Wherehouse La MaMa

Company name: Wherehouse La MaMa

Founders: Beth Porter, Peter Reid, Tony Sibbald

Established: 1968

Reason: To establish a European based La MaMa troupe

Current Status: Disbanded 1971/2

Area of work: Experimental

Policy: ‘The company is dedicated to ‘Total Theatre’ and establishing a living dialogue between the actors and the audience. This work involves a degree of audience participation and explores the physical and vocal disciplines, improvisation, music, mime and acrobatics.’ (Publicity, 1969)

Structure: Worked in a non-hierarchical environment, where one actor would step outside a rehearsal and direct for a bit, then rejoin the working process, followed by another stepping outside and so on. (The founders also felt it would be impossible to find a director who could replace Tom O’Horgan who had led their work with the New York La MaMa troupe).
Patrons: Victor SpinettiEllen Stewart, James Mossman, Peter Shaffer and Tom O’Horgan.

Based: London

Funding: Box Office takings, television commissions, Arts Council of Great Britain grant – renewed, La MaMa New York.

UK performance & workshop venues : Drury Lane Arts Lab, Open Space London, The Crypt Lancaster Road, Brighton Combination, Oval House, Ronnie Scott’s Club, The Place, St George’s in the East, Portsmouth Polytechnic, Alnwick Castle, Riley Smith Hall Leeds, Royal College of Art, Gulbenkian Theatre Canterbury, Phoenix Theatre Leicester.

International performance & workshop venues: Universiteitstheater Amsterdam, Theatre 140 Brussels, Pistolteatern Stockholm, Theatre de la Cite Paris, l’Universite de Vincennes, Openluchttheater Deurne, Belgium, Munich Kammerspiele, La MaMa (New York).

Festival performances: Edinburgh, Nancy, Belfast, Paris.

Television performances: BBC2 Programme, BBC2 Does Your Mother Know You’re Watching, BBC2 Playschool, NOS-TV Holland Uw Beurt/You’re Next.

Audiences: The ‘where it’s at’ crowd

For more Wherehouse images see Beth Porter‘s gallery.

Company work and process: Wherehouse La MaMa co-founder, Beth Porter, had been working with Ellen Stewart‘s brilliant New York-based La MaMa Troupe for a number of years and came with them to the Edinburgh Festival in 1967, with Futz (Rochelle Owens), Times Square (Leonard Melfi), Melodrama Play and Chicago (Sam Shepard), and Tom Paine (Paul Foster). There she met her husband, Scottish-born Peter Reid, who returned with her and the company to New York, assisting director Tom O’Horgan. During a summer performing in Massachusetts, they met actor Tony Sibbald, who was living in London. In 1968, the three asked Ellen Stewart if they could set up a European, London-based, La MaMa. She agreed but said they couldn’t use the La MaMa name until they had proved themselves with good reviews, which is what in due course happened.

La MaMa’s inspirational and visionary director Tom O’Horgan was in London at the time directing the London production of Hair. Tom’s working methods – evolving shows through different workshop techniques, highly physical, extreme, experimental and upfront – was a major influence on La MaMa’s house style, and it was his approach that Wherehouse La MaMa incorporated into their creative process. They had good contacts in London and were able to establish themselves quickly. The unexpected name was chosen, as later explained by Peter Reid, ‘because we may be looking for a warehouse to work in and we’re where it’s at’.

In London, Beth led some workshops with the Hair cast and the Wherehouse company performed a staged ‘happening’ on the opening night of the production. Tom O’Horgan had organised for them to sit in a box wearing ornate, 17th century costumes. At the point in the show where the cast appears nude on stage, a spotlight swung around to them in the box, whereupon they stood up and dropped their clothes to the floor. Well it was ’68!

Jim Haynes offered them rehearsal space at his Drury Lane Arts Lab where they developed and performed Street Piece, Macbeth’s Witches (after Shakespeare), and Mr Jello [the latter by NY La MaMa playwright George Birimisa]. (Listen to Beth Porter’s audio account on her Interviewee page). The company at this time included Stephen Rea, Dinah Stabb, Maurice Colbourne, Neil Johnston, Beth Porter, Hugh Portnow, Peter Reid, Sela Rox and Tony Sibbald. Financially they had some support from Ellen Stewart and their box office returns. It wasn’t a lot and ten percent of everything they earned went towards the administration, props etc., the rest was divided equally among themselves.

Beth had to return to the US for a couple of weeks for the filming of Futz. Peter stayed in London as administrator and co-director with Nancy Meckler (who had joined the group to help out with stage management). On Beth’s return, Nancy declared she was taking over the company to form The Freehold.

