Stewart McGill looks back over the achievements of the Watermill’s Jill Fraser and contemplates her lasting legacy.
Readers will know that I have a particular fondness for the work of Watermill – West Berkshire Playhouse. It is painful to report the death of Artistic Director Jill Fraser MBE, the inspiration behind the work, champion of new directors and guiding force behind one of our most exciting theatres.
I first met Jill having seen Rose Rage in 2001 at Watermill and we set up a visit of the show to The Dream Factory en route to the West End and also an exchange project between Playbox and members of Watermill’s young people’s company. Jill was passionate in her drive for adventure and diversity at Watermill, her support enabled Ed Hall to develop the all male classical ensemble Propeller and John Doyle to advance the development of music theatre in the UK with a rolling group of actor-musicians. It is a tribute to Jill that Watermill shows are now playing on Broadway and on tour across the UK, indeed Doyle’s production of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s magnificent opera is considered the ultimate manifestation of the work.
Watermill in Bagnor, near Newbury is an idyllic venue, set in a converted mill alongside the river where actors, directors and theatre makers can engage with material without the surroundings of city life. Yet this is no cosy house, some of the most radical and exciting theatre has been made here under Jill’s watchful and loving eyes.
Jill and her husband, James Sargeant, had planned to retire this year and Watermill is coming up for sale. The appeal is looking positive and suggests that the theatre will continue. Plans are in place until early 2007 and Ed Hall and John Doyle will ensure that Jill’s vision continues until a new senior appointment is made.
The loss to UK theatre is enormous and the legacy profound. Jill Fraser was an inspiration and enriched the theatre with her passion and tremendous energy. This year Propeller create The Taming of The Shrew at Watermill before taking up residence at The Courtyard, Stratford upon Avon for The Complete Works Festival and Mack and Mabel heads to the West End. Two living, breathing tributes to Jill and no better way to remember her than through living theatre.