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Gay Sweatshop Days

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“A company like Gay Sweatshop (founded in England in 1975), was part of a broader set of political movements focused on presence and voice and activism. Back then, gay theatre was part of the battle for recognition. I don’t know if we have the same agenda now.”

— Eamon Flack – director 2015 Sydney Mardi Gras gay theatre festival

London, England.

I was a young actor of 25 in 1975, living in a North London bedsit, and at that moment looking for work. Someone told me that a new company was looking for a replacement for an actor who had decided to drop out of a play. The role was a young American, (I could do a pretty good accent, having attended an AngloAmerican school in Kuwait), so I had a chance. But, I was warned, the character was gay.

I went to the audition and met pale, fragile-looking director, Drew Griffiths and tall, taciturn, dark-bearded author of the two-hander play, ‘Passing By’, Martin Sherman. They were anxious to find a new actor, after the original choice had backed out, fearing that his career might be harmed by playing a gay role in a company called ‘Gay Sweatshop’. Having no such qualms, I read aloud scenes from the script with the other actor, Simon Callow, and liked it immensely.

It was the simple story of two New York guys, Simon and Toby, who meet in a cinema and have a one night stand, as a result of which they contract Hepatitus. Forced to quarantine together in Toby’s flat, they get to know each other and fall in love. Finally they have to part when work calls Toby to move to Paris. It was a funny, sad, love story, almost lightweight, apart from the fact that the lovers were both men. At that time such a scenario had never been shown on stage before. There were still a couple of other actors to audition, and Drew said he’d call and let me know.

He phoned that night and said they wanted me for the part, but hoped that I wouldn’t suddenly make the same decision to back out like the previous actor had. The series of lunchtime plays was to be billed as HOMOSEXUAL ACTS.

“Don’t worry, I said, delighted to have got the part, “I AM gay!” (And I’d never said that to anyone before.)

passing by guardian

A scene from “Passing By.”

And so began rehearsals for ‘Passing By’, one of a season of lunchtime plays presented at Ed Berman’s Almost Free Theatre (a penny minimum) in Soho by the newly formed collective Gay Sweatshop, whose stated purpose was: ‘to make heterosexuals aware of the oppression they exercise or tolerate, and expose and end media misrepresentations of homosexuals.’ Their policy, stated in the 1975 manifesto was: ‘To counteract the prevailing perception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals are like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public and to increase the general awareness of the oppression of sexuality, both gay and straight, the impact it has on people’s lives and the society that reinforces it.’

The opening production on 17th February 1975 was Limitations by John Roman Baker, a play about a gay man who leaves his lover to live with a woman because he wants children. It played to packed houses, as did all the plays, including Ships by Alan Wakeman and Thinking Straight by Lawrence Collinson. Our play, Passing By, the last of the season, was to be performed in June.

Drew Griffiths was a good director, and apart from rehearsals at the studio, Simon Callow and I, living close to each other at the time in Hampstead, would often meet at my bedsit or his place to go through lines and character development. We worked well together. Simon played Toby, an artist, and I played Simon (confusing) an Olympic diver. I had to apply a fake tanning lotion daily on my body to make me look convincingly brown for the opening scene in bed. Sunbathing on the Heath for an hour every day helped.

‘Passing By’ was a success. “Sometimes the fringe achieves something perfect” said a review in The Times. Looking back on the play, Simon Callow said: ‘Passing By was my first experience of political theatre. I don’t believe I’ve done anything more rewarding or more emotionally overpowering on any stage or in any medium.   The effect on the predominantly gay audience was sensational – they wept, not because it was sad, but because it was the first time they’d seen their own lives represented on stage without inverted commas, with neither remorse nor disgust.”

Author Martin Sherman reflects:

“This production was a revelation and a turning point for me. Writing for the theatre had, until then, filled me with despair. I was penniless, I was usually unproduced, and when I was produced, it was improperly so. For the first time my work came truly alive on stage. The director and actors were strong, tender, humane and technically accomplished, and the producing company had a guiding vision. And on stage it all made sense. It no longer seemed so foolhardy to go on writing. The original Gay Sweatshop has had, I think, enormous influence; in my case it was quite direct; for others, perhaps more subtle and subliminal, but its impact was far stronger than can be measured on paper.”

That season of plays at the Almost Free Theatre in 1975 launched the 32-year career of Gay Sweatshop. They went on to perform at Theatre and Arts Centres, Working men’s clubs, Theatre Festivals, Women’s Festivals, Gay Rallies. The company toured nationally to middle and small-scale venues, and internationally to Holland, Germany and Belgium and around Europe.

As the first touring lesbian and gay company they faced down outrage and calls for venues to be closed down, but met with enormous hunger from audiences who had never seen their lives represented onstage as valid and positive, and contributed to changes in attitudes and in the law. The company nurtured new writers, directors and performers until it closed in 1997 due to lack of funding.

Last Sunday there was a Benefit for Unfinished Histories called HOMOSEXUAL ACTS at the Arcola Theatre in Dulwich to commemorate the original named event that kicked off 40 years ago this month at the Almost Free Theatre. There was a series of talks and staged readings of play extracts celebrating the history of Gay Sweatshop and honouring those who were part of it who have passed on. I went along, and was delighted to see Simon Callow and Martin Sherman looking well,(older, natch), after all these years.

A lot has happened since 1975. Simon is now a famous star of stage and screen and a biographer. Martin wrote the smash success ‘Bent’, about gay concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany, and several other interesting plays. Drew Griffiths, our “fragile, but steely” director had gone on to be a leading actor for Gay Sweatshop himself (of which he was one of the Founders) and co-write some of their classic dramas, such as ‘Mister X’ – travelling around the country with the play, holding discussions, forging links with people all over the country. He was the victim of a homophobic murder by a man he picked up at the Elephant and Castle pub in 1984.

As for me, well, I can’t complain. There’ve been many twists and turns over the years in different countries and climes, but I have to admit that working with Gay Sweatshop was one of the most important events in my life and in shaping my attitudes to life. I echo Simon Callow’s words: “I’m proud to have been part of it from the beginning.”

Talking of the huge difference in the acceptance of gay culture in theatre today, Australian actor Nick Coyle, performing at the Sydney Mardi Gras gay theatre festival, said:

“Homosexuality cuts across every demographic, so there are countless stories that could be told and just as many ways to tell them. But one thing I feel is that there should be an acknowledgement of those who have paid the price to allow us to do that. The right we have to create our work is hard won. It should be acknowledged – even if you only acknowledge it in yourself.”

Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com

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Michael Dickinson can be contacted at michaelyabanji@gmail.com.

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