Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

White Rabbit: Are You Sitting Comfortably? Photo by Angell

From the People Show to White Rabbit via Wonderhorse: Bernadette Russell celebrates the DIY approach to performance-making

It took me a while to accumulate enough confidence to become the creative person I wanted to be, to work out how to make it happen, and to get frustrated enough with not doing it that I just had to. I think art is important, and the question of just what art is has many answers. What it is to me today (the answer will probably will be different tomorrow) is: a way of expressing what it means to be human, a way of anaesthetising yourself from the condition of being human, a way of passing time in an entertaining way, a way of laughing at the powerful, a way to ease pain and express pleasure. Art has the power to educate, connect and communicate. Therefore it has the power to change the world. I think.

I hope, if you are reading this and have explored this archive, then you can agree with, or at least go along with, the notion that art is important. Therefore artists are important, and places and things that help art and artists are important too. Places, be they physical or digital, where artists can gather, share ideas, or just drop by and say hello to each other and their audiences stop us getting lonely. This digital archive is one such place (more about this later). 

For me, a formative physical place was the People Show building off Bethnal Green Road…

Christine Entwisle and I had both been at Leicester Poly in the 1990s on the drama degree course and both of us had grown up wanting to be comedians on the telly. The course wasn’t geared towards being comedians on the telly.  It was more geared towards wearing Wild West costumes and feeding your fellow performers jelly babies. I did this in a rehearsal once when I was trying to create a show and had been influenced by the fact that I had been to the National Review of Live Art. In Leicester, I got an introduction to experimental theatre, which was pretty mind-blowing because before that I’d only ever been to panto, the circus, plus one school trip to see Hamlet. When I saw Forced Entertainment’s Emmanuelle Enchanted I couldn’t believe that anyone would have the nerve and genius to include Elvis in an apocalypse in Sheffield. I left without the faintest clue of how to make this sort of work myself, or what sort of show I might want to make, even if the conditions to do so were provided. I was inspired and confused (I remained confused for a long, long time until I learned to enjoy this as a permanent state of being).

After college, in 1996, Christine and I worked together at the Young Vic on her show Missing Jesus. We had a lot of fun in the dressing room trying to make each other and our fellow performers (Helena Goldwater and Kelsey Michael) laugh by doing jokes in broad Northern accents (easy for Chris as she’s Cumbrian, but less easy for a mockney from Portsmouth like me). Chris had been working with the People Show and I’d seen one of their shows, The Laundry Show, or People Show 101. I found out that all their shows have numbers, to indicate a new creative enquiry. In his review, Jonathan Megaw, mentions an audience member saying ‘I don’t know what was going on but it was quite funny’. I felt the same, but I didn’t mind. He goes on to describe 101 as being about ‘the personal inadequacies that are at the heart of religious cults and their leaders’. I’m not sure at the time that I got any of that. What I saw were highly skilled performers, wearing white lab coats with matching willies, gallivanting around on a set filled with scaffolding and industrial washing machines. It was like watching exotic aliens doing a sacred ritual in a beautifully lit launderette, and that was okay by me. It didn’t make much sense, it was funny and it had beautiful images. It was exciting in a way which was hard for me to understand.

So Christine and I went into the People Show building to work out if there was anything in our funny accents and jokes that we might make into a show.

People Show began in 1966 and owned their own building from 1987. They were experimenting with theatre before anyone had coined the phrases devised, site-specific or immersive. But when I walked into that building to work with Chris on our comedy show, I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t even meet Mark Long, the founder member, till five years later – no one even mentioned his name. What I met was acceptance. What I got was permission to do whatever I liked. What I was given was a free space to rehearse. I got an ‘art family’. Plus eye-wateringly strong coffee and loads of biscuits. I also got the education I should have probably got at Leicester Poly but didn’t. (To be fair, whilst I was there I wasn’t really ready to listen.) I learned so much from Chris, but also from the other people I met in the building, by talking to them, watching them and working with them. These people, other misfits and orphans who were given refuge there, have stayed my friends since.

Christine and I went on to form the short-lived anarchic double act Wonderhorse. This was way before cabaret became fashionable again and before burlesque had its revival. We gigged at stand-up venues and were always the only women, and usually the only people in leotards and bunny ears. We felt like freaks in comedy clubs, but at the People Show we felt as though we were home.

