The Chapel was Norwich's first alternative arts space. It was created around the same time, and by the same people, as a free festival called Meristem. The idea for a permanent alternative arts space in Norwich can be traced back to the Arts Lab movement. Arts Labs were springing up all over the country and the legendary ginger art-god Diz Willis was the co-ordinator for Norwich. Check out some of the Labs below in this extract from the International Times (10-10-69), especially Beckenham.
The search for arts centre premises is also touched upon by Colin Cross in Back to Backs where the Rev. Willis Feast was viewed as perhaps not the best guardian of a redundant Norwich church. But, with so many empty churches and pressure from the arts community it was Diz Willis who clinched the deal. Having an arts festival in Norwich was finally made possible by an Arts Council grant of £1500 to East Anglia (out of a national pot of £15,000) administered by Diz Willis, the regional co-ordinator.
The idea of creating regional co-operatives was suggested by Jim Haynes in his arts lab manifesto also published in the International Times.
Diz spoke to the local press a month before the festival was planned to start. "We have set up the Anglian Arts Co-operative to organise the festival and promote, on a long term basis, local groups and indviduals in all branchs of the arts." They planned to include light shows, drama workshops, poetry readings and folk music. Dates were set for what was christened the "Meristem Arts Festival" to take place on the 6th, 7th and 8th of March 1970.
The money would also be used for a longer term project - the creation of a permanent arts space in a redundant church. Under the administration of a management committee the arts co-operative secured the use of the disused Congregational Chapel at Chapelfield. The idea was to use it as an arts and social centre for existing local societies and the less formal groups that had grown up in and around Norwich since 1968.
"Space in all parts of the building will be made available for anyone wishing to use it for anything from flower shows to concerts and commercial exhibitions" Diz said and "at the moment, 15 local societies are interested in using it.
"The auditorium is the most exciting part of the chapel where a central performance space can be cleared to use as a theatre in the round for audience participation events. But there is still a lot of work to be done between now and the festival; pews to be moved, fire regulations to be conformed with and lighting to be installed. We have a small body of volunteer workers but we urgently need more."
GEORGE PLUNKETT'S PHOTO OF THE CONGREGATIONAL CHAPEL
The programme for the Meristem Festival was planned to start at 3pm on Friday, March 6th, with Action Space blowup in Chapelfield Gardens. This would involve such things as light, sound, inflatables, play objects and improvised situations. Mike (Muz?) Murray, secretary of the Co-operative gave another line-up a few days later: Action Space (blow ups), the underground theatre group, The People Show, Tony Crerar with a mime act (plus a mime workshop), light show from the Gentle Sound of Light, the Fakenham Town Band, Portable Theatre (with Snoo Wilson, ex-UEA technical director), Jeff Nuttall and Al Beach with the John Bull Puncture "Bicycle Repair Outfit" , Kemps Men (Morris) and "local artists."
Dennis Hunt, Diz Willis & Les Pye
"We want to try to involve people as much as possible" said Mike, the "philosophy" of the multi-media supporters. Where possible events will be held in Chapelfield Gardens.
Note which is vaguely concerned with the above: anybody who wants to buy a load of old pews contact Diz Willis or Mike Murray. Anybody got religion?
OK - this is 1970 and most normal people were not aware that the strangely dressed Marxist men and women shouting at them was actually agitprop theatre. Arts Council subsidies and an abundance of unemployed actors (think Withnail & I) combined to produce a rich and decidedly nutty scene of “happenings” in public places. A tradition of shock and bore was created which echoes down the ages but if it was art, it was art that could not be conventionally bought or owned. It was fun and often sincere and because the conventional wisdom was that because the punters never paid they had no right to complain. Oh, but sometimes they did. Let's start with Action Space. Their thing was blow up inflatables - looks great in Chapelfield Gardens...
...but when it went to Wapping, East London, Jeff Nuttall, performing with Action Space, dressed as a human punch bag due to the aggressive local skinheads: "Wrapped in foam, a moving spectacle for rolling, hitting and kicking. He ‘performed’ for hours, until his ‘audience’ realizing the impossibility of damaging the ‘object’ relented in their attacks.
Offering himself as a target was a way to engage an audience. He had the active response, became as one of them, participating in the sport, they not realizing that it was an experimental art form they were pummelling".
Ken Turner of Action Space - AS was established to promote the theory and practice of art in the community (not as community
art). The sort of performance art he practiced (right) was met with utter bemusement..
ABOVE William Hoyland as serial killer John Christie in The Portable Theatre's "Christie In Love", 1969. Set in a pen made of chicken wire and filled with old newspapers it "played with the controversial notion that when Christie practised necrophilia, assaulting his dead women, he was, in his own eyes, expressing a kind of love. With torches used as lighting it was a stunning kind of punk theatre before the word was invented" (David Hare). Snoo Wilson was associated as can be seen left.
