POST WAR RECOVERY
Following the loss of the first Little Theatre, the Tamariatans found a new home after the war at Christ Church Hall, York Lane (now somewhere under the foundations of Sainsburys!). Membership had dropped to about 37 in the war but, with ex-members returning from active service and new members joining, the numbers soon exceeded 100 once more.
Christ Church Hall was limited in size, scope and availability. New sets and props were constructed despite limited funds. Productions were soon as frequent as in the pre-war years.
The standard of acting and producing improved greatly and the Tamaritons had considerable success in the highly competitive British Drama League Festival:
In 1947 an original play by member Harry Haydon called "File and Forget" won the preliminary round
In 1950 "We Got Rhythm" by Nora Ratcliffe reached the Area Final in Birmingham
In 1952 "Two May Pass" also by Nora Ratcliffe reached the Area Final in Kidderminster
Between 1950 and 1952 some of the most worthwhile productions were in village halls at Callington, Calstock, Liskeard and Babbacombe. These also fostered friendships with the audiences there who might also then make the effort to see Plymouth based shows.
In the meantime the hunt for better accommodation continued.
Barbican Little Theatre
Since the war, members of the Committee had been searching for a suitable building to be the Tamatitans' new home, not easy in a blitzed city like Plymouth. But in 1955 they secured the lease of the Main Hall of the Seaman's Bethel in Castle Street on the Barbican. Although this hall was rather barren and forboding in appearance, it presented an opportunity and challenge for members to create a live theatre in what was becoming an artistic district of the City. It also had a large room available to be a property store and workshop. It was no surprise that this Little Theatre should be named after the beloved first one that was lost in the bombing.
During the summer of 1955 members constructed a stage with an opening of 20ft and depth of 15ft with adequate wing space. A grid structure was made for the suspension of scenery and lighting and curtains added. Heating for the audience was provided in time for the opening revue show in October 1955! After some busy fund raising during the following winter, the transformation of the church hall in to an intimate Little Theatre was made real in the summer of 1956, including the installation of tip-up seats acquired second hand from a theatre near London. A snag was that the Bethel Missionaries did not approve of the patrons using their main entrance so a back door entrance from Lambhay Street had to be created.
The Company achieved in eighteen months what was expected to take years, by their enthuiasm and hard work backed by the tremendous support and interest of many friends of the Company, and all for £187 and 6 shillings.
little theatre stability
The limitations of the Little Theatre building precluded the granting of a local authority licence for public entertainment. The way round that was to create The Tamaritans Theatre Club in 1957, so that patrons became members of this club. Membership grew very quickly, and their were problems trying to seat everyone at productions - even though the only toilets available at the interval were in the Fisherman's Arms nearby. The peak membership is thought to have been 931 in 1962/63. Club members were regularly advised to book early to avoid disappointment. This over subscription was a concern for the Committee because of capacity for a while, but times were changing and the introduction of TV started to reduce attendances and membership. Many amateur societies disappeared.
When the Athenaeum Theatre opened in 1961, the Tamaritans staged the first production in it "A Christmas Carol" in December. The Company used both the Globe Theatre at Stonehouse Barracks and the Athenaeum for one or more productions each year so that general members of the public could attend.
Other highlights in this period include:
first amateur production of "Lock Up Your Daughters" by Bernard Miles and Lionel Bart
being part of "The Plymouth Mayflower Theatre Workshop" for the Mayflower 350 celebrations in 1970. Many local societies performed in the Little Theatre, 16 different performances in the 5 months between May and September
Strong support from the Evening Herald with feature pages with photographs, previews of shows and constructive reviews afterwards, from Harvey Crane, Bill Stone and Lorna Griggs
There were some difficulties with the Little Theatre landlords, the Bethel Mission Trustees:
In 1971 they initially refused an extension of the lease on the basis of propriety, but they were over-ruled at a County Court hearing
A new higher rent had to be agreed for the 1975/76 extension of the lease
This came to a head in 1980 when the Seamen's Bethel decided to sell the building. A major fund raising drive led to a sealed bid from the Tamaritans for the theatre and rooms they had been using of £20,125. However this was not enough, the winner being the Serenade Arts Trust with big plans for the building.
