Community Theatre is exactly what it says it is, theatre made by the community for the community.
It’s not looking for the next Kenneth Branagh, nor does it aspire to appear at the Globe Theatre. It is simply local people, most of whom have little or no acting experience, with a desire to put on a show of some kind, and bring people together from the community to do it.
It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and requires one thing above anything else, and that’s passion. Bucket loads of it.
It’s not glamorous in any sense, it only looks to make enough money to keep going, and thrives on co-operation between local like-minded people. It borrows from Peter to pay Paul, and what it usually borrows is a skill here or a favour there. For example, someone adept at handy needlework to help make a costume, maybe an electrician willing to fix some dodgy wiring non-gratis, possibly someone giving up a few hours to sell tickets or make tea. Or both, or more. In short, a myriad of give and take gestures with the emphasis very much on the give.
But it also gives back. When it works well, it gives people opportunities to shine, to step out of areas that keeps them comfortable, make close friendships, build confidence. It thrives on encouragement, resilience, and laughter. Lots of laughter.
In my home town of Prescot in Merseyside, such a community theatre company has been resident since 2014. Imaginarium Theatre, formerly known as Mate Productions, was created by director and CEO Gaynor La Rocca. I first became aware of them properly when I saw them perform ‘As You Like It’ in a gorgeous woodland area in the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Prescot in 2015.
Since then, they have slowly gone from strength to strength, inspiring children from as young as 5 to get involved, running courses on acting, lantern making, performance drumming and creative writing.
Adults have become involved who otherwise would never have considered performance art and in doing so have performed across the region and have even appeared at the Edinburgh Festival on two occasions, a marvellous story in itself.
A Midsummer Day’s Dream
But alongside of this something miraculous was starting to grow in the background. In the 1590’s, Prescot was home of the first purpose built Elizabethan theatre outside of London. With the nearby Derby Estate being patrons of Shakespeare’s group of players in London over 200 miles south, and an annual three-day cultural event being held in the town in the early 1600’s that drew performers from all over the country, there was mounting evidence suggesting an indelible link to William Shakespeare and Prescot.
The evidence was so strong that it was suggested a completely new theatre be built in the town. The idea picked up support from Paul McCartney, Dame Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart and Vanessa Redgrave as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company itself.
Through setbacks and relentless dedication money was raised, and work began on a new theatre in the months before the covid epidemic, based on original plans by architect Inigo Jones in 1629 for a similar London theatre commissioned by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Fast forward to 15th July 2022, and the wonderful Shakespeare North Playhouse was opened to the public. To quote from one of my favourite films, Field of Dreams, build it, and they will come. And they have, from all over the region and beyond, drawing rave reviews for the theatre and it’s opening productions.
It is a stunning, intimate and at times spiritual feeling theatre space that holds at the most 470 people and is made entirely of timber, using not a single nail or screw in its construction.
The theatre has lit up my hometown, for so long in the doldrums from a past of big industry long ago diminished. TV crews and national newspapers have come to the town as it forms a trinity from the Globe Theatre in London, Stratford-on-Avon in the Midlands, and Prescot in the north.
A Community’s Reward
I started by saying that those in community theatre don’t aspire to the Globe Theatre. But on Tuesday November 2nd Imaginarium Theatre did just as well by putting on a production on this new stage at the Shakespeare North Playhouse. ‘Strange Tale’, an original play having fun with the idea that Shakespeare appears in modern day Prescot through a time portal, is riotous fun and has delighted audiences and reviewers on it’s three-day, five performance run.
All of the performers were people with normal day jobs, or in the case Vera Farrell, an 86-year-old Great Grandmother. It is a wonderful testament to the influences and opportunities for those involved in Community Theatre. It is also a testament to the total dedication of Gaynor La Rocca and her lawyer turned performer Francesco who also plays the vital real-life role of supportive husband through difficult times, when it seemed like days like Wednesday would never happen.
But it did happen, and all those involved community theatre everywhere can afford to take a bow.
(Photographs from Imaginarium Theatre and http://www.visitliverpool.com)