Remembering Bill Mitchell

Photo: Steve Tanner/Wildworks

Tributes have been pouring in for Bill Mitchell the director, designer, theatre-maker and inspirational founder of the unique landscape theatre company Wildworks, who passed away on the 14th April 2017 at the age of 65. Many people in the U.K. and around the world know of Bill through his extraordinary work with Kneehigh and then, particularly,  Wildworks, and there is a wonderful obituary by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian.

I first encountered Bill when we were both studying theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art in the early 1970s. Although I was a year ahead of him, students often worked together across the years, and I was fortunate to work with Bill. His creativity and imagination, as well as his great sense of fun and play, were much in evidence even then. A few years later, in 1979, I joined Bill and his partner Sue Hill in the TIE/Community theatre company Key Perspectives, based in Peterborough. (One the founder members of the company – who had left by the time I joined – was Colin Hicks, who now sits on the Wildworks board).

Key Perspectives was operating in what was TIE’s heyday, and we were just one of many such companies operating around the UK, supported by local authorities and the Arts Council. We were committed to creating and producing high quality theatre and drama-based educational programmes in schools and commmunities, working closely with teachers and students and with the communities in and around Peterborough in which they lived. Bill’s personal and creative engagement with people, place and community that became such a distinctive characteristic of his later work, can be traced back to that early work.

One my clearest and fondest memories of Bill was when we were working on a children’s Christmas show called ‘Oddbod’, which we were creating for the main house at the Key Theatre. Peterborough was then an ancient small city attached to a fast growing new town, and the infant and primary schools, particularly in and around the newly built estates, were full of children who had recently arrived from other towns and cities. Though we worked collectively, Oddbod was very much driven by Bill’s directorial and creative vision and his passion to reflect, truthfully and imaginatively, the experiences of those very young people.

We visited a number of schools, and we listened to and collected the stories that the children told and painted about ‘Oddbod’, about being a ‘stranger in a strange land’, about displacement and arrival, about feeling alone, about making friends, etc. Under Bill’s directorial and visual eye we took all the drawings and pinned them around the walls of our rehearsal space, which we filled with as many pieces of costume, materials and objects that we could find. We then started to use the drawings as starting points with which to create characters and improvise situations.

I remember that Sue Hill was attracted to a particular ‘Oddbod’ painting which consisted of a large oval black blob with a head-like smaller blob attached to it. Above it hovered another large and rather ominous looking black blob. Wrapping herself in a large black blanket, with a large black hat, Sue created a brilliant, funny character that was terrified of everything and anything, whose only utterance was “Any minute! Ooh, it’s goin’ to happen! Any minute!”. Sue reduced Bill and the rest of us to helpless hysteria and, needless to say, Any Minute became one of the ‘stars of the show’.

My particular memory of Bill was when, with our designer hats on, he and I went to buy some large fishing weights which we were going to use to assist in lowering a huge painted backcloth for the final scene. Fishing was ‘big’ in Peterborough and in the surrounding Fens, and Woolworths, in the town centre, had a large fishing section, but the particular half-pound conical weights we needed weren’t on display. So we approached one of the sales staff and asked if they still had any in stock. He went off to the storeroom and then came back saying “Yes, we have some, but we can’t sell them to you because it’s out of season”.

Bill: “But we don’t want them for fishing, we want them for a children’s Christmas show!”.

Salesperson: “You’ll have to speak to the Manager. I’ll get him.”

The manager arrived and Bill explained what we wanted, and the manager repeated that while they had them in stock they couldn’t sell them to us because it was out of season and that it was Woolworth’s policy.

At which point Bill, who was over 6ft and who, with his gold earring and gold tooth, could appear quite fearsome, went into full-on, John Cleese, dead parrot mode:

Bill: “This is a shop, yes? A shop that sells things to customers, yes? I am a customer, yes? I wish to purchase something with this [waves money in manager’ face] that you normally sell and which you currently have stored in a box in your storeroom. I understand that it is not the fishing season, but I don’t want them for bloody fishing, I want them for a Christmas show for the children of this city. Now are you going to allow me to purchase them or not?”

Manager: “How many do you need?”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road,
and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road –
only wakes upon the sea.

                                                   Antonio Machado