Why community theatre continues to thrive in Norfolk even in the digital age
Archant Norfolk 2017
As the curtain continues to rise on Norfolk's community theatre scene, reporter Donna-Louise Bishop explores the reasons behind its enduring appeal.
It is no secret we are living in a digital age.
From social media to exclusive programmes from companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, there are more reasons than ever for people to stay at home for a night on the sofa.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that our region’s theatres are reporting record numbers in sales while at the same time huge investments are being pumped into Norfolk’s most beloved stages.
And it is not just touring West End shows and big name productions attracting the crowds - the county’s community theatre scene is also thriving.
Dereham Theatre Company has been performing for 70 years and had big success last year with the sell-out adaptation of Dad’s Army.
And it recently announced it would be performing A Passionate Woman, written by prominent television writer Kay Mellor. The play previously had a long run on the London stage, as well as having a TV adaptation.
Elsewhere, the Hethersett Pantomime Group, based outside of Norwich, are approaching their 50th year together.
Neville Greenhalgh has been the group’s chairman since 2014, and said that for the second year running all nine performances sold out, with a waiting list of more than 50.
So what is it about community theatre which is drawing the crowds in? Mr Greenhalgh said: “Although we put on a village show, it is very professional.
“Our audiences come back because they want to see familiar faces, being able to keep ticket prices low also helps, and we also always have audience participation which heightens the experience.”
Ben Francis, chairman of Fakenham and District Light Operatic Society, believed part of its appeal was “to escape normal life” as well as a mixture of other things.
“Wanting to see people they know enjoying themselves,” he said. “Wanting to see a show they love, wanting to experience live theatre within a five minute drive, and price. The standard of community theatre has risen dramatically and, for a fraction of the price of a ticket to see professionals, you can see you local butcher singing Oklahoma.”
So why, when time is a precious commodity for many, are amateur dramatists wanting to get in on the action?
“It’s unique,” Mr Francis explained. “The friendship and the family you become is strong.
“We all respect each other and it always flows out into the community.”
Recently, the Pavilion Theatre at Cromer Pier reported record-breaking sales for 2017 - up 16pc on the previous year. It was the theatre’s best selling Christmas Show to date and also saw presales 60pc over the 2016 show.
The success continues to ebb around the north Norfolk coast to Sheringham Little Theatre, which is pressing ahead with ambitious plans. Dubbed the Little Bit Bigger project, the theatre aims to add a multi-purpose room on a flat roof to give more space for rehearsals, meetings, overspill from its Hub café bar, and for community hire.
While over at the Granary Theatre in Wells, which is part of the multi-million pound Wells Maltings development, plans are firmly underway to improve and refurbish the theatre space, seating, front of house, box office, cafe and dressing room areas.
But despite the large investments and plentiful success stories, there are still cuts being made to the arts at secondary and university level. So what does the future hold for community theatre? Mr Francis said: “There will always be peaks and troughs, especially with this current Government, but if people want to produce theatre they will. Funding won’t stop it, even if they perform in bin bags and cardboard trees.
“Theatre comes from the heart and will always survive in some form.”
While Jo Cooper, chairman of Thetford Players, added: “I do believe that as long as there are people that can sing, act and dance, and people that love seeing all of that come together, then there will always be community theatre.
“Community theatre is just that, productions for the community by the community - that’s what makes it special.”
Tracey Evans, of Mundesley, on why she joined community theatre:
“I first came to Norfolk nearly 20 years ago as a very young and shy 18 year old.
I was just starting university and, having moved from up North, had left all of my friends behind.
In a bid to indulge my passions - the theatre and literature - I made the brave decision to join my local amateur dramatics company, the Mundesley Players. It proved to be one of the best decisions I could ever have made.
Although I never made it on to the stage (I was not brave enough for that), I became the ever helpful prompt and sat just behind the curtain ready to step in and help everyone remember their lines. I loved every minute of it.
I made some very dear friends and I swear I will never forget the words to ‘June is bustin’ out all over’.
To me community theatre is so important, not only for those who want to be at the forefront of the stage, but also those behind the scenes looking to meet new friends and do something they love.”