In the beginning
As our name Theatre 62 suggests, in 1962 we evolved out of the merger of the West Wickham Dramatic Society and the Actories (an offshoot of the local Conservative party). Initially it was rather chaotic with two people retaining the position of Chairmen and most other roles. Fortunately things were soon sorted out. The first production, in May of that year, was Watch it Sailor. In reality Theatre 62 is much older as the first recorded WWDS production was The Tunnel in 1934.
Shows were staged at the Wickham Halls. This was not without problems as there was only a narrow passage-way under the stage with actors colliding as they rapidly changed sides. On one occasion, in March 1972, during a performance of The Doctor and the Devils, actors playing body snatchers struggled with a body size box that got stuck in the passageway. The actor on stage was up to it and successfully ad-libbed until things were sorted. Not surprisingly member’s thoughts turned to the desirability of their own theatre.
Our present building was erected in 1960 as a pavilion for the Old Beccehamians Rugby F.C. who played at Sparrows Den at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill. For them this had been a great improvement over a pub in West Wickham but they still had to trudge up the hill to change and have a drink. The rugby club persuaded Bromley Council, in 1971, to provide a pavilion at Sparrows Den where they play to this day. Now was our opportunity. The pavilion stood on church land bought, in 1927, as a memorial to Bertie Roberts a former Rector of West Wickham for the recreational use of the people of West Wickham. The West Wickham Playing Fields Trust, comprising the Bowls, Football, and the, now defunct, Cricket Club, was set up to administer the land.
Others had eyes on the pavilion and there were questions as to whether Theatre 62, as a non-sporting body, met the recreational requirements. Eventually determination won through leaving the little matter of buying out the rugby club’s lease. Members came to the rescue by taking out loans secured against the value of their houses. Several of those members are still active in the theatre today.
Then the big challenge – how do you turn a rugby pavilion into a theatre? Today’s lighting store, for example, was the old showers. Gradually the building was transformed, mainly by the efforts of members themselves. I have not been able to find any plans of the building at this time. But what is now the wardrobe and props store did not exist but were built by the members who could donate to buy a brick.
A rather decrepit caravan was put to use as the Green Room. All was fine until the floor collapsed! After that a large tent was used which, after very wet weather, resulted in actors going on stage with wet feet. Despite everything the first production It’s Opening Time was staged in September 1972. To much relief the Green room was eventually finished, albeit a bit cramped as it also housed props, set building equipment, paint and the seating rostra. It was, of course, as far away as possible from the backstage entrance. This meant a dash in all weathers, with costumes being paraded, around the outside of the building. The wardrobe was housed in what is now the props store.
By 2013 the lighting desk and sound desk were beginning to die so were replaced by a fully computerised system, designed and built by the technical team, integrating lighting and sound control together. This again has been expanded to include video, when required.
Watch your feet!
Theatre 62 remained a Charity and a company, the Wickham Theatre Centre, was set up to run the building. In those days things were somewhat different and the directors of WTC worked a rota to ensure the bar was open every evening of the week. They were also responsible for feeding the two theatre cats (Bootsie & Smudge). When dismantling the stage at Set Down you had to be careful where you put your feet! House managers were required to shut the cats in the bar on show nights but it did not always work, with occasional on stage appearances. Members provided a weekly roster to clean the building and toilets.
Initially there were four full length productions a year.There were also regular one act productions. Indeed a new director often had to direct a one act play before being allowed to direct a full length one. In those days auditions were for members only with non members being invited to audition if a part couldn’t be cast. A fifth full length production was added in 1992.
Once a month there was a social event on a Saturday – an Oompah band, a dance or a medieval feast etc. The current Technical Room was originally the darts bar and regular tournaments took place.
Lighting and Sound
In 1972 a new electrical supply was installed. Apparently club members had formed work parties to dig a trench across the carpark from the sub station by the entrance to the ground. The hall decor was light blue and it was not until about 1974 that the ceiling was painted black, hooks to hold lamps were screwed into the beams and 60 lighting circuit installed. Two members designed and built an 18 dimmer lighting control system. There were about 20 spotlights – today there are over 100 and the original 18 dimmers have morphed into 80.
In December 1992 there was a break in. Along with a load of booze and cigarettes a large amount of sound and lighting equipment was taken. However the resulting insurance claim enabled the technical team to build new lighting and sound systems, including our first “memory” (ie computerised) lighting desk.
On the sound front. In 1973 there were a pair of reel to reel tape recorders to record, edit and play sound effects. These were replaced with four Minidisk machines in about 1995 which were pensioned off in 2005 when our first sound computer was introduced.
The stage and seating rostra were the creations of members. The stage decks consisted of 8’ x 4’ x 1 3⁄4” plywood panels sheets bound in a metal frame that took four people to lift. These were set on a complex arrangement of wooden blocks. The seating system consisted of a Dexion frame with wooden decks which took about six people to assemble. Later the seating supports were replaced by a selection of folding frames.
A substantial quantity of Dexion was acquired, thanks to the fortuitous closure of a Bermondsey stationers and is still in use today as racking in the Props, Technical, Scenery & Wardrobe Stores as well as bracing for our cur- rent stage flats. By 2009 both stage and seating were showing their age and it was decided to invest in a custom made modular system. The erection time of both was dramatically reduced and for the first time it became possible to erect the whole stage and many flats in the first set up session.
