The Arts School Tricksters
from 'Street Arts, a User's Guide'.

We asked leading street arts practitioners to address this question: "On whose shoulders am I standing?" This is what Brian Popay of Natural Theatre Company had to say about his influences and inspirations .....

I studied painting at Ealing in 1966 and went on to graduate in Fine Art in the idyllic setting of Corsham in Wiltshire. It was here that I first saw performance and fine art come together to create a hybrid artform. Gilbert & George had been venturing into this area a few years earlier but it was still considered pretty way out at the time. Jim Parker was a sculptor friend who performed alongside his pieces. He would later form the performance art company 'Fine Artistes'. Their work was very eccentric and had a wonderful mischievous quality.

Mischief making has always attracted me. I enjoy trying to provoke a reaction from an audience. For me, the excitement is simply working in an improvising environment, particularly on the street. This is especially exciting if one is able to arrive unannounced or, even more effectively, when one is unwelcome or unwanted. This use of the theatrical in political action has always interested me. I have come to realise that any political issue or event can be underlined or undermined by an unexpected theatrical eruption.

Some places are of course more exciting or dangerous than others to perform in - a Natural Theatre team has just returned from a three week tour on the streets of Pakistan for instance. It's my theory that the British Council booked us as guinea pigs to see if it was safe to send British performers back there. As it turned out, the work was received rapturously and with phenomenal interest. Just appearing on the streets in certain countries can be a political statement in itself.

On the street, you're never sure whether you're going to elicit laughter, applause, delight or a punch in the face from the ironically challenged. And although politics may be currently dormant in this country, it's not the case in the rest of Europe. The work of Leo Bassi is a case in point. To watch Leo at work is an education for anyone who wants to push at the limits between life, politics and art. Leo goads his audiences, revealing their prejudices and provoking a reaction - which often turns out to be extreme and even violent. He's not scared to take on countries, institutions, political parties, trade unions and national identities with equal gusto. Proof that no issue is too dangerous or delicate as source material. I think that Leo is a direct descendant of Marinetti and the Futurists in this respect.

I've always been fascinated by performers who tread this fine dangerous line. The legendary but short-lived company, the Kipper Kids were, for a time, the naughtiest group in England and they were inspirational in their daring and lack of respect for anything. I maintain that it's the duty of any self-respecting street artist to get themselves arrested whenever possible. For me, it's only been twice so far - once in England and once in Holland - so I suppose I must try harder.

Comedy has always been the driving force behind the things I do, but having said that, it is always the images that remain in my mind. Coming from a visual arts background, I suppose that's inevitable. I mentioned Leo Bassi, but there are other foreign artists, particularly the current crop of French street companies who like to probe the flimsy line between public order and anarchy. European street performance has always been much more political than work in this country which I would suggest leans more towards the purely aesthetic. The French company Théâtre de l'Unité were a great influence on me, particularly in the way that they would suddenly shift the focus of their performance away from the action in front of an audience to a scene - perhaps across the road or even on top of a nearby building - using the whole environment around them as their stage, something the Natural Theatre Company has always strived to do.

There are three names in British street theatre for my money. They are artists that I have worked with closely over the last 20 years. This is by way of a testimonial to three performers who, I think, have never been properly recognised for the influence they have had on this British art form. Number one is Trevor Stuart, late of Lumière & Son, and now working with his own touring street company, Cocoloco. Trevor is the most generous performer I have ever worked with. He never hoards his ideas - rather he shares them out freely amongst other performers so that they can road test them in public. I have heard that there are some companies who only give workshops so that they can steal ideas from the participants and claim them as their own. This has never been Trevor's way - just the reverse in fact.

Neil Hornick, of the Phantom Captain Company, is next on my list. He has been and still is a big influence on the way I think about putting a street piece together. He possesses the same artistic generosity as Trevor. The PC's performances are like cryptic crosswords, a marvellous blend of the visual and the cerebral and always inscrutably funny. Alas, the Phantom Captain Company was mortally wounded in the first wave of the Arts Council attacks on street performance back in the 1980's. That decision meant that we have all been the poorer for not having seen the Phantom Captain at work in all that time. Those people on the 'drama panel' who sunk the Phantom Captain should feel eternally ashamed of themselves.

Number Three is Mick Banks, late of John Bull Puncture Repair Kit and currently with British Events. He was another seminal influence on my performance. John Bull's outdoor work was extraordinary - it was a mixture of music hall and surrealism and, in my opinion, they were THE performance company of the late 1960's. Sadly, British Events had to move abroad to get the funding, recognition and regular work that was unavailable to them in this country, but I did have the pleasure of working with them for three years and I learned a lot during that time.

These are only a few of many performers that have impressed and influenced me over time. Such artists as Forkbeard Fantasy, Welfare State, IOU ... the list could go on and on, but I don't have time to.

So, to conclude, I think that when I re-visit my performance heroes, it's the daring, the dangerous and the eccentric that always come to mind and in many cases there's an art school connection to be found there. Long may British art schools be allowed to give the time and the space to young artists to discover their talents and then long may they spill out onto the streets to take us all by surprise.
Brian Popay is Senior Performer with Natural Theatre Company     Return to Student Information Page
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