Fiona Gell, Cataloguing Assistant, tells us about her experience of cataloguing the Red Ladder Theatre Archive, held in Special Collections at the University of Leeds.

In 2016 Special Collections and Red Ladder Theatre Company were announced as the winners of The Business Archives Council cataloguing grant for business archives related to the Arts. I was lucky enough to get the job of cataloguing, arranging and re-packaging the Red Ladder Theatre collection which was donated to Special Collections in 2014. The archive contains:

  • company information
  • stage management files
  • production files
  • tour plans
  • articles
  • scripts
  • set drawings
  • photographs
  • posters
  • press and publicity material from the early 1970s to the current day
For me, one of the most interesting parts of the collection is its publicity material which documents Red Ladder Theatre’s radical and socialist beginnings in agitprop (political propaganda spread through the general public through popular media), first as the AgitProp Street Players in 1968 and later the Red Ladder Mobile Workers Theatre.

The early days

The founding of the company was in direct response to the radical political climate of the 1960s and 70s. From the mid-1970s onwards Red Ladder became less radical as the political climate began to alter. Publicity material shows the company dealing with industrial relations issues in the NHS and the mining and steel industries, amongst others. These productions were aimed at working class audiences and often presented at trade union clubs and events, like Nerves of Steel by Steve Trafford and Chris Rawlence .

Throughout the early 80s, Red Ladder’s plays and shows continued to address the issues of oppression of the working classes as well as specifically women’s oppression in a patriarchal society, like Dumb Blonde by Peta Masters and Geraldine Griffiths (1983-84).

From 1985

1985 was a year of great significance for the company. It changed from a collective to a hierarchy with the appointment of a Board of Directors and an Artistic Director. With those changes came a new Artistic Policy and the focus on working with young people, aged 14-24 and their adult workers. Red Ladder also started to actively commission new writing from both inexperienced and established writers.  This can be seen in the rich stream of productions over the next 20 years: plays like State Agent by Rachel Feldberg and Ruth Mackenzie (1985 – see publicity material, below), Sleeping Dogs by Phillip Osment (1993) and Kaahini by Maya Chowdhry (2006).

A company for today

In 2006, Rod Dixon was appointed as Artistic Director and he continues to steer the company forward to this day. Red Ladder has moved away from focusing on young people as its main audience and has, in the last 10 years, reached out to audiences of all ages, gender, abilities, political, social and religious backgrounds. This can be seen in plays such as Where’s Vietnam? by Alice Nutter (2008 – see publicity material, left), Big Society by Boff Whalley (2012 – see publicity material, below right), and We’re Not Going Back by Boff Whalley (2014/15).

The company is fearless in presenting its audiences with hard hitting theatre that tackles many of the problems facing us today. It lives up to its radical theatre roots but in a modern way. Red Ladder Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday in 2018.

The Red Ladder Theatre Archive is available to view here. For more information about accessing the collection contact Special Collections at the University of Leeds.


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