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Nancy Diuguid; Actor, Writer, Director. Born: Oct 18, 1948; Died May 21, 2003

Nancy Diuguid – terrier, visionary, inspirational role model – Carole Woddis

In 2000, after having been diagnosed with cancer, Nancy Diuguid started a project in South Africa’s Alexandra township using the creative arts – dance, drama, art, movement art – to help empower and heal traumatised children. The name of the project was Voices and the name of her company, Dedel’ingoma – it means to `release your song’ – was typical of a woman who had spent her whole working life committed to fighting injustice and giving voice to the disenfranchised through the arts.
Diuguid who has died in South Africa at the [tragically early] age of 54 after a long struggle with cancer was, as one former colleague has put it, `a terrier after truth’ and an inspirational figure in alternative British theatre circles in the early ’70s and ’80s. She continued to be a role model to her final breath, staging, even when seriously ill, a ground-breaking techno-opera, `earthdiving’, in Cape Town in March this year.
Diuguid had always been ahead of her time. But arriving in Britain at the age of 23, the daughter of a wealthy tobacco farmer from Kentucky to study at The Central School of Speech and Drama, she ran into an artistic scene and society in ferment.

As one former colleague, David Aukin (then artistic director at Hampstead Theatre where Diuguid was an associate director) has noted, it was not a good time to be an American and a woman, even less one who wanted to direct. To be an `out’ lesbian made it practically impossible in the prevailing boys’ club atmosphere. Diuguid never made any secret of her sexuality, racily turning up at Central on a bike and in leathers. But from early on, first as an actress, then as a director, she proved to be a galvanising, if sometimes contentious figure, albeit one always willing to own her mistakes. Of one production, she later commented: `It was one of the more important pieces I have ever done precisely because it did not work’.
Any artist now able to openly call themselves lesbian, queer or gay owes the women of Diuguid’s generation – and Diuguid in particular – an enormous debt in a journey dominated by struggle and disappointment but in Diuguid’s case characterised by magnetic charm, energy, and unquenchanble passion.

After leaving Central, she immediately graduated to street theatre and work with the now forgotten fringe group, A Plum Line which, typically for the times, rehearsed in the ballroom of an Eton Square squat (next-door to Lord Boothby’s house) housing two lions and a number of drag queens.
From there, it was a short step to the recently formed Gay Sweatshop and a three-month tour in 1976 of the seminal, `coming-out’ play, Any Woman Can (by Jill Posner) provoking bomb threats, tirades of hell-fire damnation and, for the cast at Diuguid’s insistence, a diet of brown rice. Because, she said, it would be good for them.
The following year, it was largely at Diuguid’s instigation that the first Women’s Festival was held at the then named Action Space (now Drill Hall) trailblazing the future of lesbian theatre. Susan Griffins’s Voices (later the title of Diuguid’s South African venture) was first staged there along with films, discussion groups and 800 women dancing to Teresa Trull on a borrowed sound system.
Diuguid’s enthusiasm and knowledge (on a whole range of subjects from Buddhism to Greek mythology to deep sea diving) knew no bounds.
In many senses, the original Renaissance woman, over the next twenty years, Diuguid continued to write and make theatre, films and opera, straining always to find the synthesis as she once wrote between `social realism and this person who likes to dream’.
On the theatre side, these included the Women’s Project Company (with Kate Crutchley, 1977), Care and Control (Gay Sweatshop, 1977) about women and the custody of children; Tissue by Louise Page (1978), the first play about breast cancer; New Anatomies by Timberlake Wertenbaker (1981) and Patterns (1984) by her own company, Changing Women.
Unwaveringly women-centred (Diuguid was also to be seen decorating the perimeter fence at Greenham with spider web art), her idealism and vision of what theatre and indeed society should be allowed her to work just as productively with men. Two of her most successful and accomplished and, in her own words `most important pieces’ at that time were directing Noel Greig’s all-male The Dear Love of Comrades (1979) about the Victorian utopian, socialist and homosexual, Edward Carpenter and an ingeniously expressionistic production of Angels Descend on Paris (1980) concerning the persectuon of gays as well as Jews under the Nazis.
Other major productions included Request Programme by Franz Xavier Kroetz (1986) about a woman preparing for suicide, played in complete silence, for which she won a Best Director award; Howard Brenton’s Sore Throats (1979), Darrah Cloud’s The Stick Wife (Gate 1991) about the wives of three members of the Klu Kluk Klan and her last stage production, Lin Coghlan’s Apache Tears (2000) for Clean Break, the women’s theatre company who work with ex-offenders, a cause close to Diuguid’s her heart. In 1999, after she had decided to settle in South Africa, one of her first projects was to found an Arts and Drama Group with male prisoners in Leeuwkop Medium ‘C’ prison. `Doing work about people who are at the edge is for me second nature,’ she said.
Art, healing, and compassionate socialism were all synonymous for Diuguid – a combination with a fiery perfectionism which sometimes came close to overwhelming her.
In later years, she seemed to reach a kind of blooming. Her love of music brought her to ENO (English National Opera) as Staff Director where productions included Berg’s Wozzeck, Verdi’s Don Carlos and A Masked Ball. She travelled extensively – in Japan, Brazil, Australia, Europe and Israel where a traumatic personal experience led ten years later to the making of a film, Aftermath (1994/5). Quietly devastating in its demonstration of the emotional repercussions of rape, the film, recognised as a powerful therapeutic tool in the treatment of post-traumatic stress is now used alike by Victim Support and the Police, cancer support groups and organisations helping people recovering from torture.
At her best, Diuguid’s vision gave her work a uniquely vibrant quality. Always hopeful and never afraid to look deeper into the pain, tragedy and horrors of life, she brought a sense of kinship and love to everything that she did. Her legacy is one of hope, courage and extraordinary grace under the barrage of her final struggle.
She is survived by her partner of 17 years, film-maker Melanie Chait and Desmond, their foster son.
Nancy Diuguid; actor, writer, director. Born: Oct 18, 1948; died May 21, 2003,,965149,00.html