Theatre History - by Derek Wilkins
The first production
The birthdate of any society is always difficult to pinpoint and I would guess that most start up as a small venture some time earlier than the normally accepted date. Hasland Theatre Company is no exception to this rule and it seems clear that the founding father of the group was a Mr Albert Allison, a resident of Hasland, who, in 1944, had the idea of presenting a play. Unable to find any men to act, he presented an all-women cast in a play entitled “Angels of War” at the Temperance Hall on Eyre Street in May of that year. I find it hard to believe, writing this in 2006 that one of Mr Allison’s ladies, was Pattie Bradley who is still regularly treading the boards with us and who is, not to underrate her overall ability, one of the best Panto dames that I have ever seen, either amateur or professional. I can only think that she must have been a mere babe in arms at the time.
The early days
In October, a play called “Playgoers” was presented at the Temperance Hall by a cast from the local Employment Exchange and one of the cast, Mr J.T.McGee, was invited to take over productions for the Hasland group and also to bring some of the other players along. After a series of one-act plays during 1945, the group came of age with a production of “Dangerous Company”, presented on 5th, 6th and 7th November 1946. Around this time, Mavis Clough (then Mavis Hill) joined the group and it is pleasing to see her still on stage in “The Winslow Boy”, 50 years later.
Change of venue
Plays continued to be presented at The Temperance Hall until 1948 when the hall was suddenly no longer available for productions. The play “Night Must Fall,” was well into rehearsals at the time and “Playgoers” as the group were now known took the great risk of hiring the Eastwood Hall in Hasland park for a one night stand. Any fears were unfounded however as over 300 people made their way across the park to support the show. Productions at the Eastwood Hall went on until 1951 and membership of Playgoers continued to grow. Many stalwarts of the society joined over the next few years and it would be impertinent of me to single out individuals in this history, but I’m sure that they know how grateful we all are for their contributions. In November 1951, the group again uprooted and transferred to the Little Theatre in the Market Hall in Chesterfield. Not only that, but they bought new scenery for £30, a lot of money in those days and were again rewarded by success and a growing following. A Junior Section was formed in 1952 with a view to finding new and promising talent and to create an interest in theatre among teenagers. This continued under the guidance of David Owen and only ceased its activities when David left the society many years later.
1953 saw Playgoers in their first competitive drama festival, winning the Rotary Cup for best play at the Bradbury Hall for their production of “The Cat”. Festival work has since formed a small, but important, part of the life of the theatre, culminating in the production of “Cagebirds” in 1990 when Playgoers, having won the festivals at Chesterfield and Sheffield, were selected for the “All Winners Final” in Wales where the play was adjudged in third place.
In May 1961, Playgoers presented the play “Will any Gentleman” at the Civic Theatre in Chesterfield. The success of this venture led to an annual visit to the Civic up until the time that the existing theatre was brought into use. The remaining plays of each season were still performed at the Market Hall.
Wednesday 4th November 1964, saw what is probably the most important event in the history of the society when the building, later to be called The Playhouse, on Storforth Lane, was officially opened by the then President, Mrs Thompson. Although Playgoers now had their own theatre, it would be some time before plays could be presented there, much work constructing the stage, lighting boards etc. being needed. On Tuesday 7th February 1966, the new Playhouse opened to the public for the first time with the play "Running Riot".
End of an era
November 1970 saw Playgoers' darkest hour when Mac, chairman for almost 25 years, passed away. He had been a tireless worker for the society, he produced most of the plays, erected and painted scenery, gathered props and took a very active part in social activities. He had been the true cornerstone of Hasland Playgoers. In many ways, the history could almost be said to end there with the passing of an era. Playgoers, initially under the new chairmanship of Vernon Pitchford, continued to thrive and develop. New dressing rooms were built, the auditorium was refurbished, a new, higher roof was built and a scenery store constructed at the rear of the theatre. Much improvement has been made to the technical aspects of the theatre including the lighting and sound systems.
Members have come and gone but the society remains strong, growing and vibrant and still retains a large following. In July 1995 the society changed its name to the Hasland Theatre Company and gained charitable status and we have recently made the the building more accessible for disabled people.
To bring this short history to a close, perhaps I might quote from the notes made by Gordon Collis, himself a tireless worker for the society until his death. The comment with which he ended his contribution to the history of the society is still as pertinent today as it was 20 years ago when it was written. ............."Mention must again be made of "Mac", the man who made all this possible. He devoted almost all of his free time to building up a small group of people in the 1940's into a society that now flourishes and is well known in the district for the presentation of its plays. It has earned a good reputation. It is the only society in the area which has its own theatre. It is a society of which we, as members, are justly proud. All this was the dream that came true - the dream "Mac" had for many years and for which he worked so hard. For his sake, we must go on to make the society prosper and flourish." A small photograph, just inside the main entrance to the Playhouse, looks down on all that happens in the theatre. If that photograph could speak, I hope that it would say – ‘Well Done’
In compiling this brief history, I am indebted to two men, now sadly no longer with us, who through their foresight, enthusiasm and dedication’ helped to bring the society to where it is today. They are, founder and former chairman, Mr J.T.McGee (Mac) and Mr C. Gordon Collis, former secretary and treasurer, who by means of 22 pages of typewritten notes, have allowed me to gain a detailed insight into the early years of the group.