Clive Barker, who has died aged 73, made an exceptional contribution to British theatre studies and its international standing. No one else of his generation travelled the extraordinary distance from a conventional stage management course to become a world leader in actor training workshops, as well as an editor and scholar of distinction. He was a pioneer in bridging the uneasy divide between professional theatre and its serious study in British universities.
Born in Middlesbrough, Barker might have followed his father into the steel mills, but his mother encouraged him to take a desk job in the emergent NHS. After national service in what was then Malaya, he looked for work in the theatre. Stints of packing props for ballet companies, and sweeping stages while great actors threw tantrums, gave him a healthy scepticism of the profession.
He was, however, among the first to see the importance of play, and its roots in childhood, for professional actor training. This insight was important, but the way in which he linked it to bodily awareness, posture, movement and spontaneity – though clearly part of longer traditions – was his alone.
His book, Theatre Games (1977), was enormously influential for theatre practitioners and teachers in many countries. Its freshness of thought and imaginative instruction was presented in a highly accessible form, astutely combining practical advice, a digest of games, and stimulating theories.
The success of Theatre Games was built on the best of radical foundations. Barker was involved in Arnold Wesker’s visionary, but ill-fated, Centre 42 project, and with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the height of its success, acting in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (1958) and learning to die, as he was fond of relating, in 12 different ways for Oh! What A Lovely War (1963). He made his directorial debut with Shelagh Delaney’s The Lion In Love (1960).
For almost two decades following Theatre Games, he worked on the international theatre workshop circuit, at the highest levels. Participants in these workshops, numbering many thousands, were treated to a method that was brilliantly inventive in its lack of presumption and ever-present humour. In this, Barker had the touch of an outstanding creative innovator.
He was also a steadfast champion of alternative theatre in its most challenging and socially useful aspects. For many years, he was on the board of the prison theatre group Geese and, more recently, even as he grew ill, gave unstinting support to the learning disability company Shysters.
Barker also enjoyed a substantial career in university teaching, academic publishing and applied scholarship. In 1967, he joined the fledgling drama department at Birmingham University, then transferred, in 1976, to Warwick University’s theatre studies department, where he remained until illness forced retirement in 1993.
For 25 years, he was an editor of the British journal Theatre Quarterly (subsequently New Theatre Quarterly) as it gradually gained an international readership. He encouraged its down-to-earth approach to scholarship by always being in touch with the “shopfloor” of theatre. Never one to parade his knowledge, he was still a happy authority in discussions ranging from the French medieval stage to contemporary radical theatre in Cuba. This eclecticism informed a string of still undervalued, uncollected essays.
Most recently, he helped to open up new areas in 20th-century British theatre history through his co-editorship, with Maggie B Gale, of the book British Theatre Between The Wars, 1918-1939 (2000).
Always a collaborator, Barker excelled in bringing a humorously sceptical eye to the pretensions of both the theatre and its study in British universities. He had a terrific capacity for creative participation with others, but especially those who had some of the roughest deals in life. Even on the day he died, he was with a drama group of children with cerebral palsy.
He is survived by his partner of many years, Susan Bassnett, his six children and his brother.
Dick McCaw writes: I picture Clive Barker surrounded by plastic bags of all colours, shapes and sizes, each one of them crammed with pieces of paper. This was the encyclopaedia of world theatre that he carried about with him: there were facts, anecdotes, commentaries on plays, playwrights, theatre forms, theatre companies, theatre movements – and more stories than you could tell in a thousand and one nights.
Some of my most vivid memories of Clive are of him bringing to life some play by a foreign playwright that I had never heard of, by the end of which I felt like I had been there myself in the audience with him. It was not just the volume of material, it was the range: from Madonna to Morecambe and Wise, to Joan Littlewood, from beebop jazz to grand opera. He once sent me a cassette of Emmanuelle 2 because it contained a particularly good example of the Indonesian martial art pencak silat.
Another image I have of Clive is of him in Poland, at the final rehearsal for a performance of an Ann Jellicoe play, which was going badly. Nobody seemed to know where they were going, or what they were doing. Clive leapt on to the stage (despite his arthritis) and proceeded to marshal the actors. I do not know what he said, but within 40 minutes a scattering of bewildered actors had become a focused company ready to put on a play.
Clive used to call himself the Ringo Kid, after John Wayne’s first starring role, in Stagecoach, a guy who drifts into town, does what he has to do, and then moves on. I think he was much more the Comeback Kid, who just could not be put down.
· Clive Barker, theatre coach and academic, born June 29 1931; died March 17 2005