Harriet Powell (HP) Katina Noble (KN) and Clair Chapwell (CC) singing: “We’re making clothes, we’re making jam, we’re making do, how about you? Are you making do? We’re making bread and water soup and sparrow stew, how about you? Are you making do?”
CC: I’m Clair Chapwell. One night I was lying in bed thinking “why doesn’t somebody do a play about ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ which has changed my life?” and I thought, ‘I could write that play.’ So the next day in TimeOut’s theatre board I wrote an ad saying ‘Women interested in putting together a play based on “Fat is a Feminist Issue” write to Clair’ and the rest is history.
KT: I’m Katina Noble and I was one of those people who picked up TimeOut and in 1979 read that somebody was looking for people interested in doing a show based on “Fat is a Feminist Issue” which I had read and had changed my life and I was also a performer and this was the opportunity of a lifetime so that’s where it all began for me.
HP: My name is Harriet Powell. I joined Spare Tyre when they’d actually were coming to the end of the run of “Baring the Weight” umm but I joined as their musician. I’d known Katina before umm we were in a community theatre company together and they invited me in and I never left for 17 years.
(HP, KN and CC singing) “In, in, invisible. In, in, invisible, sometimes I feel as though I’m not really there. Sometimes I feel people stare right through me, sometimes I feel as though I’m not really there, sometimes I feel that no one cares what I’m saying…”
AP: What we’re doing is we’re looking at kind of the journey of Spare Tyre and it’s kind of how it moved into the, in the good old days it was called community arts wasn’t it?
KN: Certainly was
AP: (laughs) and now it’s called participatory arts and socially engaged arts. So umm do you want to talk to us a little bit about that because actually umm before we got in front of the cameras people were saying you were always involved in kind of community arts and you are still involved in some kind of way in the community arts or in community sectors and work. Would you like to?
KN: We’ll start with Clair?
CC: I was in the Women’s Theatre Group. When I first came to England in 1973 and I was a feminist and it made a lot of sense. It was not the happiest of relationships just because we’re all women and we’re all feminists doesn’t mean we’re all going to like each other.
(HP and KN laugh)
CC: And we didn’t. We would be out there saying ‘women yes!” and backstage nobody was talking to each other. It was not a nice place. So after 4 years I thought ‘this is not good’ and I also saw, I went to to a show done by a company
called Sidewalk and I thought ‘this is the theatre I want to be doing.’ So I wrote them a letter, because you could do that in those days saying ‘I loved your work, I would really like to be in your company’ and they wrote back and said ‘well you can come along and talk to us but the arts council might be stopping funding us.’ And they saw me and they said ‘well you can join the company but we don’t know about how long our company’s going to be going.’ I said ‘never mind I’ll join.’ So I did.
CC: and sure enough the arts council stopped funding them, everyone left except me and left me
(KN and HP laugh)
CP: with the company and the charity number and a chequebook and £400 in it (KN, HP and CC laugh) and I did one little 5, under 5 show and then so when I started Spare Tyre I had £400.
AP: That’s a lot of money in those days
CP: Oh, fortune! A fortune!
(AP, KN and HP laugh)
CC: Oh my goodness, oh my goodness. Yes.
AP: How many projects did you get out of £400?
CC: Umm it it wasn’t bad. I mean we we based it, in those days we but you know we would have done it for free.
KN: Of course
CC: Let’s be honest. I mean in Dogs Troupe you were just paid a pittance when you earned £7 a week or something?
HP: Well we were living and working cooperatively so yeah we weren’t paying the rent. The company was, you know, housing us.
KN: Yes, yes, we that’s how we both met.
HP: It wasn’t that we were doing it for nothing. I think we were we were professional but we just that was the way we’d organised the work, we lived and-
KN: We lived in, it was interaction and we lived in in in Kentish Town in houses around in the community and we did all these different projects and
KN: Harriet and I were involved in the children’s theatre company Professor Dog’s Troupe
AP: Uhh that’s really interesting so so like umm
HP: It was participatory theatre
AP: Yes absolutely and so it wasn’t just that the company was cooperative. Your- you’re kind of almost suggesting that your lives were
HP and KN: Yes absolutely
AP: cooperative. I would love to hear more about that.
HP: Hmm well
AP: So you were in one house?
KN: We were in a fact- a big factory
CC: Short life, short life housing
HP: We worked with short life housing
KN: All around the area
HP: we were able to get from Camden council umm quite a lot of uhh, when I first joined umm I was actually I think my title was House Mother.
(CP and KN laugh)
HP: I was in charge of housing, of finding old mattresses for people to sleep on (laughs) it sounds disgusting. You wouldn’t do it now you wouldn’t but we did and lived very very happily like that in I suppose 10 different houses?
CC: You cooked didn’t you?
