RSC artists and peers in the arts pay tribute to Michael Boyd, RSC Artistic Director 2002 - 2012, who has died.
Tom Piper MBE, RSC Associate Artist
Tom Piper MBE
'This is too cruel. A great and loyal friend, mentor and constant collaborator over 30 years of work. A true giant, yet unfailingly modest, always bold and seeking for the truth in all he did while nurturing all those around him. Theatre won’t be the same now… broken.'
'Ours has been a working relationship and friendship that has spanned over 30 years and together we have worked on 48 productions and built a couple of theatres too! It is rare in a designer’s life to have such a long close relationship with a creative collaborator and one that has taught me so much about the nature of theatre, friendship and intellectual rigour. Michael’s approach, which grew out of his early training in Moscow, was for a total theatre in which the visual world enhanced the poetry of the actors, but never overpowered them with over conceptual thinking. That doesn’t mean our designs together were not bold; Michael was always looking for the emotional truth of the piece, stripping away any unnecessary decorative gestures. Distilling ideas so that a visual metaphor would grow in meaning as it was repeated or re-expressed throughout a piece.
He first offered me a job when I was a year out of The Slade School at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, where he was the artistic director for ten years before his move to the RSC. My portfolio then was a mixture of realised student work and some theoretical ideas from The Slade, but I had also just spent six months assisting Chloe Obolensky who designed The Mahabharata with Peter Brook (I saw that amazing trilogy of plays at the Tramway and had been so inspired I contacted Chloe, who miraculously offered me a role). I think Michael was interested in that experience with Brook, the centrality of the rehearsal space to creating and exploring work, and must have seen in me the potential for an open playfulness in the process of creating a design.
My first show was Jack and the Beanstalk in a version by Forbes Masson, which threw me into the deep end of Scottish alternative theatre, followed the next year by Cinderella. Then in a move typical of Michael he asked me to do Macbeth, because he didn’t pigeonhole artists into thinking they were only able to do a certain type of work. I had handled some very hands-on pantos so of course was right for Macbeth. I still remember the answer machine message he left offering me the job: ‘Duncan is God , Macbeth a fallen angel, the Porter is Satan and the witches will be Macduff’s dead children out of time’. The Tron is an old church, so the design worked with the building, transforming it into a war damaged sacred space, complete with large shuttered windows that were opened at the death of Macbeth to let the light back in.
When Michael went to the RSC as an Associate he continued to ask me to do all his productions there in the late 90s from Broken Heart to A Midsummer Night's Dream. At this time the RST was still a proscenium space and much of our work attempted to break through the fourth wall to bring the actors into the same space as the audience, to share the same air. Michael often talked about "the space between” actors and audience, the charged magic of theatre happens in that three way conversation between the actors and their audience, and how that was only really possible when we all shared the same room.
There is too much to say about that time at the RSC, but looking back I can see that the work was moving ever closer to creating a one room space. We experimented with the RST thrusting out, raising the stage etc, but always came up with the sightline limitations of that building. In parallel, we started working on the Histories Cycle. The first four plays were done in 2000 in a completely reconfigured Swan theatre. We wrapped all the wood in black (it took nearly two weeks to do!) and created a space virtually in the round. This production was then taken to the University of Michigan where we had to create an equivalent thrust space on a much larger scale. This gave us the confidence to think that it would be possible to really take on the RST and transform it.
When Michael became Artistic Director of the RSC in 2002 there were already plans for a redevelopment project of the theatre, but it lacked direction and a clear vision of what the theatre was for and what the company should be within it. Michael displayed his customary clarity and directness of thought with a change of architects and a focus on budget and what the nature of the spaces should be. Up until then there had been a scheme to create a versatile main space that could reconfigure between thrust and proscenium, but this ran the risk of being a flabby space in which no one form really worked well. So we decided to develop the theatre as a thrust stage only, within the shell of the old theatre. The furthest seat from the stage went from 30 metres away to 11 metres.
