1967 was the summer of love but a strange mixed atmosphere prevailed everywhere – optimism for the future and horror at the war in Vietnam which was shown every night in black and white on our television screens.
Although I was excited by all the sit-ins and love-ins that were happening in London, workwise I was feeling increasingly dissatisfied with the small parts I was getting, so I answered an ad in The Stage for actors to participate in workshops led by New York director, Charles Marowitz. He had co-founded the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh and was now blazing a trail in avant-garde theatre in London. The auditions took the form of group workshops over several weeks; the remaining group would finally form the core of Charles’ new theatre company. There were about thirty of us to begin with including Nigel Hawthorne and Liz Smith (to name drop but two) and we were finally whittled down to twelve.
Second-in-command running the workshops was Neil Hornick, a highly energetic, red bearded young man who has become a life-long friend. As Charles Marowitz spent more and more time on other things, Neil took over the running of the workshops and I absolutely loved them. I was exploring new techniques such as the ‘Dying Exercise’ where there was quite a bit of falling on swords but as I watched while one actor withdrew from life very slowly, I realised that there was much more to theatre than gaining big laughs and exit lines as a char lady in Derby rep. Something was dying but something new was emerging and I was anxious to be re-born into this brave new world.
Neil invited some of us to participate in a show with a group of British Artists who came together to protest against the war in Vietnam and the British Government’s support of the United States. The festival of protest was called the Angry Arts Week at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. The artists involved included: Vanessa Redgrave, John Arden, Brigid Brophy, Jules Ffeiffer and Peter Brook who was filming us – we were the Gang Bang Show (which I hastened to add was an alliterative title, spoofing the Boy Scouts’ Gang Show).
I was playing a Bunny Girl stroke Red Cross Nurse; there were several of us in a chorus line wearing nurse’s aprons and white rabbit tails. And while we kicked our legs about dancing as lovely but silent, assistants, the solo parts were taken by the men – some of whom couldn’t remember their lines.
I don’t remember much else about the show, except that it was a satire on entertaining the US troops and the escalation of the war, directed by Neil Hornick. And one of the bunnies told Peter Brook to “fuck off out of the girl’s dressing room!” where she thought he was hanging about too much – allegedly. The event drew us artists together – we were dissenting big time with marches, protests and fund raising events.
One of these events took place in the garden of a large house in Hampstead. On a hot July afternoon we duly arrived to prepare for a reprise of our Gang Bang Show. We were welcomed by an affable, grey haired man who took us upstairs to the drawing room on the first floor and offered us cooling drinks, saying that we must make ourselves at home and use the room to dress in for the show. He was very interested in our work but didn’t mention his own, although we already knew that he was an Oscar winning Hollywood screen writer and that he had come to Britain to escape McCarthyism in the United States.
This sumptuous cream and gold drawing room was full of antique furniture but much more interesting were the artworks; contemporary paintings and sculptures covered the walls and tables. One of our group went out and came back to whisper “There’s a little Picasso in the toilet!” So we all trooped in there one by one, to have a look. Our host seemed very happy to explain all about the collection and the artists, many of whom he had known personally, when his wife burst into the room. “What are they doing in here?” she demanded of our embarrassed host. (Poor man, had he escaped from McCarthy only to find himself in the arms of this Hampstead harridan?) “They are supposed to be changing in the garden – just look at the carpet!” she bellowed. We all duly looked at the pale carpet as we shuffled out to be shown to our ‘dressing room’ in the huge garden – it was the potting shed.
We were furious but at the same time felt that we had to go ahead with the show, since it was to raise funds for charity. I watched through the wooden slats of the potting shed as very well-dressed people arrived to donate their cash for Vietnam and be entertained in that beautiful, sunny garden. Meanwhile, I was struggling into my fish-net tights among the rakes and hoes, thinking about the rackety reputation of my chosen profession. We were indeed ‘other’ just like all those creators of the work hanging upstairs in the posh drawing room. And I wished I had stuffed that little Picasso into my handbag.