HP: Yeah we cooked, I, we had a cooking rotor which I was responsible for (laughs)
KN: So what happened was we would we we we would be rehearsing or doing kind of work some of the time then once a month or once every whatever time… we would we would be cooking with somebody and for for 30 but in the summer for like 60 70 people another day we would be on the phones
HP: Because we did summer programmes…
KN: And we earned £9 a week but we got all, everything provided for us
KN: I think at the time Ed Berman who started interaction he was so fired up with you know well for me ideas around you know socialism and feminism and I was listening and I was meeting feminists and it was all so exciting and it was of course you know important that we didn’t you know we were thinking of alternatives to you know bourgeois theatre and the elites who go to the National and that actually there were possibilities of reaching different kinds of audiences with different messages
HP: involving them
KN: and involving them. Being participatory was hugely important.
CC: So when we were researching uhh ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ play ‘Baring the Weight’ we uhh our aim was to destroy Weight Watchers. That was the plan. So as you can see we were very successful
(AP and CC laugh)
CC: because we we just thought every woman needs to know about this. You know most women feel very crazy about their shape and they feel very very oppressed by by umm the way society has been treating them. We said to people ‘if you’d like to sign up to join a compulsive eating group umm please do because we’ll come and run it for you, we’ll come and start it for you’
KN: because alongside this actually I joined the Women’s Therapy Centre which Susie Orbach started where where and took over from her running and setting up compulsive eating groups. So there was a kind of link between Spare Tyre and the Women’s Therapy Centre loosely and so yeah out of out of the performances actually the- you know came some of these groups
HP, KN and CC singing: “… stone by my birthday, hot pants by July, I’ll start my fast tomorrow, but today I’ll bake a pie. I’m gonna be 8 stone by my birthday, in hot pants by July, I’ll start my fast tomorrow, but today I’ll bake a pie”
KN: Or something (laughs)
AP: Ahh, brilliant
KN: I’m sure we didn’t do those parts before
CC: I loved what you did with your voice!
KN: I loved that!
(HP, KN and CC laugh)
AP: So how important was humour and comedy in what you did?
AP: Was it conscious?
CC: Massively yes, because we thought this is this is painful they’ve they’ve got to go away laughing. They have to-
KN: Comedy is full of pain isn’t it?
KN: I mean you know it’s it’s but it was just a wonderful way to kind of actually present very serious issues.
AP: Are you able to kind of like just umm describe a little bit of that creative process?
CC: We umm did improvisations
CC: and we made a story and we thought okay let’s cover lots of things. So we had a daughter who had anorexia. We had a slimmer of the year umm who started putting it all back.
KN: All the shows we we worked in this kind of way we we do you know
HP: So it was based on personal experience
KN: Devising, you scripting and Harriet
HP: Our personal experience
KN: doing a lot of the music, and Clair doing the music as well but actually devising and and improvising through games.
AP: So what I’m interested in is that I I I guess it was the first decade or so that was all about personal experience. I mean you can correct me if I’m wrong
KN: Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
AP: and then how did you make that shift to kind of working with other people and other people’s stories and
CC: Somebody asked, somebody asked us. The Cockpit [Theatre] for uhh the Cockpit got in touch and said ‘we have a group of young women’ or ‘we’d like you to come in and work with young women. How do you feel about that?’ we went ‘okay’
HP: So that was you know again giving other women
CC: It was fun!
HP: a platform of their particular issues around whatever it was, contraception
HP: umm and other things
KN: Things you don’t talk about
CC: Three years later that was ‘Fists and Fingernails’ that that was probably the most, that had the long last most long lasting repercussions.
HP: And that, the interesting thing about that project was that it was all about you know sexism with a lot of very kind of naïve lovely but very you know uhh naïve young white working class young me- men and it was kind of revelation to them to be working on this theme with a choreographer who was gay and very open and had lots of discussions with them about sexual politics. So that was all going on alongside us doing the show together.
CC: The topic was sexism in schools.
CC: So there were some very funny things like there was there was a woman in in a men’s woodworking class and there was a man, there was a boy in a girl’s typing class. So those were funny but the the women’s song proved so contentious that the men couldn’t take it. They were absolutely there was one man in particular who threatened to walk out and then other men then thought ‘yes, we’re not taking this!’ I mean –
AP: How did that resolve itself?
CC: Well I remember saying ‘I’ll just rewrite the whole show with all women in it’ thinking ‘what?’
(AP, HP and KN laugh)
CC: ‘how am I going to do that? That’ll be interesting’
HP: Nick Nuttgens
HP: who was the choreographer with us and he was brilliant and he had had some training in sort of conflict resolution or something
KN: Yeah, yeah, yeah
HP: and he and I can remember him being terribly nervous but you know we all got behind him and said ‘ yes, we we must do this’ and we were in a circle and he just set the conversation going and allowed the men to speak and say how they felt.
KN: You know I, it really changed I well those men’s lives
HP: Yeah, yup
HP: it and the wo- all of our lives actually.
CC: No, many many people took it as a place to you know they explored their sexuality. Many people came out in that show. Many people just found ways of
KN: Some of them went on to be in Black Mime which was a brilliant theatre company
KN: and then umm Roy Roy Williams who who wrote uhh his first play based on a scene in ‘Fists and Fingernails’
AP: Were you ready for conflict resolution in the way that you designed the future projects?
