As you like IT;Briefing;Profile;Interview;Clare Venables

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Heather Neill meets a woman relishing a new stage for her talents.

CLARE VENABLES is luminous with energy and enthusiasm. She'll make a face if she reads that; her sense of fun is contagious. A 10-minute conversation with her sends you away grinning and full of determination to discover some of her verve for life.

The only inadequate thing about her is her title. Introducing her last week as the Royal Shakespeare Company's new director of education, Adrian Noble, the RSC's artistic director, followed

it with a barely perceptible

"etcetera".

As well as continuing to develop the company's successful in-service training for teachers and links with schools, she will oversee a wide-ranging programme intended to encompass people of all ages and backgrounds.

A key tool in this will be technology, which she will use to develop life-long learning resources and a radically redesigned website. She will be responsible for partnerships with other Stratford organisations, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Shakespeare Institute. The institute runs an archive and an academic centre in collaboration with the RSC.

Then there is the RSC's "collection": photographs, engravings and artefacts ("We've got Garrick's gloves!") which are another potentially valuable resource. She is interested, too, in using theatre techniques for training both inside the company and in other kinds of organisations. And eventually there will be a study centre in Stratford as part of the new lottery-funded developments. There seems no end to it.

Getting the job is, she says, like "a huge birthday present. It's fab. Don't you dare write fab. What will my old students say?"

At her interview, Adrian Noble told her: "You've had a very peculiar four careers". Noble was head-hunting her from another high-profile position, principal of the BRIT School in Croydon, the performing arts technology college where she had been for almost four years. For that job she was head-hunted from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

Venables has always maintained her related careers as actor, writer and director, but she began as an academic.

One of the first drama students on the influential course at Manchester University - she changed to it from philosophy - she remained to teach there.

At that time, in the 60s, women staff were not allowed to wear trousers or enter the senior common room. Drama was not a "proper subject", so her career began with changing other people's rules.

Drama teachers in schools still struggle to be taken seriously, though, she says.

Clare Venables comes from a left-wing, idealistic background where education and the arts were respected.

Accessibility for all is in her blood. Her father, Sir Peter Venables, was a founder of the Open University and was knighted for services to technological education. An academic, he was responsible for colleges of advanced technology becoming universities. Her mother was a psychologist. Both were concerned about the 80 per cent of young people who, in those days, having failed the 11-plus were labelled for life as unacademic.

"Things have", says Venables of her own interests, "come full circle". Her passion for new technology found expression at the BRIT School, where facilities are up-to-the-minute.

And her interest in psychology is evident in her description of the work she has done with companies and individuals using

theatre techniques such as role-play.

This began when she helped friends, actors and directors,

prepare for interviews and auditions. Soon she was advising managers, especially women, how to cope with discipline problems.

As she chats - she is never at a loss for words - she uses her acting skills to demonstrate the cowed appearance of a nervous actor or unconfident ward sister.

She talks with equal vigour about motherhood - her son Joe is 20 and doing a music technology course in Brighton - and about her time at the BRIT School.That establishment "fulfils one's ideas about what is possible if you take kids' aspirations seriously. What they achieve is so moving. I'm a terrible weeper". But a former colleague also testifies to her clear-headed management decisions.

She got involved in the community too, taking a particular interest in an organisation to help black students who are excluded from the system.

Her definition of education is to have access to the culture "and that implies being able to influence the culture as well. The difficulty with Shakespeare is the language - and this is where our education department is so important. "The idea that some people are born with a gene that lets them understand Shakespeare drives me mad. I didn't really understand until I was directing. You can get the gist in performance and it can be hugely moving. Theatre can still change a 15-year-old's life. It's up to schools to teach us, the RSC, what they need."

She hadn't been looking to leave the BRIT, but is now ensconced in Stratford in "a thatched black-and-white job (we're thinking of calling it

Cliche Cottage)" with her partner, a singer.

We talk for almost two hours, then meet again for an update. "I'll give you a sound-bite", she says helpfully: "The aims and experience of education and the theatre are the same: inspiration, expanding the brain, learning through doing."

Of the company she says, "I don't want people to get involved in the education programme because they feel they ought to; I want it to create such a buzz that people will wonder what they're missing." Judging by the word at the RSC there's not much doubt she'll succeed.

Technology will open Shakespeare up to a fresh

audience,

says the RSC's

bubbly new director of education.

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