email the Little Theatre

History of the Progressive Players and the Little Theatre

The formation & Westfield Hall

In 1920 the first world war was over and peace had been made. People were recovering from their dazed condition at the end of the war and political hope and enthusiasm were returning. One result of this was that the Gateshead branch of the Independent Labour Party acquired a hall, the Westfield Hall in Alexandra Road. Here it was intended to encourage cultural activities as well as to hold political meetings; there were a choir, a band and a socialist Sunday school – and a dramatic club. So began the Gateshead ILP Dramatic Club which later became the Progressive Players. Of course, any political link has long since ceased and the players are now a non-political and non-sectarian organisation.


The premises were inconvenient and the drama club had no assets of any sort; the seating was bentwood chairs and they played on a temporary stage surrounded by temporary curtains. In that first year they staged “Candida” by G.B. Shaw, Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, as well as six one-act plays. George Bernard Shaw figured largely in their early programmes and the biggest takings at the Westfield Hall were from “Pygmalion” – a handsome £16. At one of the early meetings of the British Drama League (formed at about the same time as the Gateshead ILP Dramatic Club) Shaw was present and our representative brought down the house by saying she had seven shillings and fourpence in royalties for him. Average royalty fees now cost us £200-£300.


The moving spirit in the formation of the club was a good actor himself and, like so many good actors he was temperamental and took no interest in the stage management side of production, the actual physical making of a stage, scenery and props out of practically nothing at all. This was rather and unfortunate limitation, as the club had to start from the very beginning, with inconvenient premises and no assets of any sort. This actor has never been named, for some strange reason.


Amateur acting had formerly been a hobby of the rich and people sometimes used to say that they did not like amateur theatricals because they were “so county”. There was nothing county about this group, which was composed almost entirely of working people – carpenters and electricians among them.


1922 Our first "Stage"


In 1922, after an expenditure of £20 on wood, the carpenters made a movable stage. It had to be movable. Dances and whist drives provided the chief revenue for the hall, so the stage had to be erected on the previous Sunday for the dress rehearsal, taken down about midnight, re-erected on Wednesday before the performance and then taken down after the Friday performance because of the Saturday dance!


Although the movable stage was cursed, it was a great step forward and the first play on it was T.M. Robertson’s “Caste”. A movable switchboard gave the rudiments of lighting effects and everyone felt very grand.


This new stage saw the first Shakespearean production, “Much Ado About Nothing”. The rehearsal room was an attic which had once been a photographer’s studio, so it was always called, rather magnificently, the Studio. One wall consisted of panes of glass and, through the chinks wind and rain blew freely. There was so little room that no more than six people could move about at once. There was no possibility of rehearsing entrances and exits. With a play by Shakespeare or any other dramatist who indulged in large casts, it was a wonder that they ever managed to produce a play at all.


1923 Admission charges


At first, there was no charge for admission, but a collection was taken. In 1923 a charge of 6d. was made for any seat. This charge was never raised, partly because they wanted everybody to be able to come and partly because the accommodation was so poor that they did not dare to ask for more. From the beginning, however, and to the amazement of some, the Club made it plain that their affairs must be conducted profitably, to safeguard the existence and promote the expansion of their dramatic activities. Profit has never become an end in itself – indeed it may sometimes have to be sacrificed for less obvious gains.


1924 Company formation


Following the advice which Bernard Shaw gave to all amateur societies, in 1924 several leading members of the Club formed themselves into a company which took the name of the Progressive Players. This company took the place, legally, of the lessee and manager in the commercial theatre and, until 1927, programmes were always headed “The Progressive Players present the Gateshead ILP Amateur Dramatic Club in” such and such a play. In 1927 the name “Gateshead ILP Dramatic Club” was dropped and thenceforward the programmes were simply headed “The Progressive Players present”.


The Wardrobe


During the 1920s the Club could just pay their way from their takings. One of the most successful plays was “She Stoops to Conquer” in 1924, when the receipts were £13! For this, costumes were hired from a well known but distant source. They seemed to be very expensive and not very satisfactory, so it was decided that in future costumes for period plays would be made by members and in this way a useful collection was built up, not only for their own use but also for hiring out to other clubs for a moderate charge. Running a stage wardrobe is no light matter, making new costumes, keeping the old ones in repair, recording everything that goes out and checking that they are all returned and paid for. It is, in fact, a most laborious job but was the Club’s mainstay for many years.


It was around 1927 that the lean years began – audiences fell off, receipts dropped and the Club could not have carried on had it not been for the profit from the wardrobe. In 1935 the Wardrobe was moved to a large attic in Walker Terrace, giving much more space and it was at this time that a Building Fund was begun, with regrets that it had not been started much earlier. Whatever happened, the rent was paid, but relations with the management committee of the hall became more and more strained. They wanted the hall for dances and whist drives and resented the plays.