Wherehouse La MaMa regrouped with new members selected from their workshops. These included David Bonnar, Rick Davis, Gwen Galsworthy, Roy Martin, Jean Michaelson, Cindy Oswin, Dave Webster, and a little later, Neil Hornick (Phantom Captain), Joyce Stanton, Paddy Swanson, and Tony Aitken. They performed widely in London and Britain and were a great hit at European Festivals.

A number of key pieces were developed: Groupjuice (see Beth Porter’s Interviewee page quote)The Hilton Keen Blow Your Chances Top of the Heap Golden Personality Show of the Week and Hump. Beth and Peter lived in Kilburn, where the company rehearsed in a scout hall opposite. Before one European tour, they produced an all-day benefit concert entitled Together at the Round House with short turns from the music and comedy world, including John Cleese, Uriah Heep, and Pan’s People, compered by John Peel. With the proceeds, they bought an old ambulance which they converted into a touring van, leading a Dutch critic to observe: ‘The company travel around in an ambulance, which is fitting as they are the cure.’

After some excellent reviews for Groupjuice, they were approached by the BBC to devise a show for television as part of a new series called First Time Out. They decided to develop Groupjuice into a programme called Programme, ‘Cos people are programmed into things.’ (Beth Porter)

There followed other work with the BBC such as the pilot Does Your Mother Know You’re Watching? for younger audiences, which was never broadcast, and a live-illustrated reading of a Cindy Oswin short story for Playschool, which was!

In 1969, Ellen Stewart commissioned William Hoffman (another La MaMa playwright) to write a play for the Wherehouse company entitled XXX or A Nativity Play. It was produced at the Open Space to great outrage. Critic Harold Hobson hated it so much he suggested the Arts Council withdraw their funding – it wasn’t! (They were one of the first alternative companies to receive Arts Council funding).

The following year, Ellen invited the company to be part of a La MaMa season of visiting companies at their NY headquarters.

A year or so after their return to Britain, feeling that they were no longer ‘where it’s at’, and that it was time for a change, the company disbanded and Beth and Peter moved to Scotland.

Personal appraisal and thoughts:
Beth Porter:
‘We always live in a trio of times. We’re tethered to the surrounding present, and bobbing back to the past even as we try to peer into the next moment and the next after that.

I can still inhabit my 25 year-old-self from this perspective almost half a century later. And, whenever I focus back, I’m struck by the courage and creative daring of the times. And of the people who supported Peter and me in a vision we were determined to realise, however fuzzy it might have been.

The arts needn’t, I suppose, be defined politically, but I felt back then and still feel today, that they’re not worth much if they aren’t concerned with a kind of political process. We grope toward an identification of shared problems. We’re driven to discover, uncover, bring to light, enlighten. Most of all we must pursue understanding.

Sometimes that means we splash about in polluted waters, and insist on sharing the difficult, messy business of being human. But with passion and an eye on the prize of truth, we can, I believe, reach points of clarity.

We can posit answers, but they’re elusive and mutable. It may well be enough just to make the statement, even if it forms a question mark. Best, I think, to leave answers hanging in the air to be grabbed by the audience, the viewer, the listener.

In that space between what the arts are and those whom they attract lies a special power that’s only shared among our species. Much of the more audacious drama I was part of was grounded in solid, tried and tested convention. I was drawn away from that safety, who knows exactly why.

Luckily I found people who sought a similar precarious path, most notably Peter Reid with whom I shared everything.

When I was part of the NY La MaMa Troupe, our work was filtered through the words of some very disparate playwrights. With the Wherehouse, we also introduced our own collective reactions to a society that was not only visibly changing around us, it was exploding. If we didn’t always master the literary craft of playwriting, our more abstract physicality had the advantage of communicating across national boundaries. In that sense, our performances had the charm and accessibility of music.

When the fabric of society is blown asunder without the devastation of a war, its residues can be processed in very visceral ways. Artists from all disciplines are among the first to recognise the potential. One of the most creatively exciting things about the late 1960s-early 1970s was a sharpened sensibility to the hypocrisies we’d been part of.

Some people just wanted to break it all up, re-interpreting the ancient dichotomies of Destruction and Creation. But The Wherehouse La MaMa, in its several incarnations, wanted to find pathways to a freer future. I think, I hope, our performances reflected that vision, and I’m very proud to have been there, done that, and got the tee-shirt.’

Dave Webster:
‘Me and Jean Michaelson were working with Neil Hornick in Neil’s Improv group in London. We had done a few gigs. I had been to see La Mama’s version of Tom Paine. I was completely blown away by the whole production, but especially the acting of Beth Porter.

