James Cartwright and Rik Makarem in rehearsal for “Passing By”, 2013 | Uncredited photographer/Tristan Bates Theatre | 14066
Gay Sweatshop was formed in London in 1974 and had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club “Ambience” held at the Almost Free theatre, which was an alternative theatre established in 1971 in Rupert Street, Soho, London W1 – audiences were expected to pay at least one penny for their admission ticket.
Founding members of Gay Sweatshop included John Roman Baker, Roger Baker, Ed Berman, Gerald Chapman, Norman Coates, Laurence Collinson, Suresa Galbraith, Drew Griffiths, Philip Osment, Alan Pope, Lloyd Vanata and Alan Wakeman. 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.
In 1975 they published a Manifesto which stated that the Company’s objective was:
To counteract the prevailing perception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public and to increase the general awareness of the oppression of sexuality, both gay and straight, the impact it has on people’s lives and the society that reinforces it.
Jingleball – a gay sweatshop production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1987 | Sharon Smullen/ Royal Holloway University archives | 14067
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 play by Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths, “Only connect”.
Gay Sweatshop was wound up and papers held by the Royal Holloway in the official archive indicate that the organisation was wound up in 1997.
In 1984, the talented Drew Griffiths, actor, playwright and one of the company originators was the tragic victim of a homophobic murder by a man he picked up at the Elephant and Castle. The single Why? from Bronski Beat’s album Age of Consent was dedicated to his memory. Drew Griffiths was 37.
I joined Gay Sweatshop in 1975. I joined with great fear and trepidation – after all, I could be ruining my career – (I remember vividly the first press call when I deliberately disassociated myself from the group, sat with my back to the cameras, afraid of being publicly identified as a homosexual) but somehow found the courage to direct two of the plays in the first season. At the end of the first six months I knew that the previous seven years had been preparation for this.’
He never recovered from the indignities of being gay, all that stuff I was talking about [the idignities of being a gay man pre-1967 and the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain]. I’m sure it wasn’t just that… but just thinking about Drew. But his passion. Gay Sweatshop was a mission for him.
Noel Greig died in 2009. His archive is preserved by the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.
Gerald Chapman died in 1987 aged 37.
Bryony Lavery, the well known dramatist, was for a time the artistic director.
David Benedict, the drama correspondent, was joint artistic director from 1988 to 1992.
The playwright Martin Sherman was also involved with Gay Sweatshop, especially contributing the play “Passing By” which has recently been
revived. In 2013 he told “Whats Peen Seen?”:
When Passing By was first produced it was unheard of to present a gay relationship with a sense of human normalcy about it, and so it had particular meaning to audiences within that context. Now that is taken for granted, theatrically, at least, and audiences are able to concentrate on the relationship itself…. I suspect I was fed up with the way gay characters were presented onstage and I wanted to write something that I thought was truthful and not suffused with self-pity or misery. Ah – that’s a slightly noble answer, and possibly self-serving; I would like to think I was carrying a banner. It’s probably more likely that I just wanted to write a play and write something that was familiar to me and my friends and made sense to us and was truthful to our lives…
Actor and playwright Kevin Elyot who acted with Gay Sweatshop died on 7 June 2014. Guardian obituary
This post was amended on 22 July 2014 to include the obituary for Gay Sweatshop actor Kevin Elyot.
Two Gay Sweatshop Plays: As Time Goes by and The Dear Love of Comrades, Paperback – 6 Apr 1981 | Amazon | 14068
Due to the additional information our correspondents have kindly revealed, this post was republished on 1 August 2014.
Since the article was first researched, further information about Gay Sweatshop has become public and the post was expanded on 2 August 2014 to include these insights.
I would also like to thank my correspondents for their help in compiling this revision. Thank you!
The Official Gay Sweatshop Archive is held by the Royal Holloway University, London.