Gary Thomas speaks to David Benedict from Gay Sweatshop

As part of Wandsworth Art’s LGBT+ History Month programmeauthor and screenwriter Gary Thomas speaks to David Benedict from Gay Sweatshop, a groundbreaking, radical theatre collective founded in Balham in 1975, which used the power of theatre to affirm the place of gay people within society.

Homosexual Acts Play Season Poster. Source: Unfinished Histories.

To mark LGBT+ History Month, I was interested in talking to David Benedict about the Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company, originally based in Balham, which he acted in from 1985 and then became its artistic director until 1991. Benedict is now a national theatre critic, writing weekly for The Stage and is a regular guest on BBC Radio 4 arts programmes.

Originally established in 1975, just eight years after homosexuality was decriminalised by the Sexual Offences Act, the purpose of The Gay Sweatshop was to make non gays aware of the oppression gay people tolerate. They also wanted to end the media’s misrepresentations of gay men and lesbian women – misrepresentations that, even by today’s standards, haven’t subsided all that much.

I had seen a tweet from last year where David talked about going to his first Pride, and opened our conversation by asking him to tell me about the atmosphere of that time for gay people.

“I was trying to remember the other day whether it was ’81 or ’82,” David says. “It was an extraordinary time because I went on my own, and I had never seen so many lesbians and gay men. Even though I barely spoke to anyone, just being there and seeing that was an extraordinary thing. Being that visible when we were marching, people were staring at us in the street. There were less than 10,000 of us marching that day, but the last Pride march I was at with my partner and his parents, there was about one million of us.”  

Rehearsal shot of Noel Greig’s ‘Poppies’. Source: Unfinished Histories.

“I learned about Gay Sweatshop when I was still at school, in the back of a magazine,” David tells me. “I was startled to see they existed, so I auditioned for them in 1984. I seem to remember I was accepted into the company on New Year’s Eve! The first meeting was in January 1985.” They put on Noël Greig’s Poppies, a play that is a time-shifting vision of society on the brink of nuclear disaster. David then starred in Compromised Immunity, the first British play about AIDS. It was about a frightened HIV positive patient who forms a relationship with his nurse. David played his evil boyfriend. 

A promotional image for the play Poppies in 1983. 4 men and a skeleton lie together to form the shape of a star.
Gay Sweatshop promo photo for Noel Greig’s ‘Poppies’, 1983. Source: Unfinished Histories.

Like lots of organisations starting out, the company ran with the help of volunteers, and they received grants from the Arts Council, which, like today, had to say no far more than they can say yes to giving funding.  

“We were funded project to project, so there was no money for ongoing concerns. So even though we toured, we did new writing, we fulfilled a niche, it was difficult to run a company like that. We couldn’t develop much over a long period like other companies were able to do.”

After they were turned down for regular funding – and were given no reason as to why – David threatened to close the company. But his persistence paid off, and the Greater London Authority (as it was then known) gave some funding for a year. He wrote a business plan with the company and one year later finally got funding for 3 years from the Arts Council. 

Founding members Drew Griffiths and Roger Baker, 1975. Source: Jill Posener 

Despite originally being run from actor and playwright Drew Griffith’s front room on Marius Road in Balham, the company toured all over. “We toured nationally, everywhere from Edinburgh to Swansea, Exeter, Leicester, all in studio theatres or regional arts centres. From one night stands to week long runs. We partnered with other theatres, doing Briony Lavery’s play Kitchen Matters, which went to three London theatres, including upstairs at The Royal Court.”   

Poster for Compromised Immunity, 1986. Source: Unfinished Histories.

“When ‘Compromised Immunity’ toured in 1987, at the height of the AIDS fear – when every household in Britain got an ‘AIDS Don’t die of ignorance’ leaflet through their letterbox – the cleaners in a theatre in Swansea threatened to go on strike. This was the same year that the first gay characters appeared in EastEnders. One headline about us read ‘Pansies go all of a do da!”

“We were always aware that we were going somewhere where there might be antipathy, but touring a play like Compromised Immunity gave us amazing connections with the audience. We got an extraordinary post bag and people outside the stage door. I remember a nurse saying her brother had died, and if only he’d been able to see a play like this, he might not have taken his own life. We had a real social power within good drama.”

“The company was touchstone for people growing up gay and frightened. Having a bunch of openly lesbian and gay actors turn up, who were up there for saying ‘yes we’re gay and this is what we’re doing,’ was empowering.” 

Being a role model was important. “Knowing that we were strong enough, we were who we said we were, and we weren’t in the closet, there’s something important about that. It’s not a theory, it’s how people were able to live, and love.”