Putney Arts Theatre

Putney Arts Theatre

Early Days

In 1959 Maurice Copus, a teacher at Southfields School, who recognised that a number of his enthusiastic pupils needed a local theatre group, founded an after-school theatre club. Early venues included Battersea Town Hall, now Battersea Arts Centre.

By 1964, the group had grown to encompass much of the Wandsworth community, and a change of premises was sought nearer to its growing membership. Five years after its conception the group, helped by the Mayor of Wandsworth, Alderman Maxwell Nelson-Barrett, moved to Wandsworth Town Hall and joined forces with another group, renaming itself Group 64.

At the same time, Eleanor Goodrich, one time Mayor of Wandsworth, began her involvement with Group 64. Through her support and her numerous connections within the London County Council, she succeeded in obtaining a two-year lease on the old Union Church in Putney. This had been built in 1860 by Sir Samuel Morton Peto, whose other building works included the Reform Club and Nelson’s Column: congregations at the Union Church had dwindled in the years after the Second World War and its remaining members had latterly joined forces with what is now the United Reformed Church.

London County Council acquired the church in 1963, with a view in due course to demolition, and replacement by a youth centre. Five years later no progress had been made and the building was in a terrible state, leaking and pigeon-infested – just right for Group 64. In January 1968 the group moved in, and after six months of hard work by a group of dedicated volunteers, the first performance by Group 64 in its new home took place.

The new theatre was opened in July 1968 by the Mayor of Wandsworth in the presence of Sir John Mills, one of Group 64's patrons. The building soon became a thriving theatre, expanding the range of its own productions and hosting visiting companies. Over the next 30 years one short-term agreement was replaced by another, and the landlords changed like the cast of a long-running West End hit, to the GLC, ILEA, the London Residuary Body and Wandsworth Borough Council. 

1970s – 1990s

During the 1970s the process of expansion continued: as well as the existing 150-seat auditorium, a second acting space was added - a 50-seat studio - and as a result the depth and range of productions began to increase. Membership of the theatre increased to include older members, but both policy and the theatre’s constitution ensured that there was a continuing emphasis on youth. Then towards the end of the decade, as the founders passed on the baton to others, there was a decline in audiences and members, and the building deteriorated once more.

In 1979 Maurice Copus retired to Kent and Eleanor Goodrich stepped down as Chairman of the Trustees, becoming our President for the next ten years. This was the cue for another inspirational leader to enter: His Honour Judge Ian Fife had been a founder and driving force of the Putney Society and was a leading member of many local societies. Now he set to work at Group 64. Under Ian’s leadership, Group 64 took new heart: productions, membership and community support flowered, the whole theatre was refurbished and the dressing room and domestic facilities were completely rebuilt. Concurrently, the membership of the theatre increased to such a point that it had to add the use of local schools and other church halls to enable the continuation of rehearsals and classes for its members.

Upon the death of Ian Fife in 1990 Perry Kitchen, Chartered Accountant and director of a London investment broker, became Chairman of the Trustees, following several years as the group’s treasurer and previous stints as treasurer and chairman of the Putney Players. During his time as Chairman Perry has overseen a complete rebuild and refurbishment of the venue inside and out: as well as the two performance spaces we have transformed the bar area, dedicated as the Fife Room, and there are fully operational workshop facilities, with sound and lighting equipment to support the main stage and studio productions.

In late 1993 the theatre received a generous legacy from one of its stalwart supporters, Anna Greenburgh. This and a fund raising campaign (“One Stage Beyond”) enabled the group, after twenty-five years occupation of the building, to undertake essential repairs and refurbishment, including reconstruction of the main auditorium. In 1998 a Lottery award via the Arts Council enabled us to purchase the freehold, rebuild the Fife Room and public facilities, and offer much improved disabled access. All the external stonework was cleaned and repaired. The windows in the Foyer and the Fife Room, had been opened up in 1990 and 1992, and its main window was now restored. 

1999 - present day

In October 1999 Marie Thackwell became the first full time appointed General Manager and saw the theatre into the new millennium with a new name - Putney Arts Theatre - to celebrate its continuing growth and development as a thriving community arts venue. Marie says:

“I was delighted to be given this new and challenging role and so far everything has gone from strength to strength. This really is a unique place: there are so few places in London, or anywhere for that matter, which offer such a wealth of theatre experience for very little cost. The membership of Group 64 Youth theatre and Putney Theatre Company encompasses a wide range of ages, talents and stretches across a wide section of members prepared to travel the length of London to join in all its activities. The building itself has an amazing ambience and stage facilities that would be the envy of most fringe venues”

In addition to the activities and productions of our youth and adult theatre companies, we now set out more firmly our stall for the community. The building had occasionally been hired by other theatre companies, but from 1999 we made this much more regular, including in particular local groups PLOS, Cygnets Theatre Company and Baked Bean Theatre Company. Thus we have become the borough’s principal venue for non-professional community theatre. We also opened our exhibition space to local artists. The main roof was replaced and in 2001 a 10ft illuminated sign was erected: actor James D’Arcy, star of ITV Drama ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ turned on the lights at our special gala evening.

In 2002 Maurice Copus died at the age of 82. Maurice had been our President since 1989 and his legacy is that the theatre is so busy and thriving - in particular he would be pleased that Group 64 Youth Theatre continues to go from strength to strength, with over 300 children attending weekly classes and a waiting list to ensure further expansion. We were delighted when Maurice’s wife Audrey, another founder member of the Group, agreed then to become our President, and we hope we are living up to Audrey and Maurice’s early hopes and intentions.

Late in 2005 our friend, Trustee and technical wizard Antony Bridges died of cancer at the age of 41. Antony had revolutionised all the backstage operations of the theatre as well as supervising and undertaking much building work. He left a generous legacy that, together with other donations, has enabled the studio to be completely rebuilt as a modern small theatre – new roof, lighting grid, equipment and seats. In March 2008 this was dedicated as the Antony Bridges Studio: new life springing from the old and one of several grateful acknowledgements within the building to our founders and benefactors.

As an organisation we continue to seek out innovation whilst being mindful that our community of volunteers past and present have helped and continue to shape us as we go. As such, we are delighted that our artistic director for 2013 – 2016 is Ian Higham, a volunteer member with a long involvement with and dedication to Putney Arts Theatre. 

Roots

Meanwhile there was another strand in our ancestry: the regular amateur performances and play readings, which from the latter years of the nineteenth century took place in a number of large houses in Putney. In 1930 local enthusiasts formed the Putney Amateur Dramatic Society. This became the Putney Players in 1960, and continued performance (except for the war years) for almost 70 years. Several Putney Players assisted as Group 64 took off, the Putney Players occasionally used Group 64 Theatre, and over the years there was a regular exchange of membership between the two groups. However, the Putney Players never had their own home, the local school that had accommodated them was needing space itself, and in 1999 the Putney Players united with the older members of Group 64 to form Putney Theatre Company. 

A look to the future

Time is an ever-rolling stream and our history continues. This brief history necessarily has focused on the building: elsewhere you will find details of past productions and present activities, which we believe speak for themselves. Future plans (or pipe dreams?) include landscaping the front of the theatre, currently used as a car park, and the creation of more space, so that we can hold rehearsals or classes at the same time as performances. This will dramatically increase our output of shows and consolidate our position as Putney’s leading community arts venue.

Official Website: www.putneyartstheatre.org.uk

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