Red Ladder - Keeping the Red flag flying

The company's artistic director Rod Dixon.
The company's artistic director Rod Dixon.
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As Leeds theatre company Red Ladder celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special exhibition, artistic director Rod Dixon speaks to Yvette Huddleston.

In so many ways 1968 was an era-defining year. The world was in turmoil – protest, new ideas and revolution were in the air.

Artwork and artefacts: An early poster.

Artwork and artefacts: An early poster.

It was also the year which saw the emergence of a radical theatre company, then known as The Agitprop Street Players. Formed by a group of socialist theatre-makers in Hackney, their stated aim was to make political street theatre that would agitate for social change and bring down the capitalist system.

By 1971 they had changed their name to Red Ladder (after a much-loved and frequently used prop) and in 1976, the company relocated to Leeds. It continued to make theatre for the people about the people, often working in collaboration with trade unions and taking their work into non-traditional theatre spaces such as working men’s clubs and community centres. That ethos, making theatre that is accessible to all, remains a core value right up to the present day.

Fifty years on, the company is celebrating its significant anniversary with a special exhibition, Red Ladder Theatre Company: 50 Years of Radical Theatre (1968-2018), at Leeds Central Library. Co-curated by archivist Fiona Gell and the company’s artistic director Rod Dixon, the show features archive material – including posters, fliers, press cuttings, props, costumes and photographs – creating a rich and fascinating portrait of a half century of radical theatre-making.

“For years most of our archive was in a load of cardboard boxes in store and we knew it was quite precious but we didn’t really know what to do with it,” says Dixon. “When we found out that Leeds University would take it off our hands and document it properly we were delighted. They digitised everything including all the videos and that saved us hours of work. And coming up to the 50th anniversary we asked Fiona as an archivist to help select items we might put on display.”

The narrative of the exhibition reflects the different stages of the company’s development – in one of the cases there is a notebook open on a page, dated October 1974, where their decision to move out of London and head North is documented – and how they adapted to, and reflected, the changing times. It is clearly a major factor in their longevity.

“We are constantly reinventing ourselves and I think that is why the company has managed to survive for 50 years,” says Dixon. “We are flexible and have changed with the times.” And the times haven’t always been easy. In July 2014 the company lost all its Arts Council funding – it was a terrible blow and could well have spelled the end of Red Ladder. However, with typical fortitude, they refused to give up. Others rallied round, a Save Red Ladder campaign was launched – with big names such as Terry Jones, Phil Jupitus and David Peace lending their support – and it became very clear the high esteem in which the company was held. Last year Red Ladder regained its Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation status.

“I am very proud of the way we dealt with all that,” says Dixon. “If there had been a muted response we might not have fought on, but as it was we thought we have a responsibility to stick with it.”

And long may they continue.

To June 28. The Red Ladder Archive (MS1956) is housed and available for research at Special Collections, Brotherton Library, Leeds University.

Rod Dixon and Boff Whalley in conversation, June 18, 1pm.