Blog Post: Clive Wolfe, an inspiration

I learnt this last week that Clive Wolfe has died.
If you are learning this news through this blog I am really sorry for your loss. He was an extraordinary man.
He was the President of the National Student Drama Festival. From 1968 until 2000 he had ran the NSDF. The NSDF is an annual festival where the best of student drama performs to an audience of its peers and representatives of the professional industry. The list of alumni who have gone on to professional success is extraordinary; at its best the festival opens doors and connects up young people of talent who would otherwise never have those vital opportunities within the industry. And the festival’s best was Clive. There are legendary tales of him convincing different grandees to pitch in, of selection panels paid entirely in the promise of beer and cheese and how for twenty years the whole outfit was run from his chemists in North London. These are not my stories to tell, I came to the festival long after they had become myths spread around in the bar.

But Clive was vital to me. I wouldn’t be doing what I am with my life without him. For me he had an extraordinary ability to look past bullshit and have faith in the what else might be there: ignoring the cocksure, entirely fake, posturing of a young student director. I first met him when he selected for the festival a series of short Samuel Beckett shorts I had directed as a student. They were, in retrospect, short of the sort of intellectual rigour that was almost certainly needed to make the show work. As a result it didn’t, it was loathed by the judges (two of whom walked out, amongst them the celebrated and fearsome director Annie Castledine) but it had an ambition of intent and reckless energy that Clive rewarded with a place in the festival. He didn’t seem too bothered by its reception, he knew what he had signed up for and he demonstrated the sort of ego-less confidence that I try to hold in my mind clearly each year as we select the festival. A courageous leadership of an unusual kind.
Prior to the festival the news had reached the feared John Calder who managed the Beckett estate that our production featured exactly the sort of ambition of intent and reckless energy that he liked to aggressively sue out of people. Permission to perform at the festival was vigorously denied, disaster! I informed Clive. Leave it with me he said. Two hours later we had permission. I don’t know how he did it. He never told me. But anyone who can take on Samuel Beckett’s lawyer has balls of stone.

A few years later I would proudly become a festival selector. One of the judges that year was a returning Annie Castledine. At the end of the festival I was asked to drive Annie back to London from the festival’s home in Scarborough. The only thing was that she liked to go no faster than 50 miles per hour so it would take a while. Fine, I didn’t mind, she was a legendary theatre force, the time would be full of brilliant theatre anecdotes from her I was sure.
As we were setting off, a by now increasingly frail, Clive flagged the car down and poked his head through the passenger window. “You remember Annie, a few years ago you were here and there was that series of short Samuel Beckett plays that made you so angry you had to leave?”
“Oh yes” replied Annie. “Terrible!”
“Well you do know that Alan directed them.” said a chortling Clive who then promptly waved us goodbye. Predictably Annie proceeded to tell me at length the flaws in my production all the way from Scarborough to London. At 50 miles per hour.
He had the extraordinary ability to look past the bullshit and have faith in what else might be there, but that didn’t mean he didn’t also have a wicked sense of humour. That car journey was one of the most informative experiences of my life.

The story of Clive, the achievement of Clive, of how he and his wife Pat kept the festival going against all strifes, without funding, in the face of union strikes, for decades, even when many advised against it is one that I hold as inspiration.
He is the first person I met in theatre that showed that you could hold your own course, protect a set of vital principles and aims in a generous, but pragmatic, way. And how you can sustain this over decades. With an impact on thousands upon thousands of young (and increasingly not so young) people. A model of how if you hold your nerve, and work tirelessly the impact that the thing you build can have will be immense.
There is a small army of us who, each in our own ways, owe a great deal to Clive Wolfe. I was so sad to hear of his passing. He was an inspiration.


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