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How HIGHBURY THEATRE CENTRE Began
It is a truism that people and not a building make a theatre. We believe that our particular form of theatre will grow best from a group of people who have worked together for many years. It would probably be a fundamental mistake to create a theatre building and then attempt to find a group of people to use it, but if a group of competent people, enthusiastic about their art, work together sufficiently hard and for a sufficiently long time, a theatre of real strength will grow from them.
The group of people that built the Highbury Little Theatre worked together for twelve years before they began to build. On Sunday the 27th April 1924 a number of young people held the first meeting of an Arts Group attached to what was then a very radical, but now quite respectable political party (The ILP). They read together two plays, both by John Drinkwater, "X=O" and "The Storm". Such play readings continued for a year. Early in 1925 it was decided with some misgiving to produce a play and the first stage performance was given on March 5th of that year. Twenty-one years after this first play production, four of the original company were to be trustees of the Highbury Little Theatre; Agnes Holt, Peta English, John Bishop and John English.
In the next twelve years the work undertaken included the following full length plays: " Conflict ", " Much Ado about Nothing ", " Pygmalion", " Heartbreak House ", " The Show ", " The Roof ", " Escape ", " The Skin Game ", " A Hundred Years Old ", " Pleasure Garden ", " Othello ", " The Circle of Chalk ", " The Sleeping Clergyman ", and " L'Avare " in a new English translation by John English and Henry Reed-this was in 1932. There were also numerous productions of short plays.
The plays were normally staged in the Folk House, Erdington, and later in the Church House, also in Erdington. In the earliest days, rehearsals had been held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. B. C. English, and it was from this house, "Highbury", that the group took its name. The name has since been transferred to the theatre, though it is now quite irrelevant and even confusing.
The Highbury Players from the very earliest days had rented workshops and stores, though these were often of the most inconvenient size and shape. Early in the life of the group it became necessary to rent rehearsal rooms.
After ten years of steady hard work it became apparent that the group could not progress very much further until it had its own home for working and playing, in fact a theatre. In 1935 a Building Fund was opened and a search began for suitable premises. In 1937 a site became available in Sheffield Road, Sutton Coldfield. This had originally belonged to Miss Anstey, the founder of a well-known physical training college for women; indeed, it had been part of the garden of her house. On it there now stood a disused wooden mission building. The site was very small, an inconvenient shape and in an obscure by-road. It was examined and considered many times and rejected. Finally, in desperation, the freehold was purchased for a little over £200, the awkwardness of the site being left to be dealt with at a later date, and the obscurity countered with the argument that a Subscription Theatre need not be in an imposing and prominent position. After two years the Building Fund had risen to the vast sum of £40 and the players were forced at the very outset to borrow money from each other to purchase the freehold.
And so with nothing more than a blind hope that the money would be found by some means, the group set out to build its own theatre.
Highbury in 1940
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Planning the Building
The word " build " was to be taken literally. The little money that was available was reserved for materials. All the work was to be carried out by the players themselves, although it is fairly certain that no one had any clear idea of the amount of work that would be involved. Every theatre group has people who can handle crafts such as carpentry, the installation of electrical equipment and decorating, but bricklaying, plumbing, gas fitting and plastering; these were things, which had to be learnt afresh.
The first step was to plan the theatre, and the planning was very much conditioned by the size and shape of the site, which, as will be seen from the plan, is a rectangle with a frontage of 28 feet and a depth of 144 feet.
The existing timber building occupied the front part of the site and behind that lay a garden. It was desirable that the theatre should be working as soon as possible, and, for that reason, a section of the existing wooden building was to be used in the first instance. All new work, however, was to be part of the final permanent building, that is, all new walls were to be of brick or concrete, and, where more than one storey was ultimately contemplated, the appropriate foundations were to be made, although the building for the time being might be a single storey.
The building work was to be tackled in three steps:-
Scheme A was to provide all the essentials of a theatre; foyer, box office, front of house cloakrooms, an auditorium without a balcony, a stage house with a basement and flies, a scene dock, dressing rooms and a greenroom. It was realised at the outset that Scheme A would not provide for adequate storage of scenery, properties or wardrobe, and that it would be necessary to continue storing the bulk of these in other buildings.
Scheme B visualised increasing the height of the auditorium, and building a balcony above the foyer and front of house cloakrooms.
Scheme C visualised the building of a second storey over the scenery dock, dressing rooms and green room to provide additional dressing room and wardrobe space.
So far, in 1963, Scheme A only has been completed. (Schemes B and C were realised in the 1980's and further development work continues)
As a first principle of planning it was decided that however small the auditorium might be, the stage and the back stage offices should be made large enough to be workable, and one-half of the site area was set aside for that purpose.
