Before TTAC (pre-1946)
After the end of the First World War, three amateur dramatic societies became active in and around the small town of Tonbridge. These were The Zingara Concert Party, the Tonbridge Amateur Dramatic Society and Tonbridge Little Theatre. There was also a professional repertory company – The County Players.
The County Players performed at the Empire Theatre, this company employed many quite well known professional actors and several ex-West End productions were staged. Due to financial difficulties, they closed just before the Second World War. The Empire, known by then as The Playhouse, finally closed in 1955.
The Zingara Concert Party was an informal collection of amateur entertainers. It was always somewhat disorganised and although some of its individual acts were judged to attain near-professional standards, it was often short of performers and when personnel began to move away the Party was dissolved.
Tonbridge Amateur Dramatic Society (TADS) began productions in 1922. The Society staged mainly light comedies as well as some popular productions that had featured in London’s West End. They adventurously took some of their productions to local villages, transporting the scenery and costumes by van with actors trailing along behind on bikes.
Two local schoolteachers, with the objective of producing classics and avant-garde works, were mainly responsible for running Tonbridge Little Theatre (TLT). In 1933, the club took over some old stables behind the Mitre public house in Hadlow Road and changed its name to The Mitre Theatre Club.
Because of their different personnel and the widely differing nature of their programmes there was rivalry, if not some rancour, between TADS and TLT. However, such differences quickly disappeared in 1939, when both societies were called to perform real life, wartime dramas and, at the end of hostilities, it was decided to make a fresh start.
The two clubs agreed to merge in June 1945 to become Tonbridge Theatre Club (TTC), completing the formalities by January 1946. Largely, the merger was driven by TLT’s ‘ownership’ of the Mitre premises. The result was the birth of The Tonbridge Theatre and Arts Club – TTAC.
The Early Years (1946-1974)
After the establishment of TTAC, the Mitre stable remained home, the successful running of the new club was not achieved without teething troubles – many of these centred on the difficulty of persuading the old TLT members that popular theatre could be meritorious and of high quality despite the inclusion of works other than classics.
Amazingly, the Club staged ten shows annually for members and two larger public performances. The first full production of the new Club, Tobias and the Angel took place in the summer of 1946. The Club presented an open air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Tonbridge castle to celebrate the Coronation in1953.
Members continually had to accept that the Mitre had serious space limitations. The stage was cramped – 11ft x 14 ft. It was amazing that the production of Judgement Day had featured 40 people on stage. The auditorium seated just 60 and productions ran for only three or four nights.
In the late sixties, interest began to centre on two properties. The first was right in the centre of the town – the old Capitol cinema, and the second, a redundant oast house on a farm in London Road adjacent to the Hilden Manor Inn.
After some exploratory work it was decided that conversion of the old cinema was simply too difficult.
The decision was made to invest all the Club’s efforts and resources into developing the oast building into a theatre. A consortium of ten members – individuals prepared to risk their own money to get the project started – negotiated the purchase.
They gave the Club one year to raise £7,500 in cash and loans to buy it outright. Due to superhuman fund raising activities, this was achieved and, at last, a long term home was acquired. That was only the beginning – the work needed to gut and convert the building into a viable theatre suitable for public performances was daunting. Sufficient active members, however, had the vision to raise enough cash to make the initial purchase, many willing amateur hands were recruited to assist the professional building workers.
The Oast Theatre (1974 and beyond)
Having purchased the Oast, plans were implemented to turn it into a living theatre. The first ideas involved positioning the stage lengthways to the left side of what is now the auditorium. This was reviewed and redesigned and eventually the construction went ahead with the stage in its present position.The Oast Theatre was opened in April 1974 and our first production was appropriately, “Tom Jones” It remains our special and much loved home to this day.
The initial loans, taken out to pay for fixtures and fittings in the original building, were paid off by 1978. Since then we have made two major extensions, the first in 1988 extended the ground floor adjacent to the side of the auditorium. We were honoured that HRH the Prince Edward opened this extension and attended our production of “Children of a Lesser God”.Additionally we acquired the adjoining barn building and converted that into a workshop, furniture store and accommodation for our huge Wardrobe. This building supports the main Oast building activities by enabling us to build set components and keep a stock of ready to use furniture separately but adjacent to its point of use without obstructing the main stage area.
The barn gives our wardrobe mistress and her assistants room to store, catalogue and regulate costumes to such good effect that our stocks can be< readily accessed and made available for hire by external customers. The revenue from the costume hirings has become the major contributor to our income for the year.
More recently, our large collection of props has been fully catalogued and, together with the furniture we hold in our store, is increasingly being hired out to local societies, providing an additional source of income. Please check out our collection in the Props gallery on the left for images of what we have available.
The 1988 extension and the purchase of the barn allowed us to give up the Mitre stables, the lease on which had been maintained to give us rehearsal and storage rooms, and move completely to the Oast. The second extension in 1997 improved the dressing room facilities and the Green Room and gave us some small storage rooms which are now used for Archives and Curtain stores.Our current buildings status is a joy to us all – we have a superb small theatre, with the supporting services and facilities that make it not just a viable “business” but a pleasure to be associated with and indeed the envy of many outsiders.