Michael reimagined the acting company as a long ensemble of actors who would work together for up to three years refining their craft. The finest example of this was the Histories Company, set up to do all eight history plays in 2007/8. I had to create a design that could hold all eight plays. It's an amazing experience as designer to work on this huge canvas of plays, costume the same actors as they develop each new role and really feel, for the first and perhaps only time in my working life, fully embedded into a company and totally immersed in the work.
He supported me in becoming the Associate Designer at the RSC, believing that designers should have a place at the heart of the organisation and with that enabling me to set up the trainee designer scheme in 2004. In many ways I am most proud of the opportunities we gave emerging designers in the ten years of my time there.
Michael taught me that the process of design is continuous and that the deadlines we work with are largely artificial. Models and sketches are just part of the journey and he would gleefully rip a piece off a model or get out a spray can. They were just tools for exploration. I have kept that with me in all my working processes, never getting too obsessed with details as I know we will probably sweep it all away in the next meeting. The same was true in the rehearsal room and throughout tech and previews. Ideas that had served their time or weren’t working had to go.
This perhaps sounds as if he didn’t respect the work that had gone into creating a design, rather it was always a positive creative challenge; this can be better, we can find a simpler way of expressing this. We would debate the ideas strongly, but with another mantra “hold on tightly, but let go lightly", fight for an idea, but once you can see it is no longer right, let it go with no regrets. He held himself to the highest standards too, legendary detailed notes sessions during previews that I know he worked on way into the night, always serving the needs of the show.
It was extraordinary to see the faith and confidence Michael held for all of us who worked with him. He nurtured so many actors, and the creative and producing teams, inspiring great love and affection from all, with a modesty of his own impact and influence on those around him and on the wider world, through the power of the shows we made together. But above all I will miss him for the wit, friendship and the love he showed me and my family, and all he taught me about the world.'
Vikki Heywood, former RSC Executive Director
'Michael was a true egalitarian and British theatre has lost a great artist. He led the RSC with his heart and soul committed to maximising the power of the whole ensemble approach. I will miss him and his wise mind dreadfully - our wonderful ten years in collaboration now feels way too short.'
DENISE WOOD, FORMER RSC LEAD PRODUCER
'Working with Michael for those ten glorious years of his as Artistic Director has left an indelible print on me. I suspect that all of us classmates of 2002 -2012 will feel the same - whatever our job, whatever the production and no matter how long we passed through the Company. That was his brilliance. He was for everyone, and for each of us, all at the same time. He had a delicacy when lacing together some of the most unlikely, out-of-the-box thoughts into something that made total sense. He was no pushover - quite the reverse - and he had an ability to cocoon clear-sighted honesty in absolute kindness - no matter the situation. I am lucky, lucky to have worked so closely with him for those ten years and I relish every moment of producing the Histories. He was an unassuming, gentle giant of his time who achieved so much. Talking about him in the past tense is shocking. Can it really be true? Perhaps I’m waiting for his latest text...'
KATE HORTON, FORMER RSC COMMERCIAL DIRECTOR
'Michael Boyd was a magnificent human. A creative giant. The most inspiring, humane, brilliant leader anyone could hope for. I am blessed to have known him well and to have made theatre with his other partners in crime. The Histories and The Complete Works were hugely ambitious, generational events. It was an amazing time at the RSC with him and he encouraged me to be at my very best. I am not alone in that. I adored his work, his boldness and his vision. He acknowledged the reality of being a human in the most brutally honest, loving and comforting way, as a man and as an artist. I’ll never be able to describe the depth of my gratitude to him professionally, or as the dear friend he was. It’s a terrible loss for everyone who knew him or benefitted from his wide-ranging impact, but most of all I am keeping his beloved Caroline, Danny, Gabby and Rachel in my thoughts.'
