Smallest Theatre History

The Early Years

The story of The Smallest Theatre in the World began in 1970 when Ken Campbell, an English actor, director and comedian, put together his infamous ‘Roadshow’ and brought Marcel Steiner into the cast. The Roadshow toured for three years and went down particularly well in Germany.

In 1971 during rehearsals on Hampstead Heath the late Marcel Steiner brought his newly purchased motorcycle, a gleaming red ‘Panther’ and sidecar to rehearsal’s. Ken Campbell took one look at the beast and said: “Cor, Marcel that thing is so big you could build a bloody theatre on it”.

As soon as the thought of a minuscule theatre had settled and had began to seem nothing short of extraordinary, Marcel had transformed what used to be a standard passenger side car into an important part of theatre history. Taking only a week to build the first ever design and using local ‘greasers’ to help him bolt the theatre to the frame, a small theatre with even bigger dreams was born.

The Smallest Theatre in the World, which fits no more than two people, ensured a ‘sell out’ show on every tour and astounded onlookers with its quirky features and bus-red exterior. The centerpiece was a stolen chandelier and a roll of flock wallpaper recycled from a bin outside a refurbished Indian restaurant.

The Smallest Theatre then toured with The Ken Campbell Roadshow across the UK and Europe. Midway through each show, the audience would be marched outside to encounter The Smallest Theatre.

The Big American Adventure

The Ken Campbell Roadshow ended in 1973 and Marc Weil decided to take The Smallest Theatre in the World to America. Marcel along with Jim Carter, Mark Weil and Tommy Shand formed The Madhouse Theatre Company of London, also known as Kerbside productions, and took the world by storm during the 70’s with their absurd and often bawdy performances.

It was in its American touring days with The Madhouse Company that The Smallest Theatre in the World first began gaining media attention. In 1978 a newspaper reported that Marcel and his small theatre were the first performing group to have been kicked out of the Chicago Playboy club due to rudeness, a headline that both shocked and amused readers. Describing the theatre as a "miniature house of entertainment on wheels", the paper went on to describe how Marcel had originally planned to remove the nudity act of their slot, but later changed his mind. The act apparently stunned onlookers in the executive suite as they feared it would corrupt their customers.

Whilst Marcel and The Madhouse Company toured the States, model number two was born. This time however, Marcel aimed to create ‘an anti-pollution model’, using a pedal bike rather than his roaring Panther. His inventive and incredibly ‘green’ idea was sadly shattered when joyriders broke in and stole the theatre.

Back to Deptford (London calling)

After the American adventure Marcel somehow found himself in Deptford in South London, where he teamed up with Tim Webb founder of the ‘Oily Cart’ theatre company to produce and tour with The Smallest Theatre in the World. This led them to produce miniature Shakespearean epics outside both Stratford upon Avon and the National Theatre in London. During this time Bob Hoskins appeared in The Smallest Theatre in the World and Samuel Beckett became a famous audience member. Reflecting on his experience Samuel said, “It’s small, isn’t it?”

The ‘Albany Empire’, also adopted The Smallest Theatre in the World, and its resident theatre company The Combination. It appeared in a show called Restless Natives where the audience was marched outside to watch The Smallest Theatre perform the entire history of the ‘Second World War’ in fifteen minutes. One audience member, who was dragged inside, was Dave Danzig who at the time was about to become a psychology graduate. The experience was so stunning that he abandoned his chosen career to join Marcel, where he became infamous for ‘banging a four inch nail into his nose’ (a feat that he has replicated around the world) as well as forming The Grand Theatre of Lemmings.

The Albany Empire was sadly burnt to the ground shortly after Marcel worked there. As an anti-racist show was running at the time and racist organisations such as Column 89 where committing acts of violence, the fire was attributed to a racist attack, not Marcel’s last cigarette before leaving the dressing room. Although that thought did plague him for a few years afterward.

The Madhouse days

In 1979 The Smallest Theatre in the World was at a zenith, both Marcel’s sons Yves and Christian joined a production of The Guns of Naverone (written by John Turner) together with Dave Danzig and other friends from Deptford. The show performed at the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane at the first ever Secret Policeman’s Ball, and Billy Connelly became another celebrity audience member before taking to the stage inside.

In the same year it gained national publicity when it appeared on the hit Saturday Night TV program Game for a Laugh. The following year it became a regular feature of the hit TV show Tiswas. Many other television appearances followed and The Smallest Theatre in the World became one of the first ever busking shows to appear at Covent Garden in London. This prompted a review for Time Out to declare that The Smallest Theatre in the World was “possibly the most revolutionary concept in performance art of the century”.

