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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0505 GS
Held at: Royal Holloway, University of London
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Date(s): 1974-1997
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 66 boxes
Name of creator(s): Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company
Detailed catalogue: Click here to view repository detailed catalogue


Administrative/Biographical history:

Gay Sweatshop was formed in London in 1975 and had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club "Ambience" held at the Almost Free theatre. Inter-Action, a co-operative community arts resource centre, staged a popular Women's season at the Almost Free theatre in 1974 and, inspired by their success, advertised for gay actors to take part in a gay theatre season planned for autumn 1974. The aim was to encourage gay people to produce a season of gay plays and eventually form a company. The season was postponed until early 1975 and after holding meetings throughout the autumn of 1974, a small group of founder members emerged. These included Drew Griffiths, Alan Pope, Roger Baker, Alan Wakeman, Laurence Collinson, John Roman Baker, Ed Berman, Gerald Chapman, Philip Osment, Suresa Galbraith and Norman Coates. The intention of the group was to counteract the prevailing conception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public. The season was called "Homosexual Acts" and included three plays, all of which were written and directed by homosexuals. "Homosexual Acts" was originally scheduled to last until April but was extended to June and additional plays were requested.

By 1975 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) had local groups established in most towns. They invited Gay Sweatshop to perform at the annual conference in Sheffield. Initially this was problematic as Gay Sweatshop had no resources to put on a touring production. However, an Arts Council grant allowed them to put together "Mister X", jointly written by the group. The play was based on a combination of personal experiences and a book called "With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression", written by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter. "Mister X" was a huge success at Sheffield and so the decision was made to take it on tour. News of the tour spread quickly throughout the gay communities and the tour was seen by many whom would not have usually had the courage to attend a gay play.

In 1976 Gay Sweatshop put on a lunchtime season at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) running from February through to July. Productions included "Mister X", "Any Woman Can" by Jill Posener, "Randy Robinson's Unsuitable Relationship" by Andrew Davies, Ian Brown's play "The Fork", "Stone" by Edward Bond and "Indiscreet", a follow up to "Mister X" written by Roger Baker and Drew Griffiths. The ICA season was a turning point for Gay Sweatshop. They received an Arts Council grant for the first half of the year, "Mister X" broke box office records for lunchtime theatre and women were participating in productions for the first time. The company had invited the women because they felt that lesbian actors, directors and writers were needed to provide a more complete picture of homosexuality. In November 1976 the company took "Mister X" and "Any Woman Can" on tour to Dublin. Although there was considerable opposition the Irish Gay Rights Movement welcomed the productions and the company returned in January 1977 to repeat the plays. During the Christmas of 1976 the company produced "Jingleballs", a gay pantomime starring both lesbians and gay men. The pantomime was successful but the Irish tour had revealed fundamental differences in how the men and women viewed the company. In 1977 two artistically separate companies were formed under the umbrella organisation of Gay Sweatshop. At the same time the company realised the need for a full-time administrator and appointed David Thompson. In April 1977 the company obtained an annual programme award of 15,000, which although it had to be re-applied for every year was enough to guarantee a year's worth of productions.

As separate companies both went on to produce critically acclaimed plays. The women produced "Care and Control", a piece focusing on child custody. This theme had been raised at many of the post performance discussions. The men produced "As Time Goes By", a three-part production set in 1896 after the Oscar Wilde trial, in Berlin in the 1930s and in 1969 when Gay liberation was born. The play was a collaborative effort between Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths.

In early 1978 the first Gay Times festival was held at the Drill Hall. This was based on the three sections of "As Time Goes By" and included workshops, discussion groups and performances. It was followed by a tour of "As Time Goes By" that concluded with a visit to Holland. It was here that the men's touring company split up following tension within the group. Meanwhile the women's group produced "What the Hell is she doing here?" that toured until the end of July. During the summer of 1978 a new nucleus of people emerged including Angela Stewart Park, Stephanie Pugsley, Sharon Nassauer, Sandra Lester, Noel Greig, Philip Timmins, John Hoyland and Jill Posener. They devised a mixed show called "Iceberg". This focussed on the lives of gay men and women in a repressive society and sought to show that they were central to any kind of anti-fascist struggle. The production went on tour to Queen's University in Belfast where a rally was arranged against the play by the Democratic Unionist party.

During 1979 and 1980 a number of productions were put on. The men's company produced "The Dear Love of Comrades" in March 1979 while the women produced "I like me like this", a radical lesbian musical written by Angela Stewart Park and Sharon Nassauer. 1980 saw another mixed production written by Angela Stewart Park and Noel Greig. The play, "Blood Green" is set in the future and deals with issues of genetic engineering, transexualism, sado-masochism and violence against women.

In 1980 the Arts Council announced the suspension of their programme grants. This meant that Gay Sweatshop would have to apply for individual project grants for specific productions. The company had to give up their full-time administrator and recently acquired office and rehearsal space. Although they tried to continue it became too much of a burden for the two remaining directors, Noel Greig and Philip Timmins, and the administrator, Gean Wilton, and at the end of March 1981 Gay Sweatshop was closed as a company.

