Once there was a band and it had a fanzine and the fanzine was called Viz.
Smiling at me over his lunchtime sandwich, Steve Nash says: “We were big in the ’80s. We had a lot of fun in the ’80s on Tyneside.”
A lot of people had a lot of fun on Tyneside in the 1980s, it seems, so don’t believe all you read about depression, recession and shattered dreams.
Well, do... but remember there was an upside, including a thriving pub culture with bands of all varieties gigging frantically.
Also, in the shadowy corners of Thatcher’s Britain, mischievous young subversives such as the Donald brothers, Chris and Simon, were sharpening their pencils to send up the emerging celebrity culture and unleash the likes of Johnny Fartpants, Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags.
The purpose of my cafe rendezvous with Steve is less to do with Viz and the band Arthur 2 Stroke & The Chart Commandos – in which he played trumpet – than with his new venture, concerning something called Playback Theatre.
But who can resist a bit of nostalgia? Not Steve, who is happy enough to cast his mind back to some halcyon days in the late ’70s and ’80s. “It came out of that post-punk thing, a little stable of bands which went under the name of ‘Anti-Pop’,” he recalls.
“They tried to make something interesting happen in Newcastle. The Chart Commandos were the most successful.”
The very first issue of Viz came out in 1979 and, as was often the way in those days, it clung to music’s coat-tails as a fanzine for the Anti-Pop stable, notably Arthur 2 Stroke and the Chart Commandos. It was sold in record shops – 30p to students, 20p to everyone else – to spread the Anti-Pop word before spinning off to much greater things.
And The Chart Commandos? The band is the stuff of happy memories, it seems, although Steve says: “Me and Andy and Arthur are old mates and still meet up most weeks for a drink.
“We re-formed about three years ago, me and Arthur, as Arthur 2 Stroke & the Big Black Bomb, although I was the only Chart Commando. That split up in April last year. We did do a CD which you can get online.”
A little online browsing reveals that it is called Let’s All Paint Tomorrow Yellow.
They’ve always been good on names, this lot (although Steve looks askance when I ask Arthur 2 Stroke’s real name. It is not, it seems, for public consumption).
In the band, Steve went under the sobriquet WM7 and at some point on his journey of reminiscence we stumble over the name Wavis O’Shave, who was from South Shields and used to appear on Channel 4 music show The Tube, hitting himself on the head (apparently) with a hammer.
“He brought out a cult album called Anna Ford’s Bum and was known for wearing false noses and eating fig rolls,” says Steve.
“He became quite well known and notorious. Somehow, he managed to get a gig down at Music Machine in Camden (a famous punk venue) but he was actually quite shy about performing and didn’t really want to do the gig.
“Arthur 2 Stroke got a band together and did the gig, and that went on to become Arthur 2 Stroke & the Chart Commandos.”
The band gigged furiously around the North East for a few years, successfully straddling the traditional divide between students’ unions and working men’s clubs.
“For two or three years we made a killing in the clubs,” recalls Steve. “But we also had a mini tour which meant going up to Scotland a lot. We had a really good live reputation.”
The lifestyle – sustainable at a time when it was much easier to sign on the dole – proved not to suit a young man who had come up from Somerset in the late ’70s to study occupational therapy at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic.
“The work ethic was ingrained in me and I needed work,” says Steve. It was while studying for a second qualification in drama therapy that he discovered “this thing called Playback Theatre”.
He said: “Some of my drama therapy friends in York set up a group in the 1980s and that is now the longest-running company outside London. It has always been something I’ve been interested in.”
What, you will be wondering, is Playback Theatre? Well, that is the question posed rhetorically on Steve’s flyer advertising a pair of Playback Theatre workshops in Newcastle this weekend.
Playback Theatre, according to the answer printed on the same flyer, is “unscripted community theatre where real-life moments, dreams and stories from the audience are spontaneously improvised using action, voice and music”.
Playback Theatre, it elaborates, is not therapy but it can offer new insights and feelings and even transform lives. Any moments from real life can be used and it is deployed in “a wide variety of community, social, professional and organisational settings in many different countries around the world”.
Steve, who now works as a freelance consultant in health and social care, says: “It inhabits that territory between art and what you might call therapy... but lots of things can be therapeutic. It is creative and I value that in my life.
“For the last two or three years I’ve been going to conferences and have come across a network of people who are interested in Playback Theatre. There is a lot of it going on in Europe.”
The workshops this weekend are being led by a Russian Playback Theatre specialiast, Anastasya Vorobyova, who is based in Moscow but has worked across Europe and in Bangladesh since training at the Centre for Playback Theatre in New York. This is the first time she has worked in the UK.
Steve was introduced to Anastasya after attending a Playback Theatre event in the Crimea, and it led to an invitation to go and run workshops in Moscow and Ufa, which is the capital city of Bashkortostan.
Steve says they were attracted to his interest in music, a useful Playback Theatre tool. He took his trumpet with him and met practitioners who were interested in developing the musical elements of their performances.
“In Moscow there were a lot of people from health, education and the arts,” he recalls. “In Ufa, which has about a million people, about half the group were female engineers.”
In Russia, Steve found Playback Theatre taking place in cafes and public spaces. “I’ve never done a performance in those kinds of setting because it’s even riskier and edgier than usual,” says Steve.
“But I’ve seen the same thing happening in New York, with Playback Theatre being used by people as a response to things that have happened in their own lives or communities.
“A famous performance took place in New York after 9/11 for firefighters. It was a difficult situation but it was very well received.”
Steve explains that Playback Theatre has its own particular ethos. While it shares some territory with improvisation, performed successfully in the North East by The Suggestibles, laughter is not necessarily its main aim. As with that New York performance, it can take people into very sensitive areas.
“The idea of doing public performances is something I’d really like to explore in Newcastle but it’s potentially very scary,” says Steve.
“People who come to these events often share very personal aspects of their lives but it can be a very life-affirming experience. There does seem to be an audience for it. Certainly in London there are quite a lot of public performances.
“Ideally, I’d like there to be a mixture, so sometimes we work at conferences or with particular groups, maybe of people who feel disenfranchised or disengaged, and sometimes we do public performances. But I’d like to see it set up as a theatre company in it’s own right. I’m sure there’s a place for it up here.”
He must be right. After our lunchtime chat Steve won the backing of Newcastle College, which has agreed to provide a drama studio at its Performance Academy in return for Playback Theatre workshops and placements for students.
The workshops led by Anastasya take place at the Newcastle Performance Collective, Commercial Union House, Pilgrim Street, tomorrow from 10am to 5pm and on Sunday from 10am to 4pm. If interested, you can email Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Playback Theatre, go to www.playbacktheatre.org