The Tamaritans' Golden Jubillee celebrations in 1981 included the performance two plays by Brian J Burton. June Fletcher directed the premiere of "Being of Sound Mind" and Brian Finch, Sweeney Todd.
Despite the sale of the "Little Theatre" to the Serenade Arts Trust, the Tamaritans were able to remain in occupation of the areas covered by their lease. So for five years the Company shared use of the theatre, the last public performance there being at the end of 1984. The theatre was renamed by the Serenade Arts Trust as the Senenade Theatre in 1984, but this name only survived briefly, as the expected grants for their plans did not materialise and in 1986 it was sold to Plymouth City Council when it became the Barbican Theatre (a major refurbishment in 1998 particularly helping it become the well known Barbican Theatre of today).
Outside of the theatre space itself however, the Tams relinquished the scenery and furniture stores and the wardrobe areas to the Serenade Arts Trust in order to maintain a reasonably amicable working atmosphere. In 1981 the Company leased the disused St Saviours Church Hall, on the corner of Citadel Road and Lambhay Hill, from Plymouth City Council. This became the new base for rehearsals, workshop and wardrobe. This remained the case until 1988 when these facilities were moved to a more spacious old warehouse in Manor Gardens, on lease from Plymouth City Council. This will be even more significant in later years.
1983 saw a major milestone in Plymouth theatre with the opening of the Theatre Royal. With the Athenaeum also nearby, Plymouth's theatrical hub had moved to Derry's Cross. The Tamaritans were the first non-professional company to perform in the Drum Theatre at the Theatre Royal, "The Diary of Anne Frank" in July 1984. This was also memorable by a protest by Holocaust deniers outside which added to the edge of a highly dramatic evening.
From the mid 1980s the Company were in the pattern of producing 5 public performances per year. The Tamaritans performed 14 times in the Drum Theatre from 1984 to 1989, including seven in succession between May 1985 and September 1986. They all proved artistically and financially successful, with a number of "sell-outs". The other main stay for productions at this time was the Athenaeum particularly as the Theatre Royal developed more of their own programme for the Drum at the end of the decade. In 1990 the Theatre Royal announced that the theatre may need to axe its Drum Theatre programme because of the lack of government subsidies. However the Drum would remain open for use by other companies, something that the Tamaritans were keen to do.
The 1980's transormed the Tamaritans from a first class amateur theatre company into a theatrical business, because of the need to hire theatres for all productions at the normal rate. The Company needed to provide a sufficiently high standard to ensure audiences, used to professional performances, are more than just satisfied. Although the Company's staus was amateur its attitude needed to be professional, something that is still true for the current Company.
In to a new century
At the Golden Jubilee celebration dinner, Roger Redfarn, Artistic Director at the Theatre Royal, challenged the Tamaritans in his after dinner speech: "I have been to Gdynia, Plymouth's twinned city, to produce shows. Why don't the Tamaritans become the first amateur company to produce a play in Gdynia?"
Well this set the Management Committee in motion and the civic authorities of both cities were enthusiastic. A 3 day fact finding mission took place in October 1992 by Brian Finch who was to be the director and Chris Hunt the tour manager for the whole adventure. There were to be no charges for using the theatre and facilities in Poland and the Tamaritans would cover all their own costs. And so it was that 34 Tamaritans spent a week in Gdynia with a tour of the powerful drama Equus by Peter Schaffer which was performed between the 10th and 17th April 1993. The audience responses were wonderful; every night was sold out and with standing ovations every night. On returning to Plymouth the show was then repeated in the Drum from the 26th April to the 1st of May.
In the early 1990s the Tamaritans revived the "Strolling Players" i.e. visiting village halls or other small venues as in the 1930s. These were developed by a small group in to rehearsed readings on a theme such as Christmas, Travelling, or the Works of Noel Coward. The Strolling players continued for many years until recently, led first by Maggie Jinks and then Hazel Kerslake.
There was another drama highlight in 1996, when the Tamaritans were given special permission to be the first amateur company to perform "The Absence Of War" by the play's author David Hare. This was on the basis of the Theatre Royal management vouching for the quality of Tamaritans' productions.
