When Alasdair Cameron died suddenly in 1994 aged 41, his passing robbed Scotland’s theatre world of one of its sharpest minds. That sharpness fired Cameron’s playfully creative presence, which influenced and inspired students at Glasgow University’s Department of Theatre Studies, where he was a senior lecturer.
His students included playwright Nicola McCartney, founders of Clyde Unity Theatre Company, John Binnie and Aileen Ritchie, and John Tiffany, the Tony and Olivier award winning director of west end hit, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Broadway musical, Once. These successes followed tenures as associate literary director at the Traverse Theatre, and associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland working alongside the company’s founding artistic director Vicky Featherstone.
Tiffany’s production of Black Watch put the company on the international map in its first year of existence. He also directed Alan Cumming in a gospel-tinged production of The Bacchae, and again in a solo version of Macbeth. Without Cameron, however, Tiffany’s own sense theatrical sensibilities might not have turned out quite the same way.
Tiffany will be acknowledging Cameron’s influence on his career tomorrow afternoon when Cumming will give the inaugural Cameron Lecture, an event kick-started by Tiffany alongside arts management wunderkind, Roberta Doyle, and Cameron’s brother, Robin Cameron. This comes with support from Glasgow University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to honour Cameron’s life, work and prevailing influence on theatre in Scotland.
“He was kind of that teacher for me at university who changes everything,” says Tiffany. “It was such a shock when he died. We were doing our finals, and were told he had an ear infection, and then we were being asked to carry his coffin. He was seven years younger than I am now, which is weird.”
Almost a quarter of a century on, Tiffany was back in Glasgow to receive an honorary doctorate when the idea for the Cameron Lecture was first hatched.
“I was chatting to Roberta and Robin,’ says Tiffany, “and I said that I felt Alasdair had never really been celebrated for all the incredible work he’d done, and that we should do something. We thought it would be brilliant to do a kind of long-form TED Talk, and spoke to people at Glasgow University and RCS, and they were both really keen to do it. There was always a crossover between the two, and the most obvious person to do it because of that was Alan.”
Cumming’s lecture will look at the role of the music hall tradition in Scotland, and whether such popular forms that are housed in theatre’s such as the Pavilion in Glasgow are celebrated enough.
“That would be right up Alasdair’s street,” says Tiffany. “It was him who showed me the TV version of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil and Bill Bryden’s The Ship. Alan loves that music hall tradition as well, going back to what he did with Victor and Barry. When Alan and I did The Bacchae, that was massively influenced by music hall. It was basically panto, and it’s a source of fascination for both Alan and I that something that’s still regarded by some people as vulgar and low-rent continues to pack out the Pavilion with the sort of audiences that everybody wants to reach.”
Cameron had lectured in Glasgow since 1984, returning to his alma mater where he had studied drama before going on to Warwick University to complete his PhD researching the repertory theatre movement between 1907 and 1919. He then took an MA in arts administration at City University, London, and worked in theatre management at the London-based Cockpit Theatre. Once back in Glasgow, his depth of knowledge and insight into contemporary theatre practice combined with a more practical everyday means of supporting young artists.
“Nicola McCartney had directed a production of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, which had been a big hit, and had been invited to the National Student Drama Festival,” Tiffany remembers. “We couldn’t really afford a van, and I remember moaning to Alasdair about this, and he put his hand in his pocket and gave me three £20 notes.”
If he had lived, says Tiffany, Cameron would have almost certainly played a significant role in the creation of the National Theatre of Scotland.
“He would definitely have had an influence,” says Tiffany. “It was Alasdair who set up my placement at West Yorkshire Playhouse, which was where I met Vicky Featherstone, so I think might have had some kind of unofficial role in setting up the NTS, but who knows? The world would have been his oyster.”
Tickets for tomorrow’s event sold out within an hour. This is testament to the love and respect that Cameron’s colleagues, peers, friends and former students still feel for him.
“You only realise in hindsight how amazing teachers like Alasdair are,” says Tiffany. “He was someone who lit a fire inside you, not just to do with theatre, but a fire for life. It’s Alasdair’s appetite for life I remember, and how the only thing he seemed serious about was not being serious.
“We all had incredibly different relationships with Alasdair. I have so many memories of him, going into his office, and him throwing a book at you and saying, read that, and it ending up changing your life.”
Alan Cumming gives the first Cameron Lecture at the University of Glasgow Bute Hall tomorrow at 6pm.
The Herald, December 7th 2019