The theatre was to be run on a membership basis, therefore, it was especially necessary to make provision for the minor social graces which are so much a part of theatre life. A section of the front of house area was resolutely set aside for a foyer, although the use of this area for seats would have made a considerable increase in the box office value of the house. The area eventually allocated to the auditorium was thus the space remaining when the demands had been met for the stage and back stage offices, the foyer and front of house offices. It was found that the space remaining for the auditorium would accommodate eleven rows of ten seats in each. Ten seats to a row produced the first crisis in planning, the box office pointed out that people normally go to the theatre in twos and if the gangway was to be in the orthodox place, that is, in the middle, each row with five seats on either side of the gangway would contain two single seats-far too high a proportion. The gangway was, therefore, placed off-centre with four seats on one side and six on the other.
Another interesting speculation arose during the early planning. It was estimated that the membership would consist of about sixty per cent women and forty per cent men, and the size of cloakrooms was fixed appropriately. These proportions of membership have in fact turned out to be correct, but all the planning was in vain. It now appears that whilst almost every man leaves his hat and coat in the cloakroom, only a very small proportion of the women do so. It seems the cloakrooms for men should be larger than those for women.
The stage house was to be high enough to allow for the flying of scenery, and the ground was to be excavate below the stage to provide a miniature workshop, sewing room, property room and stage manager's office, it would also allow large traps to be operated. The stage was to be capable of being used in an orthodox way with a front curtain and also with an apron-in practice, we have discovered that it is used almost equally with and without the apron. Provision was also to be made for a small orchestra pit communicating with the stage house basement.
It was obvious that wing space would be very limited and everything possible was to be kept off the stage floor. The switch room was planned in a small room over the stage door entrance; it had direct access to, and vision of the stage, but lay alongside the auditorium. The sound box was to be suspended from the fly gantry over the stage manager's corner. To save space, provision was made for recesses within the thickness of the stage-house walls to accommodate gantry ladders, and such things as fire equipment, stage braces and weights.
A lighting bridge over the proscenium arch and a gantry running down either side of the stage were regarded as essential. Great attention was to be paid to the ease of communication between the stage and the scene dock, there were to be doors from either side of the stage-to take a twelve foot flat on end-and a large loading door in the centre back wall.
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The Theatre Organisation in 1947.
The ownership of the building is vested in Trustees, who represent the original builders. The theatre is run on a private membership basis and can be operated without some of the usual licensing restrictions. The total membership is three thousand five hundred, of which approximately three thousand two hundred and fifty, are theatre members, and two hundred and fifty, members of the operating company. Theatre membership is open to the general public on application; there is normally a waiting list.
The operating company is the Highbury Players. Entry into the operating company is by invitation after an audition or interview. There are several forms of membership, First Year Members, Student Members and Associate Members; this last is the normal form of membership and includes people who are active in the working of the theatre in all branches the acting staff, technical and business staff both front of house and back stage. There is a Corporate Membership consisting of a maximum of fifty operating members. Corporate Members have at least one season's service and are invited to take up such membership by the General Committee; the corporate members elect the officers and decide the policy of the operating group.
The objects of the Highbury Players are defined in their constitution:-
To interest the public in good drama and all matters connected with the Art Theatre.
(a) By the presentation of productions of educational and artistic value.
(b) By the study and teaching of all branches of dramatic art and theatre-craft, such as elocution, movement and dancing, costume and scenic design, make-up, music and all forms of stage technique.
The Trustees bestow on the General Committee of the Highbury Players the right and responsibility to operate the theatre jointly with themselves. The general committee consists of a Chairman Vice-Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, Business Manager, House Manager, Publicity Secretary, Membership Secretary, three Committee Members (representing the Corporate Members not otherwise holding office) the Arts Director, Directors of group activities and representatives of the Student Members, Associate Members and Theatre Members.
To ensure continuity in artistic policy, the Trustees appoint an Arts Director for a period of three years. The Arts Director makes appointments to technical positions, such as that of Stage Director and the heads of technical departments-lighting, sound wardrobe and design. The General Committee has power to co-opt and to appoint sub-committees; in practice, however, sub-committees are very sparingly used; the various officers control their own sections and report back to the monthly General Committee Meeting. This procedure has been found to avoid much irritating waste of time in Committee procedure whilst leaving with the General Committee the ultimate control.
Student Group, Film Group and Sunday Club have their own operating staff and organisation and are largely autonomous. Their general policy and budget of expenditure are subject to approval of the General Committee.
Programmes of plays for the major productions are submitted by the Arts Director to the General Committee for approval. The casting of plays is undertaken jointly by the Arts Director and producer. The appointment of technical staffs for any particular production is carried out jointly by the Arts Director, Stage Director, stage manager and heads of technical departments.
