Dorothy Heathcote Obituary

Dorothy Heathcote MBE, who has died aged 85, was a world-renowned teacher who revolutionised the use of Drama in Education through a variety of pioneering techniques.

It is difficult to grasp how the 14-year-old girl who entered a Yorkshire woollen mill to work in 1940 could become a key international figure in the world of education and drama and yet by the age of 24 she had become a lecturer at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne campus of Durham University, beginning a career that was to span 60 years. In that time she became the inspiration and role model for generations of teachers across the world who recognised in her unique approach the means by which to profoundly engage students and young people with their learning.

It was in 1945 that the headlines in the Yorkshire Post announced: ‘Weaver Gets Chance of Stage Career’ and, indeed, Dorothy trained as an actress, her fees paid for by the mill manager. But, much as she enjoyed acting, her vision extended beyond the stage to the use of theatre as an educational construct. She instinctively recognised the natural human predisposition to use drama as a means of exploring and understanding the world and of developing the fundamental life skills needed for it. With that recognition, Dorothy set herself the task of translating her vision into a classroom practice for all ages that continues to be inspirational to millions.

Her gift was in being able to touch people and give everything she knew away to those who were interested. Her legacy is that so many were interested and, standing on her shoulders, they continue the work of a genius who is for many, the greatest drama teacher of all.

Dorothy remained at Newcastle when it became a university in its own right in 1962. From the School of Education there, word of the charismatic young drama teacher soon began to spread. Her openness of spirit and radical, new pedagogy drew a stream of postgraduate students to Newcastle. She generously welcomed many into her own home and her husband, Raymond and their daughter, Marianne, became used to sharing the house with an annually changing group of temporary residents from home and abroad.

Dorothy created a whole school of drama practice based around the teacher shifting her pedagogy from that of an instructor to inductor, coach, facilitator and fellow artist, recognising the potency for learning of a co-creative process in which learners are empowered. She created a vocabulary of terminology such as drama for learning, drama conventions, teacher in and out of role, secondary role, Rolling Role, Chamber Theatre, Frame, Signing, Mantle of the Expert and Commissioning that is now in the canon of world-wide dramatic teaching expertise and curriculum models pioneered by her deeply held mission to bring joy and challenge into learning.

As her students returned to their places of work, Dorothy’s influence was carried with them and this precipitated an enduring torrent of invitations to work with children, young people, teachers and students across the globe. She accepted them, pioneering the use of drama as a learning process for the world in a wide range of contexts, for example, in townships such as Soweto in South Africa; in New Zealand with Maori communities; in the depths of inner cities in the UK, and in numerous countries throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and Australasia. She also worked in borstal institutions in the UK and USA; in residential care homes and learning centres for people with significant disability; in special schools and with those who work with very vulnerable people. Even during her final illness, she found creative ways of contributing; through video-conferencing, for example.

However, wherever Dorothy was working in the world she always tried to catch the earliest flight home, and remained ‘Dorothy the home-maker’. Her heart was first and foremost with her family; to her neighbours and close friends she was always ‘Dorothy the cook, the bread-maker, the seamstress, the gardener’. She was famous for rising early to prepare for the day alongside her favourite cat and the AGA. She always had a book with her wherever she went, and was an avid letter writer. She loved family days out at National Trust properties and going to the theatre, and supported her granddaughter, Anna, in all her theatrical and dancing endeavours.

In Newcastle, her pioneering methods reached the Medical School where many films focussing on dramatic reconstructing of medical issues were used in the training of medics. Similarly, she became engaged with British Gas senior managers who had become aware of the methods and adopted structures using dramatic contexts to teach their managerial staff new skills for the workplace. This relationship was soon followed by others with Volkswagen, UK, the NHS and more recently with the Crown Prosecution Service and the professional theatre.

Dorothy’s was an endlessly engaged and enquiring mind with a creativity of thought that enabled her to see the connections between her work and that of others across a spectrum of disciplines. She was never complacent and until very shortly before her death was continuing to develop and refine her practice. This resulted in a richly textured pedagogy with a density of resonance that excited and inspired both the participants in her dramas and all those who strove and continue to strive to emulate them.

Her accolades have also been many, resulting in honorary doctorates from The University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the University of Derby; honours from and patronage of national and international professional bodies, such as National Drama and NATD; invitations to address the most prestigious gatherings, especially in New York; and of course through her writings and collaborations with her eminent students who had reached similar heights through her training. As early as 1974 the BBC produced a remarkable film about her practice, Three Looms Waiting, which can still be found on UTube. She was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list on 11th June 2011, which she was due to collect at Buckingham Palace on 18th October. Knowing that she had already received the honour, it was her wish for her family – who have carried the name Heathcote forward through two more generations – to collect the medal posthumously.

