How AmDram thrives in Surrey's little theatres
PUBLISHED: 17:35 27 November 2012 | UPDATED: 08:31 06 August 2015
Most of the county's main towns have their large theatres, such as the New Victoria Theatre in Woking, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford or Fairfield Halls in Croydon, but beyond these, Surrey is also home to a tier of smaller theatres that, between them, put on many productions each year and help ensure that our drama scene is thriving...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2012
The Courtyard Theatre, Chipstead
THE Courtyard Theatre is the home of the Chipstead Players, a group that has been in existence since 1924.
Founded by Robert Hummel (a well-known West End actor), his wife (a talented actress and producer) and some local friends, the idea initially was to perform play readings in their home.
During the following decades, with the lack of a permanent base, the group made-do by renting local spaces, such as the village hall. But then, in the late 1970s, the opportunity arose to purchase some nearby stables.
“This was too good a chance to miss and so the group’s president at the time, Len Jarrad, seized it and set about raising the necessary funds,” explains Colin Edgerton, the chairman of the Courtyard Theatre. “With donations and loans, we were eventually able to make the place our own.”
Using the varied skills of the membership and coaxed on by Len, the club then set about planning and developing their very own theatre, housing not only a 96-seat auditorium, but a theatre bar, rehearsal/studio room, workshop, wardrobe and dressing rooms.
“We eventually opened for business in March 1995 with a production of Tom Jones,” continues Colin. “It was a long journey but one that was very much worth it.”
Since then, more than a hundred plays have been performed (often to a full house), the number of people involved in the theatre has grown and they have also established their own youth section.
“During the course of the year, we usually have seven productions, covering different types of theatre,” says Colin. “If you’re interested in being part of these, both onstage or off, then get in touch. The theatre is always open to new members. We’re a friendly bunch, so why not give it a go?”
Need to know:
Address: Chipstead Players, The Courtyard Theatre, Hazelwood Lane, Chipstead, Surrey CR5 3QU
Box office: 01737 555680 / chipsteadplayers.org
Contact to get involved: Colin Edgerton (email@example.com)
The Archway Theatre, Horley
THE Archway Theatre’s origins began in 1939 in much the same way as many other amateur theatre companies did – as a small group of enthusiasts using local halls as a venue.
But then in 1952, the opportunity arose for the theatre group to establish itself underneath ‘the arches’, which had been created in 1909 when a road bridge was built, crossing the railway line at Horley Station.
“We are the only little theatre in the country that is located in an archway,” laughs Pat Randle, marketing and publicity officer for the theatre, “which is something to be proud of!”
Today, along with its main performances, The Archway has its own studio theatre, a thriving youth section and can count Dame Judi Dench as a patron.
“There’s lots on offer for anyone who wants to be part of the theatre; whatever age you are and whether you want to tread the boards or work behind the scenes,” says Pat. “When it comes to our main performances, we pride ourselves on a professional approach, and we are rather ambitious with some of our productions. We try all aspects of theatre, from musicals through drama to pantomime. And our dramas cover everything; from Ayckbourn to Chekov, from Ibsen to Pinter.”
Although the theatre has a long history of commercial success, they admit that in recent years it has become more of a challenge to sell-out performances.
“Because of both the economic climate and the fact that we’re facing stiffer competition from a growing number of other nearby theatres, there are times when some of our 95 seats are empty,” says Pat. “However, we work hard to ensure that we put on performances that will appeal to as wide an audience as possible but which at the same time still provide our members with a challenge.
“Things are definitely more difficult now than they used to be, but despite all the hard work, it’s still well worth it. This is a wonderful theatre and a great community to be part of.”
Need to know:
Address: Archway Theatre Company, The Drive, Horley, Surrey RH6 7NQ
Box office: 0844 8700 887 / archwaytheatre.co.uk
Contact to get involved: Pat Randle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Nomad Theatre, East Horsley
THE Nomad Players amateur theatre group has been around since 1934 when the absence of a permanent place for rehearsal and performance meant a reliance on the living rooms of local residents – in fact, their name originates from their early nomadic existence.
“After years of this, in the 1950’s, a local Horsley resident left his barn to the group in his will,” says Elaine Burns, chairman of the theatre. “This provided us with a fantastic home for our loyal members.”
The building gave the group a permanent, if rather ‘rough-and-ready’, space to perform; although one that in time required more than a little TLC.
“Despite our best efforts, over the years the building started to decline, and by the 1990’s was in desperate need of a new roof,” explains Elaine. “The original tin one was in poor shape and so we applied to the Lottery for money. In the end, though, we were encouraged by the Arts Council to go further and apply for funds to renovate the whole building, which we did. Amazingly, we were successful, and by 1998 we had a fully renovated new theatre that could hold 120 people.”
During the course of an average year, the theatre puts on around ten performances, including those in their studio and those performed by their youth section. This covers a variety of different genres, including panto, drama and comedy.
“There are some performances that are more popular than others,” says Elaine. “For example, shows put on by the children always sell out, as does the panto. By contrast some of the more ‘challenging’ plays aren’t quite as popular.”
But according to Elaine, despite the occasional play that doesn’t do quite so well, the theatre has been a success and one that she is glad she got involved with.
“The consideration of the ‘bottom line’ isn’t necessarily the most enjoyable part of the job but by keeping an eye on it, it’s meant that we remain commercially robust,” she says. “And this means that as a group we can continue to be part of something that is wonderfully creative. All of us here, on stage and behind the scenes, have a profound love of the theatre and so it’s wonderful that we each have the opportunity to indulge our passion and be a part of this fantastic little place.”
