Bradford Art College Theatre Group

Company Name: Bradford Art College Theatre Group

Founder: Albert Hunt

Established: 1968

Reason: Prior to moving to Bradford College of Art, Albert Hunt was working in adult education and ran a youth theatre group in Shrewsbury. When he moved to Bradford as a lecturer in Film Studies he implemented an innovative Complementary Studies programme across the whole college. Inspired by Clive Barker he increasingly used theatre games and performance in the learning process. Following a successful two week Theatre Workshop project he responded to the students’ request to start a college theatre group as there was insufficient time to extend and polish ideas for presentation within the timetable.

Current Status: The Bradford Art College Theatre Group’s last production was in February 1974 although some of the group continued to work with Albert Hunt within the Media-in-Education Unit that he set up around this time. Destruction of Dresden was revived and performed in Dresden, East Germany in 1978.

Area of Work: Documentary, Political and Experimental Theatre

Policy: Through the Bradford Art College Theatre Group, Albert Hunt saw a way in which theatre could challenge the current educational system by putting ‘play and entertainment at the centre of the learning process ….[to create] an alternative way of looking at society  ……  When we started working in the theatre nobody had assumed that what we were aiming to do was to produce plays that looked like those that were being put on at the provincial reps or the West End. We took it for granted that what we created would be better – more exciting, more full of ideas, more funny. Several members of the group had never been to a theatre in their lives: they never worried about breaking the rules because they didn’t know what rules there were to break’ (Albert Hunt, 1976).

Structure: ‘The  Bradford Art College Theatre Group work as a collective, putting together ideas in discussion and improvisation: but it is made up of individuals, each of whom might have his own descriptions and definitions of what we are trying to do. We work together because we respond to each other’s ideas and attitudes and inventions – and not because we’ve sat down and hammered out a manifesto and an ideological line’ (Albert Hunt,1972).

The subject of their best known works – satirical attacks on war-mongering politicians and critiques of religion – stem from Hunt’s personal and political stance, however Merete Bates in the The Guardian (23rd January 1971) warns that ‘it would be very wrong to credit their [the theatre group’s] success to the devotion and energy of an exceptional lecturer’.  In the same article Hunt goes on to explain: ‘I found …. that what really concerns me, concerns them also’

The success of the theatre company at international festivals and at fringe venues in the UK put pressure on Albert Hunt’s role within the college. He was finding it ‘physically impossible to go on managing the group, creating the shows and running a college course all at the same time.’ (Albert Hunt in a letter,1972). By 1973 the theatre group were working more independently and functioned briefly as a professional touring company.

Based:  Bradford

Funding: Initially the theatre group’s work was funded as part of Bradford College of Art’s Complementary Studies programme. As they became acclaimed at National Student Drama Festivals, Edinburgh Festival Fringe and beyond, the company attracted grants from the Yorkshire Arts Association (£1000 in 1971) and a Gulbenkian Foundation award that enabled the purchase of a van. In 1972 Albert Hunt applied to the Arts Council for a more significant grant (£5980) to enable them to hire premises in Bradford and to take on a full-time Administrator but this plan was not supported by the local authority and also got overshadowed by the college merger (with Bradford College of Technology) and the need for the individuals in the company to support themselves financially.

Performance venues: Bradford College of Art, Bradford University, Everyman Theatre Liverpool, Manchester University, Sheffield University, Leeds University, ICA Theatre London, Open Space London, Serpentine Gallery London, Pool Theatre Edinburgh, tour of Lincolnshire and SW England and schools, halls and pubs (especially in the North of England). Abroad: Amsterdam University Theatre, Rotterdam, Nancy Festival France, International Festival of Student Drama Zagreb, Wroclaw, Poznan, Krakow and Swinoujscie Island (Poland), Berlin Ahrenshoop, Dresden and Weimar (East Germany).

