Alternative Theatre in the 1970s: The Revolution Will Be Staged

For most of the 20th century, going to the theatre was a quintessentially middle class activity. The majority of plays were middle class in nature, encompassing middle class values which appealed to middle class audiences. It is no surprise that the actors involved were of a similar background. However, by the mid 1970s, over 200 itinerant theatre groups were thriving across the UK. These were full of actors and directors who rejected the exclusive and traditional composition of British theatre. This anti-theatrical-Establishment movement is ultimately to thank for the emergence of ‘The Fringe’ which remains so popular today. What was the force behind the emergence of this movement and how did it change the face of British theatre as we know it today?

The return of Labour to power during the 1960s saw the start of a more morally permissive and liberal society, typified by sexual liberation and student protests. It was during this time that the Arts Council began to welcome and fund experimental ideas which had a lasting impact on British theatre. The Theatre-in-Education movement is an example of this new and different approach to the arts which was able to engage school children with contemporary social issues through the medium of acting. But bringing acting to the educational arena was only one aspect of this new kind of theatre. During this time, more and more theatre professionals began to feel disillusioned with the traditional means of production. Frustrated with the hierarchy that neglected the average actor and (usually) charged by a left-wing agenda in sync with the subversive ‘swinging 60s’, groups of like-minded creatives began to create their own material. With the help of the newly acquired Arts Council grant, these ‘idealists’ were able to change the face of theatre. Theatre was no longer just a form of entertainment but also a social and political commentary – events like the anti-Vietnam war movement were often explored. From this, the grass roots movement of ‘The Fringe’ was born which came to life by hundreds of companies during the 1970s.

However, it would be a misinterpretation to suggest that subversive and experimental theatre began as late as the 60s and 70s. Joan Littlewood played an extremely significant role in the making of 20th century ‘Fringe’. In the 1930s she performed with socialist theatre groups such as the Workers’ Theatre Movement who were considered so anti-establishment that the BBC had them blacklisted for communist sympathies. In 1945 Littlewood founded Theatre Workshop in Manchester and for the rest of her life would deploy a range of experimental techniques novel to English theatre at the time, such as mixing Stanislavsky naturalism with expressionism, British music hall and what she called ‘taking the piss’. Littlewood proudly stressed the idea of the company as a collective which aimed to bring socially relevant and enjoyable pieces to the people.

It was the independence of groups like Theatre Workshop which forged a sense of collective enterprise that won them their success during the 1970s. Touring groups such as The General Will, Common Stock, Joint Stock, Avon Touring, The Brighton Combination, Grassroots Theatre, Actors Touring Company and Black Theatre Collective all toured the capitals parks and exposed a new style of theatre. They reinterpreted classics for a modern audience and used improvisation as a means to transmit this novelty. At the time, this was seen by many in the acting profession as risky and revolutionary in nature. The E15 Drama School, which was inspired by Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, was the place to go if you felt that daring and different theatre was your calling. An E15 Acting School advert from the early 1970s writes that it seeks ‘lively minded, argumentative, inventive, exquisite, vulgar, idealistic, talented students who want livelier theatre’. Alan Ford, an actor most famous for his roles in Snatch (2000) and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) who was granted a place at E15 in this period is described as ‘a market trader, stand up comic, pub singer and all round Cockney geezer’.This is a testament to Littlewood’s ethos of working with actors who didn’t look or think like actors, especially those who did not fit the Oxford English Lit graduate image.

Despite the fact that Stanislavsky’s ‘An Actor Prepares’ is now an important aspect of an actor’s training, during the early 70s it was considered revolutionary. It was treated with suspicion by the majority of English actors, directors and drama schools who dismissed Stanislavsky’s style as a waste of time. There was an unwillingness to support change among actors who felt that time should be dedicated to rehearsals rather than improving their own individual craft, especially as regional theatres had an extremely tight schedule. This hostility was heightened by the fact that it was widely considered at the time that English actors were the best in the world – which sadly, they believed themselves too. As a result of this, any open minded view towards this different kind of theatre and the training E15 provided proved hard to come by among the acting elite who considered it as unnecessary and ultimately dangerous.

The morally conservative nature of English theatre has its roots in The Licensing Act of 1737 passed by Lord Chamberlain which censored theatre. As late as 1966 a prosecution succeeded against the producers of Edward Bond’s play ‘Saved’ at the Royal Court. It was not until 1968 when theatre censorship was abolished in Great Britain. It seems ludicrous that British theatre could not engage with issues such alike sex, religion, politics or the royal family up until this time. As all scripts had to be approved by Lord Chamberlain before they were staged, the notion of creating a play through improvisation would not only be inconceivable but illegal. It is probably due to this progression of the times that the 1970s exploded into a decade of theatrical avant-garde brilliance.

As a decade, the 70s proved to be an era which upturned the theatrical Establishment. Mike Leigh, renowned for his stage plays and ‘kitchen sink realism’ feature films, also adhered to the E15/Littlewood method of improvisation. The success of these new methods can be seen in Leigh’s work, such as the multi-award winning play Abigail’s Party. Still popular nearly 40 years on, Abigail’s Party satirised the aspirational new middle class that emerged in Britain during the 1970 – and was created in lengthy improvisations. It was Leigh’s aim for the actors to spend time improvising as their own characters so that personalities like Beverly Moss, an ‘ex-department store cosmetics demonstrator’ living in the ‘London side of Essex’, could develop organically.

Not only did the world of theatre change amongst the directors and actors themselves, but the change in the existing order of actor’s agencies marked another dimension of the attack on the theatrical status quo. In 1976, ACTORUM started, a product of frustrated actors who felt that their agents were cashing in on their commission and not finding them enough work. ACTORUM was the first actors-run agency, which consisted of groups of actors who joined forces with each other to find work for themselves. This meant that unemployed actors had to run the administration side of things from Monday to Friday on behalf of the rest of the actors fortunate enough to be working. Actor’s co-operative agencies also appealed to Thespians as commission fees were less than a more commercial agent and gained popularity throughout the rest of the decade – many still exist today.

Undeniably, the 1970s was a decade which brought about great change to theatre in the UK. The alternative theatre movement opened minds and challenged stereotypes while attacking the exclusivity and discrimination that prevailed in British theatre. It was a shock to drama schools, directors and conventional agents who were experiencing actors taking control of their own livelihoods and creating theatre that they felt was accessible and genuine. These events were happening in light of hard, economic times. Yet these theatre groups persevered and produced shows out of almost nothing. The decade ended with Thatcher’s arrival at Downing Street which would lead to an arts policy which would see a shift away from public subsidy to corporate sponsorship and Arts Council grants cut from 4.8% to 2.9% over the course of her tenure. It is thus ironic that Peter Hall, director of the National Theatre at the time, voted for Thatcher in the 1979 election. His justification: ‘stopping the idiocy of the unions’. Of course, funding for the arts worsened under Thatcher. Hall later marked his embarrassment at supporting Thatcher and stated that he ‘regrets it deeply, emotionally.’ Although the face of theatre had changed for the better by 1979, it was about to endure a regime which would view government subsidy to the arts as a trivial expense.

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