The Headgate Theatre

Originally built as a Congregational Chapel in 1844, the story of the Headgate Theatre began 23 years ago when a group of local people set up the Theatre Arts Action Trust to try and find a permanent home for amateur theatre. Although the trustees spent many years looking out for a suitable building, they had no success until 1999 when the local council found the chapel. The council funded the purchase and gave us a 25-year lease. In return, we had to raise the £240,000 needed to convert the derelict venue into a theatre. We secured £90,000 from the Lottery, and £70,000 from the Hervey Benham Trust, and raised the rest ourselves from auctions, fundraising events, donations, old-time musicals and all sorts of other things. We took possession in the autumn of 2000.


In some respects, raising such a huge sum of money was the easy bit. Between September 2001 and March 2002 a team of about 30 volunteers worked flat out to turn their dream into reality. David King, who is also the theatre's bookings manager, was one of them: "I remember the day we installed the lighting - there was three-and-a-half miles of electric cable that needed to supply 118 points. We had over 20 people feeding the cable off big drums to help run it safely around the building. Another job took us three days painting the auditorium ceiling, but worst of all was rubbing down and painting rusty scaffold poles which form the theatre's lighting grid"

The Headgate Theatre is now regarded by some as an architectural gem, and an attraction in its own right. The auditorium seats 87 people and is an intimate space that makes members of audience feel as though they are part of the set. The original altar area forms a stunning backdrop for the stage, whilst six of the chapel's listed pillars are utilised in the outer walls. Upstairs is a bar and a lounge area, plus the Hervey Benham Rehearsal Studio, either of which can be hired out separately or used as breakout space for the main theatre.

Window designed by Gay Hutchings

One of the conditions of obtaining the lottery grant was that we had to 'employ'(in the widest sense of the word) a professional artist - it could be a professional director, choreographer, etc.

So we commissioned Gay Hutchins, a local stained glass window artist, to design and produce a stained glass window for us.

Window

The three principal figures are drawn from the Commedia dell' Arte, which originated in Italy in 1550 and greatly influenced many forms of comic and musical theatre in Europe. Pantalone represents the older generation, Isabella is his daughter and the Prima Donna, and the Harlequin, the servant, in his easily recognisable costume, represents the satirical voice of the younger generation. They are depicted playing on a stage with a backdrop of Colchester Castle, within a setting of a ground plan of a Roman theatre similar to the one found in Gosbecks.

The yellow and white border represents a proscenium arch into which are set coloured lenses to evoke the idea of theatre lights. Along the two sides of the border are Shakespeare's words from 'As You Like It': "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players"; above, in the curve of the arch, are the first eight bars of the song by Irving Berlin: "There's no business like show business'.

HEADGATE THEATRE PRODUCTIONS

So what kinds of productions can you see at the Headgate Theatre? You can enjoy classical music, drama, music, dance, films, pantomimes, comedy or serious productions and presentations and Acousticity whose monthly sessions include some brilliant musicians in the line-up. We also have amazing drama workshops for young people, which really boost their talent and confidence. We've even had foreign language shows, mind reading evenings, drop-in acoustic sessions, clairvoyants and people showing old black and white movies to soundtracks they'd written themselves.

Even though the Headgate's productions are put on by amateur companies such as The Colchester Theatre Group, Platform Musicals or Making Waves, you can expect entertainment of the highest quality. "Although we promote amateur theatre there is nothing amateurish about the productions," remarks Kevin Topple, regular performer who is also responsible for designing the theatre's logo.

The outgoing chairman, Malcolm Kimmance stresses that the theatre owes its success to the dedication, determination and doggedness of a small, but resolute group of people, many of whom are still active in the theatre today. For their unstinting efforts and willingness to give a large part of their lives to this home for amateur theatre in Colchester, and the team of volunteers that continue to give their time and dedication, many thousands of theatregoers and many hundreds of performers have good cause to be grateful.

