“Talk to me in a language I can understand”: constructing cartoon storyworlds in alternative theatre

Gray, Margaret (2019) “Talk to me in a language I can understand”: constructing cartoon storyworlds in alternative theatre. In: Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Comics and Bande Dessinées; 24th - 28th June 2019, Manchester Metropolitan University. (Submitted)


The paper was delivered as part of the panel 'Comics Storyworlds – Performance, Theatre and Character' that launched the Comics & Performance Network. This paper focuses on how cartooning as a mode of representation, and the structures and conventions of the comic strip as a visual narrative form, were appropriated by politically radical and experimental theatre groups that proliferated in the UK in the late 1960s and 1970s. Sitting within the larger networks and anti-institutions of the counterculture, alternative theatre groups had close ties to an underground print culture which itself drew strongly of the iconography and visual language of comics, using autonomous community printshops to print flyers, posters, newsletters and booklets, and promoting and listing performances in the alternative press. Several underground and alternative cartoonists were involved in theatre collectives and spaces, doing illustration, graphic design and photography work, but also set, prop and costume design, alongside performing, writing, production and direction. Comics characters, conventions and imagery therefore permeated many productions and performances of this era, including adaptations of comic book narratives, notably Pip Simmons Theatre Group’s Superman (1969) an interpretation of the comic ‘The Rock’n’Roll Superman’. However, the appropriation of comics and cartooning went further, with the development of a distinctive ‘cartoon style’ of performance and ‘comic strip’ mode of presentation shared by several fringe groups in this period - a stripped-down, fast-paced, surreal, stylised approach to narrative, abbreviated forms of characterisation, and emphasis on breaks and movement between action, which suited aims to create dynamic, anti-naturalist, self-reflexive theatre that could radically deconstruct and transform the world. This paper explores how fringe theatre groups conceived of cartooning as a means of constructing counter-hegemonic storyworlds that critiqued the political, cultural and social status quo through its subversive reconfiguration and reimagination, and comic-strip storytelling as a way to engage working class, countercultural and marginalised audiences in non-traditional performance spaces of the street, pub, club, trade union hall, arts lab, picket line and community centre. Drawing on archival research, it will focus on a case study of CAST (Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre): a working class experimental political theatre ‘gang’ who produced a series of short, improvised plays centred on iterations of an ‘Arch-typical’ Muggins character, and developed an anarchic, immediate, highly physical ‘cartoon style’ of production. Described as ‘presentationalism’, this was designed to grab the attention of audiences in the way pop cultural forms like rock’n’roll and comics did – blunt, brash, relevant and entertaining – and hold a critical mirror to reality (including the counterculture and New Left itself), adopting the narrative methods of comics in a different medium to both subvert the world as it is and envision a radical alternative.

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