HP: We we were always having difficulties I think. I, my memory is you know there would but I think you know between us we had the skills to to know how to umm keep things safe you know. Make things umm resolve issues. We nev-
CC: I suppose nothing that extreme ever happened again
HP: No but I –
CC: The whole group didn’t implode
HP: Yeah, and so we knew
CC: So we would talk one to one with them about –
HP: We had the confidence I think after that probably.
AP: How did funding affect you?
HP: We weren’t always chasing, people would come to us as well for projects
CC: Yeah, yeah
HP: which is how we started the older peoples work. You know somebody came with, they had funding. They had money for a project to work with older people in in a care home and we did.
KN: Yeah and then we’d tour wouldn’t we? And then you know West Midlands would fund us
CC: We got a lot of money for touring.
KN: A lot
CC: Tin [Katina] was the tour person and she just I mean her (laughs) I couldn’t believe the places we went! We had, we toured and toured and toured and toured and toured but Tin but Tin would kind of say, Tin would say ‘going on holiday, I mean we’re going on tour
(KN and CC laugh)
HP: It was like a h- it was in the daytime, and we didn’t have a show!
AP: How did you make money from touring?
CC: We had such a good time! We ju- we would stay with Tin’s friends, we would stay with Harriet’s friends
KN: Or or we’d stay with people who’d been in audiences before
CC: Yeah and then we’d go off and -
HP: who said ‘when you’re here next stay with us’
AP: That’s unheard of nowadays.
KN: Oh that’s so lovely, isn’t it?
HP: She smelled damp (laughs)
CC: Oh we’d we’d stroll around and we’d we’d go to the markets and we’d just, we just had a blast. We had such a good – look at that! Look at that! Look at those places we’d go. My favourite show was our last show the three of us together ‘Gone Shopping.’ It was very, it was the most, big p Political. It was about money.
KN: I’d forgotten ‘Gone Shopping’, I loved ‘Gone Shopping’
CC: Yeah, and it was umm
HP: ‘Gone Shopping’
CC: It was just, we were talking it last night it was about consumerism and it had the most men in the audience of anyone we ever had. Strangely but it was uhh it was very very powerful.
KN: I played an evil credit card before credit cards were almost
HP: (laughs) Yes
CC: Yeah, yes yes
KN: hardly around! You know I mean it was like, and I was the beginning of it and
HP: Annie come and get it!
KN: Yeah, come and get it come and get it! But no we, credit, you know
CC: Free money come and get it. No you were you were Dolly
KN: No but we, they,
CC: You were dolly
KN: I had many parts darling, we were very versatile!
HP: No she had many-
CC: But she
HP: Yeah. I did, I was doing the main song and she was
KN: You know in those days I mean the course was you know
CC: Oh that’s right
HP: was the baddy in the (laughs)
KN: before everybody was living on credit and it was just the beginning of all that
(HP, KN and CC singing): “walking down the high street in 1963 I see my friend Penny but she doesn’t see me so I said ‘hey there Penny you’re looking gay in your miniskirt and kinky boots and I like your hair that way’ she said ‘thanks Penny you’ve made my day, hey let’s go down to Littlewoods what do you say?’ let’s do the shopping hop, hop to the shop and do the shopping hop”
HP: The low point, the difficult bits
HP: everybody thinks they’re just things like playing a keyboard that had batteries (laughs) and the batteries running out
(AP, HP, KN and CC laugh)
HP: halfway through a show and me having to get my Phillips screwdriver out and change the batteries during the show
KN: … I forgot that!
HP: At the time I’d, we’d forgotten something and I had to go or I had to go and buy batteries. Birmingham, I got lost
KN: Oh God I know! That was the worst.
HP: you know going round and round Birmingham and I just
KN: Don’t. Hysterical, hysterical.
HP: on spaghetti junction going ‘oh my God we’re starting in 5 minutes’ they had to come and … really (laughs)
KN: Yeah, yes Sheffield. Really difficult young people, youth, and they were just not interested not listening and it was like ‘cut the, cut the live song’ you know I mean there were moments like that. Or a toddler group where the scenery was literally, the one of the little three year old or two year olds had gone round the back, pushed it down and it and the scenery collapsing on us. There were those lovely moments.
(HP, KN and CC singing): “If you are 15 to 50, a female member of the race, you might live in Land’s End or London, but you’ll be in the very same place, now we might find you in unemployment avenue, can’t get a job, what can I do? Got no money and I got the blues, can’t get a job what can I do? Got no money and I got the blues, if you are 15 to 50, a female member of the race you might live in Land’s End or London, but you’ll be in the very same place, now here’s another episode…”
Clair Chapwell founded Spare Tyre when she was inspired to produce a play based on Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, which 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.
Katina Noble was one of the original performers in Baring the Weight and went on to continue working with Spare Tyre for the next 11 years. She now works as a counsellor in Bristol.
Harriet Powell joined Spare Tyre as a musician after the Baring the Weight production had finished it’s run, to work on putting together new shows. She worked with Spare Tyre up until 1996, and is now a music therapist primarily working with older people.
The three founders of Spare Tyre reminisced about some of their favourite moments from their time at Spare Tyre, and how the company operated in the early days.