Heaven and Hell at Oval House 1979
Oval House is an arts centre in South London. It had been a youth club in the 1960s and gradually transformed into a nurturing ground for many fringe theatre groups of that time - Cunning Stunts, Gay Sweatshop, Incubus, Pip Simmons, Kaboodle, and hosted Montrous Regiment, The People Show, Red Ladder, Split Britches, Forkbeard Fantasy and others. It became a locus of left-wing and feminist activity, particularly at a time when the Albany in Deptford was burned down by right-wing extremists. When I started doing evening classes there in early 1978 (acrobatics, mime and clowning) there were stories of the way marijana smoke wafting around the building in late sixties/early seventies.
My friend Breno and I proposed a show for the Oval House car park. We were into apocalyptic scenarios, so it was based on Noah's flood, hence the title: 'And God Said To Noah... (no more water, this time fire!)'. This was still the time when people had an anxiety about nuclear annihilation. Breno was steeped in Catholic imagery because of his background in Brazil, so we based the show on three worlds of Heaven, Hell and the humans. We gathered about fifteen volunteers and arranged them in the the three groups. For heaven we had a band of musicians - clarinet, cello, accordion etc - and God was portrayed by an enormous Canadian actor who was 6ft 7ins and 18 stone. Then there were the humans for whom we built a wooden set of a domestic setting using wooden pallets, bits of shed, old furniture, lamps, a rug, books, paintings and crockery, all scavenged from skips. The third group of devils had taken part in our stunt weekend workshop that we had run a few weeks previously. In this we had gone through activities like jumping off height (onto catching people or cardboard boxes), breaking real glass bottles for street fighting, being hit by moving cars, escapology and various fire stunts, including setting fire to clothing. The devils were to use some of these techniques as well as coming out of a hole dug into car park and I was to enter on my motorcycle, flying through cardboard boxes from a ramp offstage.
The beginning of the show went fine; God and his musical angels arrived from behind the standing onlookers and made their way, (with some difficulty) up a little ladder up onto a roof of a one-storey extension to the theatre, where they began to play heavenly music. God was fed grapes, in a rather lascivious way, by a nymph in a toga. The humans, dressed in black and white suits, established themselves in the domestic scene using mechanical movements. Then God roared and made his pronouncement and the Hells Angel-style devils emerged, jumping from above or springing up from below or escaping from chains. I steeled myself to accelerate fast, up the rickety ramp and blindly crash through the boxes, trying to aim for the gap between the hole and the performers on the set. I succeeded and the crowd was getting excited and getting bigger because this was on a main street and passers-by were swelling in behind the original spectators. Then the Devils set about blowing fire and tossing extra paraffin onto the pre-soaked set. It began to burn, slowly at first, in little patches, but gradually it took hold. The human characters ran around in terror being taunted by the devils and partially set on fire. The fire behind them was becoming so hot that we had to halt the action. We had not fully considered how hot it might get if all that material, mainly dry wood, was burning at the same time. Heaven's band played on but the other performers, including the daredevil Devils held back, torn between keeping the action going and not getting roasted. I pushed my motorbike away, fearing the tank might explode. Somebody fitted up a garden hose to douse the flames but they couldn't get near enough to get the water onto the fire. The spectators had to retreat onto the pavement; they were enjoying the spectacle, but wondering what going to happen next.
What did happen was a distant sound of a siren coming closer. This added to the sense of disaster and impending doom that we had wanted to create but it was not part of our plan. The fire engine stopped on the road and the men quickly got their hoses out, with the leading officer (in a white helmet) carrying a metal staff as if he was expecting to face a riot, clearing a way through from the back of the crowd, emerging into the performing area. They set about dousing the fire, producing magnificent clouds of steam; it was a great spectacle.The firemen had to negotiate the pressure of the hose and one didn't notice the hole and stumbled into it slightly. The faltering Heaven band switched to the Laurel & Hardy theme and the firemen, noticing God and the other performers became aware they had entered a show and, as the urgency of the fire quickly subsided, they began to act up, bumping into each other, falling back in the hole and spraying the water slightly carelessly. By this time a second wailing fire engine had arrived from a different direction and then a third. The whole area from Brixton to Vauxhall and down the South Circular was getting snarled up with traffic so as soon as the state of the diminishing fire had been checked they all began to pack up and leave. The crowd were amazed , amused and apparently very satisfied; they gave a cheering applause and began to disperse.