Jeremy Adams, Former RSC Producer
'Michael saw things in people that they didn’t see themselves and once you were part of his team the trust and faith was absolute. I remember trips to Moscow, his reminisces of his training there with Anatoly Efros (father of Dmitry Krymov, whom he invited to Stratford-upon-Avon with A Midsummer Nights Dream and As You Like It in 2012) and then hurrying through Red Square to get back to the hotel so he could find out who had got through on the X Factor (who would have thought!). My life changed when Michael asked me to be a producer at the RSC and join him on the amazing once-in-a-lifetime journey - for me culminating in taking the RSC to The Armory in New York - performing on a replica of the new RST, 5 shows in repertoire, 2 young persons Shakespeare plays and over 150 people - madness, but he made it happen. I can’t come to terms with the fact that we are all now living in a world without Michael, but I’m sure that for those of us who were lucky enough to work with him he will always be with us. Thank you Michael.'
Struan Leslie, Former RSC Head of Movement
'Michael's death is a tragic loss to theatre in the UK. As I head to Edinburgh for the Festival I am remembering the dynamic and exciting Medea that Michael and his great team of long term collaborators made there last year. Michael was a great visionary and that was about how to support actors and creatives as much as the creation of productions. In-house actor training was integral to that for him and a key part of the ensembles at the RSC. Voice had that heritage from Cicely Berry, but movement, though it had a significant role, had never had a full time place. When Michael arrived at the RSC he said he wanted ‘to elevate movement to the same level as voice’ at the company. In his long collaboration with Liz Ranken he had been at the forefront of that journey. It took seven years to make it possible to have a Head of Movement. I was honoured, thrilled and daunted in equal measure to be trusted by him in that role. In creating the post he gave recognition, status and opportunity to the role of movement in both national and international contexts. It had impact across all areas of the Company from education work in schools to recognition at the 'Oscars' and so sent a message out to the wider industry. For me it was a game changer and it was a dream job in a company I had long worked at as a freelancer. I am forever grateful to this dear man for the place he created for movement at the heart of the Company and the progression he enabled for me as an artist and teacher. My heartfelt thoughts are with all his family and all at the RSC past and present who were touched by this big-hearted man.'
ANDREW PARKER, FORMER RSC FINANCIAL DIRECTOR
'Michael was quite simply the most inspirational man I ever worked with. Unrelentingly truthful, kind, unassuming, perspicacious, perceptive and adroit in everything he did. His quiet, determined ambition for the RSC was transformative - financially, culturally and artistically. The Courtyard, the redeveloped RST, the Complete Works Festival, the Histories, the Roundhouse and Matilda. What a privilege to have been part of that. To have worked so closely to support Michael in his work. A profound shock and a massive loss.'
Atri Banerjee, Director
'Michael let me observe his tech rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard at The Royal Exchange in 2018. Watching him give notes on Chekhov was like watching someone give a masterclass on life itself. He was so generous with his time with me as a baby director, so wise and so kind. Love & respect.'
Tanika Gupta, Playwright
'Another giant in our industry, beautiful man and fabulous director leaves us. I will always be in his debt for encouraging me as a writer. Thinking of his family.'
Emma Fielding, RSC Associate Artist
'Wonderful man, encourager, collaborator, teacher, mischief maker. Really sad news. Condolences to his family.'
Patrick Gracey, Theatre Producer
'I am genuinely saddened by this news. He was an exceptional director and AD, and left The RSC an extraordinary financial legacy in commissioning Matilda The Musical. But more than anything he was a lovely and generous person with whom to work. He will be missed.'
Greg Hicks, RSC Associate Artist
'Farewell to the great Michael Boyd. I was deeply privileged to work under his unique and brilliant eye. Deep condolences to his family.'
Craig Ferguson, actor, television presenter
'Deeply sad to hear this news. He was a beautiful man and a massive talent. He got me started and I owe him so such. So long Michael. You were awesome. Really.'