This was also a productive time for The Smallest Theatre with many shows being produced: The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Tempest and A Christmas Carol being amongst them. Later that year Marc Weil came over from America and The Madhouse Company was reformed with Sylvester McCoy (Doctor Who) directing a new touring show. Their wild, off the wall, cabaret style made them a popular draw at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East’s cabaret nights.

However, life is a series of ups and downs. Marcel lost the Tiswas contract when he turned up late one Saturday with The Smallest Theatre in the World only to discover the studio entrance was blocked by ‘performing pigs’, or to be precise the massive truck delivering Mike Hurst’s pigs. This was not the only disaster to rock The Smallest Theatre, and on Thursday 2nd June 1980, the theatre burnt down. As with the Albany Empire, Marcel insisted that this had nothing to do with his smoking habits.

This led Marcel to appeal for help towards funds to rebuild The Smallest Theatre. The general public were urged to make donations to put towards the cost of rebuilding and Marcel eagerly spread the word to save his beloved theatre. Many papers appealed on behalf of Marcel and soon enough, Marcel had enough money to rebuild the theatre for a third time.

The Northern Adventure

Shortly after Dave Danzig left The Smallest Theatre in the World it was embraced once more, this time by the famous large-scale outdoor theatre company Welfare State International. Marcel became part of their film project King Real based (loosely on King Lear) and in order to publicise it Marcel created his own version in The Smallest Theatre in the World. This became a life-changing experience for Gary Bridgens who found himself standing outside the headmasters office when Marcel turned up to perform in the school playground. The headmaster sent him off to give Marcel directions and the next minute he was riding around the streets of Barrow on the back of Marcel’s motorbike. After this experience he dedicated his life to being a clown (and got handsomely paid for it).

These were also productive years for The Smallest Theatre in the World, in 1984 Nigel Planer (Neil in The Young Ones) performed A Tale of Two Cities at Edinburgh festival in which Marcel played Willard the rat. He also teamed up with the famous theatrical Maverick Ken Campbell in 1985 to create a two man version of Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy.

The Dark Years

darkyears

Between 1985 and 1992 very little is known about the whereabouts of The Smallest Theatre in the World. It seems that after the bright days of the early eighties the theatre was often burdened with financial trouble, and in 1988 the theatre remained in a garage for two years as Marcel struggled financially to keep it afloat. According to a paper at the time, the theatre was hampered with persistent oil leaks and a failed MOT. For the five years between 1984 and 1990 we can find no reviews, posters or evidence that The Smallest Theatre in the World was producing shows.

It was then that Marcel made another appeal: "The Smallest Theatre in the World is an important part of Britain’s cultural heritage," and miraculously a savior came to the rescue. The Dutch Benbom brothers, who ran the Dreamland funfair at Margate, then sponsored the theatre. Fortunately for Marcel, the theatre opened on July 7th with a new musical based on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. This was the lifeline that Marcel needed and The Smallest Theatre in the World was once again back on the road.

The Renaissance

Things began to pick up for The Smallest Theatre then and in 1992 Marcel teamed up with Pat Brown and Gerry Marsh to create a dream team of actors that would carry The Smallest Theatre forward for the years up to his death. He was 58 when the Benbom brothers sponsored him to appear in Dreamland and he had always talked about The Smallest Theatre in the World being a lifeline in old age. The life of an actor is a fickle one and Dave Danzig remembers losing Marcel in a bank (whilst trying to get a loan for a van). Marcel had found a warm spot hidden away behind one of the counters. “It is warm. An old person could happily sit here all day. It is good to know about places like this Marcel told Dave.

Clearly Marcel took the challenge of re-inventing the theatre seriously and in his personal archive we find a financial breakdown of pantomime costs in 1992. It was about to be another boom time for The Smallest Theatre in the World when they created one of theatre’s best-known shows, the outrageously lavish version of War and Peace. In December 1993, Robin Hood was revived as a panto in which Marcel mystifyingly played a tyrannosaurus rex. Gerry Marsh who wrote the script said: “it is pretty traditional apart from Trevor the tyrannosaurus is Robin Hood’s side kick”. The opening night was at Millwall football club so having a dinosaur to hand might not have been such a bad idea.

The Smallest Theatre in the World also traveled abroad again, visiting Singapore Arts festival, Freiburg in Germany, Belgium and many other countries. By 1999 we find it playing a run outside the National Theatre with a repertoire of two productions. Ironically talking about the final performance in August the brochure declares it to be "the last curtain call for The Smallest Theatre’s residency at the National Theatre." Sadly it was Marcel’s curtain call and he died on Thursday 26th August aged 67.