In 1996 the Tamaritans were fortunate to receive a bequest of £50,000 from the estate of long time highly valued member Vera Sparkes. Vera was mentioned first in a programme as "stage manager" in 1949, directed many plays in the 1950s and 1960s and founded the Company's wardrobe department. She became a Vice President, a status reserved for those who have rendered significant service. The stipulation of the generous bequest was that it must be used for capital expenditure and only any interest could be used for running costs.
The Company decided to use the money to purchase premises, either its current leased home Manor Gardens or elsewhere. By 1999 it was further decided to negotiate with Plymouth City Council to buy Manor Gardens, although this would be with a view of upgrading its current use rather than try to convert it to a theatre. It was felt that performing in professional environments like the Drum was more beneficial to the standard of the productions. In 2001 the purchase was complete for £40,000. Manor Gardens was originally a service lane, our building was one of two, ours was a hospital for horses in the 1800’s, whilst the similar building next door was used for carriages. Our building was subsequently used by a local brewery who used it for the storing of barrels. The building next door was destroyed and flats were built on this site after WW2 (thank you to local historian Richard Fisher for this background).
The challenge then was to convert the 19th century warehouse in to suitable long term home. Here Manor Gardens location in Stonehouse helped, since as it was one of the most socially deprived areas in the country, it was possible to apply for grants. In the end £167,000 was provided by a combination of the South West Regional Development Agency, The Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and the Single Regeneration Budget. The contents of Manor Gardens were emptied by August 2001 (to large barn in Wembury) so that the refurbishment could begin. This was all finished by the end of that year.
A condition of the funding for the structural refurbishment was that the Company made the premises available to community groups and encouraged the training and involvement of the community in the performing arts. It was necessary to develop the inside of the premises further. An efficient modern workshop was provided, new scenery flats built and shelving erected, and tubular scaffolding provided for the wardrobe department. A control desk, sound equipment and a lighting rig were purchased. The overall cost was covered by some further grants and fundraising.
The creation of the Manor Gardens facility has been a great boon to the Tamaritans since 2002, and it remains in frequent use. The corridors display a framed poster from each show since about 1980 so has a living memory.
With the need to vacate Manor Gardens for the refurbishment in 2001 it had been necessary to drop from the usual 5 plays a year to 4. At the same time there were increasing challenges in keeping up the numbers of active members and audiences with the changing priorities for recreational time. So the Company revised its target to that of performing 4 shows per year rather than the previous 5.
We're still going
The Tamaritons continued to perform 4 shows per year until 2010. This was typically with one or two in the Drum, usually a January/February slot and one in June/July. The others, with a few exceptions, were in the Athenaeum. In autumn 2009 however the Athenaeum closed its theatre - a big shock not only to the Tamaritans but many dramatic societies who had regular slots there. (7 years later the Athenaeum theatre did reopen in a more limited way in conjunction with the Barbican Theatre Trust, it is not out of the question that the Company might use it again at some point in the future).
The Company responded by trying out different venues in the city. The Devonport High School for Boys had in 2008 created the Edgcumbe Theatre, and this was the first new venue tried, with 2 performances there in 2010 and a further one in each of 2011 and 2012. At this time the Company found it difficult to keep to 4 performances a year, with 2010 the last year this was achieved. It even dropped to 2 a year in 2013 and 2014, but after this a pattern of 3 a year commenced from 2015 and that has been maintained since. Another challenge that emerged in 2013/14 was that the Drum would no longer schedule a January/February slot for the Tamaritans given their own programme. The highly successful Calendar Girls in February 2013 was the last Tams production in that mid-winter spot.
In 2013 another school theatre was tried, the Muse Theatre at Lipson Community College. It was used also in 2015 and 2016. It has excellent facilities but it was found difficult to attract many patrons there, and like the Edgcumbe, available slots are restricted to school holidays. The Devonport Playhouse was used once a year between 2014 and 2016. This has the advantage of a regular supportive audience to that theatre and availability outside school holidays. However the staging was changed to better support musicals at the time of what became the last show there, Loot in February 2016. Whilst it might have been better for musicals, it did not work well for plays.
In the meantime, the new School of Creative Arts had been built in Millbay, and it included a theatre, The Red House Theatre. This was trialled for Ladies Day in February 2017 and this was a success. Since then the pattern has been 2 shows at the Red House (February and October) and a summer slot at the Drum.
