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Jo Beddoe - An obituary

Jo Beddoe - Theatre and arts producer

Born August 7 1944; died February 20 2018

Without Jo Beddoe, who has died aged 73 following a long battle with cancer, there are several now thriving artistic institutions that would probably be closed. Beddoe’s straight-talking, no-nonsense approach to getting things done and tenacious and visionary way of managing organisations which others might have ran a mile from has left its mark, both on the organisations she helped transform, and on everyone she worked with. This was the case whether navigating 7:84 Scotland through troubled waters, establishing the Centre for Contemporary Arts as a major force, or else bringing Liverpool’s Playhouse and the Everyman theatres back to life.

In an expansive and nomadic career, Beddoe was a pioneer of female-led artistic management. Beyond high profile ventures on the West End and Broadway, she was steeped in a grassroots sensibility that those she worked with found inspirational. This was no doubt borne from her early years as a teacher as much as her Yorkshire roots, and which helped shape a mix of empathy, wit and a forthright determination to put the work and the people behind it, especially young people, first.

Jo Beddoe was born and raised in Halifax, where social awareness came early, both through her father George, a hugely respected editor of the Halifax Courier; and her mother Barbara, who was involved in youth work with homeless young people through a local housing association. Beddoe attended Trinity Junior School and Crossley and Porter Secondary School, both in Halifax, before enrolling in Trent Park Teacher Training College, later Middlesex University, in London.

In 1965, Beddoe moved to Liverpool to teach English and drama to secondary school students in the city’s rough Croxteth district. While details of Beddoe’s first of three experiences living in Liverpool aren’t on record, the city was in the noisy throes of Merseybeat, while the community-minded Everyman Theatre had opened the year before. Within a year, however, she de-camped to a north London comprehensive, and in 1970 to West Ham College, where she was a lecturer in English and Liberal Studies. During her four-year tenure, Beddoe also became co-ordinator of an adult literacy scheme in the borough of Newham. This crossed over with her move to Southgate Technical College, where for three years she was student liaison officer, working closely with the student body on all aspects of non-academic life. In a portent of things to come, this included initiating a counselling service.

In the summer of 1977, Beddoe became co-ordinator of The Factory Community Arts Centre, a unique resource in Maida Vale to showcase African and Caribbean arts and culture. Community arts were thriving, and Beddoe became a founder member of the Black Theatre Co-operative, based at the Factory. In her three years at Factory, known today as the Yaa centre, she initiated a writer-in-residence scheme, first with Mustapha Matura, then with Caryl Philips. Beddoe went on to sit on the Black Theatre Co-operative’s board.  

Beddoe was appointed director of the Lancaster Literature Festival, then drama officer at what was then the Arts Council of Great Britain.

In 1982, Beddoe returned to Liverpool to become general manager of Liverpool Playhouse. It was a heady and mercurial time in the theatre’s history, with the so-called gang of four – playwrights Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Chris Bond and Bill Morrison – appointed as joint artistic directors. Despite her modest job title, Beddoe became the backbone of the company, overseeing the first west end transfer of Russell’s play, Blood Brothers, and co-ordinating the theatre’s education scheme and the Black Arts Festival.

After two years Beddoe moved to the Royal Court, where she was in charge of the Young People’s Theatre, co-ordinating the purchase of new premises to house the operation. She managed an exchange programme with Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York, and transferred Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart – the first high-profile work to tackle AIDS – to the West End.

Going freelance in 1987, Beddoe worked with the Black Theatre Forum, and organised Laurence Olivier’s 80th birthday celebrations at the Royal National Theatre. She co-ordinated the refurbishing and re-opening of the Playhouse Theatre in the West End, and, with Talawa Theatre, produced Derek Walcott’s play, O Babylon! at Riverside Studios.

In 1988, Beddoe joined 7:84 Scotland during a difficult time in the company’s history. With funding under threat, Beddoe’s presence reinvigorated it. Founding artistic director John McGrath had stood down, with David Hayman and the late Gerard Kelly appointed to take over. As full-time producer, Beddoe oversaw revivals of No Mean City and Hector MacMillan’s play, The Sash, as well as premiering Bold Girls by Rona Munro and developing opportunities for younger writers.

Liz Smith, who worked with Beddoe at 7:84, describes her as an “extraordinary powerful woman… charismatic, brilliant, funny and at times fierce and demanding.”

Production manager Gemma Swallow calls Beddoe “Nurturing, supporting, motivating and always challenging.  She never let you off but encouraged you to find the best in yourself.”

In 1992, Beddoe did something similar to her tenure at 7:84 with the Centre for Contemporary Arts, which opened in the same Sauchiehall Street site as the arts-lab styled Third Eye Centre, which had closed the year before. As director and chief executive, in an often provocative multi-artsform programme, Beddoe commissioned an array of left-field companies, including Goat Island, DV8 and Stationhouse Opera. During her time at CCA, visiting artists included Ron Athey, Penny Arcade and Annie Sprinkle.

After CCA, Beddoe moved to Manchester, where she became director of the Hulme-based Zion Arts Centre, a regeneration project designed to create a unique arts space for young people in an area which had become something of a concrete jungle. Beddoe was appointed managing director of New York Theatre Workshop, and in 1998 brought Ivo van Hove’s NYTW production of Eugene O’Neil’s More Stately Mansions to Edinburgh International Festival.

At the turn of the century, Beddoe moved to Liverpool a third time. Since her time away, the Playhouse had gone into liquidation and the Everyman was struggling. With a new trust in place to run both theatres, Beddoe took charge of the organisation as both executive director and chief executive. The Playhouse re-opened in 2000, co-producing with the likes of Out of Joint and Birmingham Rep. Beddoe introduced a young playwrights programme, and, with producer David Pugh, with whom she developed a long working relationship, took Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Right Size’s The Play What I wrote to triumphal runs on the West End and Broadway. Without Beddoe, it is unlikely that the Everyman would have had the major refurb that allows it to thrive today.

Freelance once more, Beddoe worked with a visual arts agency in Birmingham, contracted a season with Scottish Ballet, and advised artistic strategy at the Bernie Grant Centre for Performing Arts in Tottenham. Coming full circle, Beddoe moved back into academe, becoming arts project manager at the University of Hull’s Scarborough campus, where she also lectured in arts management and chaired the enterprise committee at the School of Arts and New Media. Latterly Beddoe got back to her roots even more, training as a counsellor before working as a bereavement therapist, helping to empower people to the end.

The Herald, March 3rd 2018

ends

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