by ANTONY CLAY
COMMUNITY is at the heart of what a small theatre in the heart of a South Yorkshire town is all about.
Community in the sense of staging shows which will attract a loyal local audience, and community in the sense of taking art out to the people in local church halls and other small venues.
But it is also part of the community by providing an opportunity for its members, young and old, to develop their interest in acting or behind-the-scenes production work.
Run by volunteers, the Doncaster Little Theatre has been tucked away on King Street, off East Laith Gate, for just over a quarter of a century.
The Doncaster Literary Society took over the former industrial space after the cost of staging productions at the town’s old Civic Theatre went up, as did the expense of hiring places to rehearse and store props.
Members did much of the refurbishment work on the building themselves but now the Little Theatre – known affectionately as The Lit – is doing well and very very busy.
Artistic director Simon Carr, a member of the six-person board of directors, said that the venue is living up to the aim of introducing more and more people to live theatre.
He said: “The theatre used to be a warehouse and was stripped out by the original members and made into a theatrical space.
“Now we are trying to encourage more people to live theatre. We can offer a more intimate space than a larger theatre.”
The venue has always eked out additional income by being hired out to other drama groups and companies, as well as being a venue for drama exams.
Students from Ridgewood School also use the theatre for placements.
The theatre offers up 12 of its own shows a year, as well as cabaret events and other entertainments.
In 2019, productions will include Steven Berkoff’s East, Alan Ayckbourn’s Farce, Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, and popular musical Hello Dolly.
The Little Theatre has around 40 active members, but there is also the Young Lit group for six to 16 year olds which will stage their own productions this year such as The Apprentice Witch in February and Job’s Lot in May.
The Young Lit group holds workshops every Saturday to encourage more youngsters to develop an active interest in drama and theatre.
Indeed, the Little Theatre actively encourages its members to develop skills such as directing, acting and other backstage roles.
Simon said: “Overall it has come a long way in the 25 years from the traditional style of theatre.”
It is always the Christmas panto which puts most money in the bank for the theatre and this year’s effort, Jack and the Beanstalk with a cast of 18, has certainly helped with that.
“This is what will help us survive the rest of the year,” said Simon.
This money is invested into the theatre to make it better for the volunteers – and more importantly the audience to make their visit a more pleasant and stimulating experience.
That means they will keep coming back and supporting the venue.
Money raised over the years has led to the sound and lighting being upgraded, and the stage lowered to make watching shows better.
Simon said: “We are ploughing the money back in for the benefit of the theatre.
“We have to change with the times.
“When I came on board the theatre was just in the red and there was a question of how it would keep running. But we are now in profit so we have money to pay for refurbishments.
“We are looking at different areas and seeing what we can do next.
“We try to encourage members with things like direction skills so people have the choice to do that. My feeling is that I would like to have a year when I don’t have to direct anything because we have encouraged other people’s talents.”
There are members nights once a month, and once a year the theatre moves out into the community with a tour of venues such as church halls offerings cabaret productions and so forth.
Christmas cabaret at Cusworth Hall has proved popular.
The thinking is that the volunteers want to access places where people may not be able to experience theatre normally.
Simon said that the public has supported Doncaster Little Theatre with good ticket sales for shows, although he admitted that paying to go out anywhere can be a financial burden for people in these straitened times.
He said that the theatre is aiming to encourage people to visit from areas which seem to show less interest in going to the venue, such as Wheatley and Cantley.
It is hoped that developing initiatives such as family tickets and prizes will attract more attention from budding theatregoers.
Simon said: “The nature of the beast has always been that theatre audience are towards the older end but now because of the nature of our productions we are moving to the younger end.”
Simon said that ethnic minority groups have been utilising the venue which shows a promising development of interest in theatre.
The Little Theatre also liaises with the town’s bigger drama venue Cast, though Simon said that each site attracts different kinds of productions.
Simon said that he insists on Doncaster Little Theatre’s productions being of a professional standard because people are paying to see them and so should get the best but also because it may be the first time some people have ever been to a theatre and he doesn’t want them put off by shoddy workmanship.
He said: “This is the first impression they get.
“At panto time, if we can grab children’s interest they will stick with theatre.
“Once we have that interest then people will return to the theatre.”
Doncaster Little Theatre is certainly punching above its weight and putting the arts on Doncaster’s cultural map for people of all generations.
Its volunteers are aiming for that to continue well into the future.
Address: 1 King Street, off East Laith Gate, Doncaster DN1 1JD
Telephone: 01302 340422