Need to know:
Address: Nomad Theatre, Bishopsmead Parade, East Horsley KT24 6RT
Box Office: 01483 284747 / nomadtheatre.org
Contact to get involved: Elaine Burns (email@example.com)
Compton Little Theatre, Compton
THIRTY years ago, a group of friends from the village of Compton got together to start a theatre group, the legacy of which is still with us today.
“Although most of the original members are no longer part of the theatre, we still try to adhere to their vision, which was the production of ‘better than average’ am-dram,” says current theatre member, Gordon Ayshford. “And I think that this is something we achieve.”
The Compton puts on several performances a year and, within this, they try to cover a variety of genres.
“We have our staples, such as a panto and a dinner/drama performance, the latter involving a sit-down meal and two acts of a play, usually a comedy,” says Gordon. “And then we also try to fit in something slightly ‘meatier’ during the year too.
“The hope is that we have something for everyone and that for those involved, whether on stage or behind the scenes, we make the experience an enjoyable one. And also that we fill as many of the 130 seats as possible.”
But despite being lots of fun, according to Gordon, the theatre would be lost without its army of volunteers.
“Small theatres are very different animals from the bigger ones,” he says. “Large theatres have big budgets and can employ people on a professional basis. We can’t do that. Whether it’s on stage or behind the scenes, we are reliant on all those people who come here and donate their valuable time to ensure that our little theatre can act as a creative outlet for the community. If this was a conventional business, it would have probably gone under a long time ago. That it hasn’t is a testament to those volunteers.”
Need to know:
Address: Compton Village Hall, The Street, Compton, Guildford, Surrey GU3 1EG
Box office: 07964 515103 / comptonlittletheatre.org.uk
Contact to get involved: Gordon Ayshford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Electric Theatre, Guildford
HOME to a number of local theatre groups, the Electric Theatre in Guildford has a rather different history from the county’s other little theatres, but a very interesting one nonetheless.
“Back in the 1980s, there were lots of different theatre groups in Guildford, none of whom had a permanent home,” says Caroline Bennett, marketing manager at the theatre. “So they started to lobby the council to provide a venue where these groups could perform and rehearse – and the old electricity works, which once powered the town and had been dormant since the late 1960’s, was the solution to this problem.”
Following a conversion of the derelict space, the theatre opened to the public in 1997. Funded and managed by the borough council, using professional staff with physical and financial support from volunteers, the Electric Theatre has since become a major regional attraction. As well as a thriving programme, it also hosts a youth theatre as well as several large-scale events, such as Guildford Book Festival, the International Music Festival and the Guildford Spring Music Festival. In addition, it can count Michael Buerk, Emma Thompson and Ben Elton among its patrons.
“The theatre holds 180 but is actually quite a flexible space, and seating can be removed to suit a performance,” says Caroline. “We have a really varied programme here; comedy, musicals, plays, youth theatre. I think this reflects the fact that we are home to several different theatre groups. But we also offer evenings that feature visual mediums too. For example, we regularly show the best from world cinema, something that has proven popular.”
Although the theatre generally has good attendances, Caroline thinks that sometimes it suffers slightly from its reputation as a home to community theatre.
“We are, at heart, a community theatre, but we also regularly welcome well-respected professional companies such as Les Enfants Terribles, the Henri Oguike Dance Company, the Long Nose Puppets and the Lyngo Theatre,” says Caroline. “There are plenty of workshops throughout the year too, which give the community an opportunity to get involved in the theatre. It’s a really varied and eclectic venue, so why not come down and see what we’re all about?”
Need to know:
Address: The Electric Theatre, Onslow Street, Guildford, Surrey GU1 4SZ
Box office: 01483 444789 / electrictheatre.co.uk
Contact to get involved: Caroline Bennett (Caroline.Bennett@guildford.gov.uk)
The Barn Theatre, Oxted
BACK in the early 1920s, the villages of Oxted and Limpsfield joined together with the aim of creating a community space for performance art, the result of which was the Barn Theatre.
“Since it opened in 1924, the Barn has continued to adhere to this original concept, that of a public space where theatre groups and other performers can perform,” says Carolyn Rowley, publicity director and Barn trustee.
In its early days, the theatre was in great demand. Although local dramatic societies had first call on the building, during the inter-war years the space was used by many other companies, some of which contained noted actors of the day, such as the July Players who boasted the inclusion of Flora Robson. But it wasn’t just plays on offer. The theatre also played host to a vibrant debating society, which hosted lectures by Lady Violet Bonham-Carter and Randolph Churchill.
“After the War, the theatre struggled financially for a time,” says Carolyn. “However, from the 1960’s onwards, through lots of hard work, the space has been incrementally developed and improved and with this has also come a recovery in the financial position of the theatre.”
Today, as an independent charity, the Barn plays host to several resident local theatre and performance groups, such as The Oxted Players, Oxted Operatic Society and the young actors of the Glow Theatre Group, with everything from plays and musicals to panto.
“These performances are then complemented by other local groups who use the space,” continues Carolyn. “For example, we’ve had a jazz night and dance. The idea is to make sure that the space is utilised and that as many of our 246 seats are filled as possible. Running a small theatre is always a challenge but the many volunteers ensure that the Barn is a definite success today.”
Need to know:
Address: The Barn Theatre, 25 Bluehouse Lane, Oxted, Surrey RH8 0AA
Box office: Varies for each production. See barntheatreoxted.co.uk
Contact to get involved: Bruce Reed (email@example.com)
- GET IN TOUCH: This is just a guide to a few of the county’s ‘little theatres’, so if you’d like to let us know about yours, e-mail the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could see it printed on our letters page