I was rather stressed, partly because I was terrified we were going to get in big trouble for causing such an out-of-control situation and partly angry with whoever had called the fire brigade. Somebody said the call came from the houses that backed onto the car park, somebody else said it came from the pub across the road, which had emptied to watch the madness. It is likely they thought the cricket ground was on fire. However the lovely Alfie Pritchard who was in charge of Oval House had a big moustachioed grin - "A Happening! : disaster, catostrophe. It was great!". He told us not to worry about the fire brigade or the neighbours. In those days awareness and practice of Health and Safety was minimal to say the most.
Fortunately the whole event had been videoed. Video was just coming in then and big, bulky cameras could shoot in black and white. Unfortunately the tapes were expensive and were often re-used, so that when, a few days later, they showed us the footage we were persuaded not to buy the recording. What would we use it for, I wondered; performance was about the lived experience not about preserving for posterity. That is my only regret.
Representing Our Country
In the summer of 1982 Theatre Exchange (formerly Kaboodle) was invited to perform at the World Youth Olympiad, the student version of the Olympic Games, at Edmonton in Canada. That summer we had created a series of street theatre pieces collectively called The Book of Odds and Ends. All the pieces used masks that I had been churning out, inspired by a two-week workshop with Jacques Lecoq in Cardiff. There was a family of four who wandered lost, looking for a place to picnic; there was a gang of diverse youth - a skinhead, a punk, a biker and a rockabilly; then there were four babies in prams with masks corresponding to the characters of the gang. Finally there was a group of geriatric Morris dancers, and it may have been this piece that secured our invitation.
Edmonton was an outpost of shiny skyscrapers funded by local oil resources in the midst of hundreds of miles of seemingly endless little lakes that we flew over. When we arrived there we discovered that there was another group from England who did Morris dancing. We stayed in a grand hotel which full of other groups from around the world all representing their traditional culture; amongst others there were Spanish Flamenco dancers, Korean dancers, Taiwanese lion dancers, South African dancers, Polish dancers, American line dancers, Canadian Inuit dancers, Brazilian capoeira and a Mexican mariachi band. The British Council had, it seemed, chosen two groups that 'interpreted' traditional English dances rather than sending a more authentic/conventional team. The other group was from Wolverhampton and were a bunch of young heavy-mteal pagans who had got obsessed with the figure of the Green Man. We saw each other's pieces at one of the performer-to-performer cabaret evenings in the hotel ballroom. Although our piece was an adaption of traditional dances it was essentially slow, gentle slapstick, in traditional costume, self-deprecating of our cultural heritage. The music was supplied by a ghetto-blaster and after a mix-up over cassette tapes a hip-hop tune would start and I would launch into a frenetic acrobatic break dance. The other company took it more seriously - they covered their faces and long hair in green and dressed in a cross between Mediaeval and 'tribal', with a touch of heavy-metal - big belts, bone necklaces, buzzard feathers. They had thick staves and were accompanied by live music from a fiddle and an Irish tambour. They were wild! They rushed at each other, violently clashing sticks, with furious cries and a swirling of long hair (heavy-metal style). The other artists from around the world all performed with delicacy, finesse and respect for their traditional culture so they were amused (bemused) at our offering and in wide-eyed shock at the wild ones from Wolverhampton.
