ReStage: Radical Theatre in Camden
In the 1960s much of London Borough of Camden was shabby and rundown. Large parts of the housing stock was empty and boarded up, Camden Lock was yet to open, old railway yards and warehouses stood empty. From Drummond St to Kentish Town stretched many acres of inner city-blighted Georgian housing, much of it bought up by developers with a view to bulldozing when the land became more valuable, or by the Council for planned social housing. With the upsurge of social activism and the 60s counterculture, these became the basis of experiments in new forms of urban living and working. From Tolmers Square NW1 to Prince of Wales Rd NW5, Winchester Rd NW6 to Long Acre WC2, pubs, halls, warehouses, garages and houses, became squats or licensed co-ops. Housing was the priority but along with it sprang up an infrastructure of innovative communal spaces: adventure playgrounds, community print shops, food co-ops, festivals, soft playrooms, drop-in clubs, free schools, advice hubs, arts centres, as a radical movement questioned ideas of community, participation, ownership of space, architecture, power and inclusion - and implemented its ideas on the ground.
Art and theatre were key components of the movement that aimed to transform the lives of its audience through imagination and play as well as social activism. Inter-Action’s members lived communally and in their first year of operation, slept nights on the desks they worked on in the daytime in an empty shop opposite the Roundhouse. They later negotiated short-term leases with the council on nearly 50 houses to accommodate their growing team. Their many offshoots include Kentish Town City Farm -the first in Britain and, the Weekend Arts College (both still operate). Action Space was based in an empty piano factory in Harmood St, NW5, staged numerous festivals and workshops around the borough (they still operate in Holborn and Barnsley). Squatting or cheap rents were a hidden subsidy enabling numerous grassroots projects to be built, tested and run, while innovative theatre projects had the time and space to develop their work. It is no coincidence that in the alternative theatre guides first published in the mid-1970s more London-based companies gave a Camden address than any other borough. Stirabout, the first company to work in prisons, who also ran a prisoners gallery in Chalk Farm Rd, while Recreation Ground set up a youth centre in a former pub in Swiss Cottage and The Phantom Captain, who staged bizarre happenings designed to ‘tune up reality to the level of art’, had their base in Fleet Rd and Spare Tyre, originally a women’s company addressing issues of weight and self-image, started in Fortess Rd.
Camden was fertile territory. Its left-wing theatre traditions stretched from Unity, the workers’ theatre, set up in 1930s in Goldington St through local community initiatives like Theatro Technis, established in the late 50s to serve the growing Cypriot community. In 1961 Arnold Wesker had established plans for Centre 42 at the Roundhouse to bring art to the people, while the experimental Hampstead Theatre Club was set up by James Roose-Evans in 1957. A traditional music scene, based in the local Irish community, thrived in pubs and clubs and from the 1950s was joined by new folk and poetry venues. In 1966 The People Show began staging happenings in the basement of Better Books in the Charing Cross Road, while multi-media events at the Roundhouse included the launch of International Times, gigs by Pink Floyd and Soft Machine and. later, shows by Peter Brook, Stephen Berkoff and The Living Theatre from New York. In Drury Lane Jim Haynes set up the Arts Lab a multi-disciplinary space where Jane Arden’s Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven was staged, the first Women’s Liberation Movement play, while Haynes’ fellow American Charles Marowitz and Thelma Holt began the Open Space in Tottenham Court Rd, staging innovative new plays, many from the US. Pub theatres followed from Pentameters to The York and Albany in Parkway, where Mouth and Trousers were based. Action Space’s takeover of an old Drill Hall in Chenies St added a further point on a growing and vibrant network of venues across the borough, providing the infrastructure for a mushrooming performance scene.
Time Out magazine, set up by Tony Elliott in 1968, provided the critical context and the all-important listings for the burgeoning ‘fringe’. But many of the companies that based themselves in Camden preferred the term alternative and sought to reach or create new audiences in non-theatre venues: at factory gates, sit-ins, in prisons, working men’s or one o’clock clubs, in the streets, with communities, using games to liberate, agit-prop to stimulate revolution, parades to celebrate difference and identity like Gay Pride, or finding new forms and new theatre vocabularies for impromptu events to excite the imagination. ‘Alternative’ theatre was bound up with a process of radical questioning about who theatre should be for, where it should take place, who it should be made by, what might be the decision-making processes behind managing the company and what the work and the artistic process might look like. The first Black, Women’s and Gay theatre seasons in Britain started from Inter-Action’s lunchtime theatre seasons at the Ambiance or the Almost Free, generating new companies as groups like Gay Sweatshop demanded the cultural space to create work from their own experience. In the 1980s Graeae the first company of Disabled artists operated from the Diorama in Regent’s Park (originally a squat...)
The project Unfinished Histories was set up to record this vital and influential period of work, recording interviews with practitioners, documenting company histories, preserving and digitising records. Dmitri Galitzine has been inspired by the ideas that were at play in the performance work then, with their emphasis on cultural democratisation, social change, community participation - the inventiveness of an Inter-Action or Action Space-, as well as by the array of images in the online archive. In response he has created an artwork that changes over time, garnering and juxtaposing key moments from that radical performance history, re-contextualising them with a scrapbook playfulness, inspired by the work he references. He creates an environment in which visitors can participate, inhabit a cultural trope, step into a performance moment, try on its costumes as he seeks to re-liberate the radical possibilities of play and interrogate both what was created Then and what might be re/invented from that creative energy and those marvellous images in the Now.
Here is Red Ladder’s agit-prop umbrella with the word PROFIT from Strike While the Iron’s Hot played at trade union meetings and tenants’ associations. Here the ‘Fourth double-back two-faced people’ of Inter-Action Dogg’s Troupe sprout again at a street action in the fight to save Covent Garden, while Rough Theatre advise us to Squat Now While Stocks Last.
The laundresses of the Paris Commune hang their sheets in feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment’s opening production Scum: Death, Destruction and Dirty Washing at the Drill Hall. And Welfare State, ‘engineers of the imagination’ set alight their legendary Parliament in Flames. Though sadly it was never staged in Camden though, they did build an environment in the yard of Unity Theatre for ‘agit-pop’ CAST (Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre) in their 1968 collaboration with John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy, Harold Muggins is a Martyr...
The human chair from Crystal Theatre’s Secret Garden becomes a habitable moment from dream or nightmare. A strange long-eared hybrid human-animal is plucked from The Ass, a music theatre collaboration with Mike and Kate Westbrook on DH Lawrence by NW8-based Foco Novo, while a chilling black punk spider, elongated with stilts and crutches, bursts from Spin/Stir’s Vampirella.
Recontextualised, the images carry some of the resonances and meanings from the original performances while gaining new ones through juxtapositions and as they are occupied and reanimated by visitors. For some they will invoke memories, for others possibilities, or perhaps a sense of how Camden has changed and how much harder space to live and to work is to find today, questions as to where those imaginative and community spaces can be found today and who is animating and inhabiting them. Has that wild performance energy been co-opted for a mainstream theatre at £40 a ticket? or can it still exist in accessible, liberatory forms as part of a groundswell that seeks to create new social and cultural spaces, and imagine community and new ways to live together?
Dr Susan Croft, Director - Unfinished Histories
To discover more about the alternative theatre movement, please go to: www.unfinishedhistories.com or
buy the book Re-Staging Revolutions: Alternative Theatre in Lambeth and Camden 1968-88 (available for sale at Swiss Cottage Library, Daunt Books, Hampstead, Housman’s Bookshop, Camden Archives- Holborn Library or from Unfinished Histories)