Owing to a supply error the new stage rostra supports were 30mm higher than specified which resulted in our flats being too tall to fit under the roof trusses! The supply company provided a generous donation towards the making of a full set of new purpose built flats (by a Member’s family with workshop facilities). No more trying to screw into the old heavy, more holes than wood, flats.
There was only a one foot gap between the back of the stage and the rear wall of the theatre. There was no space for large props or furniture for scene changes so hatch backs and estate cars were lined up to hold these items during performances.
Improvements were made over the years to many aspects of the theatre including upgraded electrics, double glazed windows, blackout curtains and a new boiler system.
In the mid 1980s, the decision was made to set up a youth group under the name of First Act with tutors mainly, sourced within the membership. Some of the first students are still active in Theatre 62 today. It became increasingly difficult to find tutors and in 2002 an agreement was made with Dramalab, an established youngsters training organisation run by two professional actors, to provide our current youth theatre.
In the mid nineties it became clear that the original organisational structure was no longer fit for purpose, both legally and financially. It was decided to merge the Wickham Theatre Centre and Theatre 62 into one organisation, and so in December 1997 the Wickham Theatre Trust was born both as a limited company and a charity but with permission to use the title Theatre 62.
By the late nineties the theatre was running out of space and plans were drawn up for an extension, on the land at the front of the theatre, to create a green room/rehearsal Room and proper scenery store.
Initially we looked for lottery funding but, unfortunately, as our plans progressed the rules changed. It became clear that Bromley was seen as a “rich” borough and therefore way down the list of areas for lottery projects. So the decision was made to do it ourselves using the £20,000 in reserves and fund raise the remaining £25,000.
There was an extra hazard for the cast and crew of Terra Nova in October 2002. Work had started on the foundations and to access backstage it was necessary, literally to walk the plank put down by the builders. Once the builders had departed, members started to fit out the extension. The March 2003 show Amy’s View was the first to fully utilise the new space.
The extension was opened in November 2003 by the Mayor of Bromley. She took out a Friends membership so that she could buy all the seats for the Friday night production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in aid of her chosen charity.
One of the great features of Theatre 62 is that the auditorium is a space allowing directors to innovate in staging their productions. It also means that outside our standard rehearsal evenings, set up and show weeks it provides a large rehearsal space used by the West Wickham Operatic Society and other affiliates. In fact there is scarcely a day when nothing is happening at Theatre 62.
The Future (as at early 2019)
Apart from minor improvements, for now there has to be a halt while the Playing Fields Trust’s legal wrangling over the status of the land is sorted out. When that is done there will be tremendous opportunities for development; maybe rebuilding the auditorium so as to raise the roof, this would revolutionise our lighting and staging opportunities; or build a rehearsal space over the car park. These are just two ideas that come to mind.
The great thing about Theatre 62 is the teamwork stemming from the pride that, it is ours – members built it, members improve it, members run it. Long may that continue.
By John Guttridge, 2019. With thanks to John Heather, Margaret Uzzell and Ian James for their helpful input.
A PROPERTY REMINISCENCE
Props and set decor can make or break the illusion which a director is seeking to achieve. Fortunately Theatre 62’s backstage teams have always been up for the challenge. No suitcases which when lifted are so light that it appears the actors have forgotten to pack!
In these internet days most things can be found though hire firms (expensive) or on ebay. But more often than not there is someone in the team who can produce a special item for the set or build a realistic prop.
Not long after we joined, Sally Guttridge was doing props for Our Town which involved a delivery of milk. Using current milk bottles would have destroyed the period illusion. Eventually we discovered that a retired milkman had set up a veritable museum in his spare room. There were bottles of all shapes and sizes, milk carriers and a marvellous collection of horse brasses.
Then there was our production of Terra Nova the question how do you turn the stage into Antarctica which posed the secondary question how did you ensure that you could pull a heavily laden sledge across the stage without destroying your snow effect. After some searching we found a firm called The Snow Business which specialised in turning summer into winter for television and cinema.
“What you want is a fibreglass sheet. It comes in large rolls, normally used for strengthening embankments, but we have an offcut which should meet your needs”, which indeed it did, looking better every time the sledge was pulled across it. They also sent a show reel CD showing some of their professional work.
BT were always helpful in lending phones to suit situations. So who better to ask when a play called for the four thick volumes of the old London Telephone Directory to be on display. They said that these were far too precious to loan but photographed the covers so that we were able to mock them up.
Another play called for a glass to be broken every night. ‘Make them from sugar glass’ said some, but boiling up sugar backstage did not seem a good idea with little guarantee that we would get a satisfactory result. This time the internet came to our rescue and pointed us in the direction of Breakaway Effects Ltd intriguinly located inside Shepperton Film Studios. Their range of breakable glasses and bottles was huge and we learnt that they had produced the plate glass window for James Bond to drive a car through. Alongside them in the studios were a number of small businesses supplying the film industries needs.
Then there was a play that called for period playing cards and we remembered a small shop in Camden Passage. They had exactly the right cards (on card but one sided). They wouldn’t lend but we agreed a sale and buy back deal. Years later similar cards were needed but the shop had long since gone. Finally we found a stall holder who remembered the shop and had its owners phone number. We were in luck as he was still running the business from his home in North London.
Helping Sally track down these and other props was fun but had its downside. No charity shop could be passed by with a visit inside. Furthermore I was aware whenever we visited someone’s house for the first time that for the first few minutes Sally was making a mental note of furniture and fittings in case there might be something she might borrow for a future play.
John Guttridge, 2019.