Theatre Workshop

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Theatre Workshop is a theatre group noted for their director, Joan Littlewood. Many actors of the 1950s and 1960s received their training and first exposure with the company. Many Theatre Workshop productions were transferred to the West End, and some like Oh, What a Lovely War! and A Taste of Honey were made into films.

Formation[edit]

The Theatre Workshop company began as a touring company founded in the North of England in 1945. Joan Littlewood pioneered an ensemble approach, with her husband Ewan MacColl, that sought to involve cast and audience in drama as a living event. Previously, Littlewood had worked with MacColl in developing radio plays for the BBC that had taken script and cast from local workers. They had met and married in 1934, while working with the Theatre of Action. Both MI5 and the Special Branch maintained a watch on the couple, as Communists; this had precluded Littlewood working for the BBC as a children's programme presenter, and had also caused some of MacColl's work to be banned from broadcast. In the late 1930s they formed another troupe — the Theatre Union. This dissolved in 1940. With the ending of World War II in 1945 many of the members of Theatre Union met up and formed Theatre Workshop and in 1948 they toured Czechoslovakia and Sweden.[1]

Theatre Royal, Stratford East[edit]

Joan Littlewood (1953–79)[edit]

Touring was not successful for the company, and in 1953 they took the gamble of taking a lease on a permanent base at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. The theatre was derelict, no funds were available for renovation, and actors cleaned and painted the auditorium between rehearsals. To save money the cast and crew slept in the dressing rooms. The theatre opened on 2 February 1953 with Twelfth Night.[2]

MacColl had not supported the move to London, and left the company to concentrate on his folk music. With Joan Littlewood, as director, Gerry Raffles (1928–75) as manager and John Bury, they continued to present a mixed programme of classics and modern plays, with contemporary themes. They lived and worked as a commune, sharing the many tasks associated with running and maintaining a theatre; with a duty roster for Chef of the week.

In April 1953, a request for funds was met with

The Finance Committee at their last meeting was unable to recommend any grant for the purposes you have in mind. However, the Committee indicated that they would be prepared to assist, where possible in the matter of publicity, providing this could be done without cost to the Committee[3]

Success came from an invitation from Claude Planson, the director of the Paris International Festival of Theatre, to represent England in the 1955 event. The company travelled to Paris with costumes in their suitcases, and scenery under their arms.[3] In May 1955, Theatre Workshop presented acclaimed productions at the Théâtre Hébertot of Volpone and Arden of Faversham, the company had to beg their fares home, but returned in glory. The Arts Council and critics became aware of this east London company, and they returned with six more productions to Paris. In 1963 they won the Award of the Grande Prix du Festival for Oh, What a Lovely War!.[4]

In 1955, Littlewood directed, and took the leading role, in the London premiere of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.

Finance continued to be tight, but the company kept afloat with transfers of many successful plays to the West End stage and later, film productions. This workload put a severe strain on resources, as these transfers meant that experienced cast members were tied up for long periods, and had to be replaced in the repertory. Until 1968, the Theatres Act 1843 required scripts to be submitted for approval by the Lord Chamberlain's Office, this conflicted with the improvisational theatre techniques used by Littlewood to develop plays for performance. She was twice prosecuted and fined for allowing the company to improvise in performance.

The Fun Palace was an ambitious multi-arts project conceived by Littlewood, and the company, in conjunction with architect Cedric Price, the project was never built, but influenced later projects such the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Another project conceived in the 1960s was the formation of an acting school associated with Theatre Workshop, to inspire a new generation of actors with the ideas and techniques of Joan Littlewood. Although Littlewood herself strongly disapproved, believing that acting was an unteachable skill,[5] the East 15 Acting School became successful, and is now based in its own premises in Loughton, in 2000, the school merged with the University of Essex.

By the end of the 1960s, both the company and the theatre itself were under threat. The theatre workshop presented revivals of its own productions and a campaign was begun to save the theatre from redevelopment as part of a new shopping centre planned to sweep away the centre of Stratford. Audiences mounted a campaign to save the theatre, and for many years it remained open in the centre of a building site.

In 1975, her collaborator and partner, Gerry Raffles died of diabetes, and in 1979, a devastated Joan Littlewood moved to France, and ceased to direct.

Many well regarded television and stage actors began their professional careers at Theatre Workshop under Littlewood's tutelege. These included Yootha Joyce, Glynn Edwards, Harry H. Corbett, George A. Cooper, Richard Harris, Stephen Lewis, Howard Goorney, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Nigel Hawthorne and Barbara Windsor. The last three were hired by director Ken Russell to appear with Twiggy in the film version of The Boy Friend

Philip Hedley (1979–2004)[edit]

Philip Hedley had worked as an assistant to Joan Littlewood for some years, and took over the artistic directorship on her departure from the theatre. He continued her educational work, and engaged with new Asian and Black audiences, as the local demographic changed. The theatre continued Littlewood's agenda to portray and express the experience of local people in East London.

In 1999, he began the Musical Theatre Initiatives scheme to encourage new writing in musical theatre. In 2004, after 25 years as artistic director, he retired.

Kerry Michael[edit]

(2004–present)

Kerry Michael is a second generation Greek Cypriot who was born and brought up in north London. joined Stratford East in 1997, as an associate director. He became director in September 2004. His manifesto is to bring London's new communities to the stage, and portray their experiences as second and third generation emigrants.[6]

Michael has upheld the theatre’s commitment to develop new work and to provide a platform for those voices underrepresented in the ever-changing communities of East London. In 2007 the theatre was nominated for an Olivier Award for ‘presenting a powerful season of provocative work that reaches new audiences’. Its hip-hop dance production of Boy Blue’s Pied Piper won an Oliver in the same year. In the following year Kerry’s production of Cinderella was also nominated for an Olivier. Kerry has numerous directing credits. Highlights include new plays by Cosh Omar: The Battle of Green Lanes and The Great Extension, Jamaica House by Paul Sirett, which had a site specific performance on the top floor of a tower block in Stepney, new musicals Make Some Noise, One Dance Will Do, Sammy, Harder They Come that has transferred to the Barbican and West End, and toured Canada, the US and the UK; Ray Davies’ Come Dancing – winner of the What’s on Stage Best Musical and the 2010 new production of John Adam's song play I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky.

He is Chair of Stratford Cultural Forum; a board member of Stratford Renaissance Partnership; a trustee of Discover, which provide creative, play and learning opportunities for children and their carers in Stratford; and a member of UK Equity’s International Committee for Artists Freedom.

Selected productions[edit]

Stage[edit]

Film[edit]

Former company members[edit]

References and notes[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]