Addressing a gathering of teachers she once remarked, “I shall look forward to death” and when people gasped she said cheerily “not in any morbid sense of course, but rather as looking forward to the greatest and most mysterious adventure of all”. Dorothy’s ‘adventure’ began on 8th October 2011 when she died as a result of the blood disorder, MDS.

Dorothy Heathcote’s Life Celebration will be held at 1pm on Sunday 11 December 2011 at St. Werburgh’s Church, Church Street, Spondon, DERBY DE21 7LL. All are welcome to attend, but please RSVP to Dorothy’s daughter. Thank you.

Dorothy Heathcote

Born: 29th August 1926

Died: 8th October 2011

The Guardian published a obituary written by Sandra Heston which you can read here –


Posted in category: News | 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “Dorothy Heathcote Obituary”

  1. Dr. Dorothy Heathcote MBE: 29 August 1926 – 8 October 2011 — The Play House Says:
    October 11th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    […] can read an obituary from her daughter Marianne Heathcote Woodbridge here. This includes details of Dorothy Heathcote’s Life Celebration. For those interested in […]

  2. Jon Oram Says:
    October 14th, 2011 at 1:05 am

    Dear Dorothy
    I had the good fortune and priviledge of working with and learning from you when I was teaching in Sunderland and Newcastle in the 1970’s. We touched base too infrequently since then. I went on to become a drama advisor in Norfolk and for the past thirty years have been developiing the idea of the community play as director of Colway, now Claque theatre. Everything I have done and do as a teacher, director and writer is influenced by you. You have been the compass of my life, a truly great teacher. You were always ahead of the game, even now our education system hasn’t woken up to ideas you were spreading 40 years ago. It is up to all of us to continue to advocate your methods – you remain revolutionary. I love you Dorothy and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. What a great gift you had and what a great gift you gave . My thoughts are with your family

  3. Lorraine Cemm Says:
    October 15th, 2011 at 9:27 am

    I was sad to hear of Dorothy’s death. She worked with me as an MA Drama student. I learned so much from her not least enthusiasm for teaching drama. I always quote her and continue to use the notes she gave us. I am sure her work will continue to inspire but she will be much missed.

  4. Tim Taylor Says:
    October 26th, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Below is a special message from Dorothy’s daughter, Marianne Heathcote Woodbridge, with information on a new website dedicated to the memory of Dr. Heathcote and instructions on how to make donations to the Dorothy Heathcote Drama Award.

    “Dear Friends,
    I am writing to let you know further information about Dorothy Heathcote’s Life Celebration and to tell you about the new website.
    Some of you have already replied to tell me you are coming to Dorothy’s Life Celebration on 11 December; apologies if I haven’t replied to everyone individually, but let me assure you that we are looking forward to everyone attending who has replied to us by email or post.
    Dorothy’s LIfe Celebration will be held at 1pm on Sunday 11 December 2011 at St. Werburgh’s Church, Church Street, Spondon, DERBY DE21 7LL.
    This will be followed immediately afterwards by a buffet at Spondon Methodist Church Hall, Lodge Lane North, Spondon, DERBY DE21 7GF, which is just 300 metres down the hill.
    We actively want everyone who attends the Life Celebration to also join us at the party afterwards; if you have been touched in any way by Dorothy’s life, please do come along, but please can you RSVP to (or by post, but not telephone) so numbers attending can be catered for.
    In lieu of flowers, you might like to consider a charitable donation to the Dorothy Heathcote Drama Award at This website will accept donations from the UK and abroad.
    In advance of the Life Celebration, I am very keen for many people who have photographs and written memories of Dorothy to mail hard copies to me, ideally with photographs labelled on the back with names/approximate dates. This is something that will be very special to us as a family and we would like to treasure it and pass it on to Anna and future generations.
    Please do visit which has just been launched as the only official website endorsed by us and dedicated to the life and work of Dorothy, to be used as the international meeting place where all memories of Dorothy and her work can be shared, and her practice carried forward. There is a special ‘affected by DH’ page where I would urge you to add your name to a list of all those who knew or were touched by Dorothy. I encourage you to add links from your university, drama or organisation’s website to and to publicise this site amongst your friends and colleagues. For those who haven’t already read it, Dorothy’s official obituary and photograph are also on this website.
    Please feel free to forward this email to others, to pass on information about Dorothy’s Life Celebration and party afterwards, the just giving DH Drama Award, and the launch of”
    Many thanks
    Marianne Heathcote Woodbridge

  5. Jenny Harrison Says:
    November 1st, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    I am so sorry to hear about Dorothy – I first met Dorothy in the late 1980’s and I am one of many who was lucky enough to have been able to participate in several of her unique projects. I also feel truly honoured that she encouraged and believed in me and my teaching skills when others failed to support me. Through her kind words and inspiration she advised and mentored me so that my own projects were successful! I had many enlightening and inspirational conversations with her and have very fond memories of her and the workshops I attended – she taught me so much more than the drama for which I shall always be enternally grateful so I shall continue in my own way to spread her enthusiastic way of teaching. My thought are with you all, Marianne. God bless you, Dorothy.

