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All the World Can Act On the Smallest Stage in the World

Smallest Theatre in World: Bob Embleton

Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage; all the men and women merely players. But today in Britain the smallest theatres prove that size isn’t everything.

 

Great Britain is blessed with a huge variety of very small theatres in all manner of unlikely, original places.

Peter Brook wrote in The Empty Space (1968): ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that’s all that’s needed for an act of theatre’.

Churches Make Theatre

Many minute spaces are conversions from previous buildings, like Holy Trinity Halls, Wimbledon (Polka Children’s Theatre), old maltings (The Cut, Halesworth), former corn mill (Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Berkshire), Salvation Army Hall (The Theatre, Chipping Norton), armoury for the Border Light Horse Brigade (Wynd Theatre, Melrose, Scotland) or churches (Norwich Arts Centre).

In fact, churches are the most commonly used buildings for transformation into arts venues. The Playhouse Theatre, Whitstable, Kent started life as a United Reformed Church built in the late 1700s. Norwich Puppet Theatre (185 seat raked auditorium) is housed in the converted medieval St James Church, near the heart of the city.

The Ridware Theatre is an intimate studio in the rural hamlet of Pipe Ridware, Staffordshire. The building was originally St James Church, declared redundant in 1983 and taken over by a band of caring volunteers who’ve gradually refurbished the popular, successful little theatre, using cast-off materials from other buildings.

Born out of a derelict Methodist Chapel, the Lamproom Theatre in Barnsley (one of several that the area has: Eckington, Montgomery, Rotherham) is another lovingly staffed and nurtured by volunteers, home to four performance groups that produce everything from plays, musicals, one-man shows to youth theatre.

It’s A Small World

The Theatre of the Small and Small Beginnings are based in Sandwich, Kent, run by James (a fine artist, lecturer) and Sonia (writer) Frost. The Small Beginnings part are a community arts group who create community projects bringing puppetry to children, young people and wider adult audiences.

Great Malvern has The Theatre of Small Convenience. This entry in the 2002 Guinness Book of Records as the smallest theatre building in the world, seating up to 12 with a stage, was a Victorian Gentleman’s lavatory. Keen puppeteer and drama enthusiast Dennis Neale founded it and runs it as an independent theatre.

Like Dr Who’s ‘Tardis’ (bigger inside than out), visitors enter, in Neale’s words: ‘a magic door into a quaint interior marked by Italian commedia dell’Arte theatrical style’. Since he opened in 1999, he’s mounted professional and amateur drama, puppetry, poetry, story-telling, music, monologues and a day of opera!

Rooms above or behind pubs have traditionally been venues for music. The Finsborough Theatre is a 50-seater in a small room over a Victorian pub in London’s Earls Court. Neil McPherson, Artistic Director (well, he’s all roles including cleaner), said he presents ‘plays and music theatre concentrating on thought-provoking text-based new writing and neglected 19th and 20th century works’.

In the 30 years of its life, the Finsborough has become a part of London’s cultural life, appealing to theatregoers of all ages, completely unfunded/subsidised, relying entirely on ticket sales. That’s the story all over. Just like railway, pier, tram preservation societies, it’s the pull of history coupled with concern that great things should prosper into the future, which drives volunteers.

Quirky, Quaint, Eccentric and British!

In the early 1930s, self-confessed English eccentric and amateur theatre lover Rowena Cade built an open-air theatre in her garden. The point was, it was perched on a windy cliff top overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Cornwall! Today the Minack Theatre is still going strong with an 18 week season from May to September.

Under the railway arches of Waterloo Station in London, nestles Waterloo East Theatre. Described when it opened in September 2010 by its co-founder and director Gerald Armin as ‘snug’, the 150 seat theatre rivals neighbouring giants the Old Vic and the National Theatre.

In East Anglia, there is the Pavillion Theatre (510 seats) on the end of Cromer Pier. Norwich’s Sewell Barn was part of Clare House, once Philip Sewell’s, who owned a mare called Black Bess. His sister, Anna, wrote Black Beauty, inspired by horse and barn. Today it’s an unusual small theatre, with the audience along one length and both ends. Each production requires a feat of design to accommodate.

The 99-seat Seagull Theatre in Pakefield arose from the Victorian Morton Road Junior school that was used by college students learning car maintenance in the 1960s before local entrepreneurs saw its potential as a performance space. Losing a battle in 2006 to retain local authority funding, the local community reopened it in 2007.

Sir John Mills Theatre in Ipswich was originally a public building; now it’s a flexible studio theatre seating 120 in traverse or 70-80 end-on and home of Eastern Angles Theatre Company, who tour with local history-sourced material. And so it goes on. Any space/building is potentially a small theatre, and as such, the lifeblood of British theatrical tradition.

The Bigger Picture

Recognising how small theatres are becoming cradles of innovation in straitened economic times, Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian (May 2011) that regional theatres are ‘throwing open their doors to companies that, in the past, they might have deemed a risky box-office proposition’.

She focussed on regional theatres like the Wolsey in Ipswich, Liverpool Everyman, Taunton’s Brewhouse, Hull Truck, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Plymouth’s Drum and Tobacco Factory in Bristol to report how new, experimental theatre was being nurtured, which often moved into bigger venues, more cosmopolitan settings. Her point was to ask whether buildings can have different relationships with audiences.

Further, could buildings cultivate different kinds of audiences? As London and other cities themselves cease to be the (only) powerhouses of creativity, it’s little arenas dotted around the land in nooks, crannies and unexpected places that increasingly fill gaps left by economic shifts, cultural upheavals/evolutions and the vagaries of public taste.

First published on Suite 101, 29 June 2011.

Sources:

The Theatre of Small Convenience.

Finborough Theatre.

The Theatre of the Small.

Ridwares Theatre .

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, ‘The Future Is Micro…’ 26 May 2011. Web 30th June 20

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Unusual Performance Spaces

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