Gay Sweatshop was revived in 1983 as a mixed company rather than the two artistically separate companies that had existed since 1977. Noel Greig, inspired by the issue of Greenham Common, wrote "Poppies" that put forward a response to the nuclear threat and militarism from a radical gay male perspective. He applied for project funding from the Arts Council and with the help of Martin Humphries as administrator, began planning the tour from a room in his house. The play toured from November to December. In 1984 a new management committee was formed consisting of Noel Greig, Martin Humphries, Philip Timmins, Kate Owen and Philip Osment. They began planning a 10th anniversary festival for 1985. At the same time Martin Humphries and Noel Greig applied to the Greater London Council for a grant to supplement their touring subsidy from the Arts Council. Gay Sweatshop eventually received a grant in 1985 that allowed them to put on a second production of "Poppies" with the tour running from March to May.

By the 1980s the Gay movement had become somewhat apathetic. In part this was due to the belief held by some that the ideals that had originally inspired the movement had become redundant and old-fashioned. There was also a feeling of pessimism about the future due to the growing paranoia about AIDS. At the same time they realised that Gay Sweatshop was very much an all-white group. The festival scheduled for the 10th anniversary of the company provided them with an opportunity to respond to the new challenges and serve as a platform for a wide range of work including; Gay teachers, problems facing young gays and lesbians, lesbian custody, experiences and black lesbians and the issue of AIDS. In response to the success of "Gay Sweatshop x 10" the Greater London Council awarded the company an annual grant that allowed them to get a full-time administrator and office space. The following year Gay Sweatshop was finally awarded charitable status in recognition of its educational work.

"Compromised Immunity" by Andy Kirby developed from the festival and was first staged in 1986 with external funding. Gay Sweatshop took the production on tour from April to June 1987. The company decided to stage another festival in 1987, this one called "Gay Sweatshop x 12". Nine plays were given staged rehearsed readings, including "This Island's Mine" by Philip Osment and "Twice Over" by Jackie Kay. "This Island's Mine" was initially performed in February and then on tour from March until April. "Twice Over" was seen as a breakthrough play for Gay Sweatshop as it was the first play by a black author. The Arts Council awarded a grant and the play was on tour from October to November 1988.

The late 1980s saw a new management group emerge after the departures of Philip Timmins in 1986, Martin Humphries and Noel Greig in 1987 and Kate Owen and Philip Osment in 1988. In 1990 Bryony Lavery was commissioned to write "Kitchen Matters", a play about theatre and the problems of putting on a show with project funding. The Greater London Arts was at this point giving Gay Sweatshop an annual grant of 21000 although the amount had been fixed for three years.

November 1990 saw the company struggling for funds once again. The Arts Council had turned down their application for a grant and it looked likely that the company would have to close. However, in 1991 Gay Sweatshop was promised revenue funding providing that there was both a male and female director. Lois Weaver and James Neale -Kennerley were appointed. 1992 saw productions of "Drag Act" by Claire Dowie, "Jack" by David Greenham and "Entering Queens" by Phyllis Nagy. During the season of 1993/4 the company produced two plays, "Stupid Cupid" by Phil Willmott and a company devised piece called "In your Face". The season 1994/5 again saw the company putting on two plays. The first was a piece adapted by Malcolm Sutherland called "F***king Martin" and the second, "Lust and Comfort", another company devised piece. In 1995 Stella Duffy's play "The Hand" was performed. During the early 1990s most of the company's funding was being spent on touring productions.

Gay Sweatshop eventually collapsed in 1997. The Arts Council withdrew all its funding and the company failed to attract any major sponsorship because of the controversial nature of the productions.


Scope and content/abstract:

The collection consists of minutes of management meetings, 1974 - 1994; membership lists; internal correspondence; external correspondence concerning the reactions of the public to the productions; correspondence regarding funding; copies of scripts written by members of the company and outside authors; audition notes and CVs; correspondence and accounts relating to tour arrangements; tour reports; posters and programmes for productions; photographs, video cassettes and loose film reel of productions; promotional material; newspaper cuttings relating to specific productions and Gay Sweatshop in general; theses based on Gay theatre.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Arranged in sections as outlined in the Scope and Content.

Conditions governing access:

Open to all registered users of the College Archives. Some papers relating to individuals have been closed for 100 years from the subject's birth. Users are advised to consult the College Archivist for specific details.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copies of open material may be supplied, subject to the condition of the original. Requests to publish original material should be directed to the College Archivist.

Finding aids:

Detailed listing available on automated catalogue, searchable via OPAC at or via the RSLP-funded Backstage project website at

Archival Information

Archival history:

The records were transferred to Royal Holloway in November 1997 after approaches were made to the company through contacts in the Royal Holloway Drama Department. The collection was stored in the Library for approximately 3 years before being transferred to the Archives.

Immediate source of acquisition:

Royal Holloway Library

Allied Materials

Related material:

The Royal Holloway, University of London Archives also hold material relating to the Half Moon theatre company.

The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive at Middlesex University contains extensive cuttings about plays performed in the UK by Gay Sweatshop and other companies.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

"Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company", (Methuen, London, 1989) by Philip Osment

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Description compiled by Judith Stephenson as part of the RSLP Backstage project.

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with general International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
March 2002

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