  6. Royce Levi Says:
    November 2nd, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Dear Marianne, family and Friends of Dorothy,

    What an amazing tribute to a fellow human being! Here am I, aged 78, a teacher for 50 years at every level from infants to students of teaching, 10,000 miles away from you and yet still under the influence of the wonderful teacher, Dorothy Heathcote, I met in Sydney, Australia, decades ago.

    THREE LOOMS WAITING changed my life. I have shared it everywhere I can. I was further overwhelmed to see Dorothy in person, all those years ago, face a young class for the first time here in Sydney, and persuade them to “build” the Pyramids of Egypt. “Astonished” is the only way I can describe “me” when she relinquished the executive responsibility for the project, at a late stage in the lesson, and gave it to one of the pupils.

    As with so many other teachers influenced by Dorothy, I have a deep sense of loss. But this is allayed considerably by my good fortune in discovering her ways, and knowing that they are still with me.

    As Dorothy put it: “Drama is about “man in a mess”. Oh my! Is that view of drama relevant in this troubled world today. That is why those of us who wish to teach still need Dorothy’s genius, patience and love of mankind with us–a presence by our side as we work.

    I thank you with all my heart for the work you are doing in spreading her influence.

    With respect and love to you and your fellow workers on this site,

    Royce Levi

  7. Darlene Stewart Says:
    November 3rd, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    So sad to hear of the death of such a wonderful icon to the world of drama! I never had the opportunity to meet her, but have learned much from books on her method, video’s watching her in action and scores of others talking about her methods. I believe that her legacy will live on.
    I offer my sincere sympathy to her family and hope they know how very respected and loved she was by those who didn’t even know her.

  8. Roger Day Says:
    November 6th, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Dear Marianne and family,I was the Lighthouse in “Three Looms Waiting”Dorothy was the Shiner of the Light.She had a profound influence on my life and the Drama and Storytelling I have continued to do since.I can remember her holding you as she lectured and I, for one will never forget this amazing women.

  9. Greta Craig née Erikson Says:
    November 20th, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Dear Mariane and family
    I am so saddened by Dorothy’s death, I have always thought, in my heart, that she is immortal and perhaps she is because my memories of her are with me.
    I was fortunate to be part of her course at Newcastle in the late 60s, not long after you were born, before 3 Looms Waiting. That year she was at Aycliffe, the Approved School and we travelled through the interminable roadworks to meet her there. Every week she worked with the boys and, when we returned the next week often one or other of them would have attempted to abscond!
    Apart from her enormous wisdom and knowledge she was such fun … And such a good storyteller and actress, and so generous – I can still hear her voice. I treasure her home made Christmas cards.

  10. Maha Sawalhi Says:
    December 9th, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    I had the priviledge to meet Dorothy in a workshop in Spondon last Summer and was amaized how could a woman in her age give that energy to nearly 30 younge teachers. I learned a lot from the five hours there and she tried to give us as much as she could.Tell now I can hear her voice in my ears .I offer my sicere sympathy to her family. They surely knew that a person like her is very hard to be forgotten.

  11. Maha Sawalhi Says:
    December 10th, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I had the priviledge to meet this incredeble person last Summer in Spondon . I can say that the five hours we spent there were the most useful and amazed in my whole life imagine that incredeble old lady and the energy she had to make 30 younge teachers work in their full capacity.
    I offer my sincere sympathy to her family who surely knew how amazing woman she was and how many people she influenced

  12. Judith A. Thomas Says:
    June 14th, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    I met Dorothy Heathcote in an AOSA Conf. in California in l979 where she developed a rose garden with 200 participants. It was as amazing as any dramatic work I’d ever seen, and filled me with such a “fearful jubilation” I found myself running down the conference corrider to tell her the state I was in. She smiled and said, “Well, you should be fearful, dear.” …and I understood that too — the fear of teaching while flying by the seat of your pants, trusting you can guide the plane and come to some sort of calculated and effective landing in a place you nor your students had ever been. I regret not dropping my life at any point and running after her in Newcastle on Tyne. There is hardly a day I don’t use something of her wisdom in thought or in my own writing. She really was a genius of the sara avis type, and I’m so glad she had the tenacity to put so much useful information down in book form. Love to you in heaven, Dorothy where you are most certainly opening up the other angel’s capacity to learn while dramatizing. JTS