Obituary - Robert Staunton, 1936-2009

29th January 2010 at 00:00

When most drama teachers were still standing in the middle of the room banging a tambourine, Robert Staunton was pioneering youth-led theatre.

His productions, which ranged from Hair! to the Mahabharata, were entirely designed, staged and acted by pupils, following guidelines that their teacher had carefully written out upside-down.

Robert Staunton was born in 1936, in Kent. The son of a merchant navy officer, young Bob was sent to boarding school at the age of 10. In 1955, he was drafted for national service. It was while training as a radar fitter that he met Jim Dutton, his lifelong companion and professional partner.

After their service, both men trained to be teachers at Redmond College, in Bristol. While Mr Staunton's natural inclination was towards drama, this was not yet considered a bona fide school subject. And so he graduated as a geography teacher.

While at Redmond, Bob and Jim ran the college drama society together. Here, both met their respective wives; they married in 1960. All four new graduates moved to Birmingham, where Mr Staunton was offered a job at Gower boys' school. The head, however, did not need a geography teacher: instead, he wanted his new recruit to take drama classes.

In the early days, he followed popular drama-teaching methods. Lessons were largely movement-based, with Mr Staunton tapping out beats on the tambourine. After five years at Birmingham, however, he enrolled in a course with pioneering drama pedagogue Dorothy Heathcote.

Following the course, he was appointed head of drama at Abraham Darby school, in Telford. Working for a headteacher who believed in allowing staff to experiment, he initiated "one-week release" drama classes. Instead of teaching regular lessons, he would take every year group for a week-long concentrated drama session.

His lessons, too, had changed. Dapperly dressed, he would sit on the floor, the pupils around him in a circle. As they brainstormed ideas, he would write notes upside down on a large piece of sugar paper: he wanted pupils opposite to be able to read them.

From these ideas, a production would develop. Plays were always pupil led: his class would decide how to stage the show, and was responsible for set design and costumes. The emphasis was on participation: there were no auditions, and several pupils would often play a single role.

In 1974, Mr Staunton left Telford to work with Leicestershire local authority. Here, he reprised his drama-teacher role in a number of schools. Described by colleagues as "a one-man RSC", his tastes ranged from the ambitious - he performed the Mahabharata with eight secondaries - to the obscure: for example, The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

He also arranged for Leicestershire schools to have their own venue at the Edinburgh festival, and would oversee as many as 10 productions a year.

An irrepressible workaholic, he was at a loose end without something to do. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he took three degrees in his spare time: English, psychology and pedagogy. He also adapted children's novels for the theatre, writing until 1am.

Since 1960, he, Jim and their wives had been living together in a commune; each couple had one child. As the two men increasingly devoted themselves to youth-theatre work, however, they spent less and less time with their families. Their respective divorces came through in 1979, and Bob and Jim bought a house together. They lived there for the next 30 years.

In 1992, his Leicestershire department was disbanded. In response, Bob and Jim set up Youth Arts Leicestershire, continuing where the authority had left off. A savvy businessman, Mr Staunton ran a series of accredited courses, ensuring that he qualified for training grants. These then paid for productions at the Edinburgh festival.

He was working on several Edinburgh-bound plays when he began to lose his balance and slur his speech this summer. Doctors advised him not to go to the festival, and in September he was diagnosed with motor-neurone disease. He died on December 19.

Robert Staunton is survived by his partner, Jim Dutton, and by his daughter, Fiona.

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