A much loved local institution the Huntingdon Drama Club are celebrating 75 years of community theatre this year. Club member Michelle Gibson shares a history of the club from inception to modern day;
In some ways, 2019 has been a unique year for Huntingdon Drama Club. It began with a series of personnel changes in the committee; with three long-standing members resigning at the same time, some re-shuffling of duties was put into place, as well as the admission of some new people. It has also been the year in which the town held its first Arts Festival, in which the club was honoured to participate, and presented an exciting challenge of devising an original work based upon local history and folklore. In addition, it has seen the re-opening of the Commemoration Hall, the long-time “performance home” of the club, until its closure in 2017 for the purposes of refurbishment.
But perhaps the biggest marker for this year is the fact that 2019 serves as Huntingdon Drama Club’s 75th anniversary. To perhaps put that into greater perspective, we were a functioning society as far back as World War II, at a time when Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all in power. Officially founded in the spring of 1944, the first inaugural meeting took place in March of that year, at what is now the Cromwell Museum, but was then the Old Grammar school. The minute book declares that “Mr. Jarrett opened the meeting by saying that its object was to start a Drama Club in Huntingdon for play-readings and theatrical productions.” Membership fee was 2/6d (two shillings and sixpence) per quarter and by the end of that year, nineteen individuals had paid subscriptions.
In February 1945, by which time the club had been going for eleven months, the chairman’s summation of HDC’s first year was recorded in his opening remarks. It is quite fascinating to get an insight into the experiences and hopes of our very first members and they serve as a reminder that, whatever the cultural differences of the 1940s, the successes and struggles involved in amateur dramatics are very much the same. “The club,” it is noted, “was formed not only for pleasure but for knowledge and cultural interest. The club was ambitious to put over some really good plays and had done its best in a not uncommendable way. The greatest difficulty in a production had been to find a suitable place. The importance of a good stage and hall in Huntingdon could not be stressed enough.”
It was to be another fifteen years before we had the luxury of a good stage and hall – this being upon our move to the Commemoration Hall as a venue in 1960 – but in the intervening years, Huntingdon Drama Club established itself as an active community group, putting on two productions per year. Titles throughout the 1950s include A Lady Mislaid, See How They Run, The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Seagulls Over Sorrento, reflecting a number of genres from comedy to drama to mystery. Since joining in 2015, I have seen first-hand the club’s efforts to appeal to a broad array of tastes and this is shown in the diversity of plays that are chosen. From viewing the titles of past productions, it’s clear this is an ideal which was promoted at the very outset.
Throughout the club’s history there have been a number of repeat productions, with The Crucible first being performed in 1971 and, more recently, in 2017. Others that have popped up on more than one occasion include The Happiest Days of Your Life, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Habeas Corpus. Overall, it’s quite eye-opening to see the breadth of separate plays the club has produced over the years and quite inspirational to consider the artistic and creative vision of those who came before us.
1960 saw the beginning of Huntingdon Drama Club’s long relationship with the Commemoration Hall. Providing a stage, dressing rooms and kitchen facilities, the Hall was in many ways our ideal venue. In recent years, a number of the club’s members and supporters have also been closely involved with the running of the Hall, so there has been a considerable amount of interplay and cooperation between the two organisations. The last event held in the hall before its temporary closure was our 2017 production of Alfie, which gave the experience a bittersweet feeling, as we were saying goodbye to our “home” of nearly sixty years. The town was fortunate to see the hall re-open earlier this year and we are delighted to be performing once again in the space to which many of us have grown quite attached.
One of the most notable productions in the club’s history was its first foray into science fiction. In the year of our fiftieth anniversary (1994), Huntingdon Drama Club performed The Empress of Othernow, a Doctor Who play written especially for the club by Peter Vialls, who at the time was serving on the committee. The play, which involved a time paradox set around Ancient Rome, was almost two years in the planning, with the script itself first needing to be finalised, as well as the process of receiving permission from the BBC to use their characters and finding appropriate costumes. Finally, as recalled by Peter Vialls, “the club’s publicity team went into overdrive. The name Doctor Who created interest the Club did not usually get for its productions; we even got Anglia Television to bring a camera and reporter from Norwich to report on the show, as well as getting coverage in all the local press. There was a general ‘buzz’ around the area about the play, and all four performances played to substantial audiences.” The promotion paid off, with The Empress of Othernow being, to that date, the most financially successful production that the club had presented.
As is the case with many clubs and societies, we have seen our trajectory of success dip and climb at various points. Long-time chairman Michael Black recalled that in 2004 “, there was a serious risk that the club would fold, because of a lack of people willing to form a committee. A crisis meeting was publicised in the local newspapers, and was attended by around 35 people, many of them past club or audience members who didn’t want the club to fail. Luckily a committee was formed, and the club went on to greater success, which has continued to the present.”
The past five years have been a successful, creative and challenging time for Huntingdon Drama Club. We have seen our audience numbers rise and several productions, including The Crucible and A Bunch of Amateurs have won NODA awards. We have not been afraid to present less well-known works of drama in addition to conventional fare and the absence of the Commemoration Hall as a venue has led us to seek ways in which we might more efficiently and creatively use our performance space. The re-opening of the Hall means that we are once more back in the venue that has for so long been a part of our history and we hope to continue our legacy of producing high quality, entertaining and thought-provoking pieces of theatre to our community.
Huntingdon-born and bred, Michelle is involved in a couple of local community groups, one such being Huntingdon Drama Club. A staunch admirer of the arts, she has been an avid reader since childhood and includes writing and acting amongst her other interests.
Huntingdon Drama Clubs Autumn Production “Cathy” an updated version of the classic film Cathy Come Home is running Tuesday 26th November until Friday 29th November, with tickets available on the door or in advance from their website: