Stirabout Theatre Company and Gallery

Company name: Stirabout Theatre Company and Gallery

Founder: Corinna Seeds

Established: 1974

Reason: To form a permanent, professional theatre company to take performances and drama workshops into enclosed institutional settings such as prisons, borstals and detention centres. When Stirabout was formed the concept of drama workshops in prisons was unheard of and only a handful, of the over 180 penal establishments nationwide, allowed live performances – usually only the London ones and only at Christmas.

Current Status: Disbanded 1984

Area of Work: Community

Policy: Stirabout was the first British theatre company formed specifically to take theatre performances and drama workshops into prisons, and they knew from the outset that they would have to compromise and liaise with people whose political views they completely disagreed with in order to achieve their goals. The company aimed to abide by the rules (however ridiculous), be allowed in, be accepted and trusted, and then start working to change attitudes towards theatre and drama work in prisons. In 1979 Stirabout expanded to include a Gallery to show prisoners’ artwork and literature above the rehearsal space in a shop they leased at 27 Chalk Farm Road in Camden Lock.

Structure: A registered charity. Patron: Dame Flora Robson and Board of trustees. Artistic Director-led with a core group of 4-6 actors/workshop leaders. Two productions a year, often performing twice a day. Busiest days were Sundays and holidays. Days off were Mondays and Tuesdays when drama workshops took place. All members were paid equal wages and issued Equity contracts for small-scale touring. Preference was given to performers who were also musicians and drivers.

Based: NW London-based but toured nationally. Mailing address/administration: various North West London addresses in first year, then 2b Bridge Approach NW1 (1975-79) followed by, 27 Chalk Farm Road NW1 (1979-1983). Rehearsal space as above plus a huge mansion squat in Hampstead in the early years.

Funding: Self funded 1974-75. First Arts Council Grant in 1975 enabled expenses to be covered. Stirabout received annual revenue Arts Council grants from March 1976-1982. Additional tour funding received from numerous Regional Arts Associations including the Greater London Council (GKC), Greater London Arts Association GLAA, West Midlands, Southern and Northern Arts Associations. Capital grants from the Gulbenkian Foundation and Leverhulme Trust helped pay for the lease of the Stirabout Gallery and the purchase of new van in 1979. Prisons didn’t have an entertainments fund but some could contribute from an Activities fund. This ranged from £2 and a cup of tea (see Gallery) to up to £30. The weekly drama workshops were funded by the Education Departments and workshop leaders were paid individually as teachers or visiting lecturers.

Performance Venues: Prisons, borstals, remand centres and mental hospitals. Some institutions had stages – but usually the performances took place in the chapel or the gym. In some top security prisons Stirabout performed on landings (the space between cells) and the prisoners, who were not allowed out, watched through their cells bars. The drama workshops took place in classrooms under the auspices of the prison’s Education Department. Average workshop group – 10 people.

Audiences: Inmates of enclosed institutions nationwide. Average audience size was 500 people.

Company work and process:
Stirabout, (‘stir’ is slang for prison) was founded by Corinna Seeds. The company put on two x 90 minute productions a year with a cast of 4-6 performers who were usually also musicians and drivers. In 1974, their first year, they were self funded and rehearsed in the evenings and weekends, taking ‘sick’ leave from day jobs on performance dates and arriving at prisons by public transport carrying props in laundry bags. The first year’s cast consisted of a determinedly dedicated mix of 4 professional actors, a social worker and a ‘drag’ artist who had an amazing rapport with the prison audiences. Initially few prisons allowed them in but, as their reputation through the prison grapevine grew, they ‘broke into’ more prisons each year.

Stirabout always stressed that they didn’t need microphones or lights and would perform in any available space. Their actors needed to be strong vocally to be heard in huge halls with hundreds in the audience. For the performers, Stirabout proved to be a very tough learning curve as they had to be totally aware of their audience the whole time. Improvised inter-action with the audience was as vital to the shows as the material, giving inmates the ability to change what was happening on ‘stage’. Revue formats were chosen as they provided the flexibility to adapt and edit material depending on the type of institution and that day’s atmosphere. Jokes or sketches in which fun would be poked at some authority figure such as a judge prevailed and were interspersed with live music (particularly Bob Dylan). They were not however allowed to use sketches about prison officers and prisoners, but replaced those with sketches about doctors and patients and everyone, except apparently the officers, understood the analogies. Songs acted as an emotional contrast to the anarchic comedy. One moment the roof was raised with laughter, the next moment there was spellbound silence.

The cast always wrote a topical ‘pantomime’ with which to close the show which would involve two volunteers joining them from the audience, and this became the expected ‘tradition’. Public Performing Rights were obviously not an issue and Stirabout freely used material by Spike Milligan, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and others as well as writing their own material – Garry Brooking wrote a whole show based on the theme that sniffing Vick had been made illegal. They were given original work by Bernard McKenna and Graham Chapman (Monty Python) who allowed them free range of his study and photocopier in Highgate. Prisoners often sent suggestions for jokes and sketches and even full-length plays which they had written.

