Stage Set For Celebration
The Journal, Dec 21 2005
By Naphtalia Loderick, The Journal
Panto time is no time to relax for members of Tynemouth Priory Theatre, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Naphtalia Loderick goes behind the scenes.
Amateur: a word meaning `non-professional', `unpaid', `lover of an activity'. The Tynemouth Priory Theatre Club satisfies all three definitions.
Around 135 members dedicate much of their spare time to making this self-supporting club a success. It shows. This season the Priory, as it is better known to its members, is celebrating 60 years in the business.
The Priory relies on ticket sales and raffles. Money also comes from the hiring of scripts and sets to other theatre groups.
"The club is completely self-supporting," says club secretary Dee Davison. "No-one gets paid and the club doesn't receive any grants or handouts."
To celebrate their diamond anniversary, the Priory is paying tribute to the past. This season - October until May - members are staging five of their most popular productions from the last 60 years.
Cricketing comedy Outside Edge and the witty romantic play Pygmalion have already played to packed audiences.
Pantomime favourite Cinderella, gritty 1960s drama Spring and Port Wine, and psychological thriller The Business of Murder are still to come. The Ray Cooney farce, Funny Money, rounds off the season.
Ria Thompson formed the club in 1946. Forty people signed up and paid the equivalent of 52½p to join. The first full-length production was Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, performed in Holy Saviour's Parish Hall in Tynemouth, which became the club's temporary home.
A shortage of venues and a lack of funds meant the Priory did not have a home of its own. Each time the parish hall was hired it meant setting up all the seats and lighting, transferring all the scenery on a truck from the rehearsal rooms and building the set overnight.
Ria was determined the Priory would have a permanent home. It took 25 years and all of the club's assets, but in 1971 Ria's dream was realised. An old Wesleyan chapel, tucked away on Percy Street, Tynemouth, became home to the am-dram society.
Behind the scenes it's all hustle and bustle as the theatre club's members work to bring a production to life - members like stage director Steve Arnott.
The 49-year-old has been with the theatre half his life. He spends his days teaching basic numeracy and literacy skills for North Tyneside Council. But "weekends, evenings, early mornings even" are spent pursuing his passion.
"The theatre is like a second job," he says. "It's a complete dedication. But it means I get to spend time doing what I love."
And designing sets is what he loves. A trained scenic artist, Steve is charged with creating the overall visual effect of the play.
"Some plays require a lot more than others," he says. "Pygmalion only has three set changes, but the panto, Cinderella, has more."
The panto sets can be reused, which saves time and money.
"These are stored under the seats at back of the theatre where it is nice and dry. It's a small building, but we make the best use of the space available."
The Tynemouth Priory Theatre Club prides itself on its DIY approach. "Everything that goes on stage is created within the theatre complex," says Christopher Carr, actor, director and Priory member since 1972.
"We don't hire costume-makers or stagehands to produce things for us. We like to do it ourselves."
By day, Christopher runs Splinters hairdressers in Whitley Bay. By night, he is the theatre's resident hairdresser and wig-master.
The 52-year-old plays an Ugly Sister in the panto. He is also directing Funny Money.
"We deliberately chose a Ray Cooney play for our 60th anniversary as we staged one of his plays for our 50th anniversary. I love making people laugh."
Dorothy Wears, the Priory's wardrobe mistress, is in charge of kitting out the cast. Wardrobe is the ultimate dressing-up box, with everything from Victorian-style smoking jackets and 1920s flapper dresses to politically incorrect but fantastically luxurious furs.
Dorothy got involved with the theatre almost 28 years ago when her daughter Carole, aged 10, joined the club's now defunct youth group.
It's very much a family affair. Dorothy's husband, Peter, 67, helps backstage and is a non-speaking actor in the club's productions.
Says Dorothy: "You'll find a lot of families at the Priory. Working here demands a lot of your time. I think it's easier for your partner to understand if they share your love of the theatre."
Three wardrobe assistants help Dorothy manage the workload. Extra help comes courtesy of a costume historian who specialises in making outfits from vintage patterns.
At the moment, Dorothy is preparing outfits for the pantomime. "There's a lot to be done," she says, It'll all get done in time; it always does. Everyone pitches in come performance time. That's why the club is so successful."