Strode Theatre, in Street, celebrates the 50th anniversary of its official opening in October 2013.
Built in 1963 by the Clark Foundation, the charitable trust of C & J Clark the shoe company, at a cost of £45,000 and donated to Somerset County Council to be run as part of the then Strode Technical Theatre, Strode Theatre has been a major part of the cultural life of Somerset for five decades. Named after William Strode, a 17th century politician who owned The Grange in Street, the theatre was billed as the “Finest Small Theatre in West” when it opened with a concert by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, a jazz concert and a live broadcast of the BBC’s ‘Any Questions’. With 400 seats, a cinema screen, an orchestra pit and five dressing rooms, it was an extraordinary vision for a small village in the middle of rural Somerset.
In the mid 1960s the Management Committee, chaired by Dr James Forth, appointed a first theatre manager. John Lowe was a talented performer and artist who developed the community performances starting with ‘Album ‘68’ and then, in 1969, Cinderella. Not surprisingly the glass slipper was made by Clarks, and they went on to create size 11 patent leather pumps for the dame!
In 1968 the film society became a Regional Film Theatre, screening arthouse and foreign language films on ancient projectors which were not known for their reliability, yet the film programme grew in size and stature forming the foundations of the contemporary cinema programme.
During the early 1970s, Strode Productions was formed to produce shows at Strode Theatre, also to run the front of house teams, the bar, wardrobe and scenery store. John Lowe left in1974, succeeded by Elwyn Johnson and then by Philip Venitt, a great enthusiast for traditional jazz and music hall. Glastonbury and Street Musical Comedy Society crossed the River Brue in 1974, bringing their high quality productions of musicals from Glastonbury Town Hall to the bigger and better equipped Strode stage. They were followed by the formation of the Joy School of Dancing with annual productions by masses of young dancers and singers, filling the stage with charm and talent.
During the 1980s, a first Friends of Strode Theatre was formed with the intention of raising funds to extend the theatre and to improve its facilities. This ambitious project had to wait until the 1990s to come to fruition but the Friends supported Sue Kay, the next Theatre manager appointed in 1984. She took the reins for two years, creating a new impetus for the theatre led by an ambitious Strode 21 season in 1984. A first Youth Theatre was formed by the next Manager, Wendy Greenhill, and then in the mid to late 80s the advent of the computer made a huge difference to the running of the theatre with Apple Macs taking over in the office under manager Simon Sherwin, a man ahead of his time. In 1989 the Maxine Cinema in Street closed, allowing Strode Theatre to extend its film programme to include more mainstream titles.
The 1990s were a decade of huge change, in Strode College and in the Theatre. Leaving County Council control in 1993 meant the College and Theatre could pursue outside funds for developments and this led to a significant number of technical improvements including Dolby sound for film, a computerised lighting desk and a computerised box office system.
Liz Leyshon, previously working part time, took over as Manager on a permanent basis in 1994 and embarked on a complete refurbishment of the auditorium working with a renowned theatre designer, John Bury. Street Theatre was formed in 1996 as a breakaway group from Strode Productions, specifically to produce and perform straight drama.
The advent of the National Lottery in 1994 led to a successful grant of nearly £1million which paid for the extension to the original building and ushered in a whole new life for the theatre and cinema. The architect, Steven Blackley of Taunton, won an architectural award for his inspired work which has stood the test of many hundreds of thousands of visitors.
As the new millennium dawned without a computer bug in sight, Strode Theatre was embarking on an enhanced programme of arts projects and an ever increasing programme of live shows, film and now visual art exhibitions in the new building.
In 2003, the forty year anniversary was celebrated with the publication of an illustrated history, a visit by somerset-born film & theatre director Stephen Daldry and then in the following year by the discovery of the 1922 Glastonbury pageant silent film made by Alice Buckton of Chalice Well.
With local authority budget cuts already on the horizon, a new Friends of Strode Theatre was set up in 2006 which has led to the survival of the theatre and its programme when others in Somerset have closed.
Further recent projects, funded or part-funded by The Friends, have included the replacement of all the seats (now a total of 343, allowing for more leg room), a new live sound system, a new bigger cinema screen and new Dolby sound processor. Maintenance and improvements to the fabric of the building have continued and the film programme has been extended to include the transmissions of live opera, plays and ballet from the great national stages of London and the UK.
The implementation of low energy lighting has helped reduce the operational costs of the theatre, as has the introduction of digital projection. Improvements, reductions in costs and more varied programming are giving the theatre a future in this most challenging of times. Come to Strode and help us keep the arts alive in Somerset!