A Brief History of Portland’s Drama Group
The Royal Manor Theatre Company (RMTC) has come a long way since its inception in 1947 as the Portland Dramatic Society (PDS). It sprang from the desire of a dozen or so people wishing to bring live theatre back to Portland after the war, and which would be independent of groups attached to churches or private organisations. The PDS beginnings were small and modest, contributing sketches and on-act plays as part of concerts whilst building up its numbers. In 1949, it was sufficiently strong to present a three act play by J B Priestly; ‘Mystery at Greenfingers’ at the Masonic Hall, Victoria Square. As is often the case with amateur drama groups, it then suffered a decline in numbers and was forced to return to the cycle of presenting one-act plays and sketches at various venues on the island.
It was not until 1951 that the society had recovered sufficiently to tackle three-act plays again. Between then and 1957, twelve were performed (including Agatha Christie’s The Hollow) together with one-acts and sketches. Venues ranged over Portland and Weymouth, the Borstal Officers’ Club, The Jubilee Hall, Wyke Regis W I Hall and Weymouth Hope Square United Reform Church hall. In early 1957 they were fortunate in obtaining the use of the Masonic Hall on a yearly lease. Members immediately started work on making improvements to the stage, stage lighting and décor. The opening play was Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”, followed by a further fifteen plays over the ensuing seven years. Audience numbers were good, despite their surroundings being far from comfortable, because of persistent draughts with which the primitive heating system was unable to cope. In early 1964 the owners of the hall wanted full use of the premises, so that the Society became homeless.
It took about eighteen months to find new accommodation at the Jubilee Hall Easton Square and during most of 1965 the members again worked hard to make similar improvements to those at the Masonic Hall, ready for their first production in November of that year which was “Cat on the Fiddle”. They stayed there until the end of 1970, having presented thirteen