Paul Burbridge (1953-2023): A tribute

Paul Burbridge: Artistic director of Riding Lights Theatre Company for more than 40 years

A SERVICE of thanksgiving and celebration for the life of Riding Lights Theatre Company artistic director Paul Burbridge (1953-2023) will be held at St Michael le Belfrey, High Petergate, York, on June 10 at 2pm. All are welcome.

Paul, who ran the Christian theatre company and Friargate Theatre artistic programme in Lower Friargate, York, died on April 19 after a short illness.  

A statement from the board and staff on the Riding Lights website reads: “Paul, along with Nigel Forde and Murray Watts, founded Riding Lights in 1977, and led the company for over 40 years with unwavering vision and extraordinary creativity.

“His commitment to the company and to all who encountered it in any way was inspiring and infectious, as were his kindness, warmth and humour.

“He was an encourager, guide, mentor and friend to many, whose faith and faithfulness to God flowed into the lives of others. Riding Lights was his life’s work, his calling, and a source of deep joy to him.

“We know that this will come as a great shock and sadness to many, and that you may wish to be in touch with the company. Any messages can be sent to , and we will do our best to respond in due course.”

The statement concludes: “There will be an opportunity to make donations to Riding Lights in memory of Paul, in order to continue the work he loved. In the meantime, we value your prayers of thanksgiving for Paul’s life, for all of us at Riding Lights, and most of all for Bernadette [Paul’s wife], Patrick, Caitlin and Erin, that they may be comforted and surrounded by the love of God.”

Here CharlesHutchPress reflects on Paul Burbridge’s contribution to York’s theatre world with Damian Cruden, artistic director of York Theatre Royal from 1997 to 2019.

“WHEN I started, we met up, and right from the word go, Paul was one of those people who was always very welcoming and very easy to have a conversation with and always very constructive too,” remembers Damian, now CEO and artistic director of Alnwick Playhouse in Northumberland.

“The first major piece we did together was the Riding Lights/Theatre Royal collaboration on African Snow [Murray Watts’s play about slave ship captain John Newton, of Amazing Grace fame], directed by Paul in 2007. We then did Three Men In A Boat, directed by Paul at the Theatre Royal in April 2008.”

Paul had first adapted Jerome K Jerome’s late-Victorian tale of a trip up the Thames 18 years earlier for Riding Lights, reuniting with his original designer, Sean Cavanagh, for his Theatre Royal version of Jerome’s riparian mishaps and ineptitudes.

A community production of Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks And A Passion, co-directed by Paul and Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster in the round at the Theatre Royal in July 2011, was to be the precursor to the zenith of the Theatre Royal and Riding Lights creative partnership: the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens.

“Paul was just very easy to work with because he always gave space,” says Damian, his co-director for that unforgettable open-air production. “He didn’t have an ego about himself. Instead, his artistic ego connected with the work of the community that he inspired. Above all, he was just really good fun to be with.

“For years, around the time of the opening of the panto, we cooked  a Christmas dinner in two sittings, one for the panto cast in the afternoon and then everyone else from the two companies in the evening, with the executives of the Theatre Royal and Riding Lights doing all the cooking.

“Afterwards, Paul would usually arrange a cabaret of some sort, with music and Paul doing some sketches as he was very amusing. Very Pythonesque, with a real sense of the absurdity of the world.”

Damian recalls how Paul’s faith was his bedrock. “We talked about it in depth when we were doing the Mystery Plays together; Paul as someone of faith, me as someone not of faith, wondering whether that would be difficult, and what it would mean in terms of creating the work, which I saw primarily as a big story, but for him it had a very different resonance,” he says.

“It was very important to have that mix,  people who have faith, people who were agnostic,  with me and Mike [writer Mike Kenny] as non-believers, Paul and Sean (designer Sean Cavanagh) as believers. It never got in the way at all. It was always very much about focusing on the telling of the story, and I think that faith was an important aspect in how we discussed it.