We had a good time at the festival, enjoying meeting and sharing the elevator with the other fully costumed performers. When we had time off we drove to Banff and the Rockies, visiting a glacier and having a hilarious time camping. The Wolverhampton team didn't stay all the time and so they missed out on the finale of the festival which included fireworks and a gala of all the cultural acts. Each were to have three minutes of stage time in the middle of the Commonwealth athletic stadium, the biggest open-air one in Canada. Because the sound quality of our Morris dance cassette was not sufficient for stadium amplification we opted to do the babies in prams. As part of the piece we used to do a version of the jazz classic In the Mood, played on tiny plastic trumpets, rattles and party blowers, with synchronised rotations of instruments big-band style. Because live music would not be reliable in such a vast space and lengthy sound checks were not possible with a rapid turnaround, all the groups were asked to go to record their music at a professional studio. When we arrived there for our scheduled time-slot, roadies were present to help unload and set up our instruments and stands. We told them they could carry our small plastic bag if they wanted to. We were each allotted a separate microphone and given big earphones from which we could hear the figures peering at us from the soundbooth who were trying to maintain a straight face and a professional attitude.
'How long do you need to tune up?'
How do you tune a plastic trumpet? They did various soundchecks to get the levels right and then cued us in. After we had finished they played it back to us and asked whether we wanted to do another take. We didn't think we needed to but since everyone was having a good time and we had only used up a quarter of our one hour slot we thought we might as well.
'Any adjustments you need to make?'
We had a semi-serious discussion about how much flourish to give the final note, trying out a few possibilities, and then launched into it again. The faces in the sound booth collapsed into soundless laughter.
'It's a wrap', someone declared triumphantly.
At the dress rehearsal the next day there was similar incredulity from organisers and other performers. The Spanish group before us ran on, took up their positions and flamencoed away, while their guitarists mimed strumming, and then they all whirled off elegantly. We couldn't run very fast because we each carried our pram structures and the hidden chair bashed against the back of our legs if we took long strides. So we waddled as fast as we could, sat in position and our music came on. And then stopped. Technicians looked at each other. One came over to us and asked the full-face masks politely if that was the right music. The baby masks nodded. 'Off you go then'. We waddled off.
The next day was one of the most surreal performing experiences I ever had. The stadium was packed (55,000 people) with athletes and performers from all over the world, representatives of the Olympic committee, local and national government, the British Council, and international TV crews. The cultural groups lined up in the underbelly of the stadium, waiting to go on and then with each successive cheer and applause another group went on. We approached our starting blocks amongst stressed stage-managers and hectic walkie-talkie messages. We couldn't see each other because of the hoods of our prams but Lee, at the front, gave a thumbs up like a Battle of Britain wing commander, ready for take-off.
Chocks away and we waddled furiously and sat down. Being inside a full-face mask is like wearing a Mediaeval helmet, nobody can see your face but you can peer out, as if out of a Second World War pill-box, at the distant, unreadable faces. Our music comes on but there is a delay between our monitor speakers and the sound in the stadium: it was like being in a double reality. We go through our micro-choreography, surely invisible to most, and arrive at a final flourish (the final flourish). Lee sets off for the side of the stage but it gets caught on the stairs and he tumbles sideways. He wrestles with it while the other prams bump into each other. He is rescued and we escape from the glaring focus of attention. After all the cultural groups had performed the national anthems are played.as the teams of athletes enter the arena to join the performers. God save the Queen starts up. We look at each other with a mixture of embarrassment and glee and looked nervously for the reaction from the British sports team. Whatever the rest of the world had made of it they, at least, were smiling.
Confessions of a Fire-Eater
Who wouldn’t want to be a fire-eater? And not only for the excitement of causing an explosion to come out of your lips but also for the kudos. Certainly for some men, the bravado associated with it sharpens their macho credentials. For me, going into it in my mid-twenties, it was the romantic idea of becoming like some dashing figure from a Nineteenth Century fairground like Sergeant Troy in Far From The Madding Crowd or Zampano in La Strada or even the Player King from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which I had played at school. It was the first circus skill I learned and the first I taught (1979). This was because, to my surprise, it is relatively easy, if a little unpleasant.
