The Crucible Theatre at 50: Clare Venables

She might have been little more than five feet tall, but Clare Venables (1943-2003) was described by Michael Boyd as an “infectiously energetic theatre director.”

She came to the Crucible Theatre in 1981 and will be remembered for hugely successful productions that travelled from Sheffield to Broadway.

Her father was Sir Peter Venables, one of the founders of the Open University, and she studied at Manchester University where she became a member of staff in the drama department. She did repertory training at the Leicester Phoenix and began directing in 1968 at the Lincoln Theatre Royal.

She took over Lincoln in 1970, with Howard Lloyd-Lewis as her associate, and she took him with her when she moved to Manchester Library Theatre in 1973. She succeeded Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in 1977 before moving to the Crucible in 1981.

In Sheffield, she encouraged young directors and designers – now a rollcall of the establishment – such as Michael Boyd, Tom Cairns, Stephen Daldry, Martin Duncan, Deborah Findlay, David Leland and Steven Pimlott.

Venables mixed high-art ambition with showbusiness, her productions ranging from Schiller’s William Tell to Bob Eaton’s Lennon (with Mark McGann), which transferred to London and New York. She also cast Marti Caine in Funny Girl.

According to Sheffield-based art critic, Paul Allen, “She left Sheffield in 1990 after realising that the refurbishment of the Lyceum Theatre would necessitate the appointment of a Chief Executive rather than Artistic Director.”

Subsequently she became head of the BRIT School of Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon, and then, in 1999, Head of Education and Technology at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she worked under another former associate from Sheffield, Michael Boyd.

“Spending time with Clare Venables was like being at a party. She injected fun and a wicked sense of adventure into everything she did.”

Her dream was to put education at the centre, rather than the periphery, of the RSC. Her work in the US led to ground-breaking educational work as part of the RSC’s residencies with Michigan University, Columbia University, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. She also took the education service on to the internet with the digitisation of the RSC’s archives, online production packs, and the development of interactive projects.

On Clare’s death in 2003, Michael Billington, The Guardian’s art critic, wrote: –

“Clare Venables was one of those pioneering figures to whom a whole generation of directors is indebted. At a time when it was still rare to find women running big theatres, she took over the directorship of the Sheffield Crucible.

“What I really remember is Clare’s unfailing cheerfulness in committee, along with her determination to fight tooth and nail for regional theatre. Clare was always battling for a brighter future, and it seems entirely fitting that, shortly before her death, she received the first Young Vic Award for her work in encouraging a new generation. She was a genuinely inspirational figure.”