Colette King obituary

Colette King, who has died at the age of 84, was a teacher of drama whose breadth of vision transformed education in contemporary arts. Whatever their goal, the same students at Dartington College of Arts in Devon learned acting, writing and movement (which she refused to call dance). With this imaginative grounding, they went on to become, among other things, writers, choreographers and lighting designers. Two of the writers, Deborah Levy and Mick Jackson, were Man Booker prize finalists; the choreographers included Laurie Booth, a seminal influence on the current generation of dancers; and one of the lighting designers was the Olivier award-winning Michael Hulls.

Colette also mentored innovative academics such as Mine Kaylan in cross-cultural performance and visual arts, as well as actors, including Josie Lawrence, and film-makers, notably the award-winning Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. It was this ability to stimulate different forms of creativity that characterised all Colette’s work.

A great enthusiast for the work of the Joint Stock Group, which Max Stafford-Clark and I directed, she was directly responsible for the way the writer Stephen Lowe and I approached a stage adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1978), inviting the cast to paint a Plymouth warehouse she was converting for students, and so have some feeling of working-class life.

Colette was born in Brentford, Middlesex, to Joseph King, an education officer, and his wife, Rose (nee Conway), a teacher, and was educated at a convent school in Isleworth. She said that her fear of the nuns’ description of hell rendered her unable to speak for months; speech training helped her to overcome a stammer. She also recalled imagining herself as a spider on the ceiling during music lessons, saying: “I used to change my size and have adventures … I kept very quiet about these exercises, but later they became a part of one’s thinking in acting – seeing things from different angles.”

When she graduated as a teacher from the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she directed productions of both parts of Goethe’s Faust, she went to teach improvisation (in those days an unheard-of subject) at secondary schools in Liverpool. In 1956, she went up to Oxford as a mature student, and continued to teach improvisation to her fellow students when she could. Her contemporaries included the film-maker Ken Loach, the pianist, comedian and actor Dudley Moore and the writer John McGrath, whose first two plays, A Man Has Two Fathers (1958) and Why the Chicken (1959), she directed.

The first female director in the Oxford University Dramatic Society, she was nearly denied admission to her first night because she was an unaccompanied woman. The theatre critic Ken Tynan wrote: “England has a great new director”, and Colette could have had a career in the professional theatre if she had made the compromises it demands, but it was not in her nature.

She contented herself with amateur work at the influential Questors theatre, Ealing, west London, although her plan to open the new theatre building in Mattock Lane in 1964 with a double bill of Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus and her own adaptation of James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake went unrealised. Greek tragedy was one of her passions, and she worked on Val Gielgud’s BBC radio productions of classics in the 60s. She also particularly admired Chekhov and Beckett.

Colette continued to direct extraordinary student productions as a teacher: at St Mary’s College, in Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, west London, she built one of the country’s first multipurpose theatres, which could be easily adapted to all forms of staging.

At Dartington, where she first went as head of drama, and where she taught until her retirement in 1982, she constantly revised the curriculum. For the teaching of movement she employed Steve Paxton, who had trained with the American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the renowned innovator in postmodern dance Mary Fulkerson. They taught a new form of dance called contact improvisation. Colette’s vision for a rigorous and modern theatre training would become world famous for its international and experimental approach.

Her great gift was her ability to communicate with people and bring out what was best in them. She leaves a sister, Angela.

Colette King, drama teacher, born 1 August 1930; died 12 October 2014

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