Fiona Mountford, Theatre Critic
'Very, very sorry to hear the sad news about Michael Boyd. I always enjoyed seeing his mischievous smile at the RSC press events.'
John Haidar, Director
'Growing up, we didn't go to see plays. Then, my English teacher took our class to see Henry V, directed by this brilliant man, who I met years later. It's clichéd to talk about productions that 'change your life', but his Histories did. I went back and saw the lot. RIP, Michael.'
Kevork Malikyan, Actor
'A visionary with a magical soul… I was so very lucky to have been part of the 1998/99 Stratford season, playing the two Friars as one, in his production of Measure for Measure. Sleep in Heaven, gentle, gentle man.'
Forbes Masson, RSC Associate Artist
'Such a wondrous man. Such a devastating loss to us all. Sending love to Caroline and the family. Heartbreaking.'
Dr Peter Kirwan, Professor of Shakespeare
'Michael Boyd’s work was utterly formative on me when I started attending Shakespeare. Thought-out, politically astute, spatially dynamic productions that always, always opened up the plays while being cohesive and exciting. The Histories, Tamburlaine, As You Like It live in my brain.'
Paul Chahidi, RSC Associate Artist
'Incredibly sad news. A risk-taker, a man of immense vision, decency and depth. Condolences to Michael's family.'
Ginny Schiller, Casting Director
'I’m so desperately sad. I think Michael must be the director I’ve worked with most since I first started in casting at the RSC in 1997, and on and off since at Hampstead, Bath and Bristol. He was a splendid, funny, a kind man, a brilliant director, a mensch. I will miss him. RIP.'
Christopher Haydon, Artistic Director: The Rose Theatre
'This is shocking and horrible news. Michael had been a mentor to me for several years. We had been talking about him coming to make a show at The Rose Theatre. Such a kind and thoughtful man. He wore his tremendous achievements so lightly. I will miss his friendship and guidance hugely.'
Nikesh Patel, Actor
'I had the chance to work with Michael early in my career. He was a real life wizard: fiercely intelligent, wonderfully eccentric and deeply compassionate. A man you felt the whole company would run through walls for.'
Annelie Powell, Casting Director
'There’s a few productions which take up space in my brain, mainly for the actors. His The Big Meal is a whole show I think about a lot. He’ll be sorely missed in our theatrical landscape as a director and a human. Hugely saddening.'
Patrick Marmion, Theatre Critic
'RIP Michael Boyd: one of The RSC's best leaders and a proper mensch. He mentored many and had a tough bullish spirit to go with tremendous intelligence, broad knowledge and experience. A real loss to theatre.'
Rupert Goold, Artistic Director: The Almeida Theatre
'Michael Boyd brought slow cooking to British theatre when it was in danger of becoming fast food. A leader who led like a friend and a friend who wore his leadership lightly. I loved him and his History cycle was the most inspiring vision of what British theatre can be.'
Chris Godwin, actor
'I worked at the RSC under Michael Boyd's leadership and always found him approachable and a fine director, above all he liked actors. He is a great loss to our British Theatre and will be much missed and was far too young to make his exit.'
Garfield Kennedy, Television Producer/Director
'As a fellow student at Edinburgh University in the 1970s, I remember Michael’s short play, God, Herbert, Donne and the Devil. It was a glowing highlight of the University Theatre Company, a brilliant piece of witty writing and tight directing - and a clear indication of where Michael was headed. In it, he played both God and the Devil, and the production went on to win the Kevin Laffan Mystery Prize at the National Student Drama Festival in London.
'My other lasting memory from this time was of Michael as an actor in a tour of the Scottish Highlands in Gammer Gurton’s Needle. The BBC followed this ragtag student company in a documentary series entitled The Entertainers. In fact Michael gave it its subtitle when seen, dressed in colourful, incongruous, medieval costume, asking a bemused and baffled local resident: “Hello, are you coming to the show?”.'