In 1986 Libby Mason took over as the first female Director of Theatre Centre and Noel stayed on as Resident Dramaturge. Libby had worked with Noel Greig on productions for Gay Sweatshop and he invited her to apply for the director’s job. Theatre Centre had already established a practice of female writers and a women’s company that included Nona Shepphard, Bryony Lavery and Lisa Evans. Theatre Centre then had full-time company members, most of whom were actors; everyone was on the same wage and the director was meant to be guided by the will of company. Libby’s daughter went to the school where Theatre Centre was based.
‘We were at Hanover school and my daughter was at that school as well, which was a wonderful situation for a mother. We would go to work together – she’d be downstairs at school and I’d be upstairs running Theatre Centre. That was pretty cool!’
Theatre Centre took her back to working with young people and describes it as a time of accumulating knowledge and experience and finding ways of weaving ideas into plays – a perfect coming together. Libby directed Noel’s play Best of Friends at Perspectives Theatre – she says this was one of her best experiences and a beautiful play – ‘a play of its time’. Noel was writing about his father, the theme of a character discovering his father had gay relationships woven into contemporary themes. Noel was good at writing about the 1980s, Thatcherism, Greenham Common. Libby describes ‘a magical group of people at Theatre Centre – a very talented, good-hearted group of people’ – including Simon Deacon, Julie Wilkinson and Aude Brown. There were lots of good plays and a wonderful admin team, including Angela McSherry who went on to work with LIFT [London International Festival of Theatre] and more recently Tipping Point, and Richard Morgan who went on to the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Writers included Bryony Lavery and Nona Shepphard. Theatre Centre was well funded, producing theatre for young people, broadly left but without the ideological strictness of the TIE movement.
Libby learnt through Noel how to nurture and develop young writers. He set up a programme for young writers, in particular those from marginalised groups, people like Roy Williams who began as an actor in the mixed company – Noel took him under his wing and helped Roy develop his writing through the Theatre Centre programme. Roy is now a leading writer. There were four or five weeks of rehearsal and then a re-work period which set a standard. There was always a workshop of the play with someone attached as a dramaturge, a good process for writing and development of new plays and there was a lot of emphasis on developing new writers. During that time an operatic version of The Secret Garden by Nona Shepphard and Helen Glavin toured to middle-scale venues; Helen was commissioned by Theatre Centre to compose the music for an opera adaptation with a libretto by Nona Shepphard. Adjoa Andoh wrote a play. Libby directed a second production of Noel’s Whispers in the Dark and its sequel The Lie of the Land, produced in a double bill called The Land of Whispers.
There was a bit of transition at that time when there ceased to be a full-time company of actors and a tighter management team employed more freelance actors, writers and directors. The Theatre Centre continuum from the Brian Way era, to the David Johnston era, through Libby’s era and into Ros Hutt’s era felt seamless and they had excellent support from the Arts Council and schools. Libby became more self-confident as a leader and manager because of her age and experience.
‘There were tough times…the mixture of the conflict of ideas and personalities and the notion of equality. I think the seventies’ children, young people, became young middle-aged in the Eighties and we changed things accordingly.’
Libby recalls there were intense arguments and honorable fights which were for the better in the long run. There were some artistic conflicts about the quality of writing. The conflicts were most often with writers but Libby was sure of her judgement and was accountable to the Board and she was not prepared to sacrifice this position. One conflict was around whether a play by a Black writer should be directed by a Black or white director. Natasha Fairbanks wrote a play for the Women’s company about El Salvador but she took her name off it because Libby re-wrote it. Libby also worked on Sue Frumin’s The Marx Brothers Go East which was tough but worked out okay but a devised piece about birthright, designed by Kate Owen, didn’t work. Some adventures didn’t pay off. There were honorable processes and honorable arguments. Was it the process or the product? Libby had to come down on the side of the product. But there was always enough good work, including an imaginative piece by an Irish writer called Colma Clooven (now deceased) that Noel brought in and there was a wonderful designs by Bill Mitchell who went on to co-found Kneehigh in Cornwall.
‘The main thing at Theatre Centre is that, although during my era it transformed from being completely collective to more hierarchical, it always was a very, very open situation so that people felt free to voice their opinion and criticise me and I was pretty grateful for that. I learnt a lot and I carried those lessons into the work that I did.’
Because of the success of Whispers in the Dark which toured Canadian festivals, Libby started to get offered teaching and directing work in Canada, especially at the University of Winnipeg. Theatre Centre let her go off and do some work there for five or six weeks, then she was getting offered other work in Canada and she had fallen in love there. When Libby left Theatre Centre to move to Canada, she felt it was just time to go. ‘I wanted leave on top, feeling good.’