It has been a continual challenge to maintain healthy membership levels but it has helped that a schedule of 10 social play readings per year introduced in recent years give a chance for those not in productions to stay involved. Plays are chosen not only to be of interest to audiences, but to involve the largest number of members, or non-members who then join. There is a regular Tuesday gang that expertly build the sets, a proper wardrobe to manage and other social activities (see the Diary).
In 2018 the status of the Tamaritans was changed to a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) to best suit its needs as a charitable organisation supporting the performing arts in Plymouth.
The history above has been based on the "History of the Tamaritans 1931-2008" by Chris Hunt who was a highly committed and valuable member for many years.
In 1930, Frederick W Rowe, a member of the Gilbert and Sullivan Fellowship, was asked to provide a programme for a fellowship evening. He decided to present two one act plays, and enlisted the Fellowship's leading lady, Kathleen Davey, to help. Neither Frederick nor his fellow players had any idea to form a dramatic society, but they were so pleased with their efforts that they decided to do so.
Plans were already in hand for the big Hospital's Fair for the summer of 1931, so they decided to repeat the two plays and produce others in order to raise funds for the Fair.
The player's needed a name and influenced by the popularity of JB Priestly's novel "The Good Companions", and the charitable cause they had in mind, they adopted "The Good Samaritans".
This was then localised by substituting "Tamar", hence "The Good Tamaritans". At a society meeting in December 1931, the group decided to shorten the company name to "The Tamaritans".
The first public performances were at the Globe theatre on 6th February 1932, when two teams were entered in to the British Drama League Festival for one act plays, the forerunner of today's All England Theatre Festival.
At this time the Company was self-contained. The members designed their own scenery, made their own costumes, produced their own plays and they even had their own instrumental quartet. Conducted by Miss Queenie Edgecumbe, it played between the acts and could be augmented as necessary to form The Tamaritans Light Orchestra.
By the season of 1933-34 there were 45 members. They obtained a large room over Westwell Park Chambers in Westwell Street (roughly where Armada Way is now) and this became their first "Little Theatre". It had a audience capacity of less than 100 people and another room which was the green room, dressing room, committee room, store room and kitchen. It was also known as the "Bijou Theatre" and was drescribed in a News Chronicle article in 1936 as the "smallest theatre in the West Country".
By 1935 there were 121 members, and the Company was flourishing in all but financial terms. Income was boosted by creating "life members" for £5 for life. The membership was extraordinarily energetic and enthusiastic. There were weekly meetings for play rehearsal and production, or lectures. There were also musical evenings on Sundays and occasional original pantomimes, children's matinees, public shows and drama festival events. In one year the programme included 4 public shows, 18 private shows, 9 lectures, 4 debates, a demonstration, a dinner and dance, a whist and bridge drive and a visit to the Welcome Sailors and Soldiers Home. They even published a very fine quarterly club magazine between 1935 and 1937 which included articles by well-known authors nationally, as well as Company news. There was also much visiting, and being visited by, other local drama societies.
In December 1938, a small committee was formed to find a bigger and better theatre. But this didn't bear fruit until 17 years later, other matters were soon to be the priority.
War Years &the blitz
During the Second World War, the Tamaritans would face their first and only hiatus in their entire history. Initially the Tamaritans set up a canteen in the Little Theatre which was open nightly and members of the armed forces interested in the Theatre were especially welcome. This proved very popular.
But in March 1941 during an air raid on Plymouth City Centre, the Little Theatre was bombed and completely destroyed. The group's meetings and productions momentarily ceased, but the spirit of the members was unquenchable. Soon small groups were meeting in each others houses on Sunday afternoons for play readings. As the war clouds began to recede, the Tamaritans put on several popular plays that were presented to the men and women in the Forces in local camps, including Drakes Island and Tregantle Fort at Rame, helping to boost morale. In the week before D Day they entertained a large number of waiting troops at a US Air Force base near Looe. One play "Springtime for Henry" was performed on 27 occasions, and some of the other runs were nearly as long.
When the war finally ended in1945, the company had made a small, but valuable contribution to the war effort, despite some challenges of their own.