NORMAN BRANSON (d.1993)
Norman was the architect of The Questors Theatre; he and Alfred Emmet shared the leading roles in the creation of what we still refer to, thirty years on, as "the new theatre".
Norman Branson worked extensively, as a designer, in the old theatre. He also yearned for a more pliable format in which to work, where actors, directors and designers would be dominated less by the structure of the building. He joined with Alfred and other kindred spirits to explore the vision of a different kind of theatre space and very soon plans for a new theatre began to emerge.
It was Alfred's vision and tenacity that turned the unthinkable into reality! An impoverished group of amateur actors building their own theatre to challenge the dramatic conventions of the day. It was Norman's determination and practicality that made the reality possible, by finding a balance between the aspirations and the resources of The Questors. Throughout the successive stages of discussion, design and revision, the plans for the new theatre developed under his hand into an elegant and simple architectural statement that reflected the needs and expectations ofthe users.
Norman Branson's descriptions of the new theatre proposals, in seminars and professional journals, fired the imaginations of many architects and designers around the world who were looking for alternatives to the picture-frame stage. Through publication of the plans, he was able to influence the debate long before the new theatre was built. Through the long years of construction he supervised the work, from the building of the Shaw Room by volunteer labour to the completion of the playhouse by Taylor Woodrow. His active work with The Questors came to anend when, with the new theatre triumphantly opened, he and Ida moved to the West Country to enjoy a well-earned retirement.
On June 22nd 1993 Norman Branson, architect of The Questors Theatre, died in Taunton, Somerset. His wife, Ida, died a few years earlier: they were a devoted couple, he a teetotal vegetarian, she a 'beef for breakfast' lady.
Their energy and sense of enjoyment were a delight and I called in often for breakfast and reminiscences about the early days of The Questors. When I joined Questors in the early 'fifties three people loomed out of the small converted chapel, the 'tin hut', whose influence stayed with me all my working life: Alfred Emmet, Gunter Heilbut (Graham Heywood) and Norman Branson. It is impossible for me to think of one without the other two and in mourning the passing of Norman I mourn again the passing of Alfred and Gunter. They were a formidable trio round whom The Questors' activities of directing, acting, teaching, designing and new play hunting flourished while steadily the revolutionary new theatre complex grew. The theatre that Norman designed was finally opened in April 1964 with Alfred's production of Ibsen's Brand. The reverberations from the building ofthis theatre continue to this day.
Norman the architect has obscured Norman the set designer. I was most fortunate in that he designed for all the plays which I directed for Questors from Happy as Larry in the 'tin hut' to The Cherry Orchard in the new theatre in September 1964. I hope that some still remember his design for Gilgamesh: three travelling and twirling prisms; each guided by a hidden stagehand following a route marked on the stage. An inventive designer, one who enjoyed throwing ideas around, yet he never lost sight of the play or the actors' need for space.
Norman lost several years of his creative life when his eyes began to fail in the 'seventies. Glaucoma was diagnosed and complete blindness predicted. He and Ida sat quietly in the garden of their home in St. Margaret's, Twickenham, listening to the birds and waiting for the worst. I never heard either of them complain during that long, dark period. Then he regained his sight completely!
By now he had lost touch with his old architectural partners, but he was inundated with requests to restore stately homes whose owners could no longer cope. He chose a Tudor house in Somerset, a wing of which was later to become his own, and began to build up a practice designing flexible theatres for schools and small towns in the South West, opening spaces in and for the imagination.
He was a phoenix not too frequent! We should celebrate, not mourn.