The Scarlet Theatre Company was founded in 1981. Formed as a company of three women performers, Scarlet Harlets, provided a space for female practitioners to determine their own work, away from the hierarchies of traditional theatre practice, in which women's roles were circumscribed and often stereotyped. The company was formed as a feminist theatre group, whose work was overtly political.
Scarlet Harlets devised and produced its own work, and in the early days the style was highly physical, even acrobatic. Humour was a central and powerful motif.
Scarlet's first show We Who Are The Beautiful (1981) drew parallels between the massacre of 9 million women as 'witches' in the 16th and 17th centuries and the contemporary incarceration of women in mental institutions as a means of social control. "A fine example of the imaginative, free-spirited theatre" City Limits
Out of Bounds made in 1982 used a dynamic mixture of mime, mask, music and storytelling to explore friendships and taboos. The same recipe was put to exhilarating effect to explore the subject of rape in Broken Circle (1983-4). The show was both sensitive and entertaining.
“Circus-cum-theatre-cum-cabaret” (Time Out) continued to mark out Scarlet Harlets as a versatile and innovative company when it launched its fourth show Toe on the Line in 1985. The production’s highly personal material managed to touch on every woman's experience of the perils of relationships.
The company's style began to change in 1986. Although its work was still physical and visual, the devised script in 80 Day Soul played a bigger part than had previously been the case. The play examined a woman's feelings before having an abortion and was met with critical acclaim, “a gripping new play” Time Out.
It was with Appetite of the Heart, in 1987, however that Scarlet Harlets placed itself within the canon of experimental theatre. The company explored the nature of eroticism, through a collage of texture, colour, movement, light and sound. Interpreted by some as a form of performance art, Appetite of the Heart raised the company's profile, receiving excellent reviews in both The Independent, The Guardian and Time Out ,“If you like imaginative theatre, these are your women.”
In 1987, Scarlet Harlets’ work was defined by a continued commitment to experimentation with the language of performance. Poetry, pictures and text were given equal weight in its devised shows, and humour was seen as a powerful device for revealing hidden truths. At this stage the subjects chosen for shows began to be of universal interest, although seen from a female perspective. Scarlet Harlets continued to change perceptions and challenge taboos through its work.