In 1981 Jill, together with her husband James Sargant, purchased The Watermill Theatre. Her vision and commitment to the theatre developed it from a local rep, opening 26 weeks of the year, into a nationally and internationally respected all year round producing house.
It was in the last 8 years of her life that the success of Jill’s vision was recognised with many productions winning national awards as the best in their field. Shows such as The Gondoliers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Rage, and Sweeney Todd transferred into the West End with the latter also transferring to Broadway. Jill was particularly proud in November 2006 to attend two consecutive opening nights in New York for shows that originated at The Watermill. Sweeney Todd won two Tony Awards, Best Direction of a Musical, John Doyle, and Best Orchestrations, Sarah Travis. The following April The Watermill musical, Mack & Mabel, opened at the Criterion Theatre, London.
In the year 2004-05, the Watermill Theatre reached over 100,000 people with its work both in the theatre and on tour. This took in rural touring, workshops for schools and further education colleges and an active and highly successful youth theatre. Fraser fostered work involving primary school children, people with special needs, the homeless and always a community project where children and adults could work side by side.
Unfortunately, in February 2006 The Watermill lost a forever friend and Jill passed away. Jill believed that theatre could break down social barriers and loved seeing "the student in tatty jeans sitting next to the leader of a corporate conglomerate". She made it her mission to "provide people with opportunities of exploring different aspects of their life". She was famous for giving young artists their first break and there are countless theatre professionals in every field, from directing, acting, designing, lighting, writing, marketing and production, who owe their first job to Jill Fraser.
Everyone who worked at the Watermill felt like part of her extended family. She made the theatre a place where you could live and breathe the piece of work you were creating and her house was always full of actors who roomed with her whilst working. Everyone will remember Fraser's tradition of making a huge meal for the entire cast and crew to be enjoyed late at night at the end of the technical rehearsal. The legacy she left on a local and national level is enormous.
The Save The Watermill appeal
In June 2005, the Save The Watermill appeal was launched to enable the board of trustees to buy the theatre from Jill Fraser & James Sargant and carry out improvements, repairs and development of the buildings.
The theatre was put up for sale by the Sargant family in 2008. A development board was established, chaired by Ralph Bernard, and was successful in raising funds to purchase the building and grounds. In 2008 it was announced that the £3 million fundraising appeal target had been reached. This amazing achievement was thanks to a whole host of people and organisations. Over 4,000 individuals, trusts, foundations, and businesses gave money to the appeal, which was also supported by David Suchet, Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Timothy West CBE, Prunella Scales, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and David Soul.