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Theatres that made us: ‘It’s humbling to be upstaged by a dolphin!’ | Stage


‘It can be brutal – and magical!’

Aimee Ffion-Edwards

Aimee Ffion-Edwards. Photograph: Michael Shelford

Aimee Ffion-Edwards: The Minack theatre, Porthcurno, is an open air theatre carved out of the Cornish clifftops. The sight of the vast Atlantic ocean as the stage’s backdrop and the steep stone auditorium takes your breath away. Weather-dependent, it can be a brutal place to perform but it can also be the most magical. If you’re lucky – or unlucky! – the audience will catch sight of the local dolphins showing off during a matinee. It’s a humbling experience being upstaged by a dolphin. The Minack hosts all sorts of productions during the summer months. In 2008 I was part of a production of Under Milk Wood, set in a Welsh seaside village over the course of a day. You couldn’t find a more appropriate location (outside of Wales, of course). We were lucky to have clear skies and sun for most of that week. We would open the play with a blue sky, the apt sound of seagulls and crashing waves and close it with a starry night for a back cloth. Singing the Eli Jenkins prayer under a full moon with a brilliant cast is something I will always treasure.

‘Seaside air and a brilliantly loud carpet’

Charley Miles

Charley Miles. Photograph: Paul J Need

Charley Miles: I was 15 when a girl at school told me she was writing a play for a competition she’d been given a leaflet about in drama class. I wasn’t allowed to take GCSE drama – my dad didn’t want to encourage the idea of that career: unlikely, unstable. But the 20 pages I wrote over half term won and I got to sit in the Stephen Joseph theatre, across the moors from where we lived – in Scarborough – and hear my script read by six professional actors. I don’t know whether it’s the seaside air or the brilliantly loud carpet, but the SJT’s total lack of pretension made that theatre feel like a home to me during those two days of rehearsal and performance, in a way I still struggle to find, even as a professional playwright. My dad clapped louder than anyone else. I have a lot to thank that theatre for.

Wyeside Arts Centre

Wyeside Arts Centre. Photograph: Jon Lewis/Alamy

‘Where I first experienced art as an event’

Brad Birch

Brad Birch

Brad Birch: The Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells was the place where I first experienced art as an event. And this would be the same for thousands of people in mid-Wales – the catchment area for the Wyeside is enormous – roughly 15 to 20 miles. It is the cinema, the comedy club, the theatre for an entire region of Wales and for me it was like a satellite from another world – bleeping out enchanting messages from other times and places. My first ever show as a playwright happened there. It was a moody adaptation of The Snow Queen for Mid Powys Youth Theatre. Under the rigorous and sincere artistic directorship of Ian Yeoman, MPYT served for many young people as a creative outlet and a precise education in the wonder and possibilities of socially conscious and humane theatre. Organisations across the country like MPYT are struggling to survive (MPYT lost its core funding when Theatr Powys closed in 2011), and I hope rural arts will not be forgotten when the Covid-19 support package is distributed.

  • Brad Birch’s plays include The Brink, Black Mountain and A Kettle of Fish. He was awarded the 2016 Harold Pinter Commission at the Royal Court. Read more about Wyeside Arts Centre.

‘Much more than just a place of entertainment’

Christopher Haydon

Christopher Haydon

Christopher Haydon: I spent a year at the Salisbury Playhouse in 2007 as part of the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme. One of my tasks was to be assistant director on the pantomime Robin Hood. I was initially sceptical – panto was hardly the kind of cutting-edge thing I thought I wanted to do. But I ended up loving it. They are hugely technical affairs, closer to musicals than plays. And the atmosphere in an auditorium of 400 children was alive, raw and raucous. Kids aren’t polite so you can’t fail in front of them and get away with it. I’d love walking through the foyer each morning and seeing old folk having coffee together while young mums watched their babies roll around on the floor. It felt like the building was essential to its community as more than just a place of entertainment. I get the same feeling now when I’m in the cafe at the Rose and see how many people rely on us each day for camaraderie and connection. Being in Salisbury taught me that the life of a theatre off the stage is just as important as what happens on it.

Work nears completion on the ceiling of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2014

Work nears completion on the ceiling of London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2014. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Pooja Ghai

Pooja Ghai

Pooja Ghai: I was born in Kenya and came to Britain in the late-80s. As an actor and director, I have been lucky enough to work in many of our beautiful theatres. In 2017 I was invited by Emma Rice to direct Tanika Gupta’s epic political play Lions and Tigers at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I had heard of it, but never been and I was unprepared for the surge of emotion as I walked into this beautiful candlelit Jacobean theatre, which opened in 2014. What an unlikely yet perfect setting for a play set in 1930s Bengal. The playhouse evoked a sense of India’s colonial history, even though it was built in the context of another era. This was the first time a South Asian writer and director had been invited to be part of the Wanamaker season, and it was the first time a story of our shared colonial history had been programmed in this space. It was a breakthrough moment, and a turning point in my career.

‘A week earlier they’d had snooker – now it was us!’

Paule Constable

Paule Constable. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Paule Constable: In 1991 I was overjoyed to be given my professional theatrical lighting design debut working on a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for 7:84 Scotland. They were heady days. The show was directed by Roanna Benn and designed by Rae Smith. We were kids, experimenting and making a show on the hoof. The company of six actors included two recent RSAMD graduates doing their first show – namely David Tennant and Ashley Jensen. We shipped out from the rehearsal space by Buchanan Street bus station in Glasgow – to open in Motherwell Civic theatre. The week before they’d been looking after the snooker. Now it was us. We didn’t manage a dress rehearsal. The actors played every part with false noses and wigs and a million tiny costume and prop changes. I remember the chaos of the first night – the bemused audience in Motherwell. It then set sail for the Highlands and Islands tour. I think Brecht would have loved it.


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