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Into Welcome Back to Headgate Theatre

Written by: Headgate Theatre

This week we spoke to Headgate Theatre about what they've missed this past year and what they're looking forward to as they begin to reopen. Take a look at the article below, written by the Headgate Theatre team, to find out more about the history of the theatre and what's in the works for this year.

“You wanna go where, Mate? The Headgate Theatre? Never heard of it! Where is it?”

That used to be the frequent reaction of taxi drivers in Colchester nearly 20 years ago. We were new. A small 85-seat theatre behind the Playhouse pub, set up to provide space for amateur theatre enthusiasts to use. We weren’t part of the arts scene in Colchester. We were unknown.

Now? Things could hardly be more different. We have a multi-space performance venue with fully equipped up-to-date lighting and sound equipment and productions by amateur and professional groups alike. People know where we are and what we do. In 2019 – the last year before the pandemic hit us all – we had 10,000 people through our doors. We hosted 179 performances of 70 productions, and when there’s no performance, the theatre is in use for workshops, classes, rehearsals and set building. We’re open for more than 300 days a year.

And that’s without listing all the other uses for our spaces. We have hosted events as widely different as yoga classes, dance schools, slimming classes and even elections for the President of Romania.

The building started off as a Congregational Chapel which was first opened in 1844. Since then it’s been the Labour Club and a health spa. The jacuzzi is still under the stage, and the curved area at the back of the stage is still referred to as ‘the apse’.

To convert it into a space suitable for performances of various types, including plays, musicals, concerts and even lectures, took a lot of thinking, a lot of money, and an enormous amount of work by a small army of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. But convert it we did. We proudly opened our doors and welcomed our first patrons in 2002. Now, nearly 20 years later, we still get a kick out of people, including actors and audience, coming into the theatre itself and saying, “Wow. What a lovely intimate space. We love it!”

A moment which is etched into our memory was one evening in the height of summer of 2006. It was very hot in the auditorium and some people were buying programmes just to use them as fans. As they were leaving, we were explaining that we knew it was hot and the ventilation was on full blast. We had had a quote for air conditioning and had been told that it would cost about £50,000, but we just didn’t have that sort of money. Shortly afterwards, we received a phone call. “Provided I remain anonymous, you can have £50,000 for air conditioning.” Whilst that is extreme, it is an example of the way in which many people feel about our theatre.

Our aim is to do everything we can to make sure that our audience have a great time, from the moment they arrive to the moment they step out of the door. A smile costs nothing, they say, and our enthusiastic band of volunteers always do their best to make our customers always feel welcome. Having a licensed bar helps, of course.

Since we first opened, we have grown and matured into an acknowledged part of the arts scene in Colchester. We even expanded into the building next door. This has given us an additional intimate performance space, workshops and scenery stores, meeting rooms and extra toilets.

We feel that our theatre being in Colchester is a win-win all round. We gain from being in such an interesting and vibrant place, and Colchester gains by having a dynamic arts scene with something to suit all tastes. With such a variety of things happening in the theatre, for all interests and ages, we have no favourites. However, we are particularly proud of our work with the young people who have come to the many classes and workshops which we and others run at The Headgate. Since we opened, we have seen many hundreds of young people of all ages and backgrounds find their feet and blossom into mature adults. It is wonderful to see so many of them becoming professional actors, directors, technical crew and even having their own theatre companies.

2020 was a very difficult year for the arts everywhere and The Headgate was no different. In March, when the call came to say that we had to close, we had a show in the auditorium fully set up and about to have its Dress Rehearsal, and a rehearsal going on in another part of the building for a sell-out show the following week. We had a full programme of productions, with patrons who had booked and paid for tickets, and were about to launch our summer programme.

Everything stopped and the building was closed. People who had bought tickets were offered refunds. Some accepted, but many people who love the place so much asked us to keep the money as a donation to help us stay afloat. We are so grateful for that kind of support.

Since then, we’ve been able to open briefly for the dance classes and well-being groups, but not performances. We’ve missed seeing the smiles and feeling the appreciative warmth of our audiences. We’ve missed the many companies, performers and artistes who have enriched Colchester’s world of theatre with shows as varied as musicals, plays, dance shows, concerts, pantomime etc. We have especially missed the buzz of young people.

But we are managing to put all that behind us. With the support of our dedicated volunteers, the donors to our Crowdfunding campaign, and grants from the Theatres Trust and Arts Council England, we can plan with more confidence. Our programme of events is getting more and more full and by paying close attention to the latest advice, we are confident that the building is as Covid-secure as it’s possible to be.

We are planning some socially distanced performances, starting with Jim Cartwright’s “Two” in June, and some storyteller events and music by the end of July. During the summer we will be hosting a significant number of workshops for young people and adults. All things being equal tickets will go on sale shortly after a positive announcement from the government on May 10th.

And then we have a full programme of events planned from early September until the end of the year. The first of these should be Blue Stockings performed by the newly created Headgate Young Company. The season will include hosting the first Colchester Fringe Festival and conclude with our traditional pantomime. Postponed from last year, it’s Jack and the Beanstalk. Oh yes it is!

We look forward to welcoming everybody back. We have spaces to hire for performances, rehearsals events and meetings, and a friendly bar to catch up with friends we’ve not seen in a while. Please keep an eye on our web site www.headgatetheatre.co.uk for the latest news, or follow us on social media.

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September 2019