Former prisoners helped Stirabout renovate their premises and would regularly drop in at the Stirabout Gallery. The Home Office forbade ex-prisoners to join Stirabout although they made the ideal performers as they understood the ‘game’. Some attempted to join – Les Grantham, later aka ‘Dirty Den’, auditioned and was accepted by Stirabout but failed the security checks. Some managed it, like the drag artist in Stirabout’s cast in their first year who turned out to be an ex-prisoner who had performed in drag so he wouldn’t be recognized – after one Stirabout season he ended up in prison again for forging cheques dressed as a woman. Another, Danny, a Rastafarian armed robber who had been a regular participant in Corinna’s drama workshops in Maidstone Prison, asked to join Stirabout on his release and the company took the risk. He went back to perform in prisons under a pseudonym (except to the prisons where he had served time). Danny had a brilliant rapport with the audiences and had become an excellent performer. He said that the adrenalin he felt performing was similar to how he felt when executing a robbery…but in Stirabout’s summer break he re-offended and was put back in prison.

In 1978 Corinna discovered that several prison theatre companies existed in USA and was awarded a Churchill Travelling Fellowship to spend three months working with them (Cell Block Theatre and Theatre for the Forgotten). The director Mai Zetterling joined Stirabout in female borstal performances to inspire her for her film Scrubbers.

By 1979 Stirabout finally had a permanent office, rehearsal and gallery premises, a new van, were running regular prison workshops and were allowed into over 120 institutions to perform. Then in 1981 Stirabout’s annual Revenue Grant was cut and they to had to disband. The momentum and continuity of ten year’s work and contacts were lost and no other theatre company was able to take over their ‘gigs’. (Clean Break were being formed at that time and liaised with Stirabout but they were not allowed back to prisons to perform). Ken Campbell and Corinna jointly prepared a Stirabout project grant application in 1983, but the Arts Council turned it down.

Stirabout didn’t contribute to the alternative theatre movement on the outside – but it did positively change prisoners’ and authorities’ attitudes towards the acceptance and potential of theatre and drama workshops in penal institutions and paved the way for the several companies now operating in prisons. Three former Stirabout members still work together at Hydrama Theatre in Greece and have mentored the formation of the first Greek prison theatre company.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Corinna Seeds (Company member, 1974-1982): ‘I lived and breathed prison theatre for nearly ten years. I was obsessed and persistent about introducing drama workshops to prisons – inmates were still sewing mailbags and only allowed 2 sheets of writing paper a week.. We walked a fine line for all the ten years, balancing and pushing boundaries. It was frustrating, fulfilling, exhilarating, and dangerous both physically and emotionally, but I made lifelong friends inside prisons and in Stirabout. I could write many books about the experience. It was like giving birth and watching a wayward child grow…. You always had to attend to it or it got into trouble…it shattered me when the Arts cuts came and no one was willing to take over. I emigrated to Greece. On the official emigration tax form under ‘Reasons for leaving’, I wrote, ‘Thatcherism.’

Maureen O’Farrell (Company member, 1979-82): ‘Stirabout was not in the business of communicating overt political messages. It was in the business of letting people know that they were not forgotten. My focus was to do the best job possible. Going into a prison for the first time was very educational and unnerving. After the van was searched, and our IDs checked, door after door banged shut behind us as we waited for the next one to open. We were in prison, everyone around us was incarcerated. The performances were an emotional roller coaster – the audiences were very vocal – and you had to have your wits about you or you would sink rather than swim. Each audience was different – it depended on the location, the nature and gender of the inmates, events that had occurred prior to the show and the relationships between the officers and prisoners. The audience weren’t going to let the opportunity of communicating their responses to the performers pass them by. Stirabout influenced both my work and life choices hugely -when I got my first starring role on TV I was not overwhelmed by apprehension. I kept telling myself, if you can survive eight live shows in front of Wormwood Scrubs ‘lifers’ you can do anything. That feeling has always stayed with me whatever I do.’

