The Labs’ Theatres

‘Warehouse theatre’ v ‘Cybernetic Theatre’​

The theatre group the People Show were regulars at both Lab theatres. In his book Performance Art Memoirs (John Calder, 1979) Jeff Nuttall recalls how deliberately provocative were the People Shows he scripted: 


‘A Nice Quiet Night was the show in which Laura [Gilbert] – hung by the ankles and brutalised – finished her each and every performance in real and wracking tears. Audience members trying to relieve her were turned back with a “this is the 20th Century boy, we don’t want no messy compassion ‘ere”. Her insistence on continuing the piece made the show a ritual testing ground for us all. I got letters calling me a bastard. We knew we were into something very serious ...’ He said admiringly of Laura ‘Only Laura shared my contempt for the cuckoo land of Flower Power’.. (..of which there was plenty of evidence at Drury Lane).


Sadly, there is almost no film or video record of theatre performances at either of the Labs, and as my book demonstrates, very few still images either. Among the few known film exceptions are Moving Statics and Rehearsals at the Arts Labs, two films of mime artist Will Spoor shot at Drury Lane by Australian artists Corinne and Arthur Cantrill (then based in London). But Arthur tells me that the films have yet to be digitised. One day perhaps…. Here at least is an image taken by the Cantrills that didn’t make it into the book, showing Will Spoor, his partner Ellen Uitzinger and fellow mime Tony Crerar (with pipe!) rehearsing one of their pieces Pink Metronome. 

Will Spoor, Ellen Uitzinger and Tony Crerar rehearsing Pink Metronome

The best source of information about the many fringe theatre companies that made the Labs their home (many of them at the very beginning of their professional lives) is the Unfinished Histories research project, of which I made much use when book writing. It is rich in interviews, documentation, chronologies. The People Show also has a good website covering their 50 years of existence, but its coverage of the Lab years is sadly thin. I should admit that I never saw a theatre production at either Lab, hence my dependence in the book upon other sources. When at the Lab, all of us were more than fully occupied within our own areas of activity.  


If the Drury Lane Lab is remembered as the birthplace of many Fringe Theatre companies, the Robert Street Lab should be celebrated as the sponsor of early of computer-based arts and multimedia experiments. Here the research work of Catherine Mason, Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, and Nicholas Lambert has been outstanding. See, for example, their ‘Never the Same Again’, White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980, (MIT Press 2008), and Mason’s account of the Computer Arts Society’s first exhibition (held at the RCA) to which key Arts Lab workers Malcolm Le Grice and John Lifton both contributed. 


Here’s a taster: Mason on Malcolm Le Grice’s Typodrama (1969) made in collaboration with the Computer Arts Society’s Alan Sutcliffe. 


“[It’s] aesthetic concerns related to some of [Le Grice’s] films of the time, which used found footage and a cut-up style, incorporating performance, which remains an important part of his work to date. The collaboration with Sutcliffe inspired Le Grice to learn FORTRAN programming, which he was to use later in the year during a Science Research Council-funded residency at the Atlas Laboratory (1969-70). [..] Another performance by [CAS’s John] Lansdown was Word Generator Program [shown at the Robert Street Lab’s opening] which had references to concrete poetry. He also contributed Trilogy a dance/performance work in three pieces based on computer-generated mime scripts. The program was devised in conjunction with George Mallen and John Lifton and was performed to a backdrop of a live light and sound system built and programmed by Lifton.”

John Lifton's Sensepak

John Lifton’s poster for his Senspak performances at the Robert Street Lab elegantly illustrates his home-built computer’s role in transforming light and movement (the lenses) into sound (the central loudspeaker), a transformation that was often a feature of his multimedia performances.  


Senspak and Lifton’s collaborations with TVX and Hoppy at the Lab were cybernetic theatre at its most experimental, but the Robert Street Lab’s offerings were often more recognisably ‘fringe theatre’: here’s a schedule from 1970 that didn’t make it into the book:  

Robert Street Lab's theatre schedule Oct-Dec 1970
a Lockwood / Matuso 'wedding' (an annual event) ph David Kilburn

Annea (then Anna) Lockwood performed in the theatre at both Labs, sometimes with her then partner Harvey Matusow. This photo by David Kilburn records one of Annea and Harvey’s annual marriage celebrations, traditionally held – as here – in a piano-making factory, (date uncertain, c‘70-‘72). Harvey, one of the LFMCo-op’s founders and a UK correspondent for the journal The Source: Music of the Avant Garde, had had a troubling earlier life in the USA as a HUAC witness, shopping many prominent leftists as ‘communists’, then later ‘recanting’. So in London he struggled to shed an aura of untrustworthiness. But he and Annea memorably organised ‘Dark Touch’ at Robert Street, a theatre environment to be explored in the dark, ‘preferably naked’. Harvey’s real claim to fame was that he organised the INTERNATIONAL CARNIVAL OF EXPERIMENTAL SOUND, ICES (13-26 August ’72) at the Roundhouse that brought together almost all of the leading members of the contemporary international music avant-garde, an event directly inspired I believe by the model of our 1970 NFT International Underground Film Festival.  Among the artists attending ICES were Lockwood, Charlotte Moorman with her Ice Cello, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Steve Beresford, Lol Coxhill  and many more. There was even an ICES trip to Edinburgh and back with performances on the train, among them Carolee Schneemann roller-skating naked though the carriages while reciting from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (her recitation appropriately musical, one supposes). She was at the same time collecting drawn-on-thermal-stencil graphic contributions from fellow artist/performer/passengers for Philippe Ehrenberg’s Beau Geste Press. With a Gestetner office-printer on board, Ehrenberg and friends managed to print and distributed 120 copies of a 58-page book-in-an-envelope THE ICES-72 BRAIN DRAIN MUSIC TRAIN based their contributions, before the journey’s end. This is Pam Zoline’s page from the book:

Pam Zoline’s page from the publication THE ICES-72 BRAIN DRAIN MUSIC TRAIN

For more on ICES see the colourful: ICES 72 – THE WOODSTOCK OF THE AVANT GARDE: davethompsonbooks.wordpress.com



For more on the Beau Geste Press see Alice Motard’s recent exhibition catalogue: www.lespressesdureel.com/EN/ouvrage.php?id=8234