New role for very particular actors

They started as a private theatre club, performing to members only. Now, as the Great Hall Players move into their new home in the Assembly House in Norwich, FINOLA LYNCH talks to chairman Vic Smith about the history of this very particular theatre group.

They have a reputation for quality and precision. A newspaper used as a prop must hail from the time in which the action is set. A costume must be true to the period down to the last button.

"We cannot get away with a paper clip holding up the actor's clothing, or a bit of sticky tape holding down a prop," says Vic Smith, chairman of the Great Hall Players.

Why not? Can't an amateur dramatic group get away with the odd short cut? Surely audiences don't expect the same polish one would expect from a professional company?

But according to Smith, Norwich audiences do expect. This is due partly to the reputation established by the Great Hall Players in their 44 years. But it's also a consequence of the way they perform.

"We only perform in the round," says Smith. "This means it's an arena-style auditorium. The audience get so close to the actors they feel involved in the action. Some are so moved by their proximity to the stage they forget they're watching a play and start making comments during the performance."

Everything from farce to Shakespeare has been adapted down the years to suit this intimate performance style. However, it's a style with a downside. The audiences can see everything - including sticky tape and paper clips. "We simply can't get away with anything," laughs Smith. "Our audiences won't let us and neither should they."

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The Great Hall Players started in 1961 in the home of Donald Pyle. The name of the theatre group originates from his own home, the medieval Great Hall at Oak Street, Norwich, where they used to perform to 'members only'.

"Originally it was a private club," says Smith. "You couldn't go to a performance unless you were a member. The founders were a group of people who wanted to perform good plays and they kept it a closed shop so that a standard could be maintained."

However, once word got out that there was an exclusive club of amateur actors producing high-quality productions, interest and membership grew.

Eventually the Great Hall Players were forced to review their members-only policy and moved to bigger premises. In 1964 they set up in the Bakers Arms at Heigham Street, originally as a temporary residence, but it took until 1974 to find a new home in the Friends' Meeting House at Upper Goat Lane.

The group eventually settled in St Peter's Hall, at Park Lane, where the actors enjoyed their own suite of rehearsal rooms. This was home until they were recently invited to take up the role of theatre-in-residence at the Assembly House.

Performing with the Great Hall Players is a huge commitment. Plays are rehearsed intensively over a six-week period, with some amateur actors required to meet up to three times a week depending on the extent of their part.

"Just as one play finishes, another one starts," says Smith, who has directed several productions. "We demand a lot, but people are attracted to us because of the quality of our performances. In fact, some younger members have gone on to reputable drama schools."

The group even attracts the odd luvvy pro. "A lot of professionals are only too keen to get their feet on the boards if they're not getting any work," he says. Their patron is the Only Fools and Horses star Roger Lloyd Pack.

So what is it that attracts people to 'am dram', whether it be treading the boards or playing a behind-the-scenes role? "When it works well, and nine times out of 10 it does, you've got that satisfaction that the audience are with you all the way," he says. "People still talk about productions we made years ago.

"It's addictive stuff and it brings out the Dunkirk spirit. I've been involved in theatre in some form since I was 16. You have the same goal and you derive a great deal of pleasure from a successful result."

Now the 40-strong group is moving to the Assembly House, the reputation of the Great Hall Players can only continue to spread. Smith assures me they are always looking for new members despite their exclusive past, which currently stands close to the 200 mark.

But increasing success doesn't come without a cost. The theatre group has charitable status and has always been self-sufficient financially. However the costs of the move, which took nearly 18 months to complete, have forced the group to seek some sponsorship.

Their inaugural production at the Assembly House will be marked by a gala performance of Dangerous Liaisons on Sunday and the play will then run from next Tuesday to October 1. For tickets to the gala performance, call 01603 412856. For more information, see: www.great

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