Friday, September 18, 2009

Noël Greig Dies

Noël Antony Miller Greig

The playwright, actor, director, teacher and gay activist Noël Greig has died.

Philip Osment writes:

On a stiflingly hot April day in a religious centre in Qom, Iran, an English "professor" is leading 21 mullahs through a writing process. He is visiting under the auspices of the University of Tehran where the lecturers have been working from his book Playwriting, A Practical Guide for the past two years.

They are using the occasion to forge links with liberal young clerics in the religious city and there are seven women participating - the first time females have ever been allowed into this particular building. The heat is overpowering and the teacher is thin and tired - he is in fact in the latter stages of cancer but he is determined not to let the illness define him in
the remaining weeks of his life. This is the second trip of the month - ten days before he was in Palestine helping emerging young writers to find their voices and in between the two foreign trips he found the time to direct a performance of pieces written by elderly writers in Newark and lead a workshop for playwrights in the East Midlands.

The "professor" is Noël Greig - playwright, actor, director, teacher, mentor, dramaturg, animateur and gay activist - although this latter element of his cv was certainly not to the fore in Qom.

Noël was born on Christmas Day in 1944 in Winchester. His father was a drummer and comedian in the Jan Ramsden Band which played throughout the summer on the end of the pier. He attended Skegness Grammar School and later studied history at the University of London, Kings College.

He was one of the new breed of Grammar School boys from humble homes who reaped the benefits of post-war social policies going on to become leading figures in the counter culture of the sixties. After a brief spell acting in rep he formed the Brighton Combination with friends. Conceived as a commune with a cafe, a bookshop and an experimental theatre studio which Noël singlehandedly created from a warehouse, this was one of the very first "Arts Labs". The work was artistically innovative, politically radical and broke all conventions.

At the same time, with the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front, Noël began to feel a sense of dislocation, that his work was not reflecting his true self. After the Combination moved to London in 1971 he worked for a while at the Royal Court, at Inter Action's Almost Free and in the West End where he was assistant director on Jesus Christ Superstar. But he did not feel at home in these settings. He was too much of an outsider perhaps, too much of a rebel certainly, to fit into any conventional theatre context.

To escape what he saw as an inward looking theatre scene in London he moved to Bradford to work with the General Will. It was in Bradford that he became more involved in radical gay theatre, encouraging local lesbians and gay men to produce work with the company. When he left Bradford he joined Gay Sweatshop, writing or directing many of their groundbreaking productions notably As Time Goes By (1977), The Dear Love of Comrades (1979) and Poppies (1983).

In the eighties Noel decided that if theatre was going to have any real impact on people's lives then it had to address itself to younger audiences.

Through his plays and his mentoring he became key to every new advance in playwriting for and by young people. He has been a role model and inspiration for budding writers from all over the world and in 2001 he conceived the biennial Contacting the World Festival hosted by the Contact Theatre in Manchester, bringing together young theatre artists from across the world, a process described in his book Young People, New Theatre.

Noël consistently eschewed career-driven paths in order to stay true to his belief that theatre has to have a context - that there has to be a reason for putting on a play, that the best work comes out of collective collaboration, that the audience has to emerge from the theatre - whether it is the Olivier or a room with a strip light in Brighton - feeling in some way larger. It is fitting then, that in the tributes that have been pouring in over the past few days, many have used words like "titan"and "giant" to describe him.

For the past two years he has lived in Deal returning from frequent trips abroad to cultivate the allotment in front of his home where he entertained friends sitting on rickety chairs talking of everything from the election of Obama to the most effective and ecological ways of dealing with slugs. It has been a remarkably happy and fulfilling time for him.

His death was as brave and uncompromising as his life. Until his last few days he was receiving visitors, taking a characteristic lively interest in their lives and opinions. When he did decide to leave us, he did so with the minimum of fuss as was his stated intention but also with serenity. In his living room hangs a letter of appreciation in an ornate frame which was given to him by the Islamic School of Arts when he left Tehran in April. It thanks him for his presence at the gathering of seminary students and ends: "It is hoped that God causes the breeze of your grace to blow to our souls, and let us improve our knowledge under your constant auspices." Sentiments which many of us can echo.

He is survived by his mother, Dorothy and by a legion of people by whom he was loved and to whom he was comrade, friend, mentor and inspiration.

David Edgar also remembers Noël:

The General Will was one of the left-wing theatre groups which toured agit-prop shows in the heady days of the early 1970s. Noel joined the group to direct my play The Dunkirk Spirit, and ended up in the cast. A cartoon history of British capitalism, the play's high point was Noel's performance, deliciously costumed, as the Gold Standard, in a scene whose other characters were the Deutschemark, the Dollar and the Pound. Some way into the run, Noel mounted an coup d'etat (during a performance) against a company which, he argued, shared no common oppression, claiming
the General Will for gay rights. More about the temper of the times than the spirit of the man, this action was a protest against a left which dismissed gay liberation as unserious. Noel was the gentlest of people: but he was militant for the causes he believed in, and knew that emancipation is never handed anyone on a plate.

Later, Noel amassed an impressive canon of plays, along with his Playwriting: a Practical Guide. But his legacy also embraces the hundreds of playwrights he taught, tutored and inspired, including over 300 young people who worked on the Birmingham Rep's pioneering Transmissions programme, through whose work his work will live on.


Unknown said...

Dear dear Noel, I will miss him. I have missed him for the last ten years. I have been so far away in every sense. A Titan for sure.

Gary Yershon said...

Noel's pioneering work with Gay Sweatshop made a huge impression on me when I was a student. When I was lucky enough, many years later, to meet and work with him, I was glad to be able to thank him.
He shone his light on our lives: we have good reason to be grateful.

Madani Younis said...

A sad day. Noel was the most generous, open minded and passionate playwright that i have had the pleasure to work with. It was an honour to have known you. xx

Jonah MacLeod said...

Dearest Noel. Despite physical distance you're always there hovering over my shoulder, my guide, my provoker and my love. I shall miss you more than I can say.

Rob Hale said...

Wonderful Noel. gentle, fierce, funny, intelligent, principled and so much more. A gay father to me at the tender age of 22 - helping me to celebrate who I was and to see who I could be. Your stamina and determination to leave the world a better place is an inspiration to us all. Your leaving is our invitation to take forward your endeavours.