tanding proudly in the High Street is the Playhouse Theatre, a converted church that has housed local theatre company, The Lindley Players since the early Eighties.
This handsome exterior leads into a beautiful working theatre, completely with filigree balcony, it’s own dressing rooms and costume department and a cosy bar (which also opens for coffee every Saturday morning (between 10-12).
If you have never been inside you are missing an absolute treat, and you can immediately remedy this by visiting their website and viewing the inspired ‘virtual tour’ which has been filmed as ‘Mannequin challenge’ the viral internet trend of a couple of years back. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh-d6Tsupeg)
While charmingly amusing, the film does actually highlight the unique blend of people, architecture and facilities that together make The Playhouse so special.
The theatre building (which is rented out to other visiting productions and screens live broadcasts of plays from the National Theatre) and the Lindley Players are both run by a cast of volunteers, which in our value obsessed society is quite a feat.
From the leading ladies & men, through to the sound, lighting, costumes and tea making, it’s all people giving their time, and their expertise, for free.
And, even more incredibly, it does actually need to make money as a business, so the pressure of deadlines and to make profit to drive the stakes even higher.
As Peter Bressington, the Chairman tells us;
“ The building was renovated purely through community fundraising, there were no grants, or Arts Council. So it was very self sufficient in terms of the funding. . .]
Having our own building means we have time to build our own sets, we build everything on site, which is great, but we’ve also had to learn how to be a business. We are totally self supporting.
It’s clear to see then, that this is something that is dearly loved and enjoyed from within, as well as by the audiences that come to see the regular productions.
So, have the members and audience changed over time as the town has ?
Peter feels that is certainly a greater mix than perhaps 20 years ago;
There have been physical changes to the outlaying areas of Whitstable, but the actual buildings in town and the nature of it is pretty much remained the same which I suppose is part of it’s charm.
“ The main change is the people, in that if you look at the audiences over the last 35 years, up until quite recently it would have mainly been locals that would come here to the theatre. . .]
And what we’ve had more recently is more people come from London and other places, either visiting or who have moved down here. So you get a different mix, which is a good from a theatre point of view.
There are plays we put on now, which we probably wouldn’t have put on 20 years ago, because they are more niche and back then we’d have struggled to get very many people to see them. But now we do, and we do some very thought provoking plays, some very new plays, as well as the more traditional pantomimes, farces and that sort of thing.
It certainly feels that, despite changes in the town, there is still a passion for community ventures such as this and that the social interaction is important to people.
Gemma Conway is a mum to 3 boys who has recently found her way back to the Playhouse after a 12 year hiatus.
We moved to Whitstable in 1989, and I grew up opposite the Playhouse. We used to go and see Panto’s and I think that was maybe made me fall in love with it. Just the whole building is lovely.
After being drawn in by the buzz of performing and the atmosphere of rehearsing with others in her school years (she played one of Macbeth’s witches) Gemma originally joined The Lindley Players in 2000.
Marriage, work and motherhood all meant her time was in short supply however and she drifted away, only to take the decision to return 12 years later. She remembers being nervous about the time that had gone by and whether she would fit in, but was talked into going to an Open day, where she was invited to audition and won a part in the next production.
When you become a Mum, you can lose yourself a bit. You’re a Mum and a wife and you don’t do anything by yourself any more. So even though it can be a bit of a strain fitting it all in, it’s great to be able to go down and socialise. You meet other people, you are with old friends that you have done shows with before, and you get to go and be yourself.
“ It’s a really friendly group. You end up becoming really close to these people, because you are with them every night when you are rehearsing. . .]
We go for drinks, have Christmas parties, quiz nights… it’s just great to be around people who have the same interest as you.
Chairman Peter echoes this from his point of view also;
The biggest thing is the social aspect. Even though people are playing different characters, you are only those different characters when you are ‘in the play’ as it were, and a lot of time is spent together rehearsing away from the stage. This time spent engenders the social thing far more than if you were in a darts team or something.
As well as providing a social network, and an outlet for creativity, It’s interesting to hear about the ways that being involved in local theatre can help impact other parts of members lives, too. As Peter says;
We have a very good Youth Group here, of 14-18 years olds. And what I’ve said to them is, it’s not about just going on stage, or being a Hollywood star, the important thing is that if you do this stuff it’s about confidence, about voice projection, and this all helps in every day life from job interviews to giving a wedding speech.
Gemma is really enthusiastic about the Youth members too;
Youth company are so talented ! They do one show a year in the theatre, but they also do Green Room Productions, which is just members only and takes place in the bar area. It gives the chance for people who maybe haven’t directed to do so, and also for them to spot talent they maybe hadn’t seen in action from the youth members.
In a town that has seen much change in the last 12 years, it is truly inspiring to see a group of people coming together and working so hard to accomplish productions of such quality and variation. And to see a beautiful building not only still standing, but actually housing a living, breathing example of the community that so many are keen to preserve.
If you have not been, or not been for a while, we highly recommend regular visits to support the both the Playhouse and it’s people for the years to come.
( words and images – Jenni Page )