This organisation, with some minor changes, forms the basis of operation today(1999), although the Film Group and Sunday Club have disappeared over the years as the needs of members have changed. Unfortunately Centre membership numbers have also declined, but the Operating Company - Highbury Players is stable at around 150 members. The Student Group is now the Highbury Youth Theatre.
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Sixteen Years After - 1963
"The present is but prologue to our future - and epilogue to our past".
John English and Mollie Randle wrote a book about Highbury Little Theatre in 1946 on the occasion of the twenty-first birthday of the Highbury Players, but when the Theatre Centre itself was barely five years old. It then told how Highbury had begun, how it had built its own theatre and what it had been doing during that adolescent period.
In 1963 the book was revised by Mollie Randle and Noel Sherwood who when looking back from the more mature age of 21, saw nothing to alter in the story of those first five years which were the years of early achievement and consolidation.They therefore left untouched the story as it was presented in 1947 but added some new pages as epilogue to our more recent past and prologue to our new future.
What follows in this chapter is their review of those first sixteen years:
Until 1960, there was little change in the Theatre; nothing in the fabric of the building had been altered and such changes as there were in organisation were mere ripples on the surface. The incubus of finance began to press hard upon the organisation. The fantastic and exciting attendances of the war-time years began to dwindle in the face of greatly increased opportunities for leisure and the inroads of television, and the managing committees were more occupied with the question of solvency than with the deployment of capital in the extensions and improvements envisaged in 1947.
The 1953-54 season saw a reduction in performances of each major production from three weeks to two but the number of six plays a season established in 1948 remained until 1958. Thereafter, until the present twenty-first season, five plays a season were performed. Matinee performances (of which there were originally three in a three-week season) became less in demand and eventually were restricted to one a production. In sum, whereas in the early years of the theatre, each production received 21 performances, making 126 in a season, these figures dropped in the last decade to 11 and 66, later 55, respectively. Longer runs of fewer plays are clearly a more economic proposition but the needs of audiences and players dictated the revised pattern, which it was necessary to face. One thing, which was not, sacrificed however were the standards of production which, by and large it may be said, have improved throughout the years. Nor has the vigour of the theatre departed; it was natural that when the first flush of achievement was over, enthusiasm did not perhaps run so high but the years pay tribute to much solid endeavour and much voluntary labour unsparingly given.
It was in 1960 that a new development gave a refreshing impetus to the theatre's activities - the purchase of "the shop next door" on which Highbury had set longing eyes ever since 1942. This meant that, given sufficient financial backing and official authorisation, it would now be possible to increase the working space of the theatre and make a modest but financially rewarding increase in seating capacity. A public appeal for funds to achieve these objects was launched in May, 1961. The subject is dealt with in detail later in these pages and it is interesting to read it in conjunction with the original extension plans on pages 72-3 of the original book.
What of the plays which so far have constituted the backbone of the Theatre's work? Nearly 130 major productions have been given with only one repetition (to celebrate the theatre's 21st birthday) and an almost equal number of short plays; at an estimate, getting on for a quarter of a million people must have sat in Highbury seats. In general, the choice of plays is, with slight modification, still on the lines laid down at the beginning - an English Classic alternating with an International Classic, a play connecting the theatre with our own times, one or more new plays that are good theatre but cannot be readily seen elsewhere and (commencing 1962) a children's Christmas play. Regrettably, it is not always possible to find new plays of sufficient theatrical merit, but we continue to believe that the production of such work is the duty of the Little Theatres. The addition of the children's play follows previous productions at Christmas-time by the professional Arena Children s Theatre Company; here again, if the theatre is to continue a force in the arts, it is most important that children have a chance to savour the magic of the theatre in their formative years.
There have been changes in associated activities, unfortunately mainly in terms of lapse. Sunday Club, which brought much of unique interest in music and song to Sutton Coldfield, was suspended in 1956 when Geoffrey Baker, who had directed its fortunes for 14 years, could no longer continue the generous subsidy upon which its high standards depended. In the face of insufficient support, Film Group was shelved in 1960, whilst the Ballet Group had a short lease of life. There is no intention of abandoning these activities-all of which are part of the community work which we should be doing-but they remain in seclusion until the appropriate time for their reappearance. With the institution of classes in Drama at the Theatre sponsored by the local Education Authority, it was decided in 1956 to terminate Student Group; its successor is Studio Group - a kind of theatre workshop - with a remit to study and practice acting and production techniques, especially in the experimental field. A series of pieces representative of this work is given at the end of each season.
It would be misleading to paint the sixteen years under review as a period of complete recession; rather there was a reorientation of effort. In 1953, a First Night Club, which has functioned continuously since that date, was started. After the first performance of a play, a speaker is invited to talk on a topic, normally connected with a play although not necessarily directly related to it, and many well-known visitors have functioned in this capacity.
