Penny Woolcock’s expansive career as an artist and director spans film, opera and television. She has been groundbreaking in her expressions of the impact of economic conditions on individuals’ lives and aspirations.
Woolcock was born in Buenos Aires in 1950. As an aspiring teenage artist she joined a radical theatre group during the Argentine military dictatorship and was briefly arrested. She left for Barcelona at 18 and then moved with her young son to London then Oxford. She lived in Oxford for fifteen years, engaging with revolutionary politics and making art. She co-founded the Oxford Printmakers Collective in 1977 and, 10 years later, her first film was screened on Channel 4. In film, she had found a medium versatile enough to accommodate her prolific creativity and explore parallel worlds though filmic collaborations. Her unique creative practice would go on to transgress art-form boundaries.
Woolcock’s filmic depictions of marginalised urban communities combine documentary and drama to powerful effect. She has also become known for the integrity of her process, frequently street-casting untrained performers from the tough housing estates being depicted. Set in Leeds, The Tina Trilogy (Tina Goes Shopping, 1999, Tina Takes a Break, 2001, and Mischief Night, 2006) is a fictional portrayal of a young woman’s life that proved influential in television representations of the working class in Britain. In inner city Birmingham, Woolcock worked closely with violent gangs of Jamaican heritage to create the film musical 1 Day (2009). 1 Day led to the unprecedented documentary One Mile Away (2012) that attempted to initiate a truce between gang members, contributing to an unprecedented 18-month reduction of firearms deaths in the area.
Woolcock’s distinctive creative methods and visual skill in translating people’s lived experience to film can be seen throughout her prolific documentary work: from the impact of economic policies on working class aspirations in North East England (When the Dog Bites, 1988, Women in Tropical Places, 1989) and South Wales (Mad Passionate Dreams, 1995), through to homeless people’s experiences in East London (The Wet House, 2002, On the Streets, 2011) and illegal dog fighting in Birmingham (Going to the Dogs, 2014). These filmic portraits are complemented by her recent montages of archive footage that reveal twentieth-century national narratives in Britain, from coastal life (From the Land to the Sea Beyond, 2012), and English class identity (Jerusalem, 2014) to urban architecture (Out of the Rubble, 2015).
In creating a television film of John Adam’s opera The Death Of Klinghoffer (2003), Woolcock deftly conveyed the complexity of the hijacking of a ship with Jewish passengers by a Palestinian liberation organisation in 1985, combining original news footage with her documentary-style film work. The Death Of Klinghoffer was awarded the prestigious Prix Italia at Cannes (2003). Woolcock followed this with Exodus (2007), a re-imagining of the Bible story set in a near-future Margate and performed by local refugees in a tale of political intolerance and citizens’ exile. She directed spectacular stage performances of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic (2005) and Bizet’s Pearl Fishers (2010, 2016) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Los Angeles Opera and English National Opera. In 2015, Utopia, her theatrical installation at London’s Roundhouse, enabled visitors to walk through dramatic urban scenes to discover real, and often violent, individual stories from local estates in North London. This expansive episodic work was a compelling extrapolation of concepts from Thomas More’s Utopia text of 1516. On Easter weekend 2016, Woolcock directed a new site-specific opera The Passion, an adaptation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed by the world-renowned ensemble The Sixteen alongside untrained homeless singers sharing the lead role of Jesus. An immersive theatrical experience, the audience walked amongst the performers whilst the opera was filmed for broadcast on BBC4.
Woolcock is acclaimed for her courage and versatility; the excellence of her contribution to visual culture is demonstrated by multiple awards: The Liberty Human Rights Arts Awards (Utopia, 2015), a Grammy (2003), two BAFTA nominations (1995, 2000), The Michael Powell Award (One Mile Away, 2012), The Grierson Trustees Award (2010), the Prix Italia (The Death of Klinghoffer, 2003), Royal Television Society awards for both dramas and documentaries (including Ackley Bridge, 2018), The Sheffield DocFest Inspiration Award (2013) and the Women in Film and Television Achievement of the Year (2013).