Theatre Workshop

Theatre Workshop

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" were made into films.


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.

Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Joan Littlewood (1953-1979)

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, in the London Borough of Newham. The theatre had become moribund, 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".

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 (1928-1975) 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"

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. In May 1955, Theatre Workshop presented acclaimed productions at the Théâtre Hebertot 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".

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. The East 15 Acting School was 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.

During Littlewood's time at Theatre Workshopb though, many well regarded television and stage actors began their professional careers there, including Yootha Joyce, Glynn Edwards, Harry H. Corbett, George A. Cooper, Richard Harris, Stephen Lewis, Howard Goorney, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin and Barbara Windsor. The last three were hired by director Ken Russell to appear with Twiggy in the film version of "The Boyfriend"

Philip Hedley (1979-2004)

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 (2004-continues)

Kerry Michael 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. [Ones to Watch - "The Sunday Times", Culture, January 9, 2005]

elected productions

*1955 "Volpone" by Ben Johnson
*1955 "Arden of Faversham" (a part of the Shakespeare "Apocrypha")
*1955 "Mother Courage and Her Children" by Bertholt Brecht
*1957 "You Won’t Always Be On Top" by Henry Chapman
*1957 "The Quare Fellow" by Brendan Behan
*1958 "The Hostage" by Brendan Behan
*1958 "A Taste of Honey" by Shelagh Delaney
*1959 "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be" by Frank Norman, music by Lionel Bart
*1959 "Make Me An Offer" (starring Diana Coupland)
*1960 "Sparrers Can't Sing" (sic) by Stephen Lewis
*1963 "Oh! What a Lovely War" by Joan Littlewood, and cast.


*1961 "A Taste of Honey"
*1962 "Sparrers Can't Sing" (sic, name changed to "Sparrows Can't Sing" for US film release)
*1969 "Oh! What a Lovely War"

Former members of the company

References and notes

* Coren, Michael - "Theatre Royal: 100 Years of Stratford East" - Quartet, 1984 ISBN 0-7043-2474-1


*When Barbara Windsor auditioned for the part of "Rosie", in "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be", she mistook Joan Littlewood for the cleaning lady, but still got the part.
*Stephen Lewis was a merchant seaman, when he came to see a production. He was invited to audition, and became a permanent member of the company, until he achieved particular fame "On the Buses". He wrote "Sparrer's Can't Sing" for the company.
*Gerry Raffles, makes a cameo appearance in the film of the play, as a lorry driver.
*Harry H Corbett made his debut with the company, and added the "H" to distinguish himself from Harry Corbett, a (then popular TV performer) with Sooty. When asked what the "H" stood for, he replied "h'anything".
*Raymond Fletcher, military advisor on "Oh! What a Lovely War", was subsequently revealed as a spy for the Soviet Union.

External links

* [ Theatre Royal, Stratford East]

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