Obituary: Jo Beddoe, theatre producer and manager who helped save the 7:84 Theatre Company and founded Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts

Jo Beddoe
Jo Beddoe
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Jo Beddoe, theatre producer and manager who helped save the 7:84 Theatre Company and founded Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. Born: Halifax, West Yorkshire, 7 August 1944. Died: Scarborough, North Yorkshire, 20 February 2018, aged 73

Jo Beddoe was an arts administrator and producer from Yorkshire who worked at the top level with some of the country’s most well-known theatre venues and companies, including seven years spent in Scotland. During this time she saw the 7:84 Theatre Company through a difficult period as general manager, and helped establish the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow as director and chief executive. She was also Chair of the Federation of Scottish Theatre between 1988 and 1992.

Although 7:84 eventually closed in 2008, the final two decades of its existence in Scotland were arguably down to the efforts of Beddoe, who came to the political theatre company in 1988, when the Scottish Arts Council had declared a withdrawal of funding due to unsatisfactory management. She put together a rescue package which reinvigorated the company through a commitment to new writing, training young theatre practitioners and attempting to reach out to new venues and audiences. Had the company instead closed at the time, many future works by writers including Rona Munro, Gerard Kelly, David Greig, Jackie Kay, Stephen Greenhorn and Dario Fo may not have been produced.

In 1992 she left 7:84 and moved to the new Centre for Contemporary Art, the successor venue to the Third Eye Centre, an underground arts venue founded by the playwright Tom McGrath in 1975 and sited in Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s late-19th century Grecian Chambers. Re-establishing the venue from scratch after the closure of the Third Eye Centre, Beddoe was in charge of every aspect of venue management and programming, specialising in visual art, dance, live art and literature.

There was a circularity to Beddoe’s career, in that her first and last major jobs in the arts were at the Liverpool Playhouse. For two years beginning in September 1982 she was manager at the Playhouse, overseeing the theatre’s administrative, management and financial side on behalf of an artistic team which included Alan Bleasdale, Willie Russell, Chris Bond and Bill Morrison, including personally overseeing the transfer of Russell’s huge hit Blood Brothers to the West End.

Nearly two decades later she saved the same venue. The Playhouse had already gone into liquidation in 1998 and the city’s Everyman looked likely to follow it, when the North West Arts Board and Liverpool Council established a trust to manage and revive both. Beddoe was appointed executive director and chief executive of this new trust in January 2000 and – following the reopening of the Playhouse in time for Christmas that year – served until July 2003, during which time her greatest onstage success was the theatre’s co-production of the Kenneth Branagh-directed The Play What I Wrote, which transferred to the West End and Broadway.

Both as a full-time employee and a freelance, Beddoe gained a reputation for leading major projects, turning around troubled institutions and launching new venues. Between leaving the Liverpool Playhouse and joining 7:84 in April 1988, she was general manager of the Royal Court in London; she took charge of co-ordinating Lord Olivier’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Theatre; she co-ordinated the refurbishment and reopening of the Playhouse Theatre in the West End; and she produced Talawa Theatre Company’s revival of Derek Walcott’s musical O Babylon! at Riverside Studios in London. During this period, she was also a management adviser to the Black Theatre Forum.

Between leaving the CCA in 1995 and taking charge at the Playhouse for the second time in 2000, Beddoe spent two years as director of the Zion Arts Centre in Hulme, Manchester, leading the refurbishment of the building as a centre for youth theatre as part of the area’s regeneration, and two more as managing director of the New York Theatre Workshop. While working in New York’s East Village she oversaw Ivo Van Hove’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions, which transferred to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1998, and workshop performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Road Show (then titled Wise Guys), which starred Nathan Lane and were directed by Sam Mendes.

Approaching her 60th birthday when she left the Liverpool Playhouse for the second time in 2003, Beddoe returned briefly to advisory and consultancy roles with the West Midlands’ visual arts agency Midwest, Scottish Ballet and the Bernie Grant Centre for Performing Arts in London, before moving to Scarborough in 2004 – where she stayed for the rest of her life – and working as a project manager, lecturer and chair of the Enterprise Committee at the University of Hull’s School of Arts and Media. Although she never completely gave up a part-time involvement with producing, facilitating and lecturing in the arts, she changed her main career completely in 2010, gaining a first class BA Hons in Counselling and going into practice as a bereavement and palliative care counsellor.

Josephine Beddoe was born in Halifax on the 7th of August 1943 to mother Barbara, later a Sunday school teacher and volunteer worker, and father George, later the editor of the Halifax Courier. She had two brothers, Nicholas and Christopher (the latter of whom predeceased her), and attended Halifax’s Trinity Junior School and Crossley and Porter Secondary School.

Trained as a teacher at Trent Park College of Education (now Middlesex University), she started out teaching in schools in Liverpool and London, lectured at West Ham College and worked in student liaison at Southgate Technical College, before taking a job with the Factory Community Arts Centre in London. Prior to joining Liverpool Playhouse in 1983, she was also director of Lancaster Literature Festival and drama officer at the Arts Council of Great Britain.

“Her nomadic career means that she is survived by people all over the country and beyond that have been inspired by her, championed by her and are better people because of her,” says theatre producer and close friend Gemma Swallow, who first met Beddoe at 7:84. “She will be sorely missed by us all. She was fiercely loyal, nurturing, supportive, motivating and always challenging. She never let you off but encouraged you to find the best in yourself and others.” After a long battle with cancer, Jo Beddoe died at Scarborough Hospital in February 2018.

DAVID POLLOCK