Theatre: Debut: Alison Fiske

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The Independent Culture
The Time: 1965

The Place: the US

The part: Lucy Lockit in

The Beggar's Opera

THEATRE GROUP 20 was formed in 1965 by an American drama student called Gordon Taylor and Shivaun O'Casey, Sean O'Casey's daughter. It was based in a church hall in Warwick Avenue. The idea behind it was to hold graduates of the same drama centre training together as a company. It had an educational remit, which is how it got the necessary permits to tour the States. So while we - about half a dozen inexperienced non-singers in our early twenties - rehearsed The Beggar's Opera and a triple bill of two one-act plays and a monologue, Gordon Taylor booked a 40-date tour of American universities which took us through practically every state in the Union.

In four months we must have travelled 20,000 miles, in an old Greyhound bus. We went as far north as Washington State and as far south as the Mexican border. Frank, the driver, was from the Bronx and stuck to his job - he never came to see the performances.

The moment we'd arrive in a campus, we'd unload the set and the costumes we needed, get in, do the show, then take it all down again. Exhaustion quickly set in and there we were in this darkened coach, thundering through the changing landscape of North America, trying to recuperate before the next destination.

We were often billeted with members of campus faculties. One couple were greatly looking forward to The Beggar's Opera - he was an 18th-century theare expert and she had perfect pitch. Their only comment was "very bawdy". At Harvard we danced a tarantella on a stage made from rostra with gaps in between. People missed entrances and the set fell down. There were unforgettable moments, such as when we saw Charlie Mingus bashing the lights out in a New York night-club because he was annoyed with the manager. As a way of seeing America, it was great. As a way to develop as an actor, I'm not so sure.

Six months later, after some considerable re-rehearsal and by great good fortune, we were back in New York to do an off-off-Broadway production of The Beggar's Opera and two plays by Harold Pinter. The Immigration Department raided us mid-performance because we were on the wrong visas. We had our fingerprints taken next day and were threatened with deportation if we didn't leave, which we did, that evening.

Alison Fiske is in `Celaine' at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (0171- 722 9301) part of `A Small Drop of Ink', to 24 Feb

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