Red Ladder theatre company’s 50 years of provocation: ‘If our work wasn’t saying anything interesting, we’d stop’
As Red Ladder celebrates its half-centenary, the Leeds-based company’s artistic director and producer tell Catherine Love how the company has evolved while focusing on making a distinctive brand of theatre
For radical theatre company Red Ladder, turning 50 means both celebration and business as usual. “It’s a tricky one, an anniversary like this, because who really cares?” says artistic director Rod Dixon.
He’s making some concessions to the half-centenary – an anniversary production, an exhibition of the company’s archive at Leeds Library – but he’s also keen to press on with making theatre.
Red Ladder’s ability to get on with things and adapt to changing circumstances has been key to its longevity. When the company was established in 1968, at a time of riots and revolutions, it was an agitprop outfit that took its work to political demonstrations and picket lines. Later, in the transformed political environment of the 1980s, it focused on touring to youth clubs and community centres.
“There was a phase of strong socialist activism in the early days,” Dixon says. “After that, there was a big phase of feminism, then this long phase of youth theatre.”
When Dixon joined in 2006 and appointed Chris Lloyd as producer, he was keen to re-establish Red Ladder as a company that made theatre for all ages. But, he adds, a company with a long history is “like a ship” – it can’t change direction suddenly. “You can’t just turn a corner; you have to move it slowly.”
Although the company is no longer the leaderless collective it once was, its collaborative ethos remains. “Red Ladder functions in an especially democratic and open way,” says musician and writer Boff Whalley, who has worked on shows including We’re Not Going Back, Big Society! and Sex and Docks and Rock’n’Roll. “It’s how I’d want all collaborative art to be organised – around a circle as equals rather than with ideas coming from the head of the table and spreading downwards.”
That emphasis on collaboration is one thread that links Red Ladder’s five decades of work. Dixon suggests that another is “a desire to put stories on stage from voices that don’t get heard or are marginalised or are not considered to be powerful”. Lloyd adds that “each artistic director has had a very different persona, a very different take on theatre, but they’ve been custodians of the role”.
Ali Allen, who first worked with Red Ladder as a set designer in the 1980s, agrees that there is a sense of continuity. “The production values have gone up and the pool of creative people has widened, but the drive to put on great shows no matter what is still the same. They still tour in a van, still carry heavy scenery up flights of stairs and still bring a little magic to groups and communities across the country.”
And things don’t necessarily get easier with age. “Given we’re 50 years old, trying to book a tour is still very difficult,” Lloyd says. “Some of that is to do with our aesthetic style, because it’s ever-changing. That is great, but it means programming us is a leap of faith each time.”
While celebrating the way the company moves flexibly from big musicals at the Leeds City Varieties to gritty studio dramas to small-scale shows touring working men’s clubs, Dixon agrees that “not having a clear aesthetic is hard for programmers”.
Another challenge for the company in recent years was being dropped from Arts Council England’s national portfolio in 2014. Dixon describes the loss of core funding as “a real eye-opener”, which forced the company to be pragmatic.
“We just got on with making our work,” says Dixon. “And I think from the Arts Council’s point of view, it was a very dignified response to the cut.” Dixon’s advice to other companies facing similar cuts is “don’t take it personally, be strategic and see what you can do”.
Red Ladder developed vital partnerships with writers such as Anders Lustgarten and theatres like the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It also focused attention on its non-theatre circuit of community venues, for which it received Arts Council strategic touring funding.
5 things you need to know about Red Ladder
1. The company is named after a much-used prop. It began life in 1968 as the Agitprop Street Players, but was christened Red Ladder in 1971.
2. Red Ladder is one of the few surviving companies that emerged as part of the fringe movement in Britain in the 1960s.
3. Freedom Studios in Bradford began life as Red Ladder’s Asian Theatre School and was run by Madani Younis, who is now artistic director of London’s Bush Theatre.
4. Red Ladder defines its work as ‘popular’ without dumbing down. “I think it’s that notion of the popular that pop is short for,” Dixon suggests. “It’s accessible but galvanising.”
5. The company identifies its board as being crucial to its survival and success. “They really interrogate who our audience is and ask us what our unique selling point is,” says Dixon. The latest addition to the board is professional rugby league player Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who is also performing in Red Ladder’s show Playing the Joker.
Dixon is careful not to overstate the company’s success in the last four years. “It’s tricky,” he says. “You don’t want to say we survived it, fair enough, because that could be a green light to cutting left, right and centre. It wasn’t easy.”
Re-entering the Arts Council’s national portfolio this year does not mean the hard times are over. “We were skint when we were in the portfolio before,” says Lloyd. “So we’re not going to be awash with cash all of a sudden.”
Dixon adds: “The arts are precarious at the moment for everybody. The very first thing the Arts Council said when they welcomed us back in was that it didn’t want to see us being complacent and not to assume we’d be offered funding again in four years’ time.”
What regular funding does mean, in Lloyd’s words, is “breathing space”. While the company managed to find other ways of achieving its plans during those four years out of the portfolio, its resources were squeezed and its timelines were tight, preventing any long-term planning. Now the company can extend its horizons.
“It allows us to work with a broader selection of writers on a broader selection of projects,” says Lloyd. “And for the freelance staff we work with there is some more security.”
A pressing, ongoing question for the company is what it means to make political theatre – and the answer is different today from how it was in the 1960s. Dixon describes this aspect of Red Ladder’s identity as a “massive hot potato”, suggesting that “it can be a bit of a millstone around a company’s neck”.
“Labels stick, that’s the trouble,” he continues. “So I still get emails from undergraduates asking, ‘Can you tell me about agitprop?’ Well, agitprop is not something we’ve made for 35 or 40 years.”
For Dixon, being political means speaking across divides – between classes, communities and political parties. “We want people who voted Conservative in the last election to come and see our work and be entertained by it and provoke conversations in the bar that are useful. That is what we mean by reclaiming notions of the radical. It’s not necessarily about being screamy or shouty or angry or polemic.” Whalley describes it as “politics you find in everyday life”.
Moving away from what Dixon calls “heritage politics”, which featured heavily in recent shows such as suffragette drama Wrong ’Un and miners’ strike musical We’re Not Going Back, Red Ladder’s next phase of work is focusing on the refugee experience in contemporary Britain.
As Dixon explains, that begins with the company’s 50th-anniversary production: a new version of Brecht’s Mother Courage, a play “about war and migrants and moving from battle to battle”. Dixon’s hope is that – despite the birthday celebrations attached to it – the show can speak for itself.
“Having parties and balloons with ‘50’ on doesn’t mean anything, really,” he says. “But the work has to say something. If the work wasn’t saying anything interesting or useful then we’d have to stop.”
Profile: Red Ladder
Artistic director: Rod Dixon
Number of performances: 95
Audience figures: 7,000
Number of employees: Two full-time, nine freelance
Funding levels: About £100,000 a year in project funding (before April 1, 2018); £165,000 a year from ACE plus Northern Social Circuit strategic touring funds (from April 1, 2018)
Key contacts: Rod Dixon, firstname.lastname@example.org; Chris Lloyd, email@example.com
The Damned United runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from March 27 to April 7, then tours until May 26