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Buzz Goodbody: the Classical Revolutionary

Meet Buzz Goodbody; the first and, for many years, only woman director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, who campaigned for social justice for all marginalised groups.

Jim Ranahan

It is appropriate to remember Buzz Goodbody on International Women’s Day (IWD) given her commitment to collective action for women’s rights. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds collections that shed light on this and other aspects of her life.

Her life embodied this year’s IWD call to #PressforProgress as Buzz campaigned actively for social justice for women and for all marginalised groups. She exercised her beliefs through her career as a theatre director, bridging classical theatre and direct action, where art was mobilised in support of political objectives.  

Extract from a flyer for a Celebration of  the life Buzz Goodbody 1975
Extract from a flyer for a Celebration of the life Buzz Goodbody, 1975

Mary-Ann Goodbody was born in London in 1946. The family nickname ‘Buzz’ reflected her inquisitive and active mind, but Mary-Ann retained it into adulthood as a gender-neutral name. This chimed with her resistance to prevailing attitudes towards ‘career women’. Buzz was the first and, for many years, the only woman director with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Buzz committed suicide in 1975, and her impact on people’s lives is reflected in the range of tributes paid to her:

“We shall remember her as a revolutionary and a struggling, all too human sister.” –Alison Fell, poet and novelist, in Spare Rib 36, 1975

“Her production of Hamlet was the work of a burgeoning, developing director arriving at maturity and certainty. Buzz had become a major director of Shakespeare.” –Trevor Nunn, Artistic Director of the RSC, in RSC's Report of the Council 1975-1976

“Theatre’s Revolutionary Buzz ... drew on rigorous research and her involvement in politics, particularly the Women’s Liberation Movement.” –Colin Chambers, literary manager and author, in The Morning Star, 1980

Eve & After
Eve & After

Buzz was the youngest undergraduate of her generation at Sussex University, which, in the 1960s, was developing a reputation for student radicalism. Buzz joined the Communist Party and experienced firsthand the direct action which increasingly marked political engagement at this time. Her M.A. examination paper for Modern Literature (April 1967) is annotated with a telling phrase ‘Tell People who don’t know’, written whilst considering ‘the element of reporting in the novel’. This informing and educating function of literature and drama was central to Buzz’s philosophy and it drew on approaches in campaigning and community theatre which were underpinned by research into specific topics. Colin Chambers identified this as a key element of Buzz’s approach (see quote above), and it remained central through her career – for instance, in King John, produced in 1970 for Theatregoround, the small scale touring arm of the RSC, Buzz ensured that the play incorporated contemporary political references. This resulted in it being described as refreshing, speaking directly to modern audiences.[1]

Whilst a student, Buzz was a key figure in Sussex University Theatre Group, and her reputation was strengthened when the Group won a prize at the National Student Drama Festival in late 1966/early 1967. Buzz had adapted and directed Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and after the success at the Drama Festival in Cardiff, the production transferred to the Garrick Theatre, London. John Barton recruited Buzz from here for the RSC, where she would work from 1967 until 1975, in Stratford and London, with the main theatres, with Theatregoround and latterly as Artistic Director of The Other Place.

Notes from Underground' Programme 1966
Notes from Underground' Programme, 1966

The Other Place is closely associated with Buzz. Her vision was for an intimate, non-traditional space, which was safe for dramatic experimentation and where audiences could engage directly with the work of Shakespeare and other dramatists. It drew inspiration from her early days at Sussex, where the university had not yet developed a dedicated theatre venue and where Buzz learned the practicalities of working in basic locations, as well as the impact of immediate, ‘close-up’ drama. This also fitted with her evolving interest in grass roots, community theatre, which she later paid heed to with Theatregoround and The Other Place, but which she gave full commitment to as a founder member of the original Women’s Street Theatre Group in 1971. This group was committed to ‘telling people who don’t know’ about the Feminist agenda through active awareness raising exercises. Street performances were held where women, men and children congregated – markets, shopping centres, ‘the street’. Buzz’s commitment to this direct engagement with the public was in support of reproductive rights and against stereotyping and conditioning of girls and women within the family and across society. She and fellow members were arrested during the Festival of Light in London for expressing this commitment through the power of their performance.  

Extract from a flyer for a Celebration of  the life Buzz Goodbody 1975
Extract from a flyer for a celebration of the life of Buzz Goodbody, 1975

Buzz also maintained this commitment as a director at the RSC, for instance when she compiled and directed Eve and After (The Seven Ages of Woman) for Theatregoround and her treatment of As You Like It in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Throughout her career, Buzz was dedicated to furthering women’s rights and circumstances. This blog can only hint at this commitment and indicate the scope and nature of her achievements. Please use the collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to learn more about a key person in campaigning theatre and direct politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

Relevant Archive Collections at SBT

GL11                            Papers relating to Buzz Goodbody
GL24                           Papers of Margaret Hemmingfield relating to Notes from Underground
RSC                             Papers of the Royal Shakespeare Company, relating to Theatregoround, The Other Place and ‘main house’ productions by Buzz Goodbody
TGR                             Papers relating to Theatregoround, collected by Peter Kemp

Selected Bibliography

C. Chambers                 Other Spaces: New Theatre and the RSC (1980)
A. Smith-Howard        Studio Shakespeare: The Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place (2006)

These are available for consultation in the SBT Library.

Visit our online Collections database for details of these and other collections and information on how to consult them.  


[1] ‘Other Spaces: New Theatre and the RSC’ Colin Chambers (1980) p.28

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