New project explores the history of Camden’s radical theatre scene in the 1970s and 1980s

Dr Susan Croft with some of the archive material from the Unfinished Histories project. Picture: Pol

Dr Susan Croft with some of the archive material from the Unfinished Histories project. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

The history of Camden’s rich alternative theatre scene is to be fully explored thanks to lottery funding.

Unfinished Histories, a project documenting the development of alternative theatre in the borough, has been awarded £58,800 to help research the drama groups that were active in Camden and Lambeth between 1968 and 1988.

Dr Susan Croft, a former curator at the Theatre Museum – now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum archives – is a director of the project and helped set it up.

She said: “The Heritage Lottery funding provides an enormous boost for the organisation, enabling us to build on our work collecting archives and recording oral histories and to involve a new group of volunteers in making the work available to a wider audience, through expanding the website and through staging an exciting exhibition.”

The team now want to recruit volunteers to help go through the mass of the scripts, flyers, reviews and other materials that have been donated or borrowed from other collections, including the Camden Archives.

The end of theatre censorship in 1968, coupled with an atmosphere of social and political upheaval, created a perfect storm for radical theatre, which pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show on stage.

Theatre groups emerged to give a voice to communities which had been sidelined, reaching out to new writers, performers and audiences.

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Many groups had their roots in Camden, including women’s theatre companies such as Sadista Sisters and Spare Tyre, which championed feminist causes. Black and Asian writing and performance flourished through groups such as Double Edged, based in Camden Town.

The first gay theatre festival took place in 1975 at The Almost Free Theatre in Rupert Street, Soho. It was started by Ed Berman, who had worked on many projects in the Camden area, including community theatre on barges on the Regent’s Canal.

Many of the plays challenged the political orthodoxy, but they also pioneered new ways of working – many were co-operatives and the notion of performance space was contested, with the boundaries between amateur and professional theatre broken down.

The Unfinished Histories team are now interested in hearing from people who were involved in the movement, both in Camden and in Lambeth, in order to collate detailed information on the 700 groups that were active from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Dr Croft feels a sense of urgency about the project because many of the originators are now in their seventies.

“Things weren’t necessarily documented, there weren’t necessarily press coming, so it might be that all that’s left is somebody’s memory of this particular show which might still have been really electrifying for people who were there,” she said.

“So that’s why we want to collect memories and oral histories of the work as well because it might be that that’s all that there is.”

The information will be used in an exhibition at the Ovalhouse theatre in Lambeth in November 2013 and then at the Kentish Town Community Centre and Camden Local Studies Library and Archives.

Training for volunteers will begin on January 22 . Those interested are encouraged to visit