April 2009, The Art Workers' Guild, London
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
What became the Red Ladder Theatre company was founded in 1968 in Paddington, London, by a group from a socialist information service who performed a play at a festival in Trafalgar Square in 1968 and was first called the Agitprop Street Players. They performed short and biting, morale-boosting sketches that often relied on striking visual images to get their message across. Productions were highly portable with few props and were performed at mass political demonstrations, tenants association meetings, weekend schools etc. The company's journey since has been one of constant renewal and reinvention and this lecture explored its history.
In this talk Dr McDonnell, who himself was a performer in radical alternative theatre with CAST (Cartoon Archetypical SloganTheatre), set out to contextualise the work of Red Ladder in a broader movement of political theatrical activism. He reminded his audience of what was happening in 1968, a operiod of anti-imperialist struggle in many countries and of the Vietnam War and a time when the wider availability of higher education brought about by the 1944 Education Act was producing increasing numbers of students from working class backgrounds. It was a time when people lived in fear of nuclear war, when Martin Luther King and John Kennedy were assassnated, when action for civil rights, gay liberation and the women's movement was developing strength. It was also the beginning of a rapid growth in alternative theatre and government funding: in 1968 there were 6 fringe theatres and 34 Arts Council supported companies; ten years leater these had grown to 100 fringe theatres and 140 with Arts Council funding.
A lot of the work produced by Agitprop Street Players could notbe considered very good theatre - but it was effective and it began to built a network of relationships and broad-based support with trade unions and others. In 1971 at a demonstration by 200,000 trade unionists then peopl with their red step-lader performed a 50-minute play about the Industrial Relations Bill, giving seven performances during the day. This was theatre that was aimed at working class people at a time when there was a feeling among many on the far left that revolution was really possible.
The company was non-hierarchical. Its members did not want a director or a production manager - everything had to be done collectively. They didn't ask whether they were making good theatre - it didn't matter; what was important was that it carried the right message.
In 1970 the company applied for an Arts Council grant - and got one! In 1974 they decided to move to Leeds to base themselves in the kind of community they wanted to connect with. In fact, until comparatively recently they did few performances in Leeds, spending most of their time on tour.
With the Miner's Strike there came an end to a time of militancy and the Marxist led idea that you could have a classless society. When Margaret Thatcher came into power she redesigned the country. Red Ladder tried to reinvent themselves by taking cabaret style shows to working men's clubs. A low point was reached with Bring Out Your Dead. thbis club show, which had Big Mac from the US running the Health Service was a flop with venues cancelling their bookings. They were out of touch with their attitudes and expectations of their target audience. With 'I'm Bored, ' a number placed just before the interval they demonstrated their lack of theatrical self-awareness. They were also out of touch with changes in theatre iself. A visiting Arts Council man asked 'Have you seen any theatre lately?'
The company was saved from disaster by the efforts of a local politiican and led by a new director, Rachel Feldberg, set out to become an inclusive theatre that would reflect contemporary difference and serve disabled people and those from other cultures as well as what they had previously seen as their core audience. Thjey were no longer angry and calling for revolution. They were the first British theatre company to use sign language, they began to employ disabled performesrs and to mount bi-lingual productions.Theirs was now a slow revolution. Unable to find suitable Asian actors for one show they decided they had to train them which led to the creation of an Asian Theatre School running summer and holiday classes. It has now transferred to Bradford and goes under the name Freedom Studios.
In 2006 a new artistic director, Rod Dixon, took charge, coming from the experimental and physical theatre background of working with Kneehigh. The following year he announced that Red Ladder would 'make theatre which celebrates, inspires and challenges young people, developing in them the desire and ability to express ideas and strengthen social and cultural cohesion.'
Among Dixon's claims are that he wants to put the Red back into Red Ladder but looking back on the theatre's history that was then, this is now and his interpretation is not the same perhaps as that of those who first created the company. Certainly he wants to speak to the disenfranchised and his agenda is not only to create good theatre but also a better society. In particular he has noted that despite 35 years of being based in Leeds the company had rarely performed there or used local performers and never produced the work of a local writer. This was something he intended to change.
Last year Red Ladder mounted a production called Where's Vietnam in which 33 of a cast of 35 were local people and in which a talented disabled actor in a wheelchair played a leading role. It played to packed houses at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2008 and is due to tour to selected dates in 2010.
Dr McDonnell lectures in theatre at the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield.
You can find a record of all Red Ladder productions with notes on changes in artistic policy on the company's website at www.redladder.co.uk, then go to 'about us' and then 'changing shapes'.
Current Lecture Programme
30th March 2009