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Theatre Collection Richard Southern's Obituary

The Independent, 10 August 1989

Only son of Harry and Edith Southern, Richard proved himself on leaving the Goldsmith Art School to be a spiritual child of such pioneering and education-orientated theatrical figures as William Poel and Harley Granville-Barker. While ostensibly pursuing a career as an exceptionally talented and versatile theatre technician, he devoted his leisure time to research into the professional concerns of architects, designers and technicians employed by theatrical management and patrons of earlier generations. What fascinated him was the how and why of change.

This interest launched him on that aspect of his subsequent career that was to become his own most enduring memorial – the purchase from such modest savings as he could make from his wages of antiquarian books, prints and original designs and letters relating to the history of the theatre. This he put to use in the restoration of such early surviving buildings as the Georgian theatres at Richmond, Yorkshire and King’s Lynn, Norfolk. The further he delved into the technical details of these reconstructions the more he found it necessary to establish the antecedents which alone could provide a firm base for distinguishing between imitation of past precedent and innovation; and this in turn led him ever further back into the traditions of restoration, Shakespearian and medieval theatre practice.

The war over, these interests had become compulsive enough to lead him together with his friends George Speaight and Sybil Rosenfeld, to fill a yawning gap in British academic life – a Society for Theatre Research supported by a journal, Theatre Notebook, which he co-edited for nine years.

Already a consultant to the Strand Electric Stage Lighting Company, he was appointed in 1947 to the Arts Council as theatre planning officer. These achievements led directly to an invitation from Bristol University to design a flexible Studio Theatre for its newly-established Drama Department. This opened in 1951 and attracted during the next decade such aspiring young playwrights as Harold Pinter, John Arden and Tom Stoppard to make use of its unique experimental facilities. To mark its opening Southern was also asked by the University to deliver the first in a sequence of four annual public lectures funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. These were published in book form as The Open Stage (1953).

Shortly afterwards the University established a lectureship in theatre architecture and scenic design. Southern was appointed, notwithstanding his lack of normally accepted degree qualifications, and held this post until his retirement in 1969. Not surprisingly, when the professor of English, D.G. James, moved to Southampton as vice-chancellor, he asked Southern to design its Nuffield Theatre (opened 1962) and appointed him on a part-time basis as its first artistic director.

These years of university patronage at Bristol and Southampton made possible the writing of his major books – Changeable Scenery (1952); The Medieval Theatre in the Round (1957); The Production of Plays before Shakespeare (1973). Before that time, his wife is said to have told their daughters at breakfast: “As from today, children, it’s either butter or marmalade with your toast, not both. Daddy’s writing another book.”

After his retirement he lectured frequently here and abroad, negotiated the sale of his library to assist the growth of the Theatre Collection in the Drama Department at Bristol, and finally received academic recognition for his services to scholarship from the university with the award of an honorary DLitt. Despite his international reputation, Southern remained a very private person preferring a quiet family life to the blandishments of a more glamorous theatrical lifestyle.

Richard Southern, theatre designer and historian, born 5 October 1903, married Grace Loosemoore (two daughters), died 1 August 1989.

Glynne Wickham