Hastings’ Stables Theatre at 60: the little venue with big ambitions hosts its first festival
As the Stables Theatre celebrates its diamond jubilee with a packed programme of shows and events, Nick Smurthwaite charts its history and delves into the impressive range and ambition of the amateur venue’s repertoire…
Stables Theatre in Hastings belies its amateur status with a dedication and ambition many professional theatres would envy. A member of the Little Theatre Guild, the Stables has its own impressively appointed – and equipped – building on the fringes of the Old Town, where it puts on a full programme of everything from plays and musicals to festival events and workshops.
Next week, as part of its 60th-anniversary celebrations, the theatre will host the first ever Hastings Theatre Festival – an all-professional line-up of productions that includes Apphia Campbell’s acclaimed solo show about Nina Simone: Black Is the Colour of My Voice.
Other productions include In Loyal Company – a hit from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe in which the actor David William Byrne tells the true story of his great uncle’s exploits in the Second World War – and a revival of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, also performed as a one-man show. The theatre is also planning a first two-week new-writing festival for next spring.
With such a busy schedule, the Stables requires a full-time administrator. This is retired teacher Neil Sellman, whose energy appears to be as great as his ambition for the venue.
Sellman, who took over as chairman of the theatre’s governing council earlier this year, has been associated with the Stables – as an actor, director and all-purpose helper – since the 1980s. In the short time he has been heading up the management team, the 126-seat theatre has managed between 80% and 100% capacity with shows such as The Audience, Season’s Greetings, Shadowlands and Danny the Champion of the World.
The building that’s now the Stables Theatre was originally commissioned in 1746 by the then Mayor of Hastings as the stables and coach house for his mansion, Old Hastings House. At various times it also served as a barracks for the Duke of Wellington’s troops during the Napoleonic Wars, a fire station, an upholsterers, and a garage.
When it was in danger of being demolished in the 1950s, having become derelict, the Old Hastings Preservation Society stepped in to save it. The Stables Trust Ltd was formed in collaboration with Dick Perkins from the Hastings and District Theatre Guild, with a view to converting the building into a little theatre. It was opened on June 16, 1959, by the actor Ralph Richardson.
Much of the original restoration and conversion work was carried out by volunteer labour – at a cost of £15,000 – and the first lighting switchboard was made by volunteers from the Hastings Theatre Guild. Today, lighting and sound equipment is computer-controlled and 50% of ticket sales are generated online.
The theatre’s costs are largely funded by the profits from its productions, bar sales, proceeds from its art gallery and a rigorous programme of fundraising events. The technical staff is made up of former professionals – husband-and-wife team Jane and Jonathan Richardson used to work at the Donmar Warehouse – and volunteers who have been trained up by those with professional experience.
Sellman is hoping to persuade the local authority to give the Stables some money to put on relaxed performances, and also to help with the running and development of the popular Stables Youth Theatre.
Another objective is to employ an experienced professional, possibly part-time, to coordinate the theatre’s publicity and marketing, so that it is not just an afterthought.
“As we move forward, I feel it is essential to have a designated person dealing with our marketing,” Sellman says. “We’ve got an ageing population, which is fine, but I’d like to start attracting more young people to the theatre.” The range and ambition of the Stables’ repertoire is impressive. The autumn season will include Macbeth, Jessica Swale’s 2013 play Blue Stockings, about the pioneers of women’s education, and the Sondheim musical Assassins, hardly one of his easier shows. It will also be workshopping the first show to be commissioned by Stables, Here at Last Is Love, a revue by David Charles Manners set in the lower bar of the Ritz during the Second World War.
Nicknamed ‘the Pink Sink’, it was the place where London’s gay literati – Terence Rattigan, Paul Dehn, Desmond Carrington and others – used to hang out. If the workshop goes to plan, the Stables will produce it in 2020.
A good example of the theatre’s ambition is the production that follows the Hastings Theatre Festival, namely Ben Hur, with a cast of four, adapted by Patrick Barlow who had a massive hit with The 39 Steps. Director David Sismore says it will be “nothing short of epic”.
Hastings Theatre Festival will be at the Stables Theatre from July 2-7
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