Theatre luminary, educator and co-founder of the National Arts Festival, Roy Sargeant, passes away

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Roy Sargeant and Jane Osborne in rehearsals for Diary of Anne Frank. (Photo credit: cast members Janet and Andrew Buckland)
Roy Sargeant and Jane Osborne in rehearsals for Diary of Anne Frank. (Photo credit: cast members Janet and Andrew Buckland)

Prof Roy Sargeant, who was appointed Head of Speech and Drama at Rhodes University in 1973, passed away at the end of 2021.

In addition to establishing the University's reputation as one of the premier drama training schools in South Africa, Prof Sargeant co-founded the National Arts Festival in 1974 with Prof Guy Butler. He was also integral to the creation of the Student Drama Festival and the Standard Bank Young Artists Awards.

In honour of his significant contribution to Rhodes University, former colleague Jane Osborne, who was a staff member at the Drama Department from 1967 to 2002, has compiled a heartwarming tribute.







Roy Sargeant

1941 - 2021


Some thoughts on the CONTRIBUTION OF ROY SARGEANT TO THE RHODES UNIVERSITY DRAMA DEPARTMENT by Jane Osborne, staff member 1967 to 2002.


In 1969 and 1970, Guy Butler invited young professional director Roy Sargeant to direct two highly successful productions with the students of the Rhodes University Drama Department, which had been founded in 1966. After a further six months as a leave replacement, thirty-one-year-old Roy was appointed Head of Department in 1973, and later Professor.


Roy ran the Department for nine years until he moved on to further career challenges in 1982. A highly creative, imaginative and explosive talent, Roy burst into our gentle little country town with professional standards and aggressive energy. We were already impressed by his legendary ability as a director - working with actors and his passionate dedication and commitment to his craft. His enormous presence and personality - full of contrasts - dominated the rehearsal process as he offered his actors an adventure and an experience into the skills, craft, delights and challenges of the art of performance. He was a wonderful teacher of acting and balanced encouragement with inspiration and critical stimulus to develop performers to their full potential.


In 1973 when Roy became responsible for the Department, he saw how the lack of distractions in a small community could focus the students' energies and concentration and provide a warm and positive working environment. But he also was determined to broaden the students' experience of the Theatre, the Arts and the World. And he did this by bringing the World to Grahamstown as often as possible. There was a constant flow of professional theatre practitioners coming to work with the students, such as Michael  Atkinson, Frank Shelley and Henry Goodman. 


Most important of all was the co-founding of the Arts Festival with Guy Butler, which began with a Festival of Shakespeare productions brought here from Drama Departments all over the country and presented to a panel of theatre professionals offering reviews and discussion. And that was just the beginning of many years of critical interaction. 


Despite some setbacks, the Festival has provided us with regular winter feasts of conferences, workshops and performances from Africa and the broader world in celebration of the Arts.


Realising that most of our students were not necessarily destined to be actors or directors, Roy restructured and extended the courses offered by the Department to include a broader range of theatre-related activities to accommodate all the students' abilities and interests.


We four staff members (at the time) were encouraged to specialise and develop our skills to a high standard. Courses included a range of learning activities such as extending research into play texts, theatre history and performance styles; to introducing new forms of performance, such as Junior Lecturer Gary Gordon's dance and mime classes. I extended my interest in voice training and communication. Beth Dickerson focused on the new field of theatre in education using the skills and experience of theatre to deepen learning, and Ken Robinson was in charge of design and visual arts and crafts.


The technical and organisational aspects of our work were also extended, and a television studio was established. Many aspects of theatre, including publicity and even tea-making, coalesced in the numerous productions that formed the research and creative core of the Department, which grew in size and reputation. Everyone was involved making it a multifaceted and inclusive experience. Honours courses were introduced, and with his small staff, Roy undertook the mammoth task of coordinating the students' progress and development in all these aspects of the theatre and provided students with diverse career possibilities.


Roy made this a wonderfully exciting place to be. Things happened here. Students were nurtured and allowed to develop - and sometimes even flourished - in a warm, supportive environment that many graduates remember with affection. Roy fondly recalled these memories with me in recent WhatsApp texts.


He lit a spark in students that gave them the confidence to experiment, to fail, to accept and utilise constructive criticism, to explore, research challenge and create. And some of them have succeeded gloriously.


Inevitably, with changing times and staff, many of his ideas have been altered, developed or replaced. But some are still here – as an integral part of the fabric of the Rhodes University Drama Department.


Somehow, it all seems to have started with Roy.


I remember exhaustion, laughter, exhilaration.

Inspired times.


Thank you, Roy, beloved friend.

Source:  Drama Department