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Before the First World War, in the summer of 1911, a Pageant of Progress was staged in Fromehall Park, Stroud, with 1,300 performers. The novelist Constance Smedley and her artist husband Maxwell Armfield were responsible for the dramatic work in the Pageant. 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. It first met on 6th October 1911 at the Armfields’ house in Rodborough where they decided to set up an organisation that was to be called Cotswold Players.
The Cotswold Players gave their first performance in Amberley where there was ‘general and free prompting’ according to the local paper. 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 World War I all the profits from productions were given to war charities - amounting to over a thousand pounds. Most of this effort came from the lady members; 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; 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 set up an echo for three decades later when, in 1959, the Player won the National Tape-Drama contest with a scene from this play.
During World War II the Players’ activities were necessarily limited. However, things returned almost to normal within a few months of the War's end.
The Post-War Period
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 classics for television. She came to Stroud and accompanied the Players to Malvern. The reception accorded to the play was most moving. Dorothy L. Sayers, who saw this production, stated that it ‘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. 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 the building in 1951 for £1500, with funds raised from the profits of earlier productions. It was not until 1954 that a Theatre Appeal Fund was launched to raise £4000 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 to 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 four 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 and renovation work 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, and 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 begin, 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 that Cotswold Players would pay up to £25 of the cost which was a significant sum of money at the time. It is not known what that generous offer cost the Society.
The final bill for the conversion was £4500, 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 another.
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. Under Milk Wood was chosen, by 70 per cent of those voting. It was directed by Michael Bishop with a cast of 68, 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, the Stroud One Act Play Festival, the HTV West Festival, the Malmesbury One Act Play Festival and the Gloucester One Act Play Festival.
Renovation and renewal
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 was decidedly tatty, the heating was noisy and the balcony was getting so rickety that there was a danger that Stroud District Council would not renew the theatre licence. So, in 2002, the auditorium was entirely rebuilt, with brand new, fully raked seating. The bar and lounge were completely remodelled. New lighting and sound rooms were installed, and a lighting workshop was built above them.
There are now 152 seats in the auditorium, compared with 186 before the rebuild or 250 as predicted when the building was purchased in 1951, but this number gives the auditorium the right balance between comfort and intimacy.
In 2006, the stunning production of Peter Pan won the NODA Award for Excellence, the Rose Bowl Award for Best Musical, and the GDA Best Musical, Best Set Design and Best Costume awards.
In 2007/08 a major development was undertaken, when the old lounge was demolished and a major extension was built around two sides of the building. This included a dance studio, which doubles as a rehearsal room, an office, a stage workshop and store, a costume store and new toilets including one for the disabled. The original cost estimate was £284K but the final bill was around £500K which was achieved after much fundraising.
Since then improvements have continued but have focused on more backstage, rather than public-facing areas. Electric winches and renewed curtain tracks have been installed over the stage and a major investment made in new LED stage lighting. Equipment in the sound room has been updated and low energy lighting fitted throughout the theatre. In 2020, an entirely new heating, ventilating and air conditioning system for the auditorium was fitted.
This may be the end of this article, but the history of the Players and the Playhouse will continue to be written…