Next, Nuttall's old mob The People Show a "company associated with the ‘alternative’ scene and the challenging end of avant-garde theatre" and The Portable Theatre who thought that "England was in a state of apocalyptic crisis...we wanted to bundle into a van and go round the country performing short, nasty little plays which would alert an otherwise dormant population to this news." (David Hare)
LEFT: Mark Long of The People Show, 1970. ABOVE: John Bull Puncture Repair Kit - mentions the Meristem.
Outdoor performance events that attracted large crowds, such as arts festivals were ideally suited to The John Bull Puncture Repair Kit as the space complimented their particular mayhem and produced less restrictive environments than galleries or theatres. Outdoor work was supplemented by indoor performances at venues such as Arts Labs, which were receptive to their kind of experimental work. Diz Willis would eventually join them. "Their Earth Probes" was an outdoor piece that drew inspiration from the recent moon landings. The newly established tropes of space exploration were played out to the accompaniment of amplified breathing and crackly intercom communication. The group’s Bedford van was their space capsule – Mick Banks and Al Beach in spacesuits, emerged onto a piece of derelict land, collecting samples and carrying out tests.
The Gentle Sound of Light are mentioned on Norch in respect of the 1971 Norwich Pink Floyd gig. They also made their oil lamps upstairs at Head in the Clouds for Hawkwind's 1972 tour. Talking of Hawkwind, Tony Crerar a dancer and mime artist, best known for his work with Hawkwind in The Space Ritual and as Elric in the Moorcock-Hawkwind mashup The Chronicles of the Black Sword, was present. The Fakenham Brass Band and the Kemps Men were obviously more traditional entertainments blended in with the avante-gadre in a surreal Sgt Pepper style mix.
The programme was ambitious and I think it showed that Norwich was in touch with the contemporary arts and was able to punch above its weight in attracting the acts that everyone was talking about. This is further evidenced by the fact that the festival was positively reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Although I have not seen this article comment from the local press was as follows:
"Despite the odd jibe and some forthright criticism ("frustratingly unstructured and bewildering") there was no trace of the patronising attitude which might reasonably have been expected - that is if you take the view that this was Establishment comment on a totally non-Establishment media. Instead they gave credit where credit was due and happily punctured any pretentiousness so often attached to this kind of occasion with their recognition of such simple facts as the "freezing" Chapel, over-long acts and patrons' "usual mixture of awed concentration on nonsense and warm appreciative response to performers..."
The People Show, one gathers, did not go down too well with the TLS, but they obviously enjoyed mimic Tony Crerar and Bob Copping, the sound poet. At least there was the "authentic note of enjoyed confusion which attends on most avante-garde promotions."
However, the fact alone that the Meristem festival was considered worthy of comment must be encouraging to the organisers. Their comment that helping the new "cells" grow and stay spontaneous is worth noting."
Michael Marais, a local poet published in Norch, wrote to the paper to complain that although The Times could be considered a pillar of the establishment, the TLS was not and it had "given very full coverage to avante-garde /revolutionary / experimental / underground writing in all possible forms. Why that TLS leader the other day even spelt Bob Cobbings' name correctly (look at what you have done to it!)"
The name "Meristem" continued to be used for events at The Chapel with a full and varied programme. Here are some events listed for April and May 1970:
*The David and Maureen Porter Theatre Group of Lowestoft. David writes: "Rather pompously I set up the David Porter Theatre Company, gaining local and national publicity (The Stage). It used Maureen (my sister) who was always such a loyal supporter and willing helpmate, some college friends and others we found hanging on and around. In the disused Congregationalist Chapel, Chapel-in-the-Fields, Norwich, later subsumed into the Chapelfield Shopping Mall, we did "Your Moods" and a part improvised "Beach Map" with mixed success".
*The Chapel Playgroup, a resident drama group which met with great success at the Meristem festival in Norwich and Peterborough set up an open drama workshop for children ran by Al Sutherland and Pippa Smith.
*Poetry recitals with George Barker, Michael Marais, George Sullivan and Roger Raynor.
*Under Milk Wood performed by the King's Lynn Mill Theatre.
*On Wednesdays Stain - a club for progressive music with Quintessence, Atomic Rooster, Matthews Southern Comfort, Kevin Ayers and the Whole World and the Edgar Broughton Band booked.
* Mixed media with the Norwich String Orchestra.
* The Music Improvisation Company
* Mr Murray Harvey's Mechanical Musical Instruments of a Bygone Era
* Colin Cross wrote that he saw a shadow strip which he found to be more funny than sensual.
Diz Willis hoped to have a fuller programme in the summer months with shows circulating through the region to Bishops Stortford (very good station bar there he remembered), Cambridge, Peterborough, Ipswich and Lynn. Every Tuesday there was a regular coffee evening when members of the Co-op discussed ideas and suggestions on the future of the Chapel and related activities. Diz told the local press:"Of course we are broke at the moment, as it cost us quite a bit to get the cente started up, but various sources of money, both local and national, are being approached to raise funds for various projects, like a planned art gallery, and to get the rest of the building in full use." To raise funds the licenced hall was put up for hire seating 370 and dancing for 200.