Jennie Buckman obituary

The acting teacher and coach Jennie Buckman, who has died of cancer aged 69, spent 21 years at the London drama school Rada, where she became head of acting.

It is hard these days to go to the theatre, or sit in the cinema or in front of a TV drama series and not find yourself watching one of her former students, among them Sophie Okonedo, Adrian Lester, Matthew Macfadyen, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Hiddleston and Ben Whishaw. “She’s my girl” or “He’s my boy,” Jennie would declare with pride.

Jennie was also a playwright and director and, in her last decade, through her company Giants, she devised innovative ways of working with people whose voices are rarely heard in theatre: from Iranian and Kurdish women to members of the Irish Traveller community, military veterans, prisoners and council workers.

Born in London to a Jewish family originally from the East End, Jennie was the youngest of three children of Irene (nee Amiel), a lawyer, and Bernard Buckman, a businessman. She was brought up in an environment in which stage and writing were paramount. In 1963 her mother published Twenty Tales from Shakespeare, which encouraged Jennie on her path.

At South Hampstead high school, theatre became Jennie’s realm. After a weekend trip to Stratford upon Avon, where her passion for Shakespeare was deepened and her critical skills honed, she would enlighten us less knowledgable classmates with her shrewd observations.

Pandora by Jennie Buckman at the Arcola theatre, Dalston, east London, in 2010. Photograph: Robert Workman

Midweek she might be found with a five-shilling standing ticket watching a more contemporary play – A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, or Roots, perhaps – after which she would explain with absolute clarity what worked or could be improved.

She developed her directing and coaching talent (as well as her prodigious sense of humour) at school, where she started a lunchtime drama club. She went to Kent University in 1968 to study English and American literature, returning to London in 1971 to train as a teacher. For eight years she taught English and drama in comprehensive schools, encouraging students to write and produce their own plays.

In 1979 Jennie joined Common Stock, a community theatre company dedicated to collaborative practice and improvisation techniques, to set up their youth theatre. Together with Chattie Salaman and Frank Whitten, she evolved the working method she would take further at Giants. In 1982 she also directed Jemma Redgrave in a youth theatre production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Lyric Hammersmith. In 1984 she became artistic director.

Chattie introduced Jennie to her son Nick Blatchley, who became Jennie’s partner. They had three children, Michael, Zoe, and Joshua; and Jennie became stepmother to Joseph, Nick’s son by a previous marriage. They married in 1991.

Jennie had moved back into teaching and coaching in 1985 and over the next few years worked with the National Theatre, Guildhall School of Speech and Drama and Rose Bruford College, among others.

She was renowned for her nonconformist and inclusive approach which, with her wicked sense of fun, created a refreshingly open and liberating environment for her students. Keen to keep improving her own skills, she took acting classes with Doreen Cannon, adapting Cannon’s insights on Stanislavski’s techniques to her own teaching methods.

When Cannon moved to Rada as head of acting in 1986, she invited Jennie to join her. Jennie was to work at Rada as acting teacher, stage director and, from 2003, as head of acting.

While at Rada, Jennie began writing her own plays, starting in 1999 for BBC Radio, for whom she wrote more than 60 episodes of the World Service drama Westway, as well as numerous plays for Radio 4, including Goodbye Moses (1999), about a restless West Indian spirit; The Slap (2000), an autobiographical coming-of-age story about matriarchy, Jewish culture and feminism; and Deptford Wives (2002), based on an 18th-century autobiography by a female shipwright and starring her sister-in-law Geraldine James.

SNAFU, 2016, by Jennie Buckman, in which she drew on Homer’s Odyssey to encourage military personnel to talk about their experiences of coming home after war, both good and bad.

SNAFU, 2016, by Jennie Buckman, in which she drew on Homer’s Odyssey to encourage military personnel to talk about their experiences of coming home after war, both good and bad. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

In 2002 she also wrote a series for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Ten Days That Shook My World, based on time previously spent in Cuba, which she revisited in 2007 to work with Ulises Rodríguez Febles on Cuba Mi Amor, which was nominated for best radio play that year.

In 2007 Jennie left Rada and in the following year ounded Giants theatre company, becoming its artistic director. Giants represented the fruition of 40 years’ work. Using her empathetic approach and collaborating with overlooked groups, the company produced plays to reach new audiences and change the lives of those who entrusted her with their stories.

One of her early pieces for Giants, Pandora, staged in 2010 at the Arcola theatre in Hackney, resulted from work with older women and young teenagers from Haringey exploring what ills might come out of Pandora’s box today. In SNAFU (2016), she drew on Homer’s Odyssey to encourage and enable military personnel and their families to talk about their experiences of coming home after war, both good and bad.

In 2016 the award-winning Piece of Silk, staged at the Hope theatre in Islington, evolved out of discussions with female survivors of domestic violence and forced marriage.

Never Going to Beat You, developed with women from the organisation The Traveller Movement, also explored domestic abuse and has been adapted for film. Jennie’s final play, Lilith, completed shortly before her death, explores the grief of stillbirth.

When not writing or coaching, Jennie would often be found at the theatre, particularly if new writing or Shakespeare were involved. She was a fantastic wit and entertainer and enjoyed reducing friends to tears of laughter. But what she most loved was to spend time with her family round the kitchen table, preferably at a meal prepared by Nick.

He and their children and nine grandchildren survive her, as does her older brother, Peter.

Jennifer Margaret Amiel Buckman, teacher, acting coach and playwright, born 24 September 1949; died 4 January 2019

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