The work that I have made since – alone, with other people, and with my company, White Rabbit – has all been influenced by that DIY attitude I came across in the People Show building. I learnt to give myself permission to just get on with it, and learned a broader definition of theatre from them and other companies associated with them including The Ding Foundation, Shunt, Pacitti Company and Slot Machine. As well as making theatre shows, I now create installations, podcasts and cabaret. I write books, and write and perform poetry and short stories. I have the nerve to try all of these things in part because I saw people trying and doing all of those things in the People Show buildings, just because they wanted to give it a go. At the moment I am creating something new about belief, magic, quantum physics, mental health and using storytelling as a survival technique, without any idea of what it may become yet – but I am not afraid of not knowing, I’m just curious. I have the wider People Show family to thank for that as I learned that theatre and art can be whatever you want it to be. As Dorothy Max Prior writes in the article  ‘We are Still Here’: ‘the People Show never bothered themselves with what theatre “should” be, feeling free to do anything they fancy.’

So, just in case you are still thinking: ‘yeah, that all sounds great, but who are the People Show?’ Well…

In the introductory essay to the beautiful book Nobody Knows but Everybody Remembers, Professor Anna Furse writes that the People Show represent ‘a very other, non-mainstream way of making art, and living and breathing this art and all that it stands for, during the course of 50 years.… a unique achievement’.

That is true. But the fact remains: hardly anyone knows who they are. Even people who rehearsed at their studios on Bethnal Green Road don’t always know that the People Show is actually a company who still make theatre. The most likely expression you’ll hear if you mention their name is ‘Who?’ or if you’re lucky, ‘Are they still going?’ For the hardworking core group who are still making work, and for the founder members, this might be quite painful. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what does matter is that all of us who are making art that is shared with others, whether that is at the National Theatre or at a kid’s birthday party, are all part of an ecosystem. That each part of that ecosystem has made a positive contribution to the world in some small or large way. That we may have inspired others if we are lucky. That we are not alone. Wouldn’t it be better if we could bypass our egotism and just be happy to make art in the moment? 

I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of theatre, but a wander around this archive helped me revisit some old friends and favourite shows, and also showed me how much I hadn’t heard of and how many artists I was not aware of. So it isn’t just one company that gets forgotten, or one show. There’s a lot.

Perhaps, then, we need to accept that we may not be remembered in order to make theatre, a form ephemeral by its nature. Once a show’s done, it will never happen again. Theatre isn’t about posterity, it is about right here and now. It’s easier if you let all of that go – the being remembered, the people knowing your name, the fame and glory stuff.

But then again, looking through this archive and thinking about everyone who passed through those doors off the Bethnal Green Road, I see, too, how influential, directly or indirectly, the People Show was and is. As you read, you can see the connections. I think it’s fair to say that the boundaries they broke made way for everyone from Blast Theory to Bryony Kimmings ; from Gobsquad  to Punchdrunk. As Dorothy Max Prior wrote in 17/4 of her experiences in 1976: ‘The People Show’s Tenth Anniversary Show changed my whole view of what theatre could be – it was like animated sculpture meets vaudeville meets stand-up meets performance art. It was what would later be called postmodern performance: borrowing from any source, throwing high and low artforms together, juxtaposing ideas and images to create new meanings.’ What they were doing then has been assimilated into the mainstream and is commonplace. As incredible as it may seem to us now, in 1966 – when they made their first show in the UK – there were only plays, where actors followed a script somebody else had written, almost never acknowledged the audience, just moved about a bit on the stage and bowed at the end.

The People Show lost their building in 2003, and many other buildings have gone since. Not just art studios and theatres, but libraries, community centres, pubs – many free or cheap places for people to meet, chat, laugh and share ideas. To reminisce. To make plans.

This is one of the reasons that digital platforms are so important and this archive is one of them. It is a place to find out about what went before or just to have a nose around. To find out if anyone did this before you (answer: probably yes, but don’t let that stop you). Even if we manage to stop worrying about being remembered ourselves and just get on with being and creating, then it is still good and useful to remember others. Because we can use it as inspiration and encouragement, to know others have shared the same journeys, challenges and excitements as us.

This archive is our dusty attic full of stuffed ferrets and holy relics and weird ideas. This is our magician’s library. We should all take our time to look around, borrow from and credit where we have been inspired, and add our own layers. It is empowering and inspiring to know where you came from. To know people have been here before you. It’s a place to remember and a place to accept that we will be forgotten and that is okay, because our work gets assimilated into the next generation’s work even if they don’t know it. It doesn’t really matter. Each work of art has as much potential and is as precarious and as precious as an acorn.