I’ve always been interested in theatre. There are pictures of me in my Aunt’s blue prom dress hoarding my cousins in the basement into terrible plays put together by me, directed by me and starred in by me but my first proper production was at a place called Theatre Saint Paul in Saint Paul Minnesota where I played the tiger lily. And my first line, it was in umm “Alice Through the Looking-Glass” and Alice’s line was ‘oh beautiful flowers I wish you could talk’ and my line was ‘we can talk if there is anyone worth talking to’ and it was a transcendent experience and ever since then I have adored the theatre.
I happened to come to England at the zeitgeist was 1973 and everything was happening. At the Almost Free Theatre they were it was the beginning of Gay Sweatshop, The Women’s Theatre Group and black theatre and I was so excited. It was my last year of university and I got involved with the Women’s Theatre Group and we began to do a show about, well we did a show about women’s fantasies and then we did a show about umm girls and contraception which got snapped up by schools and then funded by the Arts Council. In those days the Arts Council would literally walk up to you and say ‘I think you should apply to us for money.’ Can you imagine? Can you imagine?
So there was a… just a plethora of really interesting groups around. There were there were about ten different women’s theatre groups around and black theatre got funded and you know and all sorts of umm… Asian theatre got funded and and dance got funded and it gave people a chance to try stuff.
People feel powerless now beca- I suppose because you could still, you could squat you could rent you could, you could live without being absolutely made broke. You could actually have a life. It was a great time to be around umm through the eighties. Umm even though things like the miners’ strike happened.
Social media kind of in a way kind of pushes things down. People were still stalking to people in a way as opposed to everything being online. There was a lot more face to face stuff going on. There was a lot more of a, of a group dynamic I think, that’s what I think.
The first show we did was, was about contraception called “My Mother says I Never Should.” Long before the play was written and it was about a girl who slept with her boyfriend on a pile of coats. Well, he- she didn’t know what happened exactly but she said ‘I think he put his thing in me and I think my period is late’ and so her friend says ‘well should we go to a doctor’ sort of thing and she goes ‘oh I don’t know but my period is late and I’m really worried.’ And so- there were a lot of issues kind of brought up and at the end we had a discussion because everybody had a discussion in those days and you know when we first did the first Spare Tyre shows we had discussions. You just- you were endlessly discussing everything but you you went into schools and and you you said things like ‘well what did you think about her going on the ill? I mean is that something you think is a good idea? Should she have gone on the pill?’ Umm and you know just getting those discussions going was an integral part of the way the whole thing worked.
I’d decided to leave, this is the other kind of thing that happened then, I saw a show that I really loved by a group called Sidewalk and I wrote to them and said ‘I really loved your show umm I would like to join your group.’ They wrote back and said ‘umm okay we’d like to meet you.’ So they met me and they said ‘the thing is we’re umm probably gonna be cut by the Arts Council’ and I said ‘I don’t care.’ Crazy. And uhh they took me on and we did a show and sure enough they were cut by the Arts Council so gradually we were let go one by one and people left except for me. And there was a bit left in the, in the kitty so I did an under 5s show which I wrote and I was in. Got a couple of other people in to do it with me and then umm that’s when I read “Fat is a Feminist Issue.” Umm so that was about 1978. I really worked for my mother because my mother said to me when I was 12 ‘you’re going to be lime me, you’re going to have to go on a diet for the rest of your life.’ I said ‘mum you’ve got to read this’ because it was saying really really, it said really revolutionary things to me. You know it said ‘women are never hungry. Women eat because they think they should be eating so they’re eating because they should eat lunch even if they’re not hungry. They’re eating to push down their anger and once they lose weight 99% of them gain it all back again.’ And I said ‘mum listen to this, listen to this’ and she said ‘yes dear.’ So I was visiting my parents that summer and I went back and I, I thought ‘this is a play. This is a play’ and I kept waiting, I kept looking at TimeOut’s theatre board thinking ‘somebody’s gotta do a play about this and I’m gonna be in it.’ And I looked week after week and I just thought ‘I’m gonna do that play. I’m gonna do that play.’ And so I put an ad in “Women interested in putting together a play bad on ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ – Write to Clair.” And I got 80 replies. Day after day I’d get 6 letters and then I thought ‘now what do I do ‘ve no idea’ because I hadn’t planned that far. I just thought ‘I’ll just do this’ and I thought ‘maybe 5 people will write to me and then we can do a play’ but I didn’t expect 80. Somebody said ‘oh let’s meet for a drink’ – that was Katina. And she said umm ‘so what are we going to do about this play?’ and I went ‘yea- umm yeah’ and she said ‘because you know… you and I have’ well anyway she, we… She didn’t really know me but anyway, but anyway this other woman wrote to me and said ‘well what are you gonna do?’ and I went ‘well I don’t really know’ and she said ‘well I work at the Roundhouse let’s do auditions’ and I went ‘that’s a good idea.’ So I, everybody had left Sidewalk and I had the company and the charity number, so that was convenient, and £400 in the bank. So that was all… lovely. Uhh so I had a nice little thing. Plus we had the William Tyndall School, a room at the William Tyndall School in Islington. So that was all jammy. And umm, we uhh we started meeting there and doing uhh improvisations about various things and talking about what we wanted to do. We were a very strange little group. You know so we had articles everywhere. Everywhere. I mean we were constantly in the papers. It was absolutely hysterical and we (laughs) we sold out the Croydon Warehouse. Which was fantastic but we also, so what we decided… Katina, who was particularly interested in this she’s now a therapist in Bristol, she said ‘in addition- we’ll obviously have discussions after the show but in addition to this we should start compulsive eating groups.’
So that show went on for 18 months you know it was really a long time. Uhh we did another show uhh didn’t work as well umm for about 2 months that lasted. And umm then the group decided to break up. But we still had loads and loads of people who wanted us to perform. And actually honestly I, I really missed it. This was about 1981 and I was thinking ‘yeah well, you know not a lots happening here’ and I- I was round Katina’s one day and uhh she said ‘umm you know we’ve just got this uhh we’ve got this gig that can pay us 150 quid. I just think we could put together some of the songs and then write a few new ones. You me and Harriet. What do you think?’ ‘We could do that, should maybe get us a few more gigs. Yeah. That would be good.’ So that was the next phase of Spare Tyre and that performing phase went on until 1990, the three of us. And that was magical.
We did a new show each year then about 1984 we got approached by the Cockpit Theatre which… around that time was a young people’s theatre and they said ‘we would really like you to do a show using your method to umm work with a group of young women. How do you feel about that?’ and I said ‘that sounds interesting’ so we did. And that was the first of our our shows like that. So we started, we were then at that time doing one show uhh with a group. So we started working over an 8 week period umm where we were teaching skills, working on other things that were happening for them and then performing it as well sort of thing. So that first group was called The Rubber Jennies and it was about sort of issues for young women.
What we tended to do was, we’d have a kind of show and we’d… kind of take out our best bits and our funniest bits and put up songs and put them in a cabaret. Thing we called The Cabaret. So it was a good laugh and it was a good old political laugh. Generally people would feel better about themselves and it would make them happy. And yeah they’d walk out feeling better than when they walked in.
Having an involvement with your audience was the way forward. It’s a way of using the arts to enhance people’s happiness. Theatre’s life changing. Theatre can be therapy. I was there 27 years. Truly you know the three of us working together was a joyous joyous work situation. I’ve never had one as good as that before or since. It was wonderful.
The way I’m working now umm I’m working in care homes and people’s stories are becoming songs and it’s such a nice way of cherish- cherishing and keeping the stories alive. So often people’s stories are locked in their, in their heads, in their brains. I’m delighted that when I left Arti took the company in a different direction but didn’t change that. It’s still opening doors to people everywhere and people are getting involved and opening their minds and moving on with their lives. It’s so exciting to watch. I think the roots Spare Tyre is putting down are so impressive and os far reaching. It’s just a very exciting place.
Reflecting on the things that happened when I was here and the projects that have been happening since I left. I’m so excited. I’m trying not to say proud because I have no right to say proud. But I am, and I am really delighted. So happy. Happy birthday Spare Tyre.
Clair was the founder of Spare Tyre; she started the company in 1979 along with Katina Noble and Harriet Powell. She was inspired to produce a play after reading Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, this became our first ever production, Baring the Weight. For 27 years she was our Artistic Director. Clair is now the Director of Bolder Voices, a campaigning choir based in North London performing songs about the politics of age.
Clair spoke about how Spare Tyre began, and the differences between the social climate now and then.