Theatre Arts Action Trust

was formed by a small group of enthusiastic people who care passionately about theatre and drama. Members of several of the amateur groups in the town, they were struggling to find a place to rehearse and to mount plays, and wanted to secure a permanent “home”. Following discussions with the local Colchester Borough Council, who were really supportive of their aims, the Trust was registered at Companies House in March 1999.

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 Trust set about raising money to purchase or lease a property. A magnificent Music Hall evening was held with the support of the local Mercury Theatre, plays were mounted in order to generate a surplus towards the fund-raising and properties were visited. The search for suitable theatre premises was taking place at the same time as major changes in two of the long stay hospitals, who were looking for new community-based premises, and so the competition was fierce. Colchester Borough Council continued to be a great ally in this search, and eventually the current premises were identified and purchased by the Council for lease to the Trust. The dream was becoming reality!!

Having the building was one thing – turning it from a Health Club to a theatre was another. Members of the Trust busied themselves with applying for grants – and Eddie McKay, then the Chair of the Trust took the paperwork associated with the Lottery application to London in a suitcase! Further fund-raising events were arranged, supported by local benefactors and supporters, and a sizeable grant was received from The Hervey Benham Trust.

The major conversion work was undertaken by local contractors, but much of work to set up the theatre area itself was done by volunteers. Between September 2001 and March 2002, a team of about 30 volunteers worked flat out to turn the dream into reality. David King, who was one of those volunteers said: "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 which, took us three days, was painting the auditorium ceiling - but worst of all was rubbing down and painting rusty scaffold poles which form the theatre's lighting grid".

The building

now know as The Headgate Theatre was originally built in 1844 as the Head Gate Congregational Chapel. It drew it’s membership from the west and south of the town, and was extremely well supported – at it’s zenith it had over 200 members. A balcony was added supported by slender metal pillars in 1868. You can still see these pillars in the foyer and auditorium, although they are no longer weight bearing! The premises further expanded in 1903 to create a Sunday School, and a first floor was added as a church hall in 1929.

Temperance was a firmly held principle towards the end of the 19th century in the Congregational Church. Many members and several Ministers espoused pacifism; in both World Wars a significant number registered as conscientious objectors. In the second War the church operated a forces’ canteen and Prisoners of war were given friendship and fellowship. A centre for the unemployed was provided during the 1930’s depression.

Since 1945, no fewer than four members of The Headgate Chapel have been Mayor of Colchester –Walter Buckingham, Cyril Child, Bob Russell and Westley Sandford.

In November 1968 the chapel was reduced “to a charred shell”

It was thought that the fire probably started due to faulty wiring setting light to curtains stored in the balcony. It was re-opened in April 1970 with false ceilings and walls that hid the balcony but reduced the space heating requirements.

In 1972, the work to try and help different Christian denominations co-operate and explore the idea of Christian Unity resulted in the Congregational and Presbyterian churches coming together to create the United Reformed Church. At the same time, the building of Southway and Balkerne Hill meant that the Head Gate chapel and St Marys-at-the-Walls Anglican Parish Church were left in cul-de-sacs, cut off from their communities. The members of both churches got together and decided to build a new church, Christ Church, in Ireton Road, which they would share on an equal footing. Christ Church opened in 1978.

The building was listed in 1978, as part of a national drive to identify and increase the number of buildings of architectural interest that were at risk of being demolished as towns and cities expanded.

After the church was vacated, it became the headquarters for the local Labour Club. When that relocated, it enjoyed a spell as The Palm Springs Ladies Health Club. The jacuzzi used in the Health Club is still in situ under the raised floor at the rear of the stage area (the original apse).

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.

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".


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