Clare Venables

Infectiously energetic theatre director
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The Independent Online

Clare Rosamund Venables, theatre educator and director: born Southend-on-Sea, Essex 17 March 1943; died Warwick 17 October 2003.

There are three breeds of theatre director in the world; those who nurture new talent, those who are scared of it, and those who cannot be bothered with it. Clare Venables was definitely in the nurturing camp, dedicating her life and career to recognising and developing new talent in others. Her energy and enthusiasm were infectious. Venables was not only a theatre educator but an important theatre and opera director as well as a writer, adapter and translator.

As Artistic Director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield (1981-92), Venables gave me, along with many other young directors at the time, the kind of break that is rare in our industry. In that time she not only championed the cause of regional repertory theatre, she also bred a group of new group of British directors who are now leading players in theatre and film, including Stephen Daldry, Steven Pimlott, Tom Cairns and Martin Duncan.

She always kept herself well informed. She had a good ear for distinctive new theatrical voices, but it was more than that. Venables was always an instinctive collaborator, happiest and most fulfilled when bouncing thoughts around an intimate group of others whom she trusted. She was very good at being centre-stage, but never protective of that position, and equally at ease down stage left with her right arm extended in celebration of someone else. My first job at the Crucible was to co-direct Vladimir Mayakovsky's Mystery Bouffe with Venables. What could have been a nightmare audition on a hiding to nothing was made easy by her generous, unprecious preparedness to share and concede the rehearsal room floor.

It makes perfect sense then, that Venables' major contribution as Director of Education at the RSC from 1999 should have been in the creation of groundbreaking partnerships. Spending time with Clare Venables was like being at a party. She injected fun and a wicked sense of adventure into everything she did. Just weeks before she died, she was presented with the first Young Vic Award, to be awarded annually to theatre professionals who have inspired a new generation of theatre artists. In her hospice bedroom, looking more like a theatre dressing room and over-flowing with flowers, photographs and tributes, the party was still going strong. She celebrated the award with the mix of joy and humility we had all come to recognise.

From the start of her career, Clare Venables wanted to run a theatre. After training in drama at Manchester University, immediately followed by a teaching stint, she began directing at the Lincoln Theatre Royal in 1968 under Philip Hedley. Venables took over at Lincoln in the early Seventies, moving to Manchester's Library Theatre in 1973, then to the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where she was Artistic Director from 1977 to 1980. She gave confidence not only to actors and directors, but to a whole generation of theatre administrators. Keen never to neglect the contribution of those working behind the scenes, she argued that there was as much creativity in marketing, finance and staff management as in working on stage.

Throughout the Eighties, Venables' mission at the Crucible was to present plays that were popular as well as challenging. She got the audience in Sheffield on her side, and encouraged them to take risks. She injected a touch of glamour and excitement with Bob Eaton's Lennon and Carmen Jones, at the same time putting Botho Strauss and Howard Barker on the main stage. She managed that rare trick; developing a theatre that can engage with the community it serves, without losing sight of aesthetic and intellectual ambition.

As Principal of the BRIT School for the Performing Arts (1995-99) in Croydon, Surrey, Venables proved what is possible when you take young people's creative ambitions seriously. She also got the new technology bug, realising early on that the thrill of live performance could be shared more widely with a bit of flair and clever use of technology. At the RSC she digitised a large chunk of the company's photographs, costumes and production materials, providing a rich library of material for students and teachers to use online.

I was reunited with Clare Venables as an Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she was appointed Director of Education in 1999. We worked together in 2001 on the company's first residency at the University of Michigan, presenting the final four plays in Shakespeare's history cycle, the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. Venables and her team were a crucial part of that ensemble. Developing relationships with academics, students and the local community in Michigan was something she cherished. Working with the university's Musical Society, Venables pioneered a new model for partnerships between cultural organisations and universities, helped by the fact she was a genuine hybrid herself of practitioner and scholar. In Ann Arbor she and her Michigan colleagues created a buzz that neither organisation could have produced alone. From rap-Shakespeare workshops in downtown Detroit to academic unpicking of Shakespeare texts on campus, the education programme was not peripheral, but completely integrated to what was happening on stage.

Venables' work with higher education continued at Columbia University and Davidson College where she built on her experience from Michigan. Closer to home, she kept working even in her last months on a new partnership with Warwick University. But at the other end of the spectrum, she was equally passionate about working with young children. She knew the power of Shakespeare's stories and was zealous about bringing them to children as young as five or six.

One of Clare Venables' last projects was the RSC's collaboration with the homeless people's theatre company, Cardboard Citizens, on a production of Shakespeare's Pericles staged in a south London warehouse. This project was typical of Venables' unfailing enthusiasm for bringing Shakespeare's work to new audiences and finding new ways to demonstrate Shakespeare's relevance as our contemporary. Weaving in stories of asylum seekers, a mixed company of RSC and Cardboard Citizens actors produced something unique and timely. Again Clare Venables conceded the rehearsal room floor, to Adrian Jackson, but this time, sadly, because she was unwell.

Clare leaves a big hole at the RSC. Perhaps her most appropriate memorial will be the work she inspired that continues and the new generation of theatre artists and administrators she encouraged.

Michael Boyd

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