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Tributes paid to 'inspiring and incredible' Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds boss Karen Simpson

Tributes have been paid to ‘inspiring’ Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds boss Karen Simpson who has died after battling cancer.

Karen, 62, was the venue’s chief executive and artistic director for more than six years and turned around its flagging fortunes, while reconnecting it with the community in her vision to create a theatre for all.

She announced in early December that she would be stepping down to spend more time with family and friends having lived with an incurable cancer diagnosis for two and a half years.

Karen Simpson
Karen Simpson

However, her health declined more rapidly than expected and she passed away peacefully on Saturday (January 4) surrounded by her family. Karen leaves her husband Tony Kelly and daughters Sammy, Katie and Jenny.

Roger Quince, chairman of the Theatre Royal board, said: “This is indeed an extremely sad day for myself, Adrian Grady and all staff, volunteers and cast.

“Karen will be sorely missed as both a colleague and a friend. Our deepest sympathy and thoughts are with Tony and the girls.”

Karen joined the Theatre Royal in 2013 when it faced significant financial difficulties and was in danger of closing.

She helped return the venue to a sustainable position and grew its audiences year on year.

Other achievements saw her direct the annual pantomime, produce work that reached into schools and communities and she directed Roy Hudd in a production of Goodnight Mister Tom.

Before Theatre Royal, Karen was artistic director of two touring companies as well as education and creative development director for The Crucible, in Sheffield.

Jasmine Briggs as William Beech and Roy Hudd as Tom Oakley in Goodnight Mister Tom
Jasmine Briggs as William Beech and Roy Hudd as Tom Oakley in Goodnight Mister Tom

Sian Couture, of Bury theatre group Irving Stage Company, said: “Karen was an incredibly inspiring woman.

"During the years that we worked with Karen as artistic director, we witnessed her incredible passion, work ethic, artistic talent and genuine heartfelt understanding of the need for community theatre of all genre to be encouraged, supported and presented.

"Karen always had an open door for the members and committee of the ISC.

"We met with her frequently to discuss our future productions and the blending of them within the overall annual Theatre Royal programme.

"We enjoyed her wit, forthright dignified interaction always delivered in her endearing northern accent.

"Karen worked tirelessly, initiating many fund-raising events, several of which the ISC were proud to take part in which helped fund the transformation of the beautiful theatre that Karen was so proud of.

"We are grateful and lucky to have known her and will definitely miss her."

A spokesman for Bury St Edmunds Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society said: "We always had a good relationship with Karen and send our heartfelt condolences to her family."

Tributes have also poured in on social media for Karen.

Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill said Karen was 'a tireless and committed champion' of the arts and the Theatre Royal, 'inspiring a generation of young people to enjoy theatre'.

Actor Chris Clarkson, who has played the Dame in several Theatre Royal pantomimes, said: "This lady was incredible; a brilliant director, a fantastic boss and also a wonderful friend of mine.

"Since we first met in 2003 I've learnt so much from her, both professionally and as a person.

"My thoughts are with Tony and her family at this sad, sad. time."

Suffolk County Cllr Karen Soons said: "Karen simply enhanced lives in Bury St Edmunds."

Actress Britt Lenting said: "To the wonderful woman Karen Simpson.

"I am forever thankful for what you gave me, my first UK job, my first UK love , just received the tragically sad news, may you rest in peace."

Playwright James McDermott said: "She gave me so much support as a playwright and had the biggest heart, biggest brain and biggest passion for outreach and for representing East Anglia and young people in drama."

Adrian Grady has been covering as CEO with Marcus Romer as interim artistic director at Theatre Royal.

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