I received the basic instruction in my first week of rehearsals with Kaboodle and, over that long transformative summer (1978), I became quite accomplished so that, for the following summer, I based a whole show and character on it. For this I did some research, gaining a session with a top professional who did camp burlesque in London nightclubs. He showed me how a flame could be kept alight on the tongue, even inside the mouth. However he was reluctant to tell me what fuel he used; it didn’t smell like paraffin. So I did some painful experiments with a range of flammable liquids – white spirit, lighter fuel, alcohol etc. I made some balls of fire in wire cages that could be swung; decades later this came to be called fire poi, from the Maori martial art. Another object was length of wood wrapped in asbestos rope (still freely available at that time) that, when lit, could be balanced on the chin, or on a finger, or a toe, or be flipped 180 degrees to land in a balance on the palm of the hand. It could also be laid on the ground and I would walk on my hands the length of it with flames licking up round my face. I would juggle fire brands and the finale would be getting myself chained up, escapology style, and placed in a tin bath of burning paper or straw. Another section was the usual rubbing of burning brands along my arms, over my bare belly and ‘down my naked underpants’. I would pretend to both set fire to my armpit hairs and burn my tackle. This section would finish with licking the flame, swallowing the flame several times and blowing fire. This included blowing it backwards between my legs which would have a comic effect because the flame would go upwards and I could appear to have set fire to my bum.
This happened for real in a later version of the show. I developed the comedy of the have-a-go failing macho with a character called Sidney Singe. In the version called The Fair Play I had two assistants and Sidney was a smarmy magician who presented various illusions that mainly went wrong, including a saw-in-half routine with a table I had made. After various setbacks for which he blamed his assistants they turn the tables on him and set fire to the seat his trousers. I had sewn a pad of wadding onto the inside of the trousers which was soaked in paraffin. As long as I kept running around the stage the flames did not go up my back. This worked fine until at the Galway Festival we had to do three evening shows and a matinee. By the time of the matinee, on the last day, my trousers were developing holes and this allowed air to go inside the trousers and flames to develop there. My feigned pain became more real and instead of continuing to run around I disappeared offstage frantically patting my trousers and sitting on the ground. My partners stared offstage at me bewildered not knowing what to do, and not helped by my gestures to ‘Just improvise!’. They floundered for a bit and there was an interesting tension in the audience who could sense that something had really gone wrong. I managed to walk back on for the end and bow stiffly for the applause. We had got away with it but the problem was we had the evening show to do and I was in some pain so I sat with my bum in cold water in one of the sinks in the dressing room for a few hours. We cut that bit for the evening show.
A more traumatic show was on November 5th a few years earlier. This was one of my first bookings as a solo performer and I proudly turned up at an adventure playground near Shepherds Bush in my own van having carefully prepared and packed all of the props. The playground had two low towers with a walk ladder between them. It was fairly dark and there were a lot of young people, mainly male, who knew I was coming but did not know what to expect. In both senses, I was coming from another place; I was used to white middle-class family audiences but here I was the only white person, parachuted in to their community space. My faux posh accent and the bombastic arrogance of the character were taken at face value. I got the impression that my choice to make myself seem foolish and vulnerable seemed incredibly stupid and made me fair game as an outsider. The self-deprecating parody of the macho was not appreciated. I’d had tough audiences before but usually the combination of impressive feats and the obviously deliberate mistakes had won people round. Perhaps because it was dark and my acted facial expressions couldn’t be seen but here the failures were treated with jeers and disdain. With my head tilted up to balance the fire pole on my chin, I found I was being spat at from above and cigarette butts were flicked into my face. The one organiser who had greeted me when I arrived seemed torn between giving me assistance and keeping in with his young people. When it came to the escapology my audience volunteer tied the chains really tightly around my arms and legs and then, to laughs and cheers, proceeded to empty a whole gallon of paraffin onto the flaming newspaper which roared up so much that so I couldn’t complete the ‘daring escape’ routine. As I extricated myself from the chains and tried to wrap up the show I noticed that people were throwing my precious juggling clubs into the inferno and other props were being kicked, smashed or stolen. I hastily scooped up what I could and got back to van before everything was lost or I was beaten up. It was humiliating and frightening, the bullying made me angry but I was also in disbelief; why had they turned on me when I was clearly just trying to give them a laugh at my expense. Going solo suddenly seemed like a lonely place to be.
