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Robert Robson obituary

Arts Producer, Artistic Director

Born December 21st 1954 ; died September 6th 2013


Robert Robson, who has died suddenly aged 58, understood more than most the value the arts played at the heart of a community. Having started out in grassroots theatre in Glasgow, Robson may have gone on to helm major institutions, from His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen to the Lowry in Salford, but he still managed to navigate the tricky relationship of being on the national and international map whilst remaining resolutely local and accessible to all without ever patronising or falling prey to box-ticking. That he did this in increasingly perilous economic times with a calm and a wisdom that endeared him to his colleagues wherever he worked made Robson a refreshingly human face in the arts world.

Robert Robson was born in Hamilton and brought up in Motherwell. After attending Hamilton Academy, he studied English and Drama at Glasgow University, then took a post-graduate diploma in Theatre Studies in Cardiff, where he worked at the city's Sherman Theatre. On returning to Scotland, Robson became a community drama worker with Easterhouse Festival Society. At that time, Easterhouse was one of the most socially deprived areas of Glasgow, with little or no artistic provision. EFS attempted to address this, with Robson leading a community theatre group in the neighbourhood with members that included future film star Gary Lewis.

In 1979, the group took Robson's production of Freddy Anderson's play, Krassivy: The John MacLean Show, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to mark the centenary of the Socialist hero's birth. Anderson's play and Robson's production were acclaimed, and won an award. In 2005, the play was rescued from the obscurity it had fallen into and published.

In 1983, Robson took over from John Baraldi as artistic director of Cumbernauld Theatre, where he worked with writers including Tom McGrath and Archie Hinds, and applied a community and popular theatre aesthetic to what became a thriving local resource. Robson developed a reputation for producing quality community theatre, as well as presenting work for children that attracted schools from as far afield as Dalmally and Dumfries. 

Robson wrote several plays, including the Hull Truck influenced We'll Support You Evermore, about a young footballer who became the first Roman Catholic to play for Rangers and then Scotland. This attracted an audience of hardcore football supporters, who draped their scarves across the theatre's railings as if they were on the terraces. Another play penned and directed by Robson was Mugshot, a film noir spoof starring a young Blythe Duff, Iain McColl and future Mull Theatre director Alasdair McCrone.

In September 1990 Robson was appointed director of Mayfest, the trade union backed arts festival then riding high on the back of Glasgow's year as City of Culture. As well as programming international work, Robson was instrumental in co-producing works such as Michael Boyd's production of Macbeth starring Iain Glen at the Tron Theatre, and the NVA Organisation's installation, Sabotage. In 1997 Robson became Theatre Director at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, later taking charge of all performing arts venues in the city.

Robson took all this accrued experience with him when he was appointed Theatre Director of the Lowry in Salford in 1998. This state of art purpose built theatre and arts complex had yet to be built, but was set to become key to the regeneration of the formerly run-down area next to Manchester. The fact that it was named after the city's most famous son, painter L.S. Lowry, rooted the complex to a sense of localism, even as it housed quality commercial touring theatre. Again, Robson brought a sense of community spirit to his new role, stating in 2000 when the centre's doors opened that he wanted to "bring the world to Salford and Salford to the world". In 2003 Robson was appointed artistic director of the Lowry, with responsibility for theatre, galleries and community and education.

Surrounded by a talented team, Robson commissioned, produced and programmed packed seasons of work, opening the space out to accommodate theatre, exhibitions, comedy and music. On the community side of things, Robson led the development of The Lowry’s Centre for Advanced Training and Youth Dance England initiatives, consolidating the Lowry's role as a significant regional centre for dance.

Outside the Lowry, Robson was was the Chair of Phoenix Dance, and was on the Board of Directors of the International Society for the Performing Arts. He also worked as an independent Art Council England Assessor for ballet and contemporary dance. After six years in the role, Robson was about to step down as Chair of Phoenix after steering the company through what were at times difficult waters.

Phoenix Executive Director Lesley Jackson and Artistic Director Sharon Watson described Robson as a man of “quiet wisdom and calm authority,” who “relished all aspects of the sector he worked in and championed tirelessly for what he believed in. He was unwavering in his support for Phoenix and told you what he truly thought (even if it meant apologising later) but always saw the best and brought out the best in people. We always knew he would be difficult to replace as Chair – he will be impossible to replace as a friend.”

This is typical of the response from a sometimes volatile arts world, where Robson was unequivocally well-liked - loved, even - by friends and colleagues past and present. Julia Fawcett, CEO of the Lowry, remembers being impressed by Robson's “fierce intelligence, his passionate commitment to the arts and his independence of mind...Robert was both respected and loved by all his colleagues. To me, he was indispensable: a calming influence at times of crisis, a giver of wise counsel, a trusted friend, a ferocious defender and advocate of the arts and an unparalleled source of industry gossip! His death leaves a huge hole in the arts community, in The Lowry and in the lives of his family and all who knew him.”

Robson is survived by his wife, Annette, and his two sons, Stuart and Alan.

The Herald, September 12th 2013

ends

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