New Jersey.

So, to start at the beginning (it's as good a place as any), it was in 1894 that Alice Guy was employed by Leon Gaumont - about a year later he took Alice with him to witness a Lumiere Brothers demonstration of their cinematographe (35mm Film Camera). Alice persuaded Leon to let her try out the camera & direct a film - in 1896 Alice wrote, produced and directed "The Cabbage Fairy".  Following this, Leon Gaumont asked Alice to become Head of Film Production for Gaumont.  She remained in that post until 1906.

"The Cabbage Fairy"

By 1907 Alice was working in New York and in 1910 she launched SOLAX - her own production company - to do this she rented space from the Gaumont Company in New York.  Her early films were a huge success, so much so that she was able to build her own studio on the proceeds.

At Solax, Alice produced TWO short films EVERY WEEK!  Prolific or what?!  Solax was doing very well - and then she employed her husband (whose contract with Gaumont had expired) - she took him on as Head of Production, so that she could concentrate more on her writing and directing.  Herbert Blache used Solax to further his own film-making career and to develop his own production company, running Solax into the ground in the process. 

By 1913, Alice was producing and directing films for Blache Features (Herberts Production Company!).  She'd also joined a production coalition 'Popular Plays & Players' - all of whose films were shot in the former Solax studio.  In 1916 Alice Guy-Blache directed SEVEN features including "The Ocean Waif" and then for Pathe "The Great Adventure" a comedy which enjoyed huge commercial success. 

Alice Guy Blache

Shortly after this Herbert Blache moved to Hollywood with one of his actresses leaving Alice with their two children - she moved to an apartment in New York City. 

In 1919, whist working on the feature film "Tarnished Reputations" Alice caught Spanish Influenza, it was a lethal outbreak which sadly killed four of her colleagues on the movie.  Following this, she and her two children moved to a small bungalow in Hollywood to recouperate and in 1920 she returned to New York to oversee the auction of her Solax Studio, due to bankrupcy.

In March 1920, "Tarnished Reputations" opened - it was to be Alice Guy-Blache's last film. 

In 1922, a now divorced Alice returned to France for a fresh start with her children.  She was unable to find work despite her great achievements and her film-making record, so in 1927, she went back to the U.S. to seek out copies of her work but couldn't find one of her films - even at the Library of Congress where her work had been copyrighted - by 1929 it became clear that she would not make another film and she was forced to become dependent on her children. 

In 1930, Leon Gaumont wrote a history of his company, omitting any work before 1907.

"A Sticky Woman"

In 1947 Alice was writing her memoirs in Georgetown U.S. where she'd moved with her daughter Simone - it was here that she began a correspondance with Louis Gaumont, Leon's son, which lead to Louis making a speech about Alice and her contribution to cinema in Paris in 1954, where he referred to her as "The first woman film-maker who has been unjustly forgotten"

By1955, Alice was awarded the Legion d'Honneur - France's highest award. 

Alice died in 1968, aged 95 in a nursing home in New Jersey - the place she'd run her studio SOLAX.  Her memoirs were published in French in 1976 and in English in 1986.

Alice Guy-Blaché was indeed the first female film maker - she was also responsible for creating one of the first ever narrative films.  She was a director, producer and writer for 24 years - the longest career of any of the cinema pioneers and 22 of her 400 films were feature-length. She was and still is the only woman to ever solely manage and own her own studio, The Solax Company. 

It seems incredible to me that until very recently the story of Alice Guy-Blache, of her contribution to the craft of film-making, her talent and inspriation to others has remained lost (or hidden, depending upon your perspective) As one of the first directors to ever make a film and most certainly the first woman she is an inspiration to female film-makers.  She was a spirited, prolific & awesomely talented woman. 

There is only one question that remains: Why don't we all know about her contribution?  At the very least, her name should resound through the lecture halls of every film school - after all Leni Riefenstahl gets this honour - and frankly as a Nazi propagandist - this baffles me, despite her obvious abilities.  The fact that the story of the achievements and life of Alice Guy-Blache remains hidden is a total mystery to me, and it's time that was changed.  Somebody should create a biopic of her life and work. 

A film Alice Guy-Blache made in 1897

INFORMATION ON THIS BLOG POSTING HAS LARGELY BEEN TAKEN FROM THE BRILLIANT "Alice Guy-Blache - Lost Visionary of the Cinema" by ALISON MCMAHAN.  A book which holds far more information about Alice's life and work and which I thoroughly recommend as an inspiring read for any female film-maker.  Or anybody interested in hidden herstories!  And from internet sources including 'Wikipedia and the IMDB'