A theatre is a building. A place. Who decided it had to have a stage with three tiers? Or seat thousands? Why does it have to be purpose built?
In small communities, where money is tight, and people have little spare cash, reusing buildings is a common solution. With declining church membership, many old churches and chapels are put to other uses. One of these is on Jackson Lane, North London.
Jackson Lane Theatre occupies what was the Highgate Wesleyan Methodist Church, which opened in 1905. The church could seat 650, the school room next door a further 400. Although a popular community spot in the 1960s, it closed as a church in the early 1970s. Local activists tried for years to gain access to the building to use it as a community creativity hub.
Funds were raised and by 1980s the interior was transformed into a raked theatre including accessibility to enable wheelchair users to undertake theatrical training. Theatre stages are usually flat, but with a raked stage it slopes up and away from the audience. Common in Middle Ages, the slope improved both sound and viewing for the audience. In modern times, the angle is a little as five degrees. More on this type of theatre in another future post.
As for Jackson Theatre, it has become the Northern London Creative Space, and not only for theatre, but circus acts. Its main space (one of six) might now only seat 160 people, but it is the centre for innovative experimental visual theatre and contemporary circus. Matt Lucas and David Walliams (the Little Britain act) started out here. People dance in what was the school room.
A reincarnation perhaps for the old church?
And there are other places saved from neglect or disuse. They’re not grand or ornate. They provide a function.
Ipswich’s Sir John Mills Theatre, home of the Eastern Angles Theatre Company, was a primary school. It seats the audience on opposing sides of the stage. There’s no backstage for scenery.
Bedford’s Quarry Theatre, once St Lukes, is now fitted out as a contemporary theatre.
The Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate seats just 50 people and was built in 1896 as a coach house and saved in 1984 to become a small theatre.
The Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham was a library, a bank, then a pub, keeping the banking connection in its name. The theatre attached to it was opened in 2006.
And finally, the tiniest I could find, The Small Space in Barry, the Vale of Glamorgan. Now utilised as both theatre and cinema, in the past the building has been a bookshop, printers, florist, tobacconist, and home of a one-armed barber. With velvet curtains lining the walls, it is 3.5 by 5 metres in size and seats a whopping 20 people. It is the world’s smallest magic theatre.
So, if you’re tiring of big theatre, try looking around your neighbourhood for the little ones.