Guest Blog: Huddersfield Thespians – Celebrating 100 years of quality local theatre

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Our October performance of Amanda Whittington’s Mighty Atoms is a first for us in several ways. The play was commissioned for Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017, and performed at Hull Truck Theatre, but this is the play’s first production since then, and the first by a non-professional company.

It will also be the first play directed for Huddersfield Thespians by Adam Sherrard, whom audiences may remember from The History Boys last year. Adam breaks our record (set last year) for the society’s youngest director, and we’re very pleased to welcome back both him and last year’s youngest director, Mel Walton (she’s directing John Godber’s Teechers next year).

But for Huddersfield Thespians, Mighty Atoms will be more special still; this is the first performance of our 100th Season. The five plays of this season mark a milestone in the Society’s unbroken century of performance in Huddersfield.

Back in 1920, Sidney Crowther was discussing the Stockport and Marple Garrick amateur dramatic societies with James Gregson, then-manager of the Theatre Royal Huddersfield, and asked why Huddersfield couldn’t have something similar. They soon found there was enough local interest that they were able to form a Society, and the name Huddersfield Thespians was adopted in June 1920. Our first play followed in October that year.

 

As part of that first season, the Society staged Mrs Warren’s Profession by Bernard Shaw, a controversial play which was at that time banned by the censor, and so could only be performed to audiences of private members, not the general public.

Naturally, this caused quite a stir in the town, and many more people got to hear about the performance as a result. This turned out to be a canny bit of marketing, and the Society’s membership swelled with people coming to see what all the fuss was about.

From this auspicious start, the Thespians have continued to perform plays in the area every year since 1920. Not even the Second World War stopped us! We estimate that since that first conversation back in 1920, the Society has staged over 600 productions.

But our activities have not been confined purely to Huddersfield, and we have often taken shows on tour and out to take part in national drama competitions.

Success in one of those competitions led to us sending a production across the pond to New York and Toronto as long ago as 1926. As the Thespians were expected to pay their own passage, an appeal was launched and with public donations – including one from Huddersfield Town Football Club – we raised the princely sum of £622. In those days, this was enough to cover the travel costs of all nine members of the cast.

Over the years, we’ve moved our in-house set workshop and wardrobe from one headquarters to another, as the buildings we use have closed or changed purpose. Our members and audiences have fond memories of St Patrick’s Hall, Venn Street, the Victoria Hall Theatre and Temperance Hall, among others.

For the last 25 years, our plays have been performed at the Lawrence Batley Theatre. Initially, we used the main stage, but for the past few years all of our plays have been downstairs in the more intimate Cellar Theatre. We’ve found that, despite the challenges of the smaller space, many plays work well in the Cellar and the audience gets a real sense of being right there in the action.

We’ve always strived to offer a variety of work, from serious plays to comedy, from well-established classics to work by newer authors, and sometimes even plays written by our own members. In recent years, for example, we’ve performed classics like Ibsen’s Ghosts, modern hits like Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls, but also new writing like Philip Meeks’s Murder, Margaret & Me and our own adaptations of Grimm fairy tales, as well as extracts from Shakespeare in our outdoor Shakespeare in the Park.

The Thespians aren’t alone in facing a range of challenges in the present day. Live theatre is just one of the entertainment options available to potential audiences, in a market increasingly saturated with demands on people’s attention. Potential society members also have lots of choices, and these days tend not stick with ‘their’ local society but will move around for a particular part or play. All the local societies therefore find it a challenge to retain audiences and their wider memberships.

Part of our response to this has been to expand our social media reach, in an effort to communicate with new and existing audiences, and to get our message out while the traditional means of local advertising are in decline. Meanwhile, we continue to put together a varied selection of plays that we hope will appeal to audiences new and old.

Another challenge the Thespians face as we go into our 100th year is a familiar one: we’re moving home again. The former textiles mill that has been a base for the stage staff since 1976, and the full Society since 1991, has been sold, and we’ll have to leave. Given the accumulation of scenery, furniture, props and wardrobe since (at least!) the 1970s, this will be no mean feat. The silver lining is that the need to clear out has given us the opportunity to take stock and focus on what the society really needs going forwards.

In 1970, Sydney Crowther closed his book about the Thespians’ first fifty years with the lines: ‘We keep our head above water, financially, but with the closure of St Pats the problem of finding a home is more than ever difficult.’

Fast forward another fifty years, and with another book on the way, those same words – replacing St Pats with Oakes Mill – could well be used again.

The future, though, is bright. We have had to move headquarters before, and can do it again. With an exciting range of plays coming up for our 100th Season, and a recent infusion of new blood into the society – not just our youngest ever directors – we can look forward to many more years of quality theatre-making in Huddersfield.

The first play of our Centenary Season is Amanda Whittington’s life-affirming comedy Mighty Atoms in October. We hope to see you there!

-Christine Smith, President of Huddersfield Thespians