Colette King 1930 – 2014

Throughout her working life, Colette inspired hundreds of students, colleagues, actors, directors and playwrights. She laughed, she debated, she commented, she fought, she envisioned – always restless, always impatient with establishment structures that got in the way of releasing a person’s potential and imagination. She challenged both herself and others to cut to the quick of things – in the sense of the quick and dead – that which was alive.

As a student, she attended the Central School of Speech and Drama. She tells the story of why she went there:

“I went to Central because I had a bit of a stammer and the only sentences I could complete were other people’s – poets and playwrights – I was quite alright with them. But by my third year the staff had cottoned on to the fact that I wasn’t communicating much, so they asked me to do something about this and the only thing I could think of was putting my back against the wall and – if I had a production with a number of people standing waiting for me to direct them – to speak.

“I thought this might do the trick. If not, I would have to leave. But Central kept turning down the plays I suggested, and in the end, in desperation, I suggested Goethe’s Faust, both parts, translated by Louis MacNeice, which was a five hour production with a gap for supper in the middle and a cast of about 80. So that’s how I began talking, and I haven’t stopped since!”

And here’s another story of her in her third year at Central which many will recognise:

“I did have a tiny, tiny moment of illumination when I was supposed to be in an improvisation which I couldn’t do partly because of my speech difficulty. I didn’t know how others could talk so much in the improvisation – we were all supposed to be sitting in a railway carriage – it all seemed chatter.

“But then I looked out of the window and it appeared to be raining and I said: “Oh! look. It’s raining,” and they were the first words I ever uttered that came from my own imagination and I was extremely excited by the connection there was between the mind’s eye and language – how one provoked the other.

“I can remember making a little vow to myself that I would explore this for the rest of my life. If it was important to me who had difficulties, it would be important for a lot of people, most of whom have difficulties of one kind or another. So that connection between making images in the head and language, and the language it provokes, became central to my thinking.”

After studying as a student at Central, Colette went on to become a mature student at Somerville, Oxford, and became involved in directing Greek tragedies and worked with Val Gielgud for the BBC.

From Somerville, she went on to teach at Strawberry Hill – a men’s teacher training college at the time – and got to know and admire Bill Gaskill, Ronald Eyre and others. She also taught at Central, and after that became Head of the Theatre Department at Dartington where – with Leonard Elmhirst’s call to ‘release the imagination’ ringing in her ears – she devised and structured perhaps one of the most radical theatre degrees the UK has ever seen.

The hallmark of its embrace meant that all students studied Drama, Dance and Writing before focusing on one, with the disciplines of Psychology and Sociology knitted into the overall fabric. They also experienced the practice and ideologies of both rural and urban life, first at Dartington and then, in the third year of their four year degree course, in deprived communities in Plymouth and London’s East End.

Colette welcomed colleagues to Dartington who were practicing artists and thinkers in their own right, who weren’t in any box – educational, artistic, political – which meant, of course, that they were eminently engaged in all three, or, as she used to say, “Politics with a small p”.

She believed above all in change and will be dearly missed by all those whose lives she touched and changed. She passed away peacefully on the 12 of October in Oxford.

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