Before the First World War, in the summer of 1911, a "Pageant of Progress" was staged in Fromehall Park, Stroud, with 1,300 performers. Constance Smedley, the novelist, and her artist husband, Maxwell Armfield, were responsible for the dramatic work in the Pageant and according to one contemporary account, “there was only one rehearsal and the pageant went without a hitch”. Afterwards Constance Smedley formed a Committee to consider how plays could be brought to the villages in the area. The committee first met on 6th October 1911 at the Armfield’s house in Rodborough where they decided to set up an organisation that was to be called Cotswold Players. They gave their first performance in Amberley where there was “general and free prompting” according to the local paper and among the audience was Geoffrey Whitworth who later formed the British Drama League. The early plays they performed were simple situation comedies, often written in the Gloucestershire dialect and sometimes featuring local locations and legends. The Players toured their plays to the villages around Stroud, setting up stage at schools and village halls, often travelling considerable distances in all weathers, by bicycle and wagonette and even Shanks’s pony.
During the First World War all the profits from productions were given to war charities - profits which amounted to something over a thousand pounds. Most of this effort came from the lady members, and it was not until the end of the war when the men returned home that expansion occurred. In the early 1920s, Theodore Hannam-Clarke and John Masefield (later Poet Laureate) were very active with the Players, the former first as an actor and later as producer, and the latter as playwright, co-producer and later as President. In his book, "Drama in Gloucestershire", published in 1928, Hannam-Clarke refers to the Cotswold Players as "the most distinctive amateur organisation in the Country". This is borne out by contemporary references in the national newspapers.
Theatrical history was made in 1922 when the Cotswold Players became the first actors to take a play to one of H.M. Prisons, when they presented Jerome K. Jerome's 'The Passing of the Third Floor Back’ at Gloucester Prison. This unique occasion has since been followed by a more recent visit to Leyhill Open Prison.
Early in 1925, Galsworthy's 'Silver Fox' was presented by the Players in Bristol. This sets up an echo for latter-day Players when, in 1959, they won the National Tape-Drama contest with a scene from this play.
Under the conditions of the Second World War, the Players’ activities were necessarily limited. However, things returned almost to normal within a few months of the war's end. From 1945 until the early part of 1957 the Cotswold Players presented a series of successful play seasons at the Church Institute, Stroud. So spectacular indeed was the resurgence that in 1954 the Players were invited to perform their production of "Vanity Fair" before an international audience at the British Drama League Annual Conference and Theatre Week at Malvern. The adaptation - from Thackeray’s famous novel - was by Constance Cox, well known for her adaptations of the classic for television. She came to Stroud and accompanied the Players to Malvern. The reception accorded the play was most moving and Dorothy L. Sayers, who saw this presentation, stated "the production would have done justice to the professional stage". The Cotswold Players have many times been successful in competitions and festivals both in Gloucestershire and further afield.
From 1946 onwards the Cotswold Players were determined to obtain their own performance venue. An opportunity came when the Slade Hall, Parliament Street, was put up for sale. It was built in 1836 as a Primitive Methodist Chapel. A school room, now the Green Room, had been added in 1852. After the Methodists vacated the building it was bought by Stroud Urban District Council and was licensed for music and dancing and at some stage it was the HQ of The Stroud Boys Club, a fact that was reinforced when the Cotswold Players later discovered ball marks on the walls and ceiling.
The Cotswold Players bought it in 1951 for £1,500 with funds raised from the profits of earlier productions. It was not until 1954 that a Theatre Appeal Fund was launched to raise £4,000 for the conversion of the building into a theatre from plans drawn up by Edgar Leah of Gloucester. The success of the appeal was almost entirely due to the energy and devotion of the late Lionel Daniels and the many friends of the Players who contributed handsomely to this fund and made it possible to put the work of conversion in hand.
An article in the local newspaper of the time stated that “when the chapel is converted into a theatre, there will be seats for 220 and car parking for 150 vehicles”. A later article in the same paper reduced the available car parking to 60 to 70. The very first performance in the building took place in January 1953 when “Bluebeard”, a pantomime written and directed by Miss Trout, was performed within the original 4 walls of the chapel building on a temporary stage with no main curtain. The programme claimed that the Playhouse should “accommodate in comfort an audience of 250”.
Building began in the spring of 1955 and was completed in 1957. The builders erected the present stage, whilst members set to and built most of the foyer, installed some three miles of electric cable, redecorated and built new cloakrooms.The land adjoining the original chapel had at one time been a burial ground although the graves were at least 60 years old and many as old as 100 years. Before building work could start the graves had to be removed and the remains re-interred at the Bisley Road cemetery. But the Cotswold Players decided that relatives of the deceased could, if they wished, have the remains interred in another place of their choice and Cotswold Players would pay up to £25 of the cost. It is not known what that generous offer cost the Society.
The final bill for the conversion was £4,500 and the building was officially opened by Sir Barry Jackson in June 1957 with a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was directed by Grace Keene and every member took part in some way or other.
The 50 seats installed in the balcony came from the now demolished St. James Theatre in London and it cost 5 shillings to sit in one. Later Cotswold Players acquired seats from the Theatre Royal in Bath which were installed in the stalls.
Further developments followed. New toilets and cloakrooms were built and a new lounge and bar were erected in the 1970s.
In 1972 to celebrate Cotswold Players’ Diamond Jubilee, a poll was taken among the patrons to see which play they would like to see and 'Under Milk Wood' was chosen again by 70 per cent of those voting. This time it was directed by Michael Bishop with a cast of sixty eight, a dog and a cat!
Throughout the 1980s and 90s the Players continued to attract good audiences and win awards in various competitions including the GDA One Act and Full Length Play Competitions, the Bristol Evening Post Rosebowl, Stroud One Act Play Festival, HTV West Festival, Malmesbury One Act Play Festival and the Gloucester One Act Play Festival.
In 2001 the members installed an orchestra pit. But the Playhouse was badly in need of some care and attention. The seats were in poor condition, the decor decidedly tatty, the heating noisy and the balcony was getting so rickety that there was a danger that the Stroud District Council would not issue a theatre licence. So in 2002, the auditorium was entirely rebuilt with brand new, fully raked seating and the bar and lounge completely remodelled. New lighting and sound rooms were installed and a lighting workshop built above.
There are now 152 seats in the auditorium, compared with 186 before the rebuild and 250 as predicted when the building was purchased in 1951.
In 2006, the stunning production of Peter Pan won the NODA Award for Excellence, the Rose Bowl Award for Best Musical, the GDA Best Musical, Best Set Design and Best Costume.
In 2007/08 a major development was undertaken when the old lounge was demolished and a major extension built around two sides of the building. This included a dance studio which doubles as a rehearsal room, an office, stage workshop and store, costume store and new toilets including one for the disabled. The original cost estimate was £284k but the final bill was around £500k.