I can’t remember how, but later I found out Beth was staying in London and recruiting members for a new group. We assembled round at our (Jean and my) flat, and I remember Beth giving us this really straight from the shoulder rap about ‘we weren’t doing that many gigs and did we want to commit to something real which was going to do gigs here and in Europe. What did we want out of our future as improvising artists?’

So we signed up, and also later recruited Neil Hornick. There then followed a couple of the best years of my life. Gigs here and abroad, working with top people like Victor Spinetti and David Benedictus, regular fun workshops, warm-ups and rehearsals, but above all the honour of working with an actress of the calibre of Beth Porter.

Eventually we had to leave the group on the birth of our son Mark. I could write for pages, but just to say thanks for the opportunity Beth. Love you.’

‘…obviously a bit of a shock for some older members of the audience..imaginatively appalling…cleverly devised…brutally funny…projected with vigour and abandon by this energetic young company.’ (Guardian)
‘…genius…the word is not too strong.’  (Le Monde Paris)
‘…talent, vitality and imagination that deserves support.’ (Sunday Telegraph)
‘Unadulterated filth!…Sheer Pornography!  Shameless! (City Week Belfast)
‘For the first time in my life I’ve been alive.’ (Student at a college of education)


Production nameVenuesDates
Street Scene
Company devised
Drury Lane Arts Lab
The Crypt Lancaster Road
Macbeth's Witches (after Shakespeare)
Company devised
Drury Lane Arts Lab
The Crypt Lancaster Road
Mr Jello
Writer: George Birimisa
Drury Lane Arts Lab
The Crypt Lancaster Road
Company devised
London venues
National tours including Edinburgh Festival
European tours
Little Mother
Writer: Ross Alexander
London venues
National tours including Edinburgh Festival
European tours
The Hilton Keen Top of the Heap Golden Personality Show of the Week
Company devised
London venues
National tours including Edinburgh Festival
European tours
Bone by Bone Alive or Hump
Writer: David Benedictus
London venues
National tours including Edinburgh Festival
European tours
XXX or Nativity Play
Writer: William Hoffman
Director: John Vaccaro
Company: Tony Aitken, David Bonnar, Beth Porter, Peter Reid, Paddy Swanson.
Open Space London venues
National tours including Sunderland and Edinburgh Festival
European tours
5 December 1970 (Sunderland), Christmas run 1970 (Open Space)

Interviewee reference: Beth Porter

For more information on Tom O’Horgan and Ellen Stewart see Beth Porter’s interview Topics List 
Beth on Wikipedia
Beth on The Internet Movie Database 
Beth’s Author Page on Amazon Episode 6 of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Beth guest stars 
Beth’s contribution to Ellen Stewart’s Guardian obit 
Beth’s contribution to Lanford Wilson’s Guardian obit 
Assorted columns by Beth aka Outrageous! in the LPJ 
StorycellarOnline http://www.lamama.org/archive

Existing archive material: Beth Porter, Neil Hornick

Futz by Rochelle Owens (Hawk’s Well Press, 1962)
Tom Paine by Paul Foster (Calder & Boyers, 1967)
Five Plays by Sam Shepard (Faber & Faber, 1969)
Encounters by Leonard Melfi (Samuel French Trade Jun 1967)
Unpublished plays include:
Hilton Keen Blow Your Chances Top of the Heap Golden Personality Show of the Week 
Hump or Bone By Bone Alive (from the novel by David Benedictus)
All Sewn Up (co-written with Su-Lin Looi)
For BBC Radio4:
Huckleberry Finn (adaptation)
Short stories
including Echoes of Lace,The Russian Lesson,Quality Control, Still Life With Nude 
Red Emma [original drama]
The Red Scream (dramatisation for The Noir Series)
Resident Aliens: stories of NYC in the 1960s [2013 – ISBN: 978-0-9576272-0-8]
Non-Fiction: The Net Effect [ISBN-10: 1841500399; ISBN-13: 978-1841500393]
Her Mind’s Eye Collection: View From A Broad [comic essay]
Poetry published in various US/UK print anthologies, including RenaissanceWinter PoetsSouth East Voices, and Poetry Now.
Online haiku series, illustrated/animated by painter Guy Denning on the Sound Toys website.
Related material:
Hump; or, Bone by Bone Alive
 by David Benedictus (London: Blond, 1967)

Acknowledgements: This page was written and constructed by Jessica Higgs with grateful thanks to Beth Porter for her valuable contributions. November 2013

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