Although the words ‘eccentric’ and ‘maverick’ will no doubt be over-used, they remain woefully inadequate in describing the force of nature that was Ken Campbell.
Ken was exceptionally generous, uniquely daring, utterly inspirational, ruthlessly compassionate and one of the greatest British theatre practitioners of all time. If you wanted to learn about theatre, and I mean real theatre, the best education you could get was from Ken.
I went to his workshops in 2005 at a squat in Archway where I learned more in five afternoons than in all my years at drama school and university. I immediately placed my theatre company at his disposal. We extemporised Shakespeare at The Globe, tore up The Royal Court with some wild impro, and created The School Of Night, which specialises in the dark art of making-things-up-on-the-spot. (In order to join you have to write a perfect Elizabethan sonnet while counting aloud, backwards from one hundred.)
‘There’s no point improvising unless it’s better than scripted stuff,’ was Ken’s challenge to excellence, a mantra learned during his visit to Edmonton, Canada where he discovered Dana Andersen and the ‘Die-Nasty’ improvisers at the epochal 53-hour ‘Soap-A-Thon.’
The result of that voyage is an Anglo-Canadian bridge that endures to this day. He was excited by the notion that ‘great improvisers are born in the thirtieth hour,’ being too sleep-deprived to censor themselves. We would see him shuffle into the back of the theatre somewhere around hour thirty to catch the birth of the real mayhem.
The annual 50-hour London Improvathon is a direct result of Ken’s pioneering spirit and his desire to share his discoveries with anyone who showed interest, regardless of their background or training. (I never once saw Ken consult a CV or a headshot, he was only interested in what they could do right there and then.)
He was dedicated to the discovery of the astounding and the wonderful. Should you become apologetic in his classes, ask too many questions or in any way avoid your own excellence he would be consumed with frustration and fury. Only the egotists retired bruised, complaining about his ‘attitude’. Anyone with a love of the craft followed him to the ends of the earth because they knew he was one of the few men who could help others access their own greatness.
All this from a man who favoured ‘the art of wittering as exemplified by Ant and Dec’ to anything by Shakespeare. Some people thought he wasn’t to be taken seriously but I’ve seen a lot of dull Shakespeare and some rather extraordinary wittering. ‘Let’s get that contortionist in next week and do an opera with the Tuvan throat-singers!’ was common content for a phone call and the starting point for something. He was a master alchemist. I learned to wear goggles in his laboratory, the mishaps and explosions as important as any of the creations.
From Ken I learned that magic is more wonderful than truth, that the stage is a place for love and danger in equal measure, and that performers wearing slippers make less clattering noise on stage. I can think of few things more useful than his repeated question ‘if we were to do a show tonight, what would it be?’
There are many ‘eccentric mavericks’ but only one Ken Campbell. The School Of Night endures and is dedicated to him – our magician, our mentor and our friend. He leaves behind a pair of slippers impossible to fill.