Amber Massie-Blomfield: Hidden gems open up theatre to a wider range of audiences
Two years ago, Amber Massie-Blomfield set off on a hunt for the UK’s most unusual venues. As she explains, the treasures she unearthed celebrate eccentricity and the pioneering spirit of pros and amateurs alike
A very special venue will reopen its doors this month. Malvern’s Theatre of Small Convenience seats only 12 people and stages plays that are typically no more than five minutes long – and yet it is one of my favourite theatres in the UK.
In the summer of 2016, I set out on a road trip to discover the country’s most remarkable theatres for a book, and drawing up a list of 20. During this time I had a chance to visit the extraordinary venue and meet its founder Dennis Neale.
The aim of writing about these hidden gems was never to focus on the biggest or shiniest playhouses, but to seek out theatres that are off the beaten track – places with interesting backstories, in unusual locations, or that had thrived against the odds.
The trip reinvigorated my belief in the powerful role theatres play at the heart of communities up and down the country. Particularly striking was that many of the venues I visited were run by people with no professional experience and who were operating beneath the radar of the mainstream. This thriving amateur culture should be celebrated.
Neale’s story is a great example. Before starting the Theatre of Small Convenience, he had no experience of working in the performing arts. He’d spent most of his life in a variety of jobs, such as working in factories and doing woodland surveillance. Then, in 1997, he heard that an old Victorian gentlemen’s toilet in his town was becoming vacant – and was struck by the idea that it would make a “wonderful miniature theatre”.
After negotiating a peppercorn rent, he took the building over, and began to transform it. With items bought for a few pennies at car boot sales, or pulled from a skip, he created a perfect, diminutive theatre, complete with a proscenium arch – crafted from an old tea tray.
It proved a hit with local residents and visitors, and Neale would often perform up to 22 times a day for audiences eager to see his absurdist puppet shows. For a while, it was listed as the smallest theatre in the world in the Guinness Book of Records.
Neale’s story made me think of the visual arts world’s interest in ‘outsider artists’. These are typically self-taught, work in solitude, and eschew (or perhaps aren’t aware of) mainstream artistic conventions. Often, this is exactly the source of their appeal: critics identify an ‘authenticity’ that artworks created in the pressure cooker of the professional sector – with all the attendant worries of competition and achieving acclaim – lack.
One character I discovered on my travels, who might be considered an outsider artist, was Rowena Cade. She grew up in Cheltenham and spent the First World War breaking horses for the army. After the conflict ended, Cade found herself in Cornwall, and became involved with the local amateur dramatics group. When, in the early 1930s, they decided to perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she volunteered to create a theatre in her garden, which backed on to a rugged cliff overlooking the Cornish coast.
Cade had no professional experience of theatre or architecture, but got on with it regardless. All winter, she hauled bags of sand up from the beach, carving terraced rows of seating and a playing space out of the cliff-side, ready for the following summer’s performance. The result of her labour was the Minack, an astonishing theatre that is surely a contender for one of the most beautiful stages in the world.
For anyone who has visited the Minack, now one of Cornwall’s top tourist attractions, pulling in more than 120,000 visitors each year, it is difficult to imagine the struggle Cade faced to keep her enterprise going. But it took everything she had; by the end of her life she was living in just one room, surviving on sparse meals. The theatre nearly went bankrupt twice. Still, she kept working on it to the last – even in her 80s, she continued to make additions and amendments.
These stories of individuals willing to chart their own course against the odds are incredibly inspiring. Neale’s productions may not have received Arts Council funding or attracted national newspaper reviews, but that doesn’t diminish their value. Quite the opposite; he demonstrates a resilience and genuine passion for the art form that mainstream culture can lack.
As Neale himself puts it: “Sometimes naivety is a good thing. Perhaps an experienced person wouldn’t have taken on such an enterprise.”
Fetishising those who sit outside the system presents dangers. Notions of ‘raw’ or ‘savage’ art – terms often used in relation to outsider art – have an uncomfortable, imperialist undertone. In the visual arts world, much outside art that ends up in galleries has been produced by those experiencing mental health problems, and there is a fine line between celebrating unfettered creativity and a voyeuristic interest in the suffering of others.
But there is a value in reframing how we talk about the work of non-professionals in theatre. The notion of ‘the amateur’ still attracts a lot of snobbery. Yet as Simon Stephens recently pointed out in an interview with the Guardian: “The word actually comes from the Latin for love. That’s where amateur productions sit for me: a culture of people doing a show because they absolutely love it – and that’s immensely moving.”
What if we treated shows in village halls with the esteem we give those in the West End?
What if we treated shows in village halls with the esteem we give those in the West End? Or spoke of our local amateur group in the same breath as what’s going on at the National?
There are still too many barriers to theatre truly being enjoyed by those from all backgrounds. If we expand the scope of what we value in theatre, we might find we expand the range and number of people creating and enjoying it too.
Unfortunately, Neale is no longer able to lead the Theatre of Small Convenience, but when its doors open again under the auspices of Warwickshire College, it will be a celebration of an eccentric spirit; of doing something just because it makes you smile. If you’re ever in the Midlands, I urge you to pay it a visit. It’s guaranteed to brighten your day.
Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die is published on May 25