Marcel was living alone at the time and had complained of a ‘broken heart’. He told his friend Pat that he could actually feel the pain in his chest. It turned out that he had cancer of the esophagus and unlike a broken heart there was to be no cure.

Marcel was lying in his bed with his friend Pat in tears. Pat Brown recalls his last moments: "Literally with his last gasp of breathe he held up one commanding hand and said, ‘Pat I want you to carry on The Smallest Theatre.’" Then the hand fell back. Marcel died. “He died with those poxy words” Pat recounted. “Bastard had obviously been rehearsing it. It was bad luck, I already had a job. I didn’t want to do The Smallest Theatre and I didn’t get the props or the costumes and I didn’t have a van. All I got was his dying command to keep the show going.”

THE FUTURE

Even without finances, props, costumes or a van Pat did attempt to get the Smallest Theatre in the World going once more but without the structure and support of a theatre company behind him it proved a thankless task. Determined that it would carry on he eventually passed it onto Chelmsford Council events team who brought in various artists to revive its fortunes. Again it proved impossible to regain momentum until in a strange twist of fate Dave Danzig happened upon it. The strange curiosity that had propelled Dave into a career of daredevil tomfoolery had come back to haunt him when it ended up in his garage.

Dave and the Grand Theatre of Lemmings are now on a mission to get it touring and to restore its reputation as “one of the most revolutionary concepts in performance art, this century”. Watch this space …

Bibliography of events.

  • 1971- Marcel is working with the Ken Campbell Roadshow
  • 1971- Smallest Theatre was conceived and built
  • 1971- ‘The Boy from Connemara’ opens featuring Eugene Guisley
  • 1973- Ken Campbell Roadshow ends
  • 1974- Marc Weil returns to America and forms The Madhouse Company. Marcel joins him and builds the second Smallest Theatre in the World (eco-version)
  • 1975- Marcel kicked out of Chicago Playboy club
  • 1976- Marcel returns to England
  • 1977- Marcel joins The Combination Theatre Company
  • 1977- Marcel performs in Radio Vision at the Albany
  • 1978- ‘Decline and Fall of the Third Reich’ opens with Tim Webb
  • 1978- Smallest Theatre performs at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and outside The National Theatre with Tim Webb
  • 1978- Marcel performs in Pyrates at The Albany Empire
  • 1979- Dave Danzig joined The Smallest Theatre
  • 1979- ‘The Guns of Navarone’ performs at Secret Policeman’s Ball
  • 1979- Marc Weil comes to London, Madhouse reformed in England
  • 1979- Madhouse performed at Tramshed
  • 1979- ‘A Christmas Carol’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1980- ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1980- Sylvester McCoy directs new Madhouse show
  • 1980- ‘The Tempest’ - opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1980- The Smallest Theatre in the World burns down
  • 1982- Marcel in Stratford panto
  • 1983- ‘King Real’ opens in the Smallest Theatre
  • 1983- ‘The Titanic’ opens in the Smallest Theate
  • 1984- Marcel stars in the Welfare State film King Real
  • 1984- ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ at Edinburgh Festival
  • 1985- ‘The Virgin and the Gypsy’ with Ken Campbell
  • 1985- ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ opens with Suzanne Dawson
  • 1988- The Smallest Theatre is dark for over two years
  • 1990- Benbom brothers save The Smallest Theatre
  • 1990- ‘Death of a Salesman’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1990- ‘Gone with the Wind’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1990- ‘Henry the VIII’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1990- ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ opens with Patrick Brown
  • 1991- Marcel performs in Ali Baba in Deptford
  • 1991- ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ tours
  • 1992- Pat Brown and Gerry Marsh become permanent cast members
  • 1992- Anniversary reunion at Birds Nest in Deptford
  • 1992- ‘War and Peace’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1993- ‘Robin Hood the panto’ opens in the Smallest Theatre
  • 1994- ‘Macbeth’ opens in the Smallest Theatre.
  • 1994- Smallest Theatre performs in Germany
  • 1996- ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ opens in Smallest Theatre
  • 1997- ‘Doctor Steiner’s Stranger than Fiction Show’ opens
  • 1998- ‘Hunchback’ in Frieburg’ burgerhaus seepark
  • 1998- ‘Macbeth’ performs in Edinburgh
  • 1999- Smallest Theatre’s residancy at the National Theatre
  • 1999- ‘Troilus and Cressida’ opens on the South Bank
  • 1999- ‘Candide’ opens on the South Bank
  • 1999- Marcel passes away