Since 1956, concurrently with each production, a display of work by local artists has been held. Open Days, with demonstrations of work done in the Theatre, are held on occasions to give the local community detailed knowledge of what goes on behind its walls.
Elsewhere in these pages (not in this site) are listed a number of "extra-mural" activities of Highbury Little Theatre, such as performances of plays by invitation at Dartington Hall, Torquay and Leamington. Of these, probably the most exciting was the international exchange between Highbury Little Theatre and De Plankeniers of Naarden, near Amsterdam. As a member of the Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain, Highbury played host to the Guild in 1956 and will be doing so again in the not-too-distant future; from 1958-60, Highbury was secretary to the Guild. The Highbury display at the British Theatre Exhibition at Birmingham from 23 May - 14 June 1949 attracted numerous visitors and many useful contacts were made.
The Theatre has achieved successes with several new plays. Both "Theresa" (Jean d'Este) and "Love and Lunacy" were entered for the 1954 British Drama League Original Play Award; "Love and Lunacy" won the premier award and was later performed at the B.D.L. Annual Conference at Malvern whilst "Theresa" achieved honourable mention. In 1957 John English's new play "A Pride of Geese" won the same competition and also received special prizes under the Foyle Award and from the Little Theatre Guild.
It has now been established practice for many years to hold each autumn an annual Civic Night which is attended by the Mayor and Mayoress of Sutton CoIdfield, members of the Borough Council (now the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and local councilors) and representatives of local government departments. Relations with the Borough in which Highbury lives have always been most cordial and the gift of an antique silver plate was made to the Mayor's Parlour in 1959. In retrospect, Highbury does not seem to have changed much in its twenty-one years.
One persisting pattern has
been the predominance of young people who have been the mainstay
of the operating organisation throughout the years. Limitations
there may have been in this but it has, we believe, kept us as
adventurous as were the pioneers of Highbury. Adventure should
be the basis of an organisation such as ours and it is on a note
of adventure that we look forward to the future years.
(That wish has been granted to 1999!)
Highbury in 1969
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The 1980's Rebuild
In September 1984 the Trustees of Highbury Theatre Centre responded to appeals from the then Manpower Services Commission to sponsor a programme providing employment for the long-term unemployed.
By this time the Trustees had acquired the shop next door to, and the house at the rear of the theatre and so the opportunity was provided to develop the building as envisaged in schemes B and C of the original plans.
A three-year Community Work project was established to improve the facilities of the Centre. The principle aims were to improve the opportunities for practical participation such as, design in all aspects of the theatre, the crafts of making costumes, scenery, properties, the techniques of production, staging, acting, movement and dance. Particular attention was to be given to the needs of children and young people, retired people, the disabled and those of the ethnic-cultural minorities in the community.
Manpower Services provided funds for the employment of construction workers who would have otherwise been unemployed, and for technical supervision and management. The Trust provided the overall planning and direction, and voluntary management of the activity. The Trust also found the money for all the costs, other than labour. Members were responsible for most of the internal technical work and the internal finishes and furnishings.
Fund raising has always been an ongoing part of the operation of Highbury Theatre Centre and this project represented a major effort by the organisers to obtain funds from the membership, the general public, public funds, industry and commerce, and from other educational and charitable trusts.
The new building utilised those parts of the old building which were built in brickwork. It was built in steel, concrete and brickwork around the old wooden hut that was subsequently dismantled. Performances continued during the work!
Work began on site at the end of May 1982 and was substantially complete by 1986.
The rebuild provided a modern theatre with
increased seating capacity, larger stage with extra side stage
space, upper and lower circulation corridors to a new wardrobe
workshop, Studio Theatre, Green Room, and dressing rooms. At the
rear of the site a new set and property-building workshop was
constructed and Orchard House was refurbished for the Highbury
Playgroup with the upper floors being used as theatre offices.
For many years the Childrens Centre occupied the ground floor of Orchard House, part of the Theatre Centre. The Parent managed group was a member of the Pre-School Learning Alliance(PPLA) and held sessions for children aged between two and five years and it also ran a Summer Play scheme. Situated behind the Theatre, the contained garden was an added attraction which was much appreciated by parents and children.
Unfortunately the Children's' Centre was forced to cease its activities at the end of 2003 due to circumstances outside the control of the Highbury Theatre Centre.
Highbury in 1980's
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Today & the Future
A major refurbishment of the front foyers, electrical supplies and the installation of a lift took place in 1995 with help from the National Lottery and local charities.
In 2006 and with the help of Sutton Municipal Charities a rehearsal room was built to replace an old wooden hut. A Fire Alarm system was installed to meet new legislation requirements
Plans are being formulated for improvements to the Box Office, Bar and Coffee Shop areas, more toilets and improvement to the administration offices and men's Wardrobe facilites.
Highbury in 1997
To view Photographs of Highbury in 1999 click here.
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