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A Room with a View

Dateline: 23rd May, 2006

Many church halls furnish stages for the local amateurs’ annual productions and there are some famous old churches, their congregations long departed, which today thrive in new roles as arts centres, museums and community theatres. Rarely, however, does a brand new theatre arise at the whim of a company of local thespians determined to do their own thing and to work their fingers to the bone in order to have a worthy platform for their endeavors.

Such is the remarkable story of Salisbury Studio Theatre which this week launched their new 92 seat studio with a production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife.

Built at a cost of £300,000 on the site of the two cadet huts which were their home for the last years of the 20th century, the new studio has been financed almost entirely from public subscription, the generosity of supporters and with the essential spur of voluntary labour. The final encouragement came from a local friend who telephoned the club’s Building Committee chairman Derek Jones to ask, “How much do you need to finish the building?”

In the result, his calculated estimate of £20,000 turned out to be a tad optimistic. Amateur actors are nothing if not ambitious and their determination to produce a building of which both city and club could be proud meant that the appeal is likely to remain open for some time as stage and lighting equipment, as well as facilites for the comfort of patrons, continue to match rising standards.

Not that Salisbury, home of one of the finest of English cathedrals, was without facilities for the arts before. The noted Salisbury Playhouse, a regional producing theatre currently directed by Joanna Read, has itself an auditorium seating around 600 as well as its own Salberg Studio. Next door to the Playhouse is the larger City Hall, run by the District Council, which is host to popular music groups, comedians such as Ken Dodd and the local amateur operatic and orchestral societies.

And there is also the Salisbury Arts Centre, formerly the large city centre church of St Edmunds, where a raked auditorium now stages concerts and touring theatrical productions. Which is where we began.

Salisbury Studio Theatre grew from the union of the Phoenix Players and Centre Players, a World War II group who met in the War Workers Recreational Centre premises of Style and Gerrish (now Debenhams) in Blue Boar Row. First productions were under the aegis of the Centre Players but by the early 1950s the club was simply the Studio Players.

From its original headquarters behind the Milford Arms, Milford Street, the club moved to a loft in the grounds of The Swan Inn, Ayleswade Road, The Stables, and thence to two ATC huts on their present site in Ashley Road which members converted into a 50-seat theatre.

Their nomadic tendencies had been no discouragement to their loyal enthusiasts – and no handicap in the recruitment of distinguished talent. In 1954 for example, Nobel Prizewinner William Golding directed Alcestis by Euripides and in the 1980s open air productions of Shakespeare were directed by Salisbury Playhouse Artistic directors David Horlock and Lyn Wife.

The open air Shakespeare, now an established feature of the annual Studio season, began with amalgamation with Avon Valley Players for a production of Twelfth Night on the lawn of diocesan headquarters, Church House and Durnford Manor.

In 1959 Studio Theatre became the smallest little theatre admitted to the Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain, the same year attracting a national press when they premiered the Andrew Davies' play Four Men.

The out-door summer Shakespeare productions have since visited such distinguished stately homes as Lake House, Old Sarum, the National Trust supervised site of the first cathedral, Wilton House, Philipps House, Dinton, Durnford Manor, and in the famous Cathedral Close, North Canonry, the Cathedral School and Leadenhall School as well as touring to the cliff top Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

There have also been productions in the city centre St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury College, the Arts Centre and, during their recent wanderings as work proceeded on the new building, at the Blackledge School.

The crumbling cadet huts were demolished in 2003 as the Building Committee, led by actor, director and former chairman Derek Jones, raised the plea for funding and, with grants of £30,000 from the District Council, £30,000 from Southern Arts, and £29,000 from the Fund for Sports and Arts, planning permission was obtained and the Studio was on course for the final great heave.

A great blow to the thespians was the refusal of the National Lottery to offer support. The club’s President, popular singer and broadcaster Rosemary Squires, has shared members' disappointment at that decision. But she has paid tribute to members for their hard work in fund raising and DIY spirit. Even members of the cast of The Country Wife were helping to put the finishing touches to the building the night before this week’ first performance.

“Working all over the UK,”says Rosemary Squires, “I have seen remarkable results of groups determined to retain their local theatres and the pride in their faces as they showed me around." At Bridgenorth recently, she had visited a refurbished hillside footpath and a church turned into a community centre, entirely through the efforts of local people.

Studio chairman Hugh Abel has spoken of the high degree of self reliance demonstrated by members. "The building has been designed, constructed and fitted out on a shoe-string. Salisbury now has a community theatre that can be used not just by our members but by other local groups. It is very flexible.”

The club’s technical director Chris Angell describes their new control room, at 9 metres by 2.5 metres, as “one of the biggest in the country “, certainly by amateur standards. There is even a fridge as well as a modern sound system allowing multiple sound sources in the auditorium, a back-stage relay and front-of-house public address. The lighting grid is custom-designed with 72 circuits, a 48-channel digital memory desk and the ability to control the lights from within the auditorium – very useful for technical rehearsals.

Back stage there is lighting in the corridors which changes from normal to blue when “in performance” and stage sound is relayed to the cast in the dressing room. Microphones may be connected from the wings directly to the sound desk and telephones and electric candles can be connected without the once ever-present danger of trailing wires.

Now, from the rubble of a pair of crumbling huts has arisen a brand new theatre. It stands in the shadow of the local Fire service HQ, just a stonesthrow from a pleasant meadow overlooking the River Avon.

Kevin Catchpole

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©Peter Lathan 2006