For more than 100 years, the Robin Hood Theatre in Averham has been entertaining and bringing together local communities. Designed by a local vicar, built by a village carpenter, run entirely by volunteers, and having endured world wars and global pandemics, its original theatre building still stands strong. But what makes a place like this so resilient through testing times?
Dave Baliol-Key, Technical Director at the theatre, has a phrase: “It’s what we do”. And that passion for theatre and performance is evident to anyone who visits. It is a shared value that motivates every single one of the volunteers who keep the theatre going, from the actors and directors to the front of house team and car park stewards.
The theatre has a string of productions lined up for 2023, and ambitious plans to expand its space beyond that. Dave, along with Communications Director Ziemek Kaczmarek, welcomed us to the premises to share the story and take us behind the scenes. In this article, we explore inside the Robin Hood Theatre’s past, present and future.
A cultural treasure in a countryside village
Averham is a small village near Newark, Nottinghamshire, about a half-hour drive from Lincoln. It seems an unlikely place for such a historic and cultural gem.
When you drive past the village on the A617, a brown sign denoting the theatre as a tourist attraction stands prominently alongside the village sign. A century ago, before regular bus services served the area, charabancs arrived here carrying guests from Newark and Southwell to see performances.
It is a very rural setting. As we sit chatting in the theatre’s front of house area, a horse rider trots past outside, and Dave tells me about a beautiful large fox that nearly came in through the front door just a few days earlier.
Dave is one of the theatre’s longest-running volunteers, having become involved in the late 1970s as an actor. Today, he is responsible for the technical side of the theatre – lighting, sound production, scenery, and so on. “I’m not skilled in all those areas,” he explains, “but I manage a large team of volunteers who make certain that every show happens.”
His own background is in music. “I was in Leicester Cathedral Choir when I was back at school. I’ve always been musical,” he says.
Later, when teaching in Newark, Dave was offered a small part in a school play, and his journey into theatre began. “By the late 70s I was doing work at the Palace Theatre in Newark. I heard about this place and I came out for an audition.”
A vicar’s vision: how the Robin Hood Theatre began
The Robin Hood Theatre’s story began in 1912 when a vicar, Reverend Cyril Walker, took over the rectory in Averham from his father. The original rectory can still be seen just a few dozen metres away from where the theatre stands.
Cyril Walker envisioned a new performance space for the community. “He had been involved in theatre design and had trained as a theatre artist,” explains Dave. “So he got the local carpenter, Robert Lee, and some volunteers from the village to build him a small 150-seat theatre in the grounds of his rectory.
“The buildings surrounding the original theatre were once the stable block and the out buildings. They’ve gradually been converted and adapted.”
The theatre building was constructed almost like a village hall, but it was anything but typical. “He built a long, rectangular building with a normal gable roof,” says Dave, “but at the end of it, he built the most beautiful little stage with proper surround and lovely ornate plaster work that he imported from Italy.”
Cyril Walker maintained his love for the theatre for several decades. Not only did he run the place, but he also directed and starred in shows, and hand-painted the sets.
A remarkably durable building
When doing renovation work in the theatre prior to its reopening in 2014, Dave and the team often marvelled at the quality of the original build.
“There’s hardly a screw or a nail out of place on the original stage,” he says. “Everything is beautifully made with tenon joints and dovetail joints and wooden pegs that hold everything together.
“Because they were carpenters! And when you look at it, you think, how the Dickens did they build this with just ordinary ladders and hand tools? Because that’s what they had.”
Binding the local community
Since its beginnings in 1912, the Robin Hood Theatre in Averham has been running almost continuously. It has closed only during the two world wars, the Covid-19 pandemic, and two periods of transition between owners – in the early 1950s, and again in 2007–14.
Today it is run as a charitable trust, a status that owes a lot to the help of a local celebrity. “Donald Wolfit was one of the leading actor managers back in the 50s and the 60s,” explains Dave.
“He lived in Balderton, went to the Magnus School, and became an internationally renowned stage actor. He was heavily involved in the Robin Hood Theatre in the 1960s in helping to buy the freehold, and was also instrumental in making certain that it became a charitable trust.”
As a charity, the theatre has extended beyond being simply a performance space. “We’ve always wanted to encourage that it provides a hub for the community, for Averham, Kelham and Staythorpe,” says Dave. “So this is their community centre.”
An array of events outside of the theatre’s domain are held in the old building. Recently it has hosted weddings, local parish council meetings and Women’s Institute meetings, to name a few. “We’ve had marriage proposals here as well recently!” says Dave.
The Robin Hood Theatre in Averham is the only amateur-run theatre between Nottingham and Lincoln. But while it is an amateur theatre, the team always strives for professional standards.
“One of the last things that I would want anybody to think is that we’re just a little amateur village hall out in the middle of nowhere,” says Dave. “Yes, it is all of those things. But the productions you see when you come here are anything but amateurish.
Dave is clearly passionate about producing high-quality shows. “Standards, and getting it right, and having a certain discipline – all of those things matter,” he says. “People that come and visit are pleasantly surprised by the quality of what we do here.”
The Robin Hood Theatre’s team of volunteers
The Robin Hood Theatre is run entirely by a small team of around 20 volunteers. Between them, they are responsible for production, finances, maintenance – everything.