Our own theatre ?


1937-38 was the Progressive Players last full year at Westfield Hall. They did one full-length play, “Juno and the Paycock”, in the winter of 1938 and a programme of three one-act plays early in 1939 – then they had notice to quit. However, “funds suddenly became available”. In other words, three of the founder members, the Misses Hope, Ruth and Sylvia Dodds, generously provided the money, and in the summer of 1939, after some considerable time had been spent in looking at houses that might be converted to the purpose, purchase was made of the vacant site facing Saltwell Park, together with No.3 Saltwell View, the house adjoining.


The War years - 1939 - 1945


The contractor’s hut had appeared on the site when war broke out and the empty house was immediately requisitioned as a Balloon Barrage station. But hopes die hard and purchases were made of curtains, seats and other necessities which were stored until they could be used. This was most lucky foresight, as in a year or two they became impossible to procure.


Whenever permission could be obtained something was done on the site and the walls began to rise. The Players’ only permanent home at this period was the attic in Walker Terrace, but they continued to act in various centres, including a performance of “The Professor from Peking” in the People’s Theatre in 1940.


In March 1941 the Players did a farcical comedy “Third Time Lucky” at the Town Hall, Gateshead, at the request of the Gateshead Entertainments for the Troops Committee, who said that they had had so many and such terrible music hall programmes that the troops could not stand them any longer and asked for a full length play.


The Balloon Barrage faced the exceptionally severe winters of 1939 and 1940 in the unrepaired house of No.3 Saltwell View, with many groans and lamentations. At the end of 1941 their protestations prevailed and quite suddenly the Players were informed that they had left and the house was theirs on New Year’s Day 1942. The RAF had left the house in a most dilapidated condition, but it must in fairness be said that it was in a bad state when they came in and during each of the two winters they were there all the water pipes burst.


The new building was now so far advanced that it was felt possible to give performances there, whether or not there was access to the house. Of course, there were a great many snags. When the auditorium was finished the caretaker came in one morning to find several inches of water all over the floor. There was a small spring of water under the foundations that nobody knew anything about and it had now worked its way to the surface and had to be dealt with.


Then there were the German bombers. One clear night in early Spring of 1943, the moon shone bright and everyone said, “They’ll come tonight if they ever do.” They did come, but before they arrived a thick white frost mist had covered the town and clouds had hidden the moon and the bombs fell in Saltwell Park, harmlessly, as far as the population was concerned. However one bomb exploded among the trees just opposite the front of the theatre, which had just been finished, blowing in the windows and still worse, the doors, which could not be made to work smoothly for long afterwards, and the trunk of a tree fell through the roof.


The work went on slowly, however. In February 1943 the Wardrobe was moved to its new home – on the ground floor at last – hitherto it had always been at the top of two or three awkward flights of stairs. The men in charge of the removal were expecting to handle a large piece of furniture, a wardrobe. Imagine their dismay at the immense collection of trunks, boxes, baskets and separate costumes.


1943 - Little Theatre opens


By the Autumn of 1943 the Little Theatre had been built on the vacant site and was so far finished as to be usable. The façade facing the park was unfinished but the backstage was sufficiently advanced to make it possible to give a performancelittle theatre and, on Wednesday, October 13th the theatre opened with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. To the best of our knowledge this was the only theatre to be built in Britain during the war.


Though it looked all right from the front, there were makeshifts behind because materials were not available. To get to the stage, everybody had to climb a small flight of steps, dip their heads and duck under a very low door, with a perpetual notice “MIND YOUR HEADS”. It was even worse when actors had to get to the other side of the stage during the show, for a heavy trap-door had to be lifted and lowered so that they could get under the stage.


1945 V.E. day


In May 1945 the war in Europe was over at last, The Progressive Players were performing J.B. Priestley’s comedy “When We Are Married” and the Company took their curtain call formed up into “V” for victory.

By now the Progressive Players were staging six full length plays annually and this output was increased to seven in 1948. In 1949 they started on the long trail towards the purchase of the theatre. One of the steps taken was to introduce a season ticket scheme. Over the years this has grown in popularity and today almost 80% of our audience are season ticket holders. The Youth Section was thriving and, with the help of senior members, presented their own productions on a regular basis.


The '60s


By 1964, although the efforts of the membership had provided new front and surround curtains and new sound equipment, as well as covering the day to day cost of running the theatre, there was insufficient money to pay for the repairs after 21 years of continuous use and the hoped-for extensions, so a Development Fund was launched in an appeal for £10,000. It was in this connection that the Inspector of Taxes asked what had happened to the rents from the flats which had been purchased! It was also decided to stage eight productions annually.


