Neil Freeman was a faculty member and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theatre & Film at UBC from 1991 to 2006. We were deeply saddened by his passing on October 23, 2015.
Neil taught, coached and directed students ranging from youth groups to high-school teachers, and from university-level students to professional theatre companies and individual actors. He was renowned for his unique approach to the unlocking of Shakespearean text for young actors. Students always left his classes with a new respect for Shakespeare and a plethora of new insights in how to unlock the mysteries of The Bard. His research into the First Folio and his writing on the use of these texts for the actor has changed the way Shakespeare is approached by thousands of actors around the world.
Neil won many awards throughout his outstanding career, including the John Gielgud Scholarship; USA National Endowment of the Arts Major Artists’ Fellowship; the Joseph G. Green Fellowship from York University, and a minor Scholarship from SSHRC. He worked with the Will Geer Theatre, British American Drama Academy, the National Theatre School, the Centre for Actors Study, the National Voice Intensive and the Stratford Festival. He had a huge impact on everyone he met, and is missed by all who knew him.
The impact of your support
In Neil’s memory, the Neil Freeman Memorial Scholarship is being established at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Theatre & Film.
Your gift to the scholarship will pay tribute to Neil’s life and career, by encouraging and supporting an undergraduate or graduate student in theatre who shows exceptional aptitude for Shakespeare or the advancement of Shakespearean research.
He taught voice and directed me as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet during my final year at York University. A very, very sweet man. Kindness just flowed out of him. During rehearsal one day he giggled that he knew all about Juliet as he had played her once. I dismissed it as a joke, but now after all this time I learn that he wasn't joking. The knowledge he imparted to me of Shakespeare and the first folio was a gift. I am saddened to know of his passing.
I was at King George V School in Southport with Neil Freeman from 1953 to 1958 and during our later years there we were close friends. We lost touch when Neil and his family moved from the North of England to London in the early 1960s. Some years ago I tracked him down to UBC and we exchanged e-mails even though his capacity to concentrate on correspondence was diminished by his incipient labyrinthitis. I and my wife are planning to travel across Canada this Autumn and I therefore checked again on Neil’s whereabouts only to discover that, sadly, he had died back in October 2015.
His eminence in the sphere of drama and particularly in Shakesperian studies was no surprise given the early indications of his acting and producing activity whilst at school. Evidence of this, plus another aspect of Neil’s history, may well be of interest to you at UBC.
King George V School, Southport, known always as just KGV, was the local boys state grammar school which Neil attended from 1952 to 1959 before going on to Nottingham University to study social sciences. However, after graduation he managed to follow his true vocation by doing weekly rep and then going on to the famous Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He then acted, taught and directed for several years in the UK before emigrating to Canada.
Neil was involved with playreading from his first year at KGV and in his second year he played the bargewoman in the school’s production of Toad of Toad Hall. The review in the school magazine gave the twelve year old Neil one cryptic line, “N H Freeman, as the Bargewoman, lived up to his earlier promise.” Then, the following year, 1954, the school put on Romeo and Juliet in which he played Juliet. I remember well his performance which was so convincing that, despite the hall being full of sporty adolescent boys, the curious fact of a fellow student playing a sexy girl did not provoke any ribaldry. This time the school magazine reviewer waxed lyrical, “As Juliet, N H M Freeman, had a most difficult task, but was able to convince us of his obvious capabilities as a tragic actor. Unfortunately he was too tragic, and even in Juliet’s few moments of cheerfulness, seemed too apprehensive. His performance bodes well for the future, nevertheless, as he has a clear voice and is perfectly at ease on the stage.” He continued to play leading roles in the annual school plays, including in The Prodigious Snob (the English adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) and Sheridan’s The Duenna and, by the time he was in the senior forms - and again presaging his future career - he was also producing the lower forms’ playreadings.
However, our close friendship in our later years at KGV came from an entirely different art form: that of traditional jazz! It was the age of the New Orleans revival and the music was ubiquitous with bands springing up everywhere, often more enthusiastic than skilled. Neil and I were members of a group that went to jazz clubs in Southport itself and across Liverpool and its surrounding Merseyside area. With the naïve arrogance of teenagers we then decided that it wasn’t enough just to listen but we would have to play the music. We then each chose different instruments. Neil chimed in first opting for the trombone and I then went for the clarinet; then, having acquired enough other contemporaries to complete the band, we launched ourselves on an unsuspecting public. We called ourselves the Bienville Jazz Band - a name picked off a street map of New Orleans. We rehearsed weekly in the basement of what turned out to be the most notorious pub in the centre of Southport! The floridly over-made ladies in attendance were curiously friendly to us innocent and youthful musicians. Neil is on two posed images but only just manages to appear in one of the “snaps” of the band in action. As far as I know of the others pictured only Dave Dixson the saxophone player and myself the clarintettist are still playing.