Unsurprisingly, there are dangers involved in fire-eating but not those that are obvious. At one of the Suffolk fairs in 1978 (Bungay?) Jimi Hignett, from Kaboodle, and I accompanied a rock band by blowing fire in time with the music. We went on for so long, spraying so much paraffin in the air that my hair got soaked and caught fire. The crowd loved it so I did it again, clowning up the suffering. Later on in the summer we both got a gig at a dance club in Camden doing the same thing. I blew for many minutes and later developed a bit of a cough (the paraffin makes one more susceptible to infection). The next day I felt ill as if I had bad flu. It got much worse and I was completely wiped out for days, alone in an attic room with only twice daily visits from housemates, sweating and coughing up blood. When I eventually staggered to the doctor he was horrified after I told him about it. He listened to my chest - double pneumonia - and send me straight to the nearest hospital. There they took it very seriously and I had to get straight into a bed. After hours of various tests they decided I'd already got over the worst and sent me home with antibiotics.
I was asked to do a weekend fire workshop at Oval House. There were not that many takers but we had had about eight people and I went through my methods and warnings. As can be seen from the ridiculous set-up photo these included the dangers of fumes, of setting light to one’s own facial hair, how to cope with wind and how to not burn the audience. The other photo that was taken was of three of the participants blowing fire outside Oval House and me encouraging them. This photo was picked up the Associated Press agency and appeared in national papers and around the world. To my surprise when we got to Kenya six months later I was shown a copy with it in the Nairobi Times. It also led to being featured on the BBC Today programme. A taxi arrived at my house very early in the morning and took me to Broadcasting House in the centre of London where, after a lot of waiting, I was interviewed live in a car, and then blew fire to the bemusement of passing morning commuters. All that could be heard on the radio was the puff of fluid from my lips and the brief soft roar of the ignition. It is seemed absurd that such a purely visual spectacle was worth presenting in audio, like trying to describe a painting from the sound of the brushstrokes on canvas. However, as people pointed out to me, it was an unusual story; nobody else in the country was giving that kind of workshop or could even conceive of it happening.
So where, you might ask, are the confessions? Well, there was a sort of strange erotic quality to my act: the parody stripping off to the waist, the muscle flexing, the phallic stick rubbed over my belly leaning back so that my hips were forward, the chains on muscular flesh, the licking, swallowing and the contemplation of the effect on the inside of naked underpants. There were certainly times, with certain audiences, when the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aahs’ that I encouraged became less ironic. And of course, there would be interest from kids and also young women after the show - ‘How did it work?’, ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’ and these questions could lead into longer discussions and offers to help carry my props back to the van. However, on the whole, any possible attractiveness was mixed with a fascinated disgust: the red marks from mild burns, the smell of sweat and singed hair, and the paraffin breath didn’t help to raise erotic appeal.
Inappropriate Behaviour With THE NORWEGIAN MINISTER OF FINANCE
I'm backstage with a tub of vaseline, smearing it onto the edges of a big fleshy hairy slit, testing its effectiveness by inserting my hand right through. The suggestion of gross sexuality had occurred to me before then but at that moment it hit me forcefully, and was made even weirder by the fact that the Norwegian Minister of Finance was giving a serious speech just a few metres away on the other side of the curtain. The slits were on the sides of large heads that I had made from latex and fibreglass. The heads were big enough to conceal the upper body of a performer who could get inside them. There they could operate the movements of eyeballs and the extension of a long tongue which protruded out of a gaping mouth. They could also insert their arms through slits in the sideburns, just in front of the ears, and use hand gestures to express emotions or communicate with spectators. The problem was I had cut the slits through the fibreglass and tiny fibres grazed the skin of the arms. I had glued strips of latex skin around the slits but this had made them stiff (as well as unintentionally adding to the labia look), hence the vaseline.