“I don’t think the production would have been as meaningful without that balance. The community cast that told that story was of a similar diversity of belief and non-belief, who discovered respect for each other’s position, and that was testament to Paul’s ability as an artist and leader to be magnanimous, to allow space, to be so highly inspirational in that way.

“He always wore his faith lightly but with an incredible depth of belief. I would say his faith was unshakeable, and his perception of the world found him working with faith groups in Palestine, stretching across faiths and the barriers that had been created.”

Paul was instrumental in Riding Lights establishing its headquarters in Lower Friargate in May 2000, taking over the 19th century building that previously had housed the Friargate Wax Museum until its closure in 1996.

Aptly, the opening production in the 100-seat studio theatre was Ben Jonson’s satire, The Alchemist, Paul having converted the base metals of a redundant museum into the universal elixir of theatrical gold.

“He was a very good leader, very intelligent, very knowledgeable, very talented,” says Damian. “He wasn’t self-obsessed and always knew why he was doing what he was.

“Riding Lights has been very successful in terms of its shows but also in terms of fulfilling its purpose. It’s a really important venue in York with a really strong commitment to youth theatre and a very clear sense of the community around it, which all theatres need to have.

“While its mission revolves around faith, you don’t feel like you’re going to have a religious diatribe when you go to a show. In many ways, Paul’s work has been superbly humanist, focusing on humanity. Very grounded, very connected.”

Reflecting further on Pauls’ leadership prowess, Damian says: “He would be one of the first people to say Riding Lights wasn’t just about him. He chose people around him that were good at what they did and that let Riding Lights become a potent organisation.”

Assessing Paul’s legacy, Damian starts by saying: “If you just think about the number of people who got up and strutted their stuff because Paul made it possible: whether through the youth theatre, summer projects, presenting work by community theatre companies and welcoming touring performers, on top of putting on all those Riding Lights productions.

“He made all that possible within York, and I can’t imagine how many people he’s influenced. All those people who started out at Riding Lights, it’s a huge list, all inspired by Paul and what the company stands for.”

Looking at Paul’s wider legacy, Damian says. “I hope that York continues to be a place that is absolutely engaged in presenting work that is there for the community and the creativity of that community, and that it remains something that is valued and given proper support.

“In a way, that’s the thing that would most upset Paul: if community creativity were left to wither on the vine. Community theatre, and the broad spectrum it covers, requires constant nurturing: the way Paul did it.

“He was a theatre gardener, knowing how to make sure the garden of theatre could survive in straitened time and be rich and productive in good times.”

God bless you, Paul, and thank you, guiding light of Riding Lights and Friargate Theatre.

5 Replies to “Paul Burbridge (1953-2023): A tribute”

  1. From the early days of Riding Lights, St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, I have used so many of the playlets in the schools, where I taught and in the church Family Services in Northwood and rural Awre, Gloucestershire. They were lively, funny, inspiring but, also, faith challenging – very focussed on God’s awesome, amazing qualities, appealing to young and old alike. His helpful notes about theatre/performance production for us amateurs were very detailed. God’s Spirit truly blessed his ‘calling’. We give thanks.

  2. An excellent tribute to Paul Burbridge: thank you, Charles. I was a founder-member of Riding Lights Theatre Company and worked very closely with Paul for six and a half years (1977-1984), as well as on several projects before that time and many since. He was always ambitious, both for the company as a whole and for individual actors, he always got the best out of you and scarcely a day went by that wasn’t a rich, learning experience. I have not worked with a better director.

  3. I was so sad to hear of Paul’s death having known him since we were both 20. He was the father of Christian theatre, post-Python. May he rest in peace and enter stage right in glory.

  4. Thank you for this excellent review. Our prayers are with Bernadette and the family at this time.

    1. wonderful review. was shocked by the news of his death. He will be very munched missed. hope his work will continue for a long time yet.

Comments are closed.