In, Out, Around and About

Royal de Luxe

Edward Taylor is co-artistic director of street theatre company Whalley Range All Stars, which was founded in 1982 and tours to outdoor arts festivals across the UK and worldwide. He is a long-term contributor to Total Theatre Magazine, and here draws us an irreverent path through the new print archive.

It was inevitable that I’d collide with Total Theatre at some point.

I’d been writing short reviews and descriptions of work that I’d seen since 1982. There was so much performance work in the 70s/80s/90s that had flown under the critical radar that I just wanted a record of what I’d seen for my diary. (Yes, I kept a diary. Yes, I still do.) Trying to put why you like or don’t like things into words is a very good exercise for your own creative work, too. The emergence of computers as a work tool meant I could write at greater length rather than confining thoughts to a small space on a diary page.

At the same time as I was living a second life as a Time Out-style reviewer (minus the ‘imagine Morecambe & Wise on acid and you’re halfway there’ stylistic flourishes), Total Theatre Magazine was out there operating as a home for proper reviews of this kind of work, as well as longer bits of writing about the various aspects of touring and making shows. The magazine came out of the Mime Action Group, so the reviews tended to be written by members of that group and concerned companies working in that vein – but looking through the archive as a whole it’s interesting to see how the groups who epitomised Total Theatre have changed over the years.

Mime companies, experimental theatre (as was taught by lecturers at Lancaster, Crewe & Alsager and Brighton colleges, amongst others), outdoor work, site-specific work and circus… Circus Ronaldo’s show La Cucina Dell’Arte appears to have impressed so much that it was reviewed twice. First by me in Ghent 2004 and then by Marigold Hughes at the London International Mime Festival in 2006. Perhaps this oversight subconsciously led to the editorial decision to double up reviewers for some shows, which I discuss lower down the page!

The coverage in the magazine is down to the interests and tastes of the people (usually artists themselves) who wrote the reviews and articles, but it also illustrates a bigger picture which shows how work develops and changes through a mixture of opportunities and creativity. The definition of ‘total theatre’ became so open to interpretation that a review of the pyrotechnic-heavy events in Valencian Catholic festivals that I wrote in 2009, ‘Fire! Fire!’, could fit the bill.

What also strikes me today about looking at those early issues are the tour schedules in the back of each edition (Volume 4 Issue 4 is a good example). They reveal a world where there was a fully functioning, fee-paying art centre in every town; there were gigs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well as weekends; and touring with four or five people was still economically viable. Of course, it never felt like that at the time – hindsight is a marvellous thing.

Whilst art centres were thriving, the outdoor touring circuit was also growing. Like most nascent scenes it very much benefited from flying under the critical radar, but once outdoor arts became recognised and funded, just as indoor touring circuits started to dry up, many indoor companies (particularly dance) were encouraged by their funders to make work for the large crowds who showed up to outdoor festivals, without any assumptions about what they were going to see.

Street theatre has always been a home for those who don’t fit in artistically but it takes a certain determination to last the course. Bim Mason offers some reasons why this is the case in Street Theatre Survival Tactics in the very first issue of the magazine. Things have certainly improved since Bim’s whingeing cri de coeur, but 30 years later it feels like we’re returning to some of those bad old habits.

Total Theatre first showed up on my radar as reading material in a friend’s toilet in 2000. The issue I looked at contained a review of Streets of Brighton that for some reason I took issue with, so I emailed the magazine’s incoming editor, Dorothy Max Prior, and pointed out Where She Had Gone Wrong. Looking back, I’m mystified as to why I wrote it (the review even praised what my company had done), but I suspect it was about how companies were only reviewed in the context of a festival, in a round-up piece rather than on their individual merits – God, I was pernickety back then and have been guilty of the same ‘offence’ since! Max emailed back, defended herself (quite rightly too) and kindly opened the door for me to submit reviews and thoughts.

My first effort was a review of Royal de Luxe in Le Havre with their two giant giraffe puppets. It seemed incredible that this massive show that took over a city centre could be taking place just the other side of the English Channel without anyone over here knowing anything about it – the world before social media seems an entirely different country. In fairness, the amount of people who watched the show in Le Havre was at least a hundred times smaller than the size of audiences the shows have attracted in the last ten years. Royal de Luxe have since been very extensively reviewed in the UK press, but Total Theatre got there first.

In 2010 I reviewed Forced Entertainment’s The Thrill of it All at the Contact Theatre in Manchester. I hadn’t seen the company for a while and met someone I hadn’t seen since – ‘probably Forced Entertainment at the Green Room ten years ago’ as she put it. The show was well made but I felt terribly jaded watching what seemed to me a more professionally achieved version of what they did the last time I saw them whilst being watched by exactly the same audience. I emailed Max to tell her not to publish it, but she said that she was planning to print it alongside a review of the same piece by a much younger reviewer. I was fearing the worst, but the reviews both said pretty much the same thing which lifted me out of my ‘seen-it-all-before’ feelings. Her decision to present reviews in this way seemed the mark of a good editor.

Max instigated a series of articles called Best of British, which looked at companies who were working in the period before everything was filmed/documented, before social media, and who kick-started many of the approaches we see in contemporary performance, indoors or out.

The best of the bunch was an article written by Brian Popay (of Natural Theatre) about John Bull Puncture Repair Kit who stopped working in 1976, and whose work is criminally overlooked in any history of UK work. The excellent website Unfinished Histories has a good detailed article about what they did which I’d recommend anyone to read – but again, Total Theatre got there first.

A few years ago I was in email communication with Mick Banks, the last surviving member of the company, and discovered that what I remembered about one of their shows wasn’t exactly what had happened. So it’s useful to have documentation of this work whilst those who made it are still able to tell us.

I had read John Fox’s book Eyes on Stalks when it first came out and what intrigued me most was a footnote in the back describing the early work of Boris and Maggy Howarth when they were in Lancaster in the late 60s / early 70s. The descriptions were brief but tantalising in their brevity. I felt that more of a light should be shone on what they did. You could see the roots of what Welfare State became in their work. They’d put together a samba band at least ten years before community samba bands took off in this country; they created large shows with pyrotechnics and spectacular stunts; and they worked with disenfranchised communities.

Boris Howarth died in 2009 and I contacted Maggy a few months afterwards to see if she would like to be interviewed about this period of their work together. Luckily for all of us she agreed to the interview. I recorded and transcribed what she said, then sent her a copy so she could add names and sharpen up descriptions. All of which she did and which you can see in ‘Beginnings’. The effort of dredging up the past was clearly painful for her at times, but I’m enormously grateful to her for doing so.

Welfare State and its co-directors John Fox and Sue Gill grab the headlines (and with great justification) but this interview shows that the Howarths’ contribution to the company’s development has been massively undervalued.

I still write thoughts on the shows that I see but for some reason these never get expanded into reviews or essays for the new Total Theatre website. Part of the reason for this is that the work with my company Whalley Range All Stars has become ever more encompassing, but perhaps the real reason is that seeing a printed version of my efforts is a far bigger incentive to start writing. But never say never.

Finally, two omissions:

1) I genuinely regret not pushing further for an interview with Mary Turner of Action Space Mobile, another pioneer of how community art groups mixed avant-garde art practices with public participation. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Drill Hall as a venue. Sadly Mary died at the end of 2018 so that opportunity has gone.

2) In the late 1980s David Glass created a show with the magnificent title The Dinosaur of Weltschmerz. As I remember it, the show had its moments but failed to live up to that title. But no review of it anywhere in the archives Total Theatre. Shame on you!