Jill Fraser (pictured), the artistic and executive director of the Berkshire-based Watermill Theatre, died on Friday (12 February 2006) at the age of 59. She and her husband James Sargant - who together bought the theatre and had been running it since 1982 - announced last summer their intention to sell the Watermill this year ahead of their planned retirement (See News, 10 Jun 2005).
Though Fraser had been battling cancer for three years, she was continuing to work full-time and seemed to be doing well, even attending the theatre’s press night of Tartuffe on Monday 6 February. But later last week, she contracted pneumonia and quickly deteriorated.
Converted in 1968 from a mill beside the river Lambourn in Newbury, the 220-seat Watermill has achieved an international reputation under Fraser’s direction, not least as the home of Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare ensemble Propeller (including Rose Rage, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale) since 1997 and as the launching pad for associate director John Doyle’s actor-musician led musicals (The Gondoliers, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd, Mack and Mabel) since 1998.
When Fraser and Sargant put the Watermill up for sale last year, a trust was established to try and take over the theatre and its grounds, including a house, restaurant, actors’ accommodation, offices, car park and gardens. A minimum of £1.7 million is needed to secure the long-term use of the premises to ensure that the Watermill continues as a theatre and community resource. In addition, £1.3 million is needed for essential refurbishment, bringing the total target for the appeal to £3 million. To date, £1,190,000 has been raised.
Though looking towards retirement, Fraser remained an active force and always a vocal defendant of the Watermill. When Whatsonstage.com queried the omission of a Watermill credit for the new revival of Doyle’s Whatsonstage.com Award-winning production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (See The Goss, 6 Jan 2005), which is due to transfer back to the West End with Jason Donovan in the title role after its current tour, Fraser was quick to contact us.
“I was so pleased to read your comments about this new ‘European premiere’ of Sweeney Todd,” she wrote. “It is sadly the case that the originating theatre often gets forgotten about. The original concept inevitably gets changed as the production moves between casts – but where does the original credit go? and importantly, who put up the original financial investment and took the risk? We do not ask much but would appreciate a credit on the publicity so that everyone knows that it was our production. We get asked all the time if Sweeney Todd started at the Watermill, yet we don’t even know to where it is touring! Will we be invited to the first preview? Who knows!”
She was hopeful that the Watermill would receive more recognition for the latest outing of Doyle’s 2005 Watermill production of Mack and Mabel, which is now confirmed to transfer to the West End’s Criterion Theatre with David Soul and Janie Dee in April (See News, 3 Feb 2005).
In an interview on the Watermill website, Fraser acknowledged concerns about what would happen after her departure: “When people you talk to say their main worry is the fact that I’m going, you think, ‘well, why?’ It’s very flattering, yes, but there are very good people that one’s striven to put in place. Those people are key and important and it’s insulting to them to suggest or to infer that it’s not going to carry on.” She also said: “What brings people together is theatre. In the end we’re all faced with the ultimate which is death and that whole life journey. Through theatre. you can provide people with opportunities of exploring different aspects of their life. That sounds very pretentious, but that’s what it’s all about. The work is always the most important thing.”
Speaking to Whatsonstage.com today, Edward Hall paid tribute to Fraser. “She was a great woman and one of the great people of British theatre. It’s very hard to contemplate life without her. Thinking personally, I’ve lost such a great friend.” Fraser’s husband James Sargant is due to release a statement on behalf of Watermill this evening.
THE WATERMILL HAS RELEASED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT:
Jill Fraser MBE, artistic and executive Director of the Watermill, died on Friday 10 February of pneumonia, in part a result of her long battle with a breast and bone cancer.
Those of us who were privileged to know and work with her can testify to her indomitable courage, particularly when fighting to realise her artistic vision for the Watermill. You only had to meet Jill once to be fired by her blazing honesty, her deep morality and her obvious passion for her friends and family and also for her beloved theatre. She inspired the deepest loyalty from everyone who worked with her, a loyalty, which she returned in abundance.
Jill Fraser’s early years in the theatre were spent with the RSC, Welsh Opera, Actors Company and Cambridge Theatre Company. In 1981 Jill, together with her husband James Sargant, purchased the Watermill Theatre. She led the development of the theatre from a local rep, opening 26 weeks of the year, into a nationally and internationally respected all year round producing house.
Over the last 25 years, the Watermill has toured to 21 countries including the UK, particularly with the hugely successful all-male ensemble company Propeller, which Jill co-founded with Edward Hall.
It was in the last eight years that the success of Jill’s vision was recognised with many productions winning national awards as the best in their field. Shows such as The Gondoliers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Rage and Sweeney Todd transferred into the West End with the latter also transferring to Broadway. Jill was particularly proud last November to attend two consecutive opening nights in New York for shows that originated at the Watermill. The most recent Watermill musical, Mack and Mabel, opens at the Criterion Theatre, London in April.
She fought tirelessly to ensure that the Watermill would receive funding to safeguard its future. Richard Price, chairman of the board of Watermill Theatre said: “We will miss her and the greatest memorial we can give her is the continuation of her vision for the Watermill for the future. We want it to grow in her memory”.
Jill was also deeply passionate about the preservation of the environment. During the building of the A34 by-pass, she regularly took food to the protesters to show her support.
Music theatre director John Doyle, director of Sweeney Todd, said: “Jill personified the Watermill, courageous, innovative, nurturing, embracing and unique. She, like her theatre, touched the heart of all who knew her. As a privileged friend and colleague, I know that nothing would matter more to Jill now than that we all carry her beloved Watermill to a bright new future.”
Edward Hall, said: “Jill Fraser was one of the greatest forces in British theatre. She was an inspiration to all my work and a rock whenever times were hard. I have never met a more courageous person, or somebody who managed to focus with such energy and determination on putting challenging work on the stage. As a young director, she took a risk on me and has stuck by me even when I made mistakes. Loyalty such as this is rare. The sense of loss at this time is immeasurable.”
Jill had mapped the future of her theatre right up until her planned retirement in April 2008. In Jill’s absence James, together with the theatre’s associate directors, Edward Hall and John Doyle, will oversee those plans. A new artistic director will be appointed in October 2007 and an executive director in January 2008.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, which hosted New York seasons for two Watermill productions in recent years, has also sent a Fraser tribute to Whatsonstage.com. BAM executive producer Joseph V Melillo and executive VP Alice Bernstein said:
"All of us at BAM are saddened by the passing of Jill Fraser, an esteemed colleague and friend. We were fortunate to have worked with Jill and her husband James Sargant in the presentation of two delightful Watermill Theatre productions (the first of which introduced Edward Hall's Propeller ensemble to US audiences). These productions - of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale - were filled with spirit and grace, and reflected Jill's own artistic courage, warmth, and relentless energy. Jill Fraser was a force in the world of theater and we will miss her a great deal."
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