After The Ballad of Ellen Strange I began to think about creating a permanent touring company. It didn’t take long before the idea of a horse-drawn theatre seemed to make good sense. To find out why go to the Horse-Drawn Theatre page. Then the next question was – what would the show be?

Pictures From Brueghel

I was teaching on the Foundation Course in Manchester, and decided to combine my teaching work with making a theatre show. Mala Sikka, a foundation student who had worked on Ellen Strange, and who had gone on to study Theatre Design at Central School in London, had been in touch. Mala told me about the work she was doing at college, including a new and exciting project led by Peter Schumann. Schumann was the founder of the influential Vermont based Bread & Puppet Theatre. He was bringing a Bread & Puppet show, Masaccio, from the USA and was looking for some ‘local’ musicians. Mala asked if our Horse + Bamboo musicians would come down to help him?

When I eventually went down to London to see what was going on I was surprised to see that the Masaccio work appeared to be entirely visual. Peter Schumann’s students were making clay reliefs based on Masaccio’s frescoes, casting from them, and then painting the resulting panels. Masaccio was, of course, an early Renaissance painter – one of the first realist artists. I learned that the material Peter used for making these panels was called celastic. Celastic is a resin impregnated cloth widely used in theatre at that time to make strong durable props. It’s now fallen out of favour as the process uses acetone, which gives off toxic fumes.

The handmade Masaccio images were duplicated over and over and hung in vertical rows, creating stunning visual backdrops for the performance. Celastic was also used to make the masks. The whole thing looked great, and the performance itself was loose and casual, held together by the presence of Schumann, narrating and playing fiddle and drums. When Peter Schumann left London I inherited his celastic sheets, some acetone, and a few ideas.

I liked it all. In fact I liked it a lot. It was the perfect approach to introducing theatre to my own art students. So I went back and planned a show based on the life and work of another artist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel was a Flemish 16thcentury painter who remains popular for his paintings of wide-screen landscapes peopled with characters acting out proverbs, children’s games, and similar. One idea I had was to mount our own celastic panels on stakes and set them into the landscape, performing in the spaces between them.

Pictures From Brueghel became our first ever tour. But before that, in June 1979, we had a week-long event at Chester Arts Centre. In Chester we took over the whole centre, making and rehearsing the show and the music in a large public gallery, not unlike how the Masaccio residency worked at Central School.

The horse-drawn tour itself circumnavigated Manchester, a journey of 250 miles. We started in Rossendale and Ramsbottom in mid-July, and then headed south for Buxton Festival. This was also memorable as being where we had our first ever puncture. The AA relayed us, horse, donkey, carts and all, into the town park. Not only that, but they then took the whole company out for a sit-down curry, and paid for it. Never say anything bad about the AA! Next we moved east to Frodsham (mid-August); then north to Blackpool (where we camped in the grounds of the zoo) and finally to Bolton Festival during the last week of August. Throughout we performed and camped in parks and other rural public spaces.

Inevitably we learned a huge amount from this first tour. We began the never-ending journey of discovering what makes a good performance. There was, not surprisingly, much to be learned about horses and horse-drawn vehicles (such as, ensure that you have sound tyres). Living for months under canvas meant that we also had things to learn about camping, as well as living and working together as a company. That year Pictures From Brueghel had a cast of 8. There was one horse (Connie) and her dray, plus a characterful donkey called Mingus, whose little cart carried our kitchen, and who became my special friend.

Another influence at this time were a group of young performers from Leiden, Holland. They were called Matrogoth, and I met them through Frank Berbee, who had abandoned his school when I first met him in Lille. He had hitch-hiked to France in order to find work with Welfare State on a big site-specific project I was involved with at La Vieille Bourse. He was sixteen at that point. 

