Geoff Gilham

Geoff Gilham, Director and playwright in TIE, activist in SCYPT, (1946-2001)

Obituary by David Davis, Friday 27 July 2001, The Guardian

‘Director committed to education through theatre’

The playwright, director and teacher Geoff Gillham, who has died of cancer aged 55, was not interested in writing plays that young people watched passively. He saw the potential of the theatre-in-education movement (TIE) to engage them in productive learning through theatre, making meaning of their lives, and of the world they live in.

Above all, Geoff believed passionately in the power of theatre to humanise, and become a force for change in the world. He dedicated his life to the development of TIE, and to teaching and training others through the Standing Conference of Young People’s Theatre (SCYPT). He was the driving force of this hugely important organisation through a period when funding cuts threatened both the Tie movement and SCYPT itself with extinction.

Geoff also had a 30-year admiration for the plays and writings of Edward Bond, directing the British premieres of Bond’s Human Cannon, Eleven Vests, At the Inland Sea, and The Crime of the 21st Century. He regarded Bond as the contemporary version of Shakespeare, and saw himself as a co-worker, trying to clear away some of the obscurantism and philistinism blocking the development of culture.

As an internationalist, he recognised that while TIE was under threat in Britain, progressive artists and educators all over the world were thirsty for its methods and ideas. So, through SCYPT, the International Centre for Theatre-in-Education (ICTIE) was founded. This took a giant leap forward in August last year when artists from 21 countries gathered for the People In Movement conference on theatre in education in Amman, Jordan; Geoff was the creative and political spark behind this extraordinary event.

It grew from his earlier work in Jordan, for which he was presented – by Queen Noor – with the Noor Al-Hussein Foundation performing arts centre award. Jordan became his spiritual home; the Arab people, the struggle of the Palestinians, the friendships he made, and the work he was a part of creating there, inspired him. In the staggering beauty of Petra, with its amphitheatre at the heart of an ancient city carved from the rock, he found embodied all that his work stood for.

Geoff was born in Hornchurch, Essex, the son of schoolteachers; his father was also a semi-professional film-maker. He was educated at Palmers School, Grays, and St Mark’s teacher training college, Chelsea. He began his theatre career as an assistant stage manager at the Royal Court, and later won an Arts Council bursary to direct at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln. But, seeing the limitations of repertory for the theatre he wanted to create, he moved to the north-east to found a community theatre. He also started Live Theatre in 1972, and its work still continues.

Thus did Geoff’s journey lead him him into TIE, his chosen and beloved art form. He began to make his most brilliant contributions to theatre, and to the lives of thousands of young people. He became artistic director and writer for the Cockpit Theatre TIE Company in London, Action Projects in Education, in Cardiff, and Harlow TheatreVan.

In a lifetime’s work, the TIE and other theatre companies he directed and wrote for included theatres based in Coventry, Lancaster, Mid-Glamorgan, Birmingham, Ipswich, Benwell, Newcastle, Amsterdam and Amman. Other countries he worked in included Vietnam, Hungary and Kenya. For his Bosnian work, he was awarded the Grozdanin Kikot Award by the Mostar Youth Theatre.

Geoff moved from existentialism in the 1960s to Marxism in the early 1970s; following the split in the Workers’ Revolutionary party, of which he was a member, he supported the Marxist party. He wrote 27 plays and a further 27 articles on theatre, art, education, politics and philosophy.

He also had an enormous interest in the natural world, a detailed knowledge of plant life and a huge collection of cacti and aloes.

Geoff began his professional life directing the world premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Breath in Glasgow in 1969 and ended it directing a national tour of the British professional premiere of Bond’s The Crime of the 21st Century this year [2001]. He knew he was ill, but thought it was an ulcer. He would not stop, because he knew that his work on the play might be cut short, and remained at the helm till his last days. One of his maxims was that he would rather wear out than rust out.

Three years ago, he met and married Viet Nguyen-Gillham, the most valuable love and companion, through whom he found true happiness. He had a deep love, too, for his son, Dan, from a former relationship.

Edward Bond writes: “If English theatre survives – and if it has anything important to say and do – it will be to a surprising degree because of Geoff Gillham’s seminal influence on the core of young people who will be its future. Of course, there are other influences, but I constantly meet young writers and young directors who say his influence on their work was decisive.”

It is difficult to describe its power to anyone who didn’t know it, a combination of utter life-giving logic with total generosity. It was as if he could throw a stone in a river and its whole course would change from the place where it struck. Not many people in theatre have lived as well as he did.

Geoff Gilham, director and playwright, born January 27 1946; died June 15 2001

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