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Obituary: David Johnston

David Johnston was a leading figure in a generation of practitioners and theorists who brought theatre in education to the top of the educational agenda in the 1970s. As director of Theatre Centre and, more recently, of Tangere Arts, he remained one of the most influential and widely respected figures in the field.

The son of an Anglican vicar, Johnston was born in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire and after graduating in social sciences and politics from Sheffield University gained a PGCE in drama from Bretton Hall.

After a brief spell as an industrial management trainee, he taught for a year before co-founding the TIE company Perspectives in 1972 (the company continues today in Nottingham as New Perspectives). He quickly made his mark as a director and administrator with an evangelical zeal for theatre’s role in education, and led the setting up the UK-wide Standing Conference of Young People’s Theatre in 1975.

An Arts Council-commissioned report on the national provision of TIE and young people’s theatre in 1977 led to an invitation the same year to succeed Brian Way as director of Theatre Centre. During the next nine years, Johnston assumed various guises (director, producer, administrator) to take responsibility for and expand its work at home and abroad.

Ever ambitious for theatre’s relevance, he broadened the company’s work to focus on prominent social and political issues of the day. The success of such advocacy was marked by a failed attempt by the then employment minister Norman Tebbit to ban a Theatre Centre tour of a David Holman trilogy that included, at the height of the New Cold War of the early 1980s, plays about Hiroshima and cruise missiles.

He was also a panel member of Greater London Arts from 1977-83 and general secretary of the Greater London Council Community Arts Panel (1982-86). A director of ASSITEJ, the international association of theatre for children and young people from 1985-89, he served as its treasurer in the last two years.

As director of Roundabout, Nottingham Playhouse’s groundbreaking partnership with the Nottinghamshire education department (1991-98), he raised the company’s profile to place it in the vanguard of TIE’s development.

In 1987, after stepping down from Theatre Centre, he launched the international festival of children’s theatre, Take Off (which continues still and this year celebrated its 30th anniversary).

From 1999-2002 he served as chief executive of the Year of the Artist, an initiative created by a conglomerate of English regional arts boards. He then spent a year as an educational consultant to Birmingham Rep, where he created a network of partnership programmes.

In 2002, he co-founded Tangere Arts (now based in Matlock, Derbyshire) with the actor-director Ava Hunt. The company quickly established itself throughout its East Midlands base and beyond, establishing notable partnerships with Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and the Unicorn Children’s Theatre, London and performing nationally and internationally.

David Nicholas Johnston was born on November 15, 1948 and died on November 23, aged 69. He is survived by Hunt and their son, Michael.

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