Such was the demand for traditional jazz in the late 1950s and early 1960s that we got bookings all around the area and enjoyed the minor adulation of our peers, particularly of the girls who jived to the music. Some of us have been playing it ever since, though Neil’s own taste became rather more modern. Curiously, Neil was also indirectly the cause of my starting a lifetime of commitment to Liberal politics. He was, of course, Jewish and when he and I were looking at possible local venues for band bookings he said of a couple of places, “We can’t play there - they don’t admit Jews”. I was astonished and horrified and, on reaching home, said as much to my highly political mother. Typically, her immediate response was to ask, “What are you going to do about it?” “Well, I’m going to fight it,” I responded. I immediately joined the local Liberal Party and, at the age of 16 began battling anti-Semitism, and all other forms of discrimination, including Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.
When Neil left KGV and his family left Southport we lost contact and, alas, never met again, but it is good to remind those who only know him as an eminent Shakesperian scholar, actor and producer, that he was once a teenage traditional jazz trombonist!
8 March 2022
(I have attached a number of images - five from the 1950s involving Neil Freeman and a couple of current images of this author.)
Images (the three old jazz band photos are fascinating but are, alas, of poor quality):
1, 2 & 3 Three photos Neil Freeman trombonist with the Bienville Jazz Band, Southport, 1959.
4 & 5 Programme, “Romeo and Juliet”, King George V School, Southport, 1954.
6 Michael Meadowcroft, jazz clarinettist, 2022
7 Michael Meadowcroft, former Liberal MP.
Neil was a beloved instructor of mine at the National Theatre School of Canada (and later, through the Quebec Drama Federation and private tutoring). His insights into Shakespeare's first Folio; his emphasis on capitals, long-spellings and major punctuation, turned on a light for me, allowing me immediate visceral responses to texts so often one step removed from the body (and the bawdy) by a more cerebral focus on the poetry of it all. Neil made the study of Shakespeare fun and fierce and absolutely immediate, vital and alive.
Neil opened my mind in a way that has transformed more than just my theatre practice. I believe I am a better student, better teacher and better person in many ways due, at least in part, to Neil's vast knowledge, great generosity of spirit, keen directorial eye and seemingly infinite wellspring of enthusiasm and encouragement. He believed in me and in my work in a way that helped me to believe in it as well. He helped to teach me not only how to "do", but, more importantly, how to think, in order to get where I need to go even without him - and then to be able to share that journey with others.
I have many fond memories of Neil and, like most of us who have been his students, it seems, I enjoy telling stories of him "in character". (He certainly was a unique character). But there are also two other memories in particular that crop up for me today:
One is related to the time when my friend (and fellow NTS classmate), Ann Hodges, and I went into the public school system in Manitoba to introduce young people to Shakespeare using Neil's 'Capital, Loooooonggg Spellinge' approach. Sometimes I would act out only the capitals and long spellings in order to show the students the raw emotions that the words offered a clue to in understanding a scene or monologue. We could see the instant connections made for the students to their own hormone-driven teenage experience. This wasn't the sometimes incomprehensible, antiquated Shakespeare they had, perhaps, been previously more familiar with. They loved it. The work was very engaged and engaging. Thank you Neil, from all of us, for providing the groundwork for those sorts of breakthroughs. (From you, through us, to them and beyond).
The other memory, much more recent, is of being a part of the company performing at Neil's memorial celebration at UBC yesterday. I was the only representative there from the National Theatre School (the others were mostly from UBC, with a smattering of York Alumni as well), but I didn't feel alone. I was struck by the incredible community of ex-students of Neil's who all share very similar stories, gratitude for the gifts they have been given and are able to pass along, and real affection for a wonderful teacher. Though many of us never met one another before yesterday, we were already brothers and sisters of a sort, instantly connected through our shared experience of Neil. And so the generations go, so the circles spiral away but always return, and so the legacy of this great teacher will endure because he touched the hearts of so many. What a gift! I am so glad to be a recipient.
"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world."
Missy Christensen NTS 1992
Like many of Neil's students I have an invisible bracelet on my wrist when teaching classes or interacting with students - WWNFD? What would Neil Freeman Do? He taught a series of seminars at the National Theatre School where he lit up the room with energy, enthusiasm and passion. His sheer good sense of humour, combining with a ready intelligence was inspirational . There must have been a class, lecture or presentation where I did not look at my WWNFD? bracelet... but I cannot remember them. Thank you Neil for all that you gave us. I hope you are in some theatrical production up in heaven helping the angels say their lines right and keeping an eye on Will. Declan Hill