Read More

Extracts of letters from prison inmates
Richard H
‘… I have never laughed so much in my life (this one included!)…sometimes I think that to create a different environment, especially in a place like this, is the next best thing to going anywhere of your choosing.’
(HM Prison Kingston Portsmouth. Prisoner no 555039 to Stirabout, November 1st, 1976)
Mick H
‘I am a lifer who was once married and I have 3 children that I may never see again…when you come and put on a show just for a little while I am back with my family..I don’t know weather (sic) I will survive in here but when I watch the shows I feel I may be able to start a new life again. I have one great mate in here named Bill, who thinks the same as I do and helped me with this letter.’
(Extract from letter from HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs to Stirabout, 1979)
Alex Alexandrowicz 
‘Yesterday a theatre group called ‘Stirabout’ came to the prison and gave us an hour and a half’s entertainment; they were very good indeed …and they were all very talented musicians …. At first I wasn’t going to go, but a friend of mine said why not, it’ll make a change, so I said okay, and I’m glad that I went.  I guess I thought they’d be amateurs.’
(Extract from letter from HM Prison Grendon Underwood to Fiona Fullerton, 18th April, 1981)

Read more reviews here


Clown Court
Director: Corinna Seeds and Lenny Alsop
Cast included: Lenny Alsop, Jenni Waters, Peter Panteli, Suzy C, Corinna Seeds, Libby Holloway, Christopher Hunter
London and SW tour
Brixton, Wandsworth, Lewes, Chelmsford, Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway prisons and Friern Barnet Hospital
2 shows a month
Stirabout Review 2
Directors: directed collectively with Nancy Duiguid
Cast included: Lenny Alsop, Jan Dungey,Lorna Cordrey, Chris Coates, Simon Prager, Peggy Shannon
London and SW tour
4 shows a month
The Dumb Waiter
Writer: Harold Pinter
Director: Peggy Shannon
Cast: Garry Brooking, Jeffrey Chiswick
HM Prison Maidstone1976
Stirabout Revue 3
Director: Corinna Seeds
Cast included: Garry Brooking, Jeffrey chiswick, Peggy Shannon, John Hector, Mac Andrews, Fiona Mettam, Simon Prager
London and UK tours
6 shows weekly
Stirabout Revue 4
Director: Corinna Seeds
Cast includes: Garry Brooking, Robert Mcintosh, Danny L, Fiona Mettam, Marilyn Gordon, Brian Davey
London and UK tours1977
Stirabout Revue 5
Director: Corinna Seeds
Cast includes: Garry Brooking, Jeffrey Chiswick, Peggy Shannon, John Hector, Mac Andrews, Fiona Mettam, Simon Prager
London and UK tours1978
Stirabout Revue 5
Director: Corinna Seeds
Cast includes: Garry Brooking, Robert Mcintosh, Danny L. Fiona Mettam, Marilyn Gordon, Brian Davey
London and UK tours
minimum 6 shows weekly
Northern tours included from now on as van newer
Stirabout Revue 6
as above
as above1979
Stirabout Revue 7
Director: Caroline Eves.
Cast includes: John Mcardle, Garry Brooking Simon Rose Marianne de Marco, Corinna Seeds, Maureen O'Farrell
Administrator: Julia Porter
London and UK tours
Minimum 6 shows weekly
Stirabout Revue 8
Director: Caroline Eves
Cast includes: John Mcardle. Garry Brooking, Simon Rose,
Marianne de Marco, Corinna Seeds, Maureen O'Farrell
Administrator: Julia Porter
London and UK tours1980
Stirabout Revue 9
Directors: directed collectively
Cast includes: Maureen O'Farrell, Chris Beck,
Robert Mcintosh, Corinna Seeds, Johnny Lonsdale
Administrator: Julia Porter
London and UK tours1980
Stirabout Revue 10
as above
as above1981
Stirabout Revue 11
Director: Corinna Seeds
Cast: Paul Brightwell, Jeremy Swift Peter Snell, Maureen O' Farrell, Beryl Marsden
Administrator: Moira KIng
as above1981
Stirabout Revue 12
as above
London and UK tours
6 shows weekly
now had access to most prisons
Drama workshopsHolloway, Grendon Underwood and Maidstone Prisons and Cumberlow Lodge, Milton House and Feltham Borstals1974-1982

Interviewee referenceJan Dungey

Other interviews: Corinna Seeds, Garry Brooking, Peggy Shannon, Maureen O’Farrell, were interviewed for contributions to the development of this page. Les Grantham, the actor and ex-lifer, and Jimmy Lindsay of Barlinnie Prison were interviewed in 1980s. If you would like to read their full interviews please contact Unfinished Histories for more details.


Existing archive material: Images, scripts, correspondence and transcripts of interviews with prison staff and prisoners, newspaper cuttings, 30 min Open Door b/w film Chelmsford Prison, 90 min performance at Leyhill Prison, 30 min b/w video of workshop in American prison, artwork. Held with Corinna Seeds:

They Can’t Imprison the Mind by Corinna Seeds 1982 (available through author)
Alternative Theatre Directory Catherine Itzin, (ed) (Eyre Methuen 1979)
British Alternative Theatre Directory 1979 Catherine Itzin (John Offord Publications: East Sussex, 1980)
The Cambridge History of British Theatre Volume 111
Letters from a Soviet Spy by Fiona Fullerton (Waterside Press 2012)

Acknowledgements: This page was written by Corinna Seeds with the help of Garry Brooking, Maureen O’Farrell and Peggy Shannon and constructed by Iris Dove. November 2013

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.