By 1981 we had a workshop big enough for up to a dozen people to live in. Admittedly it was all rather rough and ready, with an outdoor self-built chemical loo, no hot water, and just one woodburning stove. Most of the company slept on the shelves that were built to hold the material – fabric, wood etc – that we used. But the general spirit was good, and we had already organised two largely successful horse-drawn tours. What’s more, we were beginning to manage all of this pretty effectively. Creatively we had written, built and rehearsed two new shows, plus several other events – community bonfires, kiln firings and so on. It was beginning to feel like a company.

Yet despite all of this it was dawning on me that keeping this company going for the long haul was throwing up new and difficult challenges. I was underwriting much of the the costs, using my earnings as a lecturer to keep it all afloat. The Foundation Course at Manchester Polytechnic were happy to provide many of our materials and tools. It even provided the workspaces to create the projects, which was a big bonus. However it was hard to know how long this situation would go on for. It worked both ways, of course, because the college could rightly claim to be offering a performance option as part of their course. But the students changed every year, and I knew that to build a company we needed a core of artists and professional performers who could learn, live and develop together for a longer time period. To keep it going we would have to find other ways of sustaining and funding ourselves.

Little Heads

I also wanted time to develop my writing for theatre and directing. I had had no training in theatre and was simply learning by doing. Which wasn’t a bad thing in itself; in fact it was an good way of discovering and learning about theatre – what it could do; what I could do. But I sometimes felt that I was stumbling along, picking up and experimenting with things at random. Our next show, Little Heads (Shouldn’t Wear Big Hats) reflected a lot of my uncertainties both as writer and director. Surprisingly I never seemed to have any worries as a performer. The tour that year was again a short and rather local one, but at least we managed to expand the performance space and include some bad weather cover for the audience, if not the performers.

Looking back I can’t really remember much about the show. I do recall a crossroads with a signpost; three postmen; a giant puppet with huge hands that looked over the tented walls of the theatre. Plus a large bouncy wire cockerel. It lacked coherence, but among the good things were storytelling interludes by Edward Taylor. Edward had joined the company after leaving Wolverhampton art college. He had a dry and individual wit, and a kind of angry persona. He also had the knack of telling witty and uncomfortable stories, whilst wearing something that was a cross between a flip-book and a sandwich-board, using his own images to illustrate the stories. Edward eventually hooked up with Sue Auty, who was also touring with us at this point. Later they formed the Whalley Range All-Stars. After a long period of the two companies going their own ways, we are now fairly close neighbours and colleagues.

Another positive thing that happened at this time was that we began to experiment with going out onto the street and improvising performances. Sometimes it would be a group of performers together and sometimes just one (often masked) performer on their own, perhaps accompanied by a musician on saxophone or drums. Looking back at the photographs from those ad-hoc performances I feel that they might have had more going for them than the show itself. The forays onto the street were really intended to promote the main show, as the performer was usually also accompanied by someone with handouts about the event. But they turned out to be a lot more than that; helping the performers to develop their improvisation skills, and giving us the freedom to play – away from the discipline of putting an hour-long show together. 

Leicester Festival

Then, out of nowhere, we were invited to take part in Leicester Festival by its director, Ted Little. I knew Ted slightly from my Welfare State days. Ted made us an amazing offer. Which was to build our own theatre space from scratch. We would use wood from scrapped boats at the old Leicester canal marina, and then put on a week of performances. For Horse + Bamboo, at this point in our development, it was a tremendous opportunity. Plus, for once, the budget was fairly generous too. I was able to work with a company of ten artists, and together we built the canal-side theatre space from scrap canal-yard timber and fabric.

I deconstructed the script of ‘Little Heads’, and then abandoned it altogether, starting again. While almost as ramshackle as the canal-side theatre structure, the new production gained a fresh strength from new folktale elements. We also incorporated images taken from Goya’s etchings, as well as a crazy vein of surreal comedy provided by Edward. There was also a character called ‘El Pirata’ played by Andrew Milne Beresford. El Pirata (the Pirate) was a waste-cardboard collector who mooched around the gypsy quarter of Seville with a flotilla of painted prams and improvised carts. He had insisted on buying me a few drinks in a cheap dive bar, and I repaid him by using his character in the Leicester show. From Triana to Marina. 

The show also had at least one genuine visual trump card. The entrances to (and exits from) the stage could be made from a large raft punted across the canal, with its own curtain. At one of the climaxes Edward Taylor appeared from underwater in a submarine escape suit, dragging a box onto the stage. He opens the box and dripping wet puppets appear, which kick off a new storyline.

The show was one of the hits of the Festival, and by the last night it was full to overflowing. Then, after the curtain call, the cast left the stage by raft, floating away down the canal. As the audience left, the whole theatre burst into flame and was razed to the ground before their eyes. The fire was so intense from the tarry boat-wood that there was an unplanned miniature fire-storm. That evening was also memorable as three of the cast ended in A&E, as a planned but entirely unrehearsed jump from the burning three-metre high wooden wall of the set resulted in severely sprained ankles and legs. Fortunately no bones were broken.

BOB FRITH, PAUL KERSHAW, SUE AUTY, EDWARD TAYLOR, ANDREW MILNE BERESFORD, KEITH BRAY (m), PETER LINDHOUT, JAKE, FIONA FRANK, ADRIAAN KRABBENDAM, GILL PEARSON, WIN HUNT (h), KAY KENNEDY.

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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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