Audiences: The group created and performed their work for ‘non-traditional’ audiences within the college and the wider community – schools, pubs, halls and working men’s clubs. The group’s first commissioned piece was performed at Seventh World Congress of Mental Health in London. The following year James Harold Wilson Sinks the Bismarck played at a miner’s benefit concert in Leeds. The group also had success in fringe venues such as the Open Space, the ICA theatre and in Europe but Albert Hunt resisted the idea of the group being seen as just another fringe theatre company  ‘we’re not setting out to make “theatre” and to start now would be dangerous. We can cut our roots if we’re not careful…..’  (The Guardian 23rd January 1971)

For more company images see Albert Hunt’s web page

Company work and process: Bradford Art College Theatre Group evolved out of the ‘Theatre Project’ (27th Nov – 8th Dec 1967) led by Albert Hunt and  Geoffrey Reeves – who had been collaborators with Peter Brook on the anti-Vietnam War protest play, US in 1966. The description of the planned project concisely outlines the working method that Hunt successfully applied over the next six years: ‘There will be games, improvisations and experiments, leading towards work on a script which we as a group will create.’ (Albert Hunt,1976).

A month prior to this Albert Hunt had achieved notoriety and some acclaim for a spectacular dramatic event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution enacted on the streets of Bradford. Here the dramatists John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy had been brought in as project tutors and John Fox (who was in the process of setting up his own theatre company Welfare State) worked with students in the construction of large scale puppets. ‘We shall be studying the events of the October Revolution, looking at films, listening to expert speakers, with a view to re-creating some of these events in dramatic form, in the streets of Bradford.’ (Albert Hunt,1976). 300 students were involved as the art students were supplemented by students that Hunt had recruited from other colleges. The event achieved national coverage in the press. Catherine Itzin (1980) described it as ‘the largest-scale piece of street theatre produced in Britain in the sixties or seventies – an event which encapsulated the imaginative possibilities of political theatre and which set a precedent for the following decade’.

The Complementary Studies ‘Theatre Project’ run a few weeks later was also successful and at the request of the participating students was followed by regular evening meetings leading to the formation of the Bradford Art College Theatre Group. The core members were Chris Vine, Keith Knowles, Jacquie Crone, Roger Simcox, John Booth, Doug Lawrence, Debbie Lobley and Martin McNicholas – with Albert Hunt as group co-ordinator.

Great Happenings
Whilst the theatre group was distinct from the Complementary Studies programme, theatre projects were often built upon the research and activities carried out within the educational programme. For example in February 1968 Albert Hunt led a project on the The Destruction of Dresden – envisioning that the outcome would be a reading of Peter Weiss’s play The Investigation. In the event the outcome was much more experimental. The central ideas for Destruction of Dresden – children’s play using cardboard boxes to build a city that would be used as a complex surface for the projection of slides showing Dresden before and after the bombing raids of 1945 accompanied by readings from David Irving’s book and the ultimate destruction of the construction was first presented in February 1969. As with most of the Theatre Group’s productions it went through a process of revision and refinement before being performed at the ICA Theatre, London. This project became something of a turning point  ‘… after the Dresden Show [we]moved increasingly away from “performance art” events and in the direction of using popular entertainment idioms to make political statements.’ (Albert Hunt,1976)

The Theatre Group’s first major production Move Over Jehovah came about through Albert Hunt’s previous work with Peter Brook. Brook was not able to take up a commission to devise a drama performance for the Seventh World Congress of Mental Health in London and passed the commission on to Albert Hunt. Albert Hunt brought the poet Adrian Mitchell (also a collaborator with Brook on US) in to work with the theatre group on the script and the songs. ‘Mr. Adrian Mitchell, poet and Mr. Albert Hunt, happenings organiser from Bradford College of Art used the Old Testament as a play to study authority and the way society makes for and destroys mental wellbeing’ (Guardian 16 August 1968).

Two Contrasting Examples of Documentary Theatre
A Complementary Studies project staged at the college The Survivors (November 1968) was built around memories of the First World War and was successful with audiences but Hunt was dissatisfied with the dramatic form which rendered the material nostalgic and anecdotal. Working with the Theatre Group, Hunt continued to explore war as a topic in Looking Forward to 1942 but here the material was played as if in a Pentecostal meeting. A more satisfactory way of challenging and entertaining an audience had been found. ‘We wanted to question the accepted attitudes towards both historical and contemporary events’ (Albert Hunt 1976) ‘…. [it] took the form of a Pentecostal meeting, and tried to create all the genuine excitement of such a meeting. It began with swinging choruses and free shouting and moved through prayers, testimonials… It was in the testimonials the war material was woven – consisting of testimonials of the people of Bradford and Liverpool. But these were set against wider issues, which were explored in testimonials of Neville Chamberlain, Adolf Eichmann and [Bomber] Harris’ (Albert Hunt,1976).

The Cross-Fertilization Approach
Immediately after this the company created their best known work John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis. Albert Hunt’s background as a Film Studies lecturer provided the unexpected structure of John Ford’s Westerns through which to investigate the Cuban missile crisis. Writing in The Times (16th March 1971) Irving Wardle describes the company’s approach as being that of cross-fertilization: ‘Events leading up to the Soviet-American confrontation over Cuba are re-told in the form of a cowboy epic with John Ford directing and chatting to the house. Such is the feedback of movie legend into the actual conduct of American politics that this link is entirely legitimate’

In September 1970 Albert Hunt gave a paper at a seminar on documentary theatre in Rotterdam and the theatre group performed an early version of their new show. Hunt explained that ‘from our first experiments with documentary material, we had always searched for theatre forms that would give the material, an added, concrete dimension. Nothing seems more pointless to me, personally, than those examples of ”theatre of fact” that consist simply of taking documentary material and “dramatizing” it in conventional naturalistic terms’ (Albert Hunt,1972).

John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis was reworked by the company as ‘there was too much static giving of information (Albert Hunt,1972) and this second version successful played at fringe venues and festivals in 1971 with the script being published by Methuen the following year.

Independence From the College
Now functioning more independently of the college the theatre group attracted funding from Yorkshire Arts Association and a Gulbenkian Foundation award to purchase a van. James Harold Wilson Sinks the Bismarck  – the Theatre Group’s new show for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (1971) and then Poland – was a further example of the company’s ‘cross-fertilisation’ approach to documentary material: ‘a play in the style of British war films, depicting [Harold] Wilson’s glorious retreat from socialism’ (Albert Hunt,1976)

The core of the theatre group were now ex-students and they were billed as ‘Albert Hunt’s Theatre Group’ at Leeds in February 1972. The Bradford College of Art College Complementary Studies cohort was brought down to London in May to create an ambitious installation event at the Serpentine Gallery The Building of the Union Pacific Railway or The Real Story of the West . Theatre games, simulations, aleatory elements, side-shows and audience participation were supported by staged pieces performed by the Theatre Group.

Whilst the company had achieved critical success, their income was insufficient to support the performers. Albert Hunt applied to the Arts Council for enhanced funding to allow them to acquire premises and to have a full time administrator, he explained ‘If we don’t receive any money this year, the group will inevitably cease to exist in its present form’ (ref. Letter from Albert Hunt,1972).

