Monday, April 14, 2008

My Town Monday - The Barn Theatre.

Today I want to tell you about our local Theatre, The Barn Theatre. My daughter goes there as
a member of the youth group and loves it. I have taken some of the history from their web site, so I can't claim ownership of it!! Its a great resource, literally a small 139 seater theatre that stages lots of traditional and popular modern productions, but it started life as a very different venue.

The picture above is a sketch of how the buildings look today, they are quite distinctive in what is now a residential area of the Garden City.

It is commonly stated that the present barn in Handside Lane was originally built closer to Handside hamlet, possibly in the late 1600's.
In accordance with tradition, it is believed that a 17th century barn was moved to Lower Handside from somewhere in the immediate area, but there is still have no firm evidence to confirm this. It is possible that an old barn had previously been taken down and stored for future use, or it might have come from non-estate land in the area. Another possibility is that the present building, with a distinct change in roof angle about halfway along the main structure, may be the result of combining two smaller barns. It is unlikely that a totally, or even partially, new structure would have been erected with this step in the roof, so maybe we should be looking for two previous sites, not one! It is likely that we may never know the age or origin of the barn.

Early Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.
Building of Welwyn Garden City started in 1920, and within a year, with the population less than 800, the first play was staged at Brickwall Barn (the Handside Barn was then full of cows!), when C.B. Purdom, a Director of Welwyn Garden City Ltd. (the company -formed to build and run the town), and an enthusiast for all forms of drama, directed local people in Shaw's 'The Showing Up of Blanco Posnet'. Drama proved to be a popular activity, and many groups were set up in the following years. Some key events with relevance to the subsequent opening of the Handside Barn as a theatre are listed below.
1921 Purdom founded the Welwyn Garden City Theatre Society, one of its objects being to seek a permanent theatre for amateur drama. Their first production was Shaw's 'Candida', in the Cherry Tree Restaurant, in December.
1924 The Labour Players was founded, by F.J. Osborn and others, to perform plays of social interest (the following year the name was changed to Welwyn Folk Players). Their first play was 'The White Lady', by H.B. Pointing, a local author, presented in the Parkway Hall [where the east end of Rosanne House now stands] in March.
1928 The Welwyn Theatre (later the Embassy cinema) opened in Parkway [where the Health Authority building now stands] for use as both cinema and theatre. Apart from the Welwyn Drama Festival, which was held there with great success annually from 1929 to 1973, it was not very suitable for amateur drama, so the need for a small amateur theatre remained.
1929 The Welwyn Thalians were formed from the W.G. City Barnstormers (founded in 1923) and the W.G. City Operatic Society (founded in 1927), with a strong emphasis on musical productions.
During the period 1921 to 1931 the above drama groups, and others, regularly staged about six to eight shows each year, mostly in the Parkway Hall, and later in the Welwyn Theatre. In 1930 the Welwyn Stores Staff Association performed 'Tilly of Bloomsbury', by Ian Hay, at the Handside Barn, which then housed their social club.
Growing dissatisfaction with the Welwyn Theatre led Dr L.T.M. Gray, a Director of the Welwyn Garden City Company (which owned the Handside Barn), who was also Chairman of the Theatre Society, to arrange, and to finance from his own resources, the conversion of part of the Barn to a theatre. All the local drama groups co-operated with the Theatre Society to carry out the necessary work, and the Barn Theatre was eventually inaugurated as a public theatre in January 1932, with Dr Gray as licensee, and responsible for its operation. It could seat 150 people on tip-up seats, with tickets at 1/3d [6 pence] and 2/6d [12 pence].

During the war years the premises were used to house soldiers and naval Cadets and took a bit of a battering, plans were put in place to renovate it and update the facilities.

On 1 October 1969, the new Barn Theatre Club opened its first season with a production of the musical show by Frank Norman (music by Lionel Bart), 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be' . A further six productions were staged by the Club in the season, and one by the ICI Dramatic Society, which had been unable to join the new organisation [the ICI club continued to put on shows at the Barn in most years until 1982, when ICI closed its main operation in the area. The Thalians also put on a couple of shows in 1970 and 1972].
In 1981 a second company, the Barn Theatre Trust Ltd., was set up as a Registered Charity, to be responsible for maintaining the building, and for staging the productions put on by Club members. Because a massive rent increase was expected soon, on renewal of the first 21 year lease, it was agreed to try to purchase the freehold of the building. After long negotiations, the Trust completed the purchase in 1984, following a major fund- raising campaign, so finally achieving the goal of an amateur theatre in the town, owned and controlled by its members. Since then many alterations have been, and continue to be, made to the facilities, dependent on the money and labour available, and on planning requirements for what is now a Grade II listed building.
A wide range of plays continues to he presented at the Barn Theatre. Displays of stage photographs and programmes from our archives are often used to illustrate the wide range of productions mounted during the life of the theatre - now approaching 70 years.
The Club also organises a variety of dramatic and social events, and is a member of The Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain. It regularly enters local and national drama festivals, in which it has won many awards.


Debbielou said...

Interesting stuff - I saw a production of the Wizard of Oz in that theatre years ago !

LuLu said...

Interesting stuff. Really love the historical bit on your blog !

Carleen Brice said...

"Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be" cracked me up!

Alexandra said...

Very cool stuff - TFS!! *STAMPIN HUGS* Alex

Travis Erwin said...

The barns around Amarillo are lucky to survive the next windstorm much less hundreds of years. Very interesting post.

Britta Coleman said...

What a wonderful place to catch a show. Interesting post.