David King, one of the founder members and a trustee, agrees. He sums up what the theatre offers local people. "The Headgate Theatre is run by a 'family' of volunteers, and we go that extra mile to provide a wonderful community space, ready and waiting for anyone in Colchester who wants to use it." YOU can hire the Headgate Theatre. For further details please contact Dave King at dave@headgatetheatre.co.uk or telephone 01206 366000.

YOUNG PEOPLES' DRAMA

The theatre promotes projects involving young people. KATS (Kids Acting and Theatre Skills) meet every Saturday morning during term time. This is a thriving and lively drama group for keen youngsters. For further details contact Sarah Young on 01206 851796. Various workshops are also organised where young people rehearse a 'west-end'show during the workshop and perform at the end of the week. Details of forthcoming workshops can be obtained by telephoning 01206 366000.

PLAYWRIGHT COMPETITIONS

In 2011 The Headgate Theatre introduced a new venture, in the shape of a competition for young playwrights. The competition asked for submissions of One Act Plays of between 20-40 minutes with a maximum cast of six actors using minimal scenery, props or costume. This competition gave potential writers the opportunity to stage a performance of their play at the theatre working with experienced directors/technicians who gave guidance and support. The two winning entries were 'In the Name of My Mother' by Lily Staff and 'Never the Same' by Joshua Creek. Lily went on to be an active member of the Cambridge University Footlights company, and in 2014 directed St Joan for them.

The One Act Play competition was opened again in 2015, but this time there were two categories – over 21 and 16-21. There were 29 entries in total, and an exceptionally high overall standard. The two winning entries were ‘Analysis’ by Shannon Hannah (under 21) and ‘Tagged’ by Griff Scott. The plays will be publicly performed in September 2015.

THE WITCHFINDER (film premiere)

The Headgate Theatre has a remit to undertake educational projects and in early 2006 an approach was made to the Local Heritage initiative for financial support for a project to produce a DVD and other materials relating to Matthew Hopkins - 'The Witchfinder General'. Little did we realise that this was to become one of the biggest ventures undertaken by the theatre, involving over 200 people. Directed by John Worland with co-director and producer Kerry King, the result was a startling success. For all details go to the Headgate website www.headgatetheatre.co.uk and click on the Witchfinder picture link at the top of the page. The pages provide details of the project and will give you more information about this dark period of our local history. Details of how to purchase the DVD are also available.

Witchfinder

Will Parrick in the foreground (Matthew Hopkins) and some of the 200 cast in the court scene.

The Headgate offers high quality diverse entertainment. The 10th Anniversary season, for example, has already included a unique and extraordinary film directed and produced by John Worland, a former committee member, about Ursula Kemp, a healer and midwife from St Osyth, who was executed as a witch in 1582. High quality musicals, concerts, drama, comedy have also featured this season including a young persons'workshop and entertainment from KATS juniors (5yrs -12yrs). Visiting companies also use the theatre not only for its ambience but hire rates are lower than many theatres due to the fact that it is run and organised by volunteers.

TEN YEARS AND COUNTING

The opening event at the Headgate Theatre in 2002 was titled 'Two Chairs and a Table'and involved different amateur groups that had contributed to the fundraising. To celebrate its tenth anniversary the theatre held a variety show culminating in a Gala performance in April this year.

The show featured many different contributors to the success of the theatre over the past ten years. Among those who appeared were familiar actors from Colchester Theatre Group, Making Waves and Mad Hatter, plus singers from Platform Musicals, but also dancers from Catherine Pickering's School of Dance, musicians* from AcoustiCity, poets from Untapped Writers, some of Carla Brown's music students, youngsters from KATS, and even an excerpt from our film Witchfinder.

As the Management Committee look forward to the development of the programme of activity over the next few years (including participation in the 2015 Comedy Festival) Dave King, the current chair of Trustees is keen to involve younger people in the running of the theatre. If anyone would like to become more closely involved, then they should contact him on 01206 530257.

ALSO:- Be sure that you do not miss out on forthcoming events. Log on to the website for 'what's on'. OR you can telephone the theatre on 01206 366000 and ask to be on the mailing list so you can receive a brochure of all future events for the season OR let us have your email address so that we can email you the brochure and/or remind you of forthcoming events.

 

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