Stamford Shakespeare Company reveals plans for bar revamp

Stamford Shakespeare company on  stage at Rutland Open Air Theatre
Stamford Shakespeare company on stage at Rutland Open Air Theatre
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Staff at Tolethorpe Hall are gearing up for what they believe will be their most successful year ever as they get set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stamford Shakespeare Company.

The company was founded in 1968 by Rada graduate Jean Harley and initially produced plays in the Monastery garden of The George Hotel before moving to Tolethorpe Hall in 1977 when its first productions were Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew.

Since then the company has gone from strength-to-strength and to celebrate such a significant milestone in the company’s history, Tolethorpe Hall will undergo some changes.

Work is already underway on a planned revamp of the bar, orangery and restaurant to celebrate all that has gone before. Marketing and theatre manager David Fensom said of 2018: “Everyone is so excited about all the plans to celebrate an incredible 50 years of history.

“We hope our audience will get behind us. If we could get past 35,000 ticket sales this season that would be absolutely incredible - that really would be our best year ever.

Building on the stained glass windows in the bar area, former cast member and artist Mark Aldridge is working on artwork for the panels of the bar which will be oak.

David added: “It is a real pleasure to be able to utilise his skills and to know that work is being done by someone so closely connected to Tolethorpe.

Costume and photo displays, as well as exhibitions, will also showcase the company’s rich history.

And the three productions being staged during 2018 are two of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic comedy The School for Scandal.

Incredibly, the 2018 season will also see ticket sales hit one million since the company began performing at Tolethorpe Hall.

The lucky patron who buys the millionth ticket will win a free meal or picnic, a signed programme, a bottle of champagne, a backstage tour, free Stamford Shakespeare Company merchandise and free membership of the Company Friend’s scheme, which is being launched in 2018.

The winner will be announced on Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23.

David said: “We are so excited to celebrate our millionth ticket holder - we can’t wait to find out who it will be.”

When the company was founded back in 1968, the initial intention was to raise funds for the creation of Stamford Arts Centre and restoration of the Georgian theatre in St Mary’s Street.

When, due to building work, the hotel could no longer accommodate the company, a new venue had to be found.

In 1977, with only £78 in the bank, the Stamford Shakespeare Company acquired the near-derelict Tolethorpe Hall.

A private loan of £36,000, later repaid, enabled the company to buy the property and take advantage of the natural amphitheatre in the grounds.

Members quickly set about the huge task of getting everything ready for the first season.

Concrete steps were laid, turning a natural bank of grass and weeds into a raked auditorium.

A canvas canopy to protect the auditorium from summer showers was purchased together with 382 plastic chairs.

Members who recall the early days describe it as a chance happening which began with no great ambitions and no business plan - just a wish to carry on performing Shakespeare in the open air for the enjoyment of local audiences.

The new theatre was named Rutland Open Air Theatre although the company decided to keep its name which was already well-known.

In the early 1980s one of the members, Derek Harrison, took on the publicity and relaunched the company’s profile. He oversaw increases in attendance from 6,000 in 1985 to 12,000 in 1986 and over 34,000 by 1994.

In 1992, recognising the quality of facilities for the public and the magical ambience of the grounds against the background of historic Tolethorpe Hall, the East Midlands Tourist Board gave the theatre the accolade of The Middle England Visitor Attraction of the Year.

The theatre itself has seen many changes. Following a major refit to coincide with the 1993 season its seating capacity was increased from 450 to 600 and a permanent canopy was erected over the auditorium to protect the audience.

The new theatre was opened by Sam Wanamaker, responsible for the construction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. He loved Tolethorpe so much that he regularly attended with his wife, Charlotte. To aid Wanamaker’s Globe Project, Tolethorpe mounted a special production of Romeo and Juliet which was attended by Hollywood veteran actor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Other well-known personalities who have supported Tolethorpe with their presence include Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Richard Todd, Kate Adie, Colin Dexter, Jane Lapotaire, Margaret Wolfit and Jimmy Ellis. Royalty has graced the theatre too, with HRH Duke of Gloucester enjoying a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1992.

In 2001, two stained glass windows, designed and made by Cambridge artist, Tim Armstrong, were installed in existing stone mullioned windows in what is now the bar.

The windows are believed to be the only example anywhere in the world of stained glass with scenes from eight Shakespeare plays. Also that year, a long-stitch tapestry was designed and made by American Kaffe Fassett, the internationally known knitwear designer. The tapestry hangs in the orangery and depicts hollyhocks, a feature of the beautiful Tolethorpe gardens, which were enhanced that same year by leading gardener Bunny Guinness, a regular on BBC television and radio.

In September 2001, the Tolethorpe Youth Drama was founded by Central School of Speech and Drama graduate Carol King.

Carol had been an actress and teacher all her life, teaching at London’s famous Goldsmiths University for many years. On her retirement in 1999, Carol joined the Company and directed The Winter’s Tale in 2000. TYD was established to provide professional yet affordable tuition in the performing arts for local young people between the ages of eight and 18 years. The youth group is unique in that it is part of a working theatre and the students have the opportunity to take part in the company’s productions as actors, dancers, assistant stage managers, as well as lighting and sound operators.

In 2002, a 30ft-high gantry was erected to enable actors to fly across the stage and in 2005, a trap room was built beneath the stage to provide access to the stage floor from below.

In 2012, a comprehensive restoration of the roof of Tolethorpe Hall took place. This had been an objective ever since the company acquired the hall in 1977.

Work involved rebuilding the roof and gables over the east and west wings, complete re-slating, replacement of rotten leadwork and ineffective guttering, the installation of natural wool insulation and the replacement of some of the more inaccessible windows. The final cost was over £500,000, but it means the building is now water-tight for the next 70 years.

In 2017, a revolve was built, making possible the creation of multiple settings on the same stage.

And now with the revamp of the bar, Tolethorpe is set to continue its growing national reputation.

Jean Harley continued as artistic director and board member of the company, directing one of the three plays each season, until 
she retired in 2008 after 41 years of loyal and devoted service.

Succeeded by Carol King, Jean was appointed president but sadly passed away in 2014.

n Are you a regular at Tolethorpe? Are you looking forward to Stamford Shakespeare Company’s 50th anniversary year? Tell us what you think by e-mailing: smeditor@stamfordmercury.co.uk