Jill Fraser

Director of the Watermill Theatre
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The Independent Online

Jill Fraser, theatre manager: born London 15 April 1946; Artistic Director, Watermill Theatre 1981-2006; MBE 2005; married 1980 James Sargant (one son, one daughter); died Reading, Berkshire 10 February 2006.

In 1981 Jill Fraser, together with her husband James Sargant, purchased the 220-seat Watermill Theatre in the Berkshire village of Bagnor, leading it from a local rep opening 23 weeks of the year into a internationally respected all-year-round producing house. Over the last 25 years the Watermill has toured to 21 countries.

Fraser believed that theatre could break down social barriers and loved seeing "the student in tatty jeans sitting next to the leader of a corporate conglomerate". She made it her mission to "provide people with opportunities of exploring different aspects of their life". She was famous for giving young artists their first break and there are countless theatre professionals in every field, from directing, acting, designing, lighting, writing, marketing and production, who owe their first job to Jill Fraser.

The theatre, originally an old watermill, is attached to the house where Fraser lived, creating a unique environment where artists live on "campus" as they rehearse and perform. Everyone who worked at the Watermill felt like part of her extended family. She made the theatre a place where you could live and breathe the piece of work you were creating and her house was always full of actors who roomed with her whilst working. Everyone will remember Fraser's tradition of making a huge meal for the entire cast and crew to be enjoyed late at night at the end of the technical rehearsal.

In the year 2004-05, the Watermill Theatre reached over 100,000 people with its work both in the theatre and on tour. This took in rural touring, workshops for schools and further education colleges and an active and highly successful youth theatre. Fraser fostered work involving primary school children, people with special needs, the homeless and always a community project where children and adults could work side by side. The legacy she left on a local level is enormous.

Fraser's achievements are unrivalled for someone running a theatre of the Watermill's size. Never has such a small theatre taken its work to so broad an audience. Watermill productions have played in venues from Malvern to Bangladesh and been nominated for awards all over the world. In 2001 the theatre won the highly coveted Peter Brook Empty Space Award. In the middle of all this success Jill Fraser kept her feet firmly on the ground, displaying a healthy, though never ungracious, disregard for praise. She was a woman for whom success meant only one thing: the chance to take an even bigger risk with her next project.

In December 1993 Fraser opened The Ugly Duckling, a new piece of work that she had commissioned from the songwriting duo George Stiles and Anthony Drew. The show was later produced by the National Theatre under the title Honk! and won the 2000 Olivier Award for Best New Musical.

Then, during the last eight years, working with John Doyle and Sarah Travis, she pioneered a new style of musical theatre dispensing with some of the traditional excesses of the large-scale musical. In these productions the actors played their own instruments fusing the traditional band/actor relationship into one. The style and success of these shows - including Cabaret (1998), Irma La Douce (1999), Piaf (2001), The Gondoliers (2001) and Sweeney Todd (2004) - had a major impact; The Gondoliers and Sweeney Todd both transferred to the West End, with the latter opening on Broadway in November 2005. The New York Times described the production as "ferociously inventive".

In 1997 Jill Fraser and I co-founded the all-male Shakespeare company Propeller. The idea grew from a production of Henry V in which Fraser allowed part of the performance to be played outside the auditorium, sometimes even taking to the roof of the theatre to represent the battlements of a French town under siege. This promenade-style performance was repeated on tour, most amusingly at the National Theatre of the Philippines in Manila, where a company of 12 actors took nearly 2,000 people into the streets to enact the battle of Agincourt.

Propeller has grown into a hugely successful Shakespeare company, one in which actors employ a range of skills to vivify Shakespeare's stories - having particular success with younger audiences. Fraser took the company from the Watermill all over the world, most recently enjoying a run of The Winter's Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

Jill Fraser was born in London in 1946, the daughter of Alec Fraser, an actor who appeared in many West End comedies in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, before moving into theatre production at the Carlton Theatre, London. He died in 1956. Her mother, Guinevere, was also a successful performer and singer. Jill went to South Hampstead High School, and then studied stage management and theatre production at Central School of Speech and Drama. Her early career was spent with the RSC, Welsh Opera, Actors Company and Cambridge Theatre Company, before she and James Sargant took over the Watermill in 1981.

Fraser harboured a secret wish to be a vet or a florist - surrounding herself with animals that lived in the grounds of the theatre, nurturing young ducklings, puppies and cats, whilst also employing her eye for design on the beautiful garden that was often the venue for battles, love scenes and songs.

She was as at home feeding the ducks, doing the school run, coping with blocked drains, doing the weekly shop, running the bar, being a car park attendant, catering for 100 in the restaurant at a crisis moment, as she was attending a dress rehearsal, a critical funding meeting or a Broadway opening of her latest production.

Edward Hall