The Passion of Adolf Hitler and Nixon’s Reich
Their major new production for that year, The Passion of Adolf Hitler opened at Bradford University prior to going to Edinburgh and then on to Poland. Chris Vine designed a striking photomontage for the show’s poster. A promotional leaflet from this date (still using the Bradford Art College Theatre Group name) notes that the group now function as ‘an independent unit’ – bookings for shows to be made through Roger Simcox. Merete Bates of The Guardian found the show ‘starker, harder, more elemental than earlier works …Thus Hitler is cast as Jesus Christ in an Oberammergau Passion Play. By closely paralleling the development of the Fascist movement in Germany with that of Christ in the Gospel, the group demonstrate how treacherously the inspiration, emotion, and hysteria of a messianic movement can be used.” (The Guardian 3 July 1972)

Albert Hunt’s efforts to secure funding for an administrator and premises in Bradford came to nothing. ‘One by one experienced actors drifted away from the group. Two of them ….. were offered lucrative jobs in other departments. By the summer of 1973, only a hard core of four remained’ (Albert Hunt, 1976). In that year the art college was merged with the technical institution leading to the end of Hunt’s complementary studies programme. Hunt set up the Media-in-Education Unit in the merged college. He continued to work with some of the core members of the theatre group on video projects and he wrote an account of both the complementary studies experiment and the theatre company’s work in Hopes For Great Happenings (published in 1976). The final ‘cross-fertilization’ show The Fears and Miseries of Nixon’s Reich was staged in February 1974: ’We turned from Hitler to Nixon, and presented Watergate in terms of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, as a battle between rival gangsters, representing the Democrats and the Nixon Gang’ (Albert Hunt,1976).

Looking Forward to 1942
‘The war effort was interwoven by a crazy gospeller’s campaign. The result was achingly funny but also warningly tragic’ (Marete Bates, The Guardian) on

John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis
‘Cold documentary fact and quotation is transformed through a metaphoric lens of imagination into explosive insight and information…It does nothing less than counteract the anaesthetic of twenty odd years of crisis politics on television with a healthy dose of laughing gas. It reawakens us to the pain and reality of our situation’ (Time Out)

 The Passion of Adolf Hitler
‘A thoroughly nasty play, full of cynicism …performed with great vitality’ (The Scotsman)

Personal appraisal and thoughts: Albert Hunt interviewed in 2012: ‘why should people be interested in all this? It’s ancient history … maybe it wasn’t all that important, I don’t know (laughing)… I think taking The Dresden Show to Dresden was important, I do really think that was important.’

