Remembering Bill Mitchell (1951 - 2017)

By David Micklem

I’m in a Kneehigh rehearsal about fifteen years ago. They’re rehearsing a show in their barns in Cornwall; I can’t remember which one. I’m working for the Arts Council, and I have the pleasure of experiencing the company making a new piece. It looks like chaos. Someone’s playing an accordion and someone else is shouting from the top of a stepladder. An actor I know is beaming at me from inside a strange costume that’s only half-made. I’m welcomed by a man I’ve never met before. He looks like a pirate with a gold tooth and twinkly eyes. This is Bill and I know within minutes that we’re off on a journey together.

I had the great pleasure of knowing Bill as a collaborator, colleague and friend. He introduced me to a new way of making theatre and telling stories. Always generous, he had an uncanny ability to make everyone he met feel special, listened to, valued. His processes, rooted in landscape, community and story, led to some of my most cherished moments of theatrical storytelling. The Port Talbot Passion, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Souterrain – each extraordinary works that touched the lives of thousands. His was a theatre for people who often didn’t think they liked theatre. It was made in partnership with local people, in car parks, on beaches, in working men’s clubs, on docksides. His contribution to democratising an art form that can still sometimes seem elitist or irrelevant was enormous.

I learned a huge amount from Bill. Three lessons from the many he gifted:

  1. Theatremaking is a collaborative process: involve everyone, keep your options open, listen well, be bold, take risks.
  2. Site, community and story are great ingredients from which to make theatre that engages everyone: public spaces where people can come together, to celebrate the intimate and epic, can be alchemical when it comes to creating fabulous work.
  3. Generosity and patience are wonderful qualities: by championing these Bill brought out the very best in hundreds of others. We know who we are.

And one final lesson. About death. Which comes to us all. To some too soon, too young. But to Bill seemingly an inevitability to be grasped, not feared. In his final weeks, he rarely slowed his creative output, never paused to complain or to rage against the unfairness of his illness. It is as if his approaching death was a source of positive energy. Something to be channeled into his work and his legacy.

He was a giant of a man, until the very end. I am heartbroken that he is gone. But the example he set, the work he made, and the people he touched, live on.

David Micklem is a producer, theatre consultant and writer. He is a trustee of WildWorks and was Chair of the company from 2009 – 2015. He was a board member of ITC from 1997 – 2001.