More than 1500 props used in 70 years
There are some places which create such happy memories that they become hotwired into your DNA. It sounds clichéd. But it’s also true.
Growing up in Hastings in the eighties, The Stables Theatre was my ‘happy place.’ It was here where I found real solace and felt myself blossom on the stage.
In 1996, I settled down in a new, magical, faraway and exotic sounding residency (Plymouth) but I would often think back to my time as Michael Darling in the Hastings Stage Studio’s performance of Peter Pan in 1985.
I had just turned 11 and my Dad was harnessed up to a rope so that, when he jumped off a set of rostra blocks, Peter Pan would ‘fly.’
It was the magic of theatre in a time long before the internet and, perhaps, in a more ‘innocent’ age where its attraction outweighed much of the silver screens offerings.
CGI was experiencing its own childhood and the age of the mammoth blockbusters were still far away (Bruce wouldn’t be hanging around Nakatomi Plaza for another four years).
The Stables Theatre’s current Chairperson, Neil Selman, was also in Peter Pan. He played Captain Hook with tremendous gusto and I’m sure the 10-year-old Michael Darling was more than a little nervous of the hook, the pirates, and, of course, that crocodile. Thirty-five years later and Neil can still recall the moment of Peter’s take-off with great glee – or should that read Smee?
‘There was so much excitement around the flying as it was the first time it had been done in The Stables and it was ground breaking for local theatre. I remember having the most fantastic costume and wig.’
Ah, yes, costumes and props, it’s incredible to think, when seated in the auditorium, that above you, there is a colossal array of 1780 props built up over a period of 60 years.
And, unlike, most aspects of theatre, all of them have been chosen to be, well, really quite bland.
‘They’re very functional,’ explains Neil. ‘They’re not meant to standout. Otherwise, people will remember them from other shows.’
And so its deliberately dull set of props allow for those stage moments to really sparkle. After all, since its grand opening, in 1959, The Stables Theatre has seen polished performances a thousand times over. It’s also witnessed some pretty big names gracing its boards: Sir Ian McKellen to name but one.
I’m sure regular attendees will be able to list their own personal favourites, as Neil is able to do so, from Rebecca to Sweeney Todd and The Madness of King George.
And it’s also seen its fair share of some intellectually stimulating content: from Ibsen’s Doll House through to John Dighton’s Happiest Days of your Life. Learning that West End actress Sophie Louise Dann is part of the re-opening season for The Stables is a real delight for me (she played the role of Tiger Lilly in Peter Pan).
More recently and The Stables Theatre hasn’t shied away from, what some may consider to be, more controversial areas of performance art. Last year saw it stage David Charles Manners’ LGBT play, ‘Here, at last, is love.’
‘It was really well received both by younger and older members of the audience,’ says Neil. ‘It was the true-life story of Edome Johnson who was the hostess of The Pink Sink at the Ritz.’
For the uninitiated, The Pink Sink was a wartime gay bar which became the hub of scandal and intrigue. Edome herself was a shoplifter whose life revolved around sleeping on the sofas of the gay men who frequented her bar. If she couldn’t find a settee then her likely place for a light kip was on a night bus.
The Pink Sink
The bar did a thriving business with customers from a broad array of backgrounds. Officers would attend in their uniforms. Politicians would discreetly appear (before disappearing with a dalliance). All of this happening at a time, when, sadly, being gay was considered to be illegal.
Indeed, one Conservative MP, who frequented the establishment, was subsequently found guilty of a number of charges relating to ‘disgraceful conduct.’ How things have changed.
Anyway, back to the present day and how could any interview on the subject of theatre not mention the events of this year? At the time of writing, we’re about to enter our second national lockdown. Businesses and, of course, the entertainment industry are severely affected.
The first time it happened resulted in a small but highly significant act on the part of Neil. I remember reading his updates on Facebook and found a lump forming in my throat as I realised there really was a beacon of hope burning brightly from hundreds of miles away in my hometown of Hastings.
It’s long been a tradition that when theatres have to close their doors then a stage light is left on. And so, prior to lockdown, Neil put a light on the stage. It was a symbol for the theatre’s spirit that all of the actors, volunteers, performers, artists, technicians and audience members would return.
For me, it was incredibly powerful as it focused my mind on my own happy ‘salad days’ when I was on stage there. It became my ‘anchor point.’ It’s also the real reason why I wanted to write this article and chat with Neil. And, it transpires, I’m not alone in my reaction.
A ghost light on the stage
‘There were 30 to 40 e-mails in the inbox about it and they weren’t simply giving us a ‘thumbs up’ but each one was a considered response. I think it instilled a sense of calm.’
‘It was a chance to make a statement before moving out and it was a mark to say that we were hopeful things would start to get better.’
‘We love the theatre. That’s the whole point. It’s not about being on a remote platform. It’s not just about the productions but it’s about the building itself. I think we got more feedback about the lamp than anything else we’ve put on the stage.’
I’m sure some would see the light on a stage as a piece of art in its own right which would not be out of place at The Stables as its’ gallery has played host to some incredible talent over the years – including the work of local artist, Laetitia Yhap.
Alongside art, the venue plays host to Fringe and Theatre festivals, plays and dance. All of it is in the hands of a dedicated team of volunteers.
Like all workplaces and social arenas, The Stables Theatre had to quickly adapt to survive. And that’s not an easy achievement to master, especially when you consider there were upwards of 40 performances which were due to grace its stage this year alone. On the upside, The Stables Theatre has received an Arts Council grant which will run until March, 2021. And yes, the ‘ghost light’ has been called back to the stage.
‘At the start of the year we were all sold out and it looked like we were going to have a storming season,’ says Neil. ‘But restrictions meant we had to work to the rule of six and so productions went onto the back burner as we can only really have a show which consists of one or two people who never really meet.’
The ‘ghost light’ may be back on the stage but the team continue to put into place plans which are aimed to make the venue safe for everyone.
‘The Box Office came up with the good ideas,’ he says. ‘Future performances mean they’ll be no intervals but you can book and pay for drinks beforehand and they will take reservations over the phone.’
‘We recognised what was happening and took the time to think things through and get it right.’
Busy behind the scenes
You would imagine that this year has been a ‘fallow’ period of time for the theatre but, speaking with Neil and it quickly becomes apparent that, when out of lockdown, it’s actually been incredibly busy.
‘It allowed for change with workshops and rehearsals happening during the day. I felt the building is being used more now than it ever was. It gave us a chance to be experimental, and so, if something went wrong, it’s wasn’t a disaster. It’s allowed us to have the opportunity to see how to do something differently.’
Perhaps that’s always been the secret of the success of The Stables Theatre. It’s always challenging itself to push its own comfort zone. To do something which is a little bit different. But always in a kind and gentle way.
Well, I started on a cliché and so it feels fitting to end on one. Typing up my interview notes has been a real trip down Memory Lane for me. And a happy journey it’s been too. From flying Peter Pan to putting a light on the stage during a national lockdown, the spirit of this theatre continues to burn just as brightly today as it did when it opened in June, 1959.
(Photo Credit: Stables Theatre By Night – Courtesy Of: Peter Mould)