The sexual suggestivity was not altogether unwelcome. The tongues extended a whole arm's length and, in street theatre situations, were used to lick spectators, either fully if they were fully clothed or tentatively if they had bare legs. In practice it was the threat of being licked that was enough to create the nervous hilarity and physical reaction that we were after. We were interested in provoking the public out of just watching passively and for them to engage in playful chase games with us. This was all based on thorough research into the carnivalesque but it was the simplicity of the piece that made it work across cultures and classes.
I had made three by then but another dozen were to follow. It was a long making process and had to be discovered as I went along. I had made hundreds of masks but these were different and I couldn't find anyone who made anything quite like them. The first one I had made in my kitchen while the family were away for a fortnight. I had bought bags of clay to add to my existing stock in order to make a mould of the front half of the head. I quickly realised I had nowhere near enough so I bulked it out with other objects to hand - bricks and stones from the garden, saucepans, and tins of beans and tomatoes. This huge mound covered in clay filled the entire dining table. At this point (day three) an estate agent arrived to do the survey for a valuation of the house. Normally, I imagine, occupiers make their houses spotless for such a visit so he was rather taken aback by the huge mound of mud on the table and became slightly wary of me as if I was as mad as the main character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind had seemed to be when he also built a pile of mud and sand in the middle of his house.
I had to stand on the table in order to get enough distance to achieve the right expression and the table creaked with all the weight. Once I was satisfied with the shape (day six), I began to cover it with layers of plaster strengthened with scrim and hessian. This had to be an inch thick all over, further adding to the weight. It was only at this stage I realised there would be a problem getting the clay out. Normally I would simply turn a mask over but this vast lump was immoveable. Fortunately I had put a sheet of plastic on the table before I started and I was just able to pull the edge of the mound slightly over the edge of the table, from where I could begin to prise out the clay from underneath. Little by little, over two days (eight and nine), I slid the mould across onto another table, excavating from beneath all the various items that were embedded in the (by now drying) clay. My fingers and arm muscles ached but finally I had an empty mould. I was terrified it would crack or collapse when I turned it over so I reinforced it some more and then, with much struggling, managed to heave it over (day eleven). By the time I had cleaned the mould, put the latex and fibre glass on the inside there was only a couple of days left to extract it and clear up the layers of mess that covered every surface of the devastated kitchen.
We had used three heads in our indoor show, The Joy Society, but I could see the potential of them to use as a street theatre piece, and it proved to be much more successful. That summer we took it to events throughout the UK but also to Holland, Austria and Segovia. In subsequent years we took the Heads to Montreal, Singapore and Philadelphia. These distant venues required air travel and the simplest way was to take them as personal luggage. We would arrive at check-in with them wrapped up in tarpaulin and cargo net to go into the hold. They were well under the weight allowance and at that time, airlines could not find a reason not to accept them. In later years everything had to go through the X-Ray scanners and there was rarely a machine big enough to take them. Coming back from Segovia on my own (on my 50th birthday) I struggled to cope with all three on two airport trollies.
One of the bookings came through our friends at Fools Paradise. It was for a conference in Norway at a small port called Alesund. There they held an international gathering of designers from all over Northern Europe and wanted something unusual for the opening event. They had had the Swedish Circ Cirkor the year before and wanted something different. Our booker, Jo , had persuaded them that we were just the thing. So we agreed to do fifteen minutes of weird visual images, with masks, remote controlled devices and the Heads, mainly drawn from the indoor show, but embellished with some of the street theatre sequences. I had no idea how this would go down with these high-powered design artists and executives. The opening evening began with speeches and outline of the programme which included talks from the creative designers of Lego and IKEA, talks on thinking outside the box and artistic leadership. The last one to speak before us was the Norwegian Minister of Finance.
How well did it go down? Well, it was hard to tell from the applause, but at a drinks buffet afterwards I got quite merry with the director of the Hamburg Art School who was active in a Baltic network of art and design schools. He loved it and we had a great conversation about 'high art' and 'low art', art as provocation, art as commercial product and arts education. So not all bad. The Minister had disappeared.