From the Board of Directors to the bar staff at shows, everyone gives their time for free. “There are volunteers who will happily come and do one night car parking when we have a show, or they’ll do the coffee or they’ll work the bar,” explains Dave.
But how does a small, independent theatre in a rural village manage to recruit and retain a team of dedicated volunteers over time?
Many of the volunteers are drawn from the theatre’s pool of 150 paying members; long-term friends of the theatre, whose contributions are also vital to its success.
New volunteers are often people who come along to a show, become enraptured by the place and want to be a part of it. “We’re always looking for more volunteers,” says Dave. “We always need more.”
And for the most part, the theatre is complete self-sufficient, ploughing revenue from shows back into operations. “There have been small grants,” Dave continues. “There’s a new roof, which was done in the summer, we got a grant for that. But most of what you see – the kit, the improvements – we do that from the profits from shows.
“It works because we want it to work, and we care about it.”
Emerging from the pandemic
Covid-19 lockdowns were a challenging time for the theatre, but also provided an opportunity to invest in some renovations. The front of house area and bar were completely re-plastered and repainted, and the lighting system was redone.
Ziemek was kept busy with running social media activity, and when the time came, he was involved in the first productions that were staged after restrictions were eased.
“We devised two small-scale shows called Tenners and Chalk that enabled us to open gradually,” Ziemek explains. “The plays were written by local writers that we know and are friends of the theatre. And they were written in such a way to allow for distancing on the stage.”
Tenners, for example, is a series of short pieces that was devised, produced and brought to stage by Jean Baliol-Key, another of the theatre’s team of directors.
For a prolonged period, shows had to be directed in a way that would work in accordance with the rules. A one-way system was used for bringing props and furniture on and off stage, and for actors entering and exiting. The team also bought a fogging machine that disinfected the whole theatre.
The eventual lifting of restrictions allowed for a special moment. “I was directing one of the pieces in Tenners,” recalls Ziemek, “and I wanted the actors to embrace, because they had been married for years – but we couldn’t do it. Thankfully, the rules were changed two weeks before the performance, which meant they could kiss.”
In December 2021, the theatre staged a production of The Vicar of Dibley, which was a roaring success. The show sold out, and made a huge profit by the theatre’s standards. “It gave us a real shot,” says Dave.
“Whatever life, the building, the weather throws at us – we find a way to cope with it.”
A new space on the horizon?
Back at the turn of the millennium, the theatre secured some funding for a new building adjoining the original theatre. An enormous shell was constructed, and the management committee at the time intended it to be used as a workshop and flexible production space, as well as a dance studio. Sadly, it didn’t work out as planned.
“None of that ever happened,” explains Dave. “The money ran out, the builder went bankrupt. And we’re left with what we’ve got.”
The volunteer team today is reviving a vision to utilise the space, which is vast and full of potential. Detailed plans are in place to complete and integrate the extension, which will cost around £400k. For the theatre, the challenge is the same as always – raising the funds. The work will be done in bitesize chunks as funding permits.
“Our focus for the future is to keep the theatre running as a vibrant amateur quality theatre and a local community base,” says Dave. “But also our long-term plans will be to open up this new workshop, rehearsal, dance and performance space. We want to complete it.”
Investing in young talent
The theatre also has a focus on helping young people to develop theatrical skills through the Robin Hood Theatre Youth Group. Run by the theatre’s youth leader Katherine Mayer, who is an experienced actor and teacher, the initiative provides a creative space for young people aged 11–17.
Youth group workshop sessions are held on Sunday afternoons from 3–6pm, covering skills such as acting, improvisation and vocal techniques.
Throughout the year, young people who get involved have the opportunity to perform on stage, participate in local drama festivals and connect with others who are passionate about theatre.
At the Robin Hood Theatre in 2023 and beyond
The Robin Hood Theatre currently runs five productions per year. In 2024, a sixth slot will be reintroduced to promote new writing, with some proposals already under consideration for next season.
A busy production programme is lined up for 2023, beginning with Death Trap by Ira Levin, which will run from 31 January to 4 February. “It’s one of the longest-running Broadway productions,” says Ziemek. “It’s a comedy thriller with a twist – almost a play within a play.”
In March, a visiting production of Cheshire Cats will be performed by long-running collaborators the Argent Theatre. This will be followed in April by an in-house production, Peggy For You, a comedy drama following a day in the life of legendary theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay in the 1960s.
Finally, the season will be rounded off in mid-June with an in-house production of Nell Gwynn, which will be directed by Dave.
Nell Gwynn was the mistress of King Charles II. “It’s very much about the restoration of the monarchy in the mid 17th century, and it’s beautifully written by Jessica Swale,” says Dave.
“There are eight standalone pieces of music, so we’ll have a stage keyboard player in costume, and there will be a whole group of actors. It will just be a fun, bright, sexy, humorous end to our season.”
And of course, you can be sure to see a quality show. It comes back to Dave’s favourite phrase. “It’s what we do,” he says, “and we try to do it right as best as we can.”
You can see upcoming shows and buy tickets on the Robin Hood Theatre website. You can also sign up to the theatre’s mailing list for regular updates on upcoming productions, or enquire about the Robin Hood Theatre Youth Group, by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
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