Ron House, who played the MC in the Vietnam protest show, had a small company called Compendium. I was impressed to learn that he had come from performing with the famous Chicago Second City improvising company. He asked me to join him in a satire show which happened every week in a Soho club called Les Cousins – known by everyone as ‘Lez Cuzzins’.
Derek Cunningham was the other performer and the three of us improvised sketches around the weeks’ news which we then tightened up and performed in front of a crowd of regulars in the basement club in Greek street. I had discovered a love of improvisation and among other characters, played a Joan Bakewell figure in a spoof arts programme where we introduced and mimicked artists and pundits such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Kenneth Tynan. We also had a stock of standard sketches with which we could bulk out the show if we ran out of news items. And if things went off the rails, I discovered that it was possible to think on our feet and pull the sketch back – it was a great experience.
My then boyfriend, the artist Peter Joseph, made a beautiful minimalist screen for us to change behind – up to then we had been on full view, changing in front of the audience, which I suppose was quite interesting for them but didn’t afford us any privacy and we lacked a place to talk to each other and make alterations. Also, we had the habit of finishing a sketch and then all of us running off to look at the running order ‘backstage.’ We realised that if we had the running order on stage, we could make the transitions smoother and there would always be someone in front of the audience doing some impro. to segue between the sketches – it was like stone-age man discovering fire!
In order to be more ‘on trend’ we changed the show’s name to Blam! Blam! –influenced by pop art and Peter designed some publicity that had a Roy Lichensteineque comic strip quality. Underneath the title it announced ‘Two Boys and a Girl reveal all in Soho’.
We were playing to packed houses every week and beginning to get noticed; a BBC editor saw the show and we were invited to do a satirical spot on a BBC TV news programme called 24 Hours, about war toys for Christmas. Meanwhile, Peter took it upon himself to negotiate a spot for us in a Mayfair night-club called The Blue Angel. In order to make an impression, he borrowed a camel coat with a velvet collar – probably from one of his brothers and went along as our ‘manager’ to seal the deal.
The red velvet plushness of the club’s interior was very unfamiliar to us and I have no idea what the punters thought of our radical material – we certainly didn’t get many laughs from the tables in the under-lit gloom. But we had been paid proper money – cash in hand, promptly, after the gig. We also had the possibility of a regular booking. So flushed with this success, we skipped down Piccadilly laughing and joking when we came upon a busker crouched over his instruments on the pavement – it was a bitterly cold January night. We stopped and spoke to him and Ron gave him a sizeable sum of money. As we walked on Ron said “Oh I feel so sorry for that guy – we are doing well and here he is performing outside in the cold.” Later, we learned that his name was Don Partridge and he had a huge success in the charts with his one-man-band.
We were relieved after all, not to get the Blue Angel residency – it wouldn’t have worked: instead we did a successful little tour of clubs in the UK and made a short black and white film. But Ron, an American citizen, was finding the struggle to get permission to remain in the country increasingly difficult and decided to go home. So we finally brought the show to an end – it had been terrific fun and I learnt a great deal about working new material in front of an audience.
One day, my friend Neil Hornick rang to say that a new company was forming which was to be the London extension of the LaMama company. Ellen Stewart, the founder of this New York experimental theatre, had given it her blessing. They were looking for a female performer – was I interested? I leapt at the chance.
This is an extract from Cindy Oswin’s work-in-progress memoir of her theatre life; from early experiences in rep. through to experimental theatre in the sixties onwards. It includes material from her performance lecture ‘On the Fringe’ commissioned by the British Library and Artsadmin.
Cindy Oswin is a writer, actor and theatre director who has worked with many innovative theatre companies. She has written for opera and film as well as masques for Shakespeare’s Globe, including the royal opening event. She is currently working on a new show about the first woman to write in English – Julian of Norwich.