Just as Gateshead Corporation (as it was then known) and Northern Arts had been persuaded to give a grant of £750 each, annually, the blow fell. In 1965 the members were informed that a new major road through Gateshead would mean the demolition of the Little Theatre. The promised grants and the hopes of an extension ended before they had started and the Players were left facing an uncertain future. The Corporation suggested that they could rent or buy an annex to the proposed new Civic Theatre and, while they were grateful, it seemed a poor exchange for their own theatre and 45 years of independence.


Meanwhile, the Players worked even harder, staging ten plays annually from July 1967, playing to near capacity audiences for every production. They also broadcast two one-act plays from Radio Durham; a Tyneside comedy and a charming fairy tale written by one of their own members. There was also a competition to change the theatre’s emblem and, after a very large entry, the new PP sign came into being in January 1968. In that year also, a detailed analysis of audience figures was compiled showing what first brought people to the Little Theatre and where they came from. This was used as a model by Northern Arts and distributed by them throughout the area.


In 1969 a 25-minute film was made – in “glorious technicolour” with “lipsynch” – which featured “The Shifting Heart” by Richard Beynon. It showed what happens before a play reaches the stage; the casting, rehearsals, costuming, set building, box office and first performance. This was shown to various organisations all over the North East.


The '70s


The Golden Jubilee in 1970 was celebrated by completing the purchase of the Little Theatre. In 1972 the Players were admitted to the Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain, an organisation confined to those societies who own and run their own theatres and whose aim is “to maintain and further the highest standards in the art of theatre”.


In the summer of 1974, a London film-maker invited the Players to take part in “The Brass Band” and this was shot amongst the sand dunes of Holy Island and Alnmouth. A dozen or so members were involved in the week’s filming and later enjoyed a private showing of the film in the theatre. Subsequently, at the 16th World Festival of Independent and Amateur Films in Huy, Belgium, “The Brass Band” won one of the three gold medals in the Independent section, plus a prize for the best original music.


Happily, in 1974, the Progressive Players were informed that the section of road which would have destroyed the theatre was not going through. Now, it was a case of making up for lost time. The inside of the building had been kept in good order, including the installation of new seating, new lino, a new gas central heating boiler and extra toilets. The lighting system, which had become lethal in thirty years of use, was renewed, but the exterior of the building was in a bad state.


Early in 1974, application was made to the newly formed Tyne and Wear County Council, telling them something of the history of the theatre and appealing for financial help for exterior refurbishing. After sending about thirty members of the leisure committee to inspect the theatre and hear the case, their generous response enabled the Little Theatre to be repaired, re-pointed and re-painted in 1975.


In 1978, the Players were delighted to receive help from Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council under the Urban Air Programme. This enabled them to renew some very shabby stage flats, out-of- date sound equipment and, in the interests of safety, install emergency lighting.


Over all these years, the Progressive Players and the Little Theatre, which are run as two companies, have become more and more intertwined. Both artistically and administratively the members of the Progressive Players have worked on an entirely voluntary basis to keep live theatre alive in Gateshead. An acute lack of space has always been one of the many problems, though it has been proved that it is possible to squeeze many quarts into pint pots! At the beginning of the Diamond Jubilee Year in 1980, the theatre was facing a really major problem. The roof had reached the end of its life.


The '70s saw the sad loss of the last of our founders. The Dodds sisters who contributed so much in so many ways. Sylvia Dodds died in April 1969, then Hope in May 1972, and finally, Ruth Dodds, the mainstay, the rock on which the Progressive Players were built, in April 1976, aged 86.


The '80s & '90s


In 1980 the main auditorium roof was replaced and in 1989 Number 4 Saltwell View was purchased eventually allowing more rehearsal room and wardrobe storage.


The 2000's


Year 2000, the Progressive Players celebrated their 80th Anniversary and held a big reunion in October, to which many old members were invited.


In 2001 the theatre won a grant from the Lotteries Commission of £30,000. The project was for the supply and installation of new stage lighting, an audio loop induction system for the hard of hearing and an accessible toilet to the east of the auditorium and ramp for the disabled into the lounge known as the Blue Room.


In 2003 the Little Theatre itself celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. Built in 1943 it has survived many changes but still keeps its integral shape and style. In October 2003 the Progressive Players opened the Theatre doors to patrons giving excerpts from plays first performed in 1943, 1953, 1963, 1973, 1983 and 1993.


The 2010's


The Theatre continued to benefit from improvements and renovations including new seating in 2010 and in 2013 a new two storey extension, funded by a bequest from former member Jim Ord, was built at the front of the Theatre, increasing the size of the foyer and bar area.