The Russian Revolution Collaboration with John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcey and John Fox. This project occurred just prior to the forming of the Bradford Art College Theatre Group and involved 300 studentsBradford (various locations around the city)2nd November 1967
Destruction of Dresden or A Carnival for St. Valentine’s Eve
Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt with initial involvement from Robin Page.
Cast included: Chris Vine and Doug Lawrence
In the 1969 version of this piece the narrator was Keith Knowles
Bradford, ICA Theatre London, and at Dresden in 1978 (see below)
(Also played National Student Drama Festival at Bradford in 1972)
13-14 February 1968 (Bradford), 13 February 1969 (ICA)
Move Over Jehovah -commissioned by the National Association of Mental Health
Devised by the company working with Adrian Mitchell and Albert Hunt
Cast included: Jacquie Crone, Doug Lawrence, George Dorosz and Roger Simcox
Seventh World Congress of Mental Health in London (Holland Park School)15 August 1968
Looking Forward to 1942 – the Second World War Hot Gospel Show
Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt
Cast included: Doug Lawrence, Keith Knowles, Maurice Burgess, John Booth, Neil Kitchen, Jacquie Crone, Stephanie Simpson, Chris Vine and Sally Lester
Amsterdam University Theatre, Wroclaw in Poland, Zagreb International Festival of Student Theatre, National Student Drama Festival at Manchester, Platform 1 Festival of Experimental Theatre at Liverpool Everyman and various UK venues.July 1969 (Amsterdam), September 1969 (Wroclaw), September(?) 1969 (Zagreb), Jan 1970 (Manchester), Feb 1970 (Liverpool)
John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis
Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt
Cast included: Jacquie Crone, Rosie Thomas, Roger Simcox, Ian Taylor, Keith Knowles, Maurice Burgess, John Booth, George Dorosz and Albert Hunt (on piano) and at earlier productions cast also included Doug Lawrence
Nancy Festival France, Zagreb International Festival of Student Theatre, Rotterdam (at Seminar of Documentary Theatre), National Student Drama Festival Southampton, Open Space London, September(?) 1970, September 1970 (Rotterdam), January 1971 (Southampton), 16th March 1971 (Open Space)
James Harold Wilson Sinks the Bismarck
Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt
Cast included: Chris Vine, Rona Hepton, John Nicholson, Roger Simcox, Debbie Lobley, Jacquie Crone, Martin McNicholas and Catherine-Ann Whiteley
Pool Theatre Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Wroclaw (Poland), National Student Drama Festival at Bradford, Victory for the Miners benefit concert Leeds 30 August– 4 September 1971 (Edinburgh); First week of January 1972 (Bradford), 25 February 1972 (Leeds)
The Building of the Union Pacific Railway or The Real Story of the West
Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt from an initial concept by Paul Binnaerts
Cast included: Jacquie Crone, Roger Simcox, George Dorosz Keith Knowles, Martin McNicholas, Chris Vine, Rona Hepton, Neil Kitchen, Catherine-Ann Whiteley
Design of Indians: Ian Taylor
Serpentine Gallery, London27 May to 4 June1972
The Passion of Adolf Hitler Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt
Cast included: George Dorosz, Keith Knowles, Roger Simcox, Jacquie Crone, Chris Vine, John Booth
Bradford University Great Hall, Conference of the War Resisters’ International at Sheffield University, Polish Tour - Wroclaw, Poznan, Krakow and Swinoujscie Island - and Pool Theatre Edinburgh.
Wallsend Arts Centre February 1973
July 1972 (Bradford), Summer 1972 (Poland), 31 August - 9 September 1972 (Edinburgh)
The Workhouse Donkey
Written by John Arden
Co-ordinated by Albert Hunt
Cast included: Debbie Lobley, Terry Sloka, Chris Vine, Roger Simcox, Jacquie Crone, Martin McNicholas, Maurice Burgess, Stephanie Simpson
Arts Council Tours of Lincolnshire and SW England and Leeds Playhouse1973
The Fears and Miseries of Nixon’s Reich
Devised by the company and co-ordinated by Albert Hunt
Cast included: Chris Vine, Roger Simcox, Keith Knowles and Jacquie Crone
Various venues in UK First performance February 1974
Destruction of Dresden - a second version of 1968 production - performed with a short play The Big Three written by Albert Hunt satirising Stalin’s creation of communist East Germany
Cast included: Chris Vine, Rona Hepton, Roger Simcox, Micko O'Byrne and Nick Hughes
Technical set-up: Simon Haines
Berlin, Ahrenshoop, Dresden and Weimar (East Germany)April 1978

Interviewee reference: Albert Hunt. Additional  details  of productions are taken from correspondence with Chris Vine in 2015.

Existing archival material: Albert Hunt interview and Companies File at Unfinished Histories

John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis – Methuen Young Drama (Methuen,1972) includes updated version of Albert Hunt’s paper on Documentary Theatre first published in Theatre Quarterly January 1971
Hopes For Great Happenings Albert Hunt (Methuen, 1976)
Letter from Albert Hunt to the Curator of the Serpentine Gallery, 1972 Unfinished Histories archive
Bradford’s Glorious Revolution The Guardian 3 Nov 1967
John Ford’s Cuban Missile Crisis  Irving Wardle The Times 16 March 1971
When Nothing Succeeds Like Failure Merete Bates The Guardian 23 January 1971
The Passion of Adolf Hitler Merete Bates in The Guardian 3 July 1972
The Revolution in Bradford Michael Kustow in The Guardian 19 February 1976
Stages in the Revolution Catherine Itzin (Methuen,1980)

Chris Vine’s website

Acknowledgements: This page was written by David Cleall. With many thanks to Chris Vine.