Gay sweatshop

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Gay Sweatshop was formed in London in 1975 and had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club “Ambience” held at the Almost Free theatre. Founding members included Drew Griffiths, Alan Pope, Roger Baker, Alan Wakeman, Gerald Chapman, Laurence Collinson, John Roman Baker, Ed Berman, Philip Osment, Suresa Galbraith and Norman Coates. They wanted to set up the first Gay Theatre season in the UK to counteract the prevailing conception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public. They realised that a great deal of hard work was required and came up with the name The Gay Sweatshop and it became one of the best known gay theatre companies in the UK.

Jingleball – a gay sweatshop production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1987. Photo: Sharon Smullen/ Royal Holloway College archives

In 1975 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality invited Gay Sweatshop to perform at the annual conference in Sheffield. An Arts Council grant allowed them to put together “Mister X”, jointly written by the group and based on personal experiences and the book “With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression” by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter. “Mister X” was a huge success and it went on tour. Many gay men and lesbians went to a gay play for the first time in their lives to see Mister X.

In 1976 Gay Sweatshop put on plays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts including “Mister X”, “Any Woman Can” by Jill Posener, “Randy Robinson’s Unsuitable Relationship” by Andrew Davies, Ian Brown’s “The Fork”, “Stone” by Edward Bond and “Indiscreet”, a follow up to “Mister X” written by Roger Baker and Drew Griffiths.

In 1977 BBC 2 televised a Drew Griffiths play, Gay Sweatshop in “Only connect”.

Gay Sweatshop was wound up but the date is uncertain and is thought to be in the 1980s.

Drew Griffiths died in 1984 aged 37.

Gerald Chapman died in 1987 aged 37.

Actor and playwright Kevin Elyot who acted with Gay Sweatshop died on 7 June 2014. Guardian obituary

Jill Posener

Filmdot.be: obituary, Mike Kalemkerian

This page was further amended on 22 July 2014 to include the obituary for Gay Sweatshop actor Kevin Elyot.


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11 thoughts on “Gay sweatshop

  1. I too was a founding member. (Whose own contribution has been conveniently airbrushed from Gay Sweatshop’s subsequent poor attempts at providing `historically precise’ testament.

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  2. The Gay Sweatshop came to the Old Profanity Showboat in 1983 or ’84 with a production called “Poppies”. They were touring it all over the UK but the reaction of a cleaning lady in one of their venues (“I will not clean up after them! I’ll get AIDS!”) made the national news and many of the venues cancelled their show. As owner and manager and booker and whatever for my ship, The Thekla, they called me to say they couldn’t come just for the door. They could only afford their full fee which was way beyond what we could afford. But I was outraged so I assured them their usual fee. And then I ran my ass off talking on every radio show I could find, and getting as much press as I could get. I had to double the ticket price. We were packed. People came out in support in wonderful numbers. They got their money and their show and we did not sink. How could they have shut down in ’81 when we weren’t even in Bristol with the good ship Thekla at the time?

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    • I was in Gay Sweatshop’s production of Poppies when it played The Old Profanity Showboat – thanks for reminding me, I can picture it still. However, I think you may be putting two stories together. The cleaners’ strike nightmare was a couple of years later around our production of Compromised Immunity, the first UK play about AIDS. The cleaners who went on strike rather than clean the showers after us were at the Taliesin Theatre at Swansea University. The story hit the headlines in every newspaper except the Guardian in (I think) 1987 on the first day of the tour: Headline in the Daily Star: “Pansies go all of a doo-dah”).
      It was the support of individual venues, the people who ran them and our loyal audiences across the UK that made the company what it was. Thank you.
      David Benedict, joint artistic director 1988-92

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      • Then there’s something very screwy here, David. I have newspaper clippings from the Bristol Post with the story I told on this site. I had walked away from the Old Pro by 1987. Could it have happened twice? Not hard to believe. I asked my daughter when I read your reply. She was 19 at the time. She remembers it just as I do. How odd.

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      • YOu have the cuttings and a clearer memory! My dates may well be wrong. A bit of googling reveals the late Noel Grieg, author of Poppies, asserting that there a hoo-hah around 1983 when Poppies first toured. But that was before I joined the company in 1985, before I played Thekla and before and the really big coverage of the cleaners going on strike which definitely happened in my time. But openly gay work always ruffled feathers in those days – Exeter and Devon Arts Centre lost its local council funding because we toured there in the late Eighties – so maybe the same thing did happen twice.

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    • Few were, alas, published. The first season’s plays were published in a volume named after the first season: Homosexual Acts. http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=1194319454&searchurl=sts%3Dt%26amp%3Btn%3Dhomosexual%2Bacts
      Philip Osment edited a volume of Sweatshop plays for a Methuen publication: Gay Sweatshop: Four Plays and a Company. One or two other titles were published, including a volume of Drew Griffiths and Noel Greig’s As Time Goes By (which inspired “Bent”) and The Dear Love of Comrades. Martin Sherman’s play Passing By and Noel Greig’s Poppies were also published but that was about it. With the company long since closed, tracking scripts down will be hard.

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