Frank left Welfare State after a short while, but he kept in touch and ended up working on the Brueghel show. In 1980 he asked about working again on our second horse-drawn tour. Frank was precocious, playing a range of musical instruments, as well as being a writer/poet, an inspired maker, and an intense performer. I had briefly worked with Matrogoth in Leiden, and there met other members of the company – Bram Groothof, Ron Peperkamp, Peter Lindhout, Adriaan Krabbendam among them. These were all skilled artists, each in quite distinctive ways despite only being in their early 20s. Bram was a virtuoso keyboard player; Ron I never got to know particularly well. He wore sabots, and knew a lot about radical theatre practice as well as having a powerful performing presence himself. Peter was a self-sufficient, thoughtful and practical man, with inspired construction skills. Adriaan was kind, bookish and enigmatic, a choirmaster, and an expert on the Tarot..

We would stay up late discussing and arguing about theatre. The Dutch group had an extremely radical mindset compared to most British performers I had met, and they made me feel cautious by contrast. They pushed boundaries and were prepared to take physical and mental punishment to get what they wanted. We never entirely agreed on anything, but their energy and attitudes infected my own ideas.

The Home-Made Circus

The Home-Made Circus - entering the theatre space

Matrogoth had a big impact on our second touring show – The Home Made Circus. Peter designed and built a beautiful circular white-cloth tented space, which was decorated with my huge woodcuts. We also liked it because Peter used to send everyone else off for an hour and put it up entirely by himself. The show itself was influenced by the writings of the American West Coast poet Gary Snyder. We concocted a sort of ‘circus’ using odd life-size puppet-animals and Snyder’s wild, visionary stories, with Ron as its ring-master.

By now the company had grown into an entourage of over a dozen people, which included our own chef, Sam Richardson. With all the excitement about new and radical theatre ideas, we probably spent too little time on the administrative side of things. In those days we worked without any specialist administration or management. It tended to be myself and one or two of the others putting a few hours aside each week to manage budgets and deal with bookings. By today’s standards this might seem unusual and even impractical but it was, in fact, perfectly possible to run a reasonably well organised company this way and still balance the books and satisfy the funders. A big advantage was that nearly all of our limited income would go directly on making the shows and paying the performers. This is in marked contrast to the situation today when a considerably larger grant, plus a lot of other income, is swallowed up on management, overhead and administration costs.

But in 1980 we must have taken our eyes off the organisational ball for too long and our horse-drawn tour of The Home-Made Circus ended up being a rather short and local one. It was on the road for just over a month, in which time we took it to Rossendale, Ramsbottom, Accrington, and Padiham, albeit with trips out to St.Helens and Manchester.

Managing things

Looking through my notebooks it’s interesting to be reminded how the company organised itself at that time. In 1980 we had ten ‘members’, of whom four made up a ‘committee’. Those ten people were the self-same performers and artists who created the performance. We paid everyone the same; a flat rate of £50 a week while working on the show (roughly equivalent to £200 a week in 2018).

That same year we received a grant from North West Arts for £2840. That amount kept us going for the whole year. In addition to The Home-Made Circus this included participating in Wolverhampton Festival of Performance, an exhibition and other activities at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool. We also took part in community activities locally at Grimsargh and Edenfield. We ended up with a deficit of almost exactly the same amount as the grant we had received. But most of this was paid off with an end-of-financial-year one-off grant from North West Arts. I was still lecturing in Manchester and was able to cover the remaining amount from my own earnings. At this time, Horse + Bamboo was still being financed through my personal bank account.

BREUGHEL: BOB FRITH, FRANK BERBEE, MAGGIE MARIGLIANI, MALA SIKKA, KEITH BRAY (m), MAX BULLOCK (m), WIN HUNT (h), with SUE GOODWIN and BRAM GROOTHOF (also students from VISUAL STUDIES DEPT, MANCHESTER POLYTECHNIC).

CIRCUS: BOB FRITH, RON PEPPERKAMP, FRANK BERBEE (m), WIN HUNT (h), ANNA NEAVE, LAURA BARNES, SAM RICHARDSON, DAVE CHADWICK, GWYNETH LAMB (m), PETER LINDHOUT, KAREN LANCEL, BRAM GROOTHOF (m), DAVE COOK (m).

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Bob Frith founded Horse + Bamboo Theatre in 1978. He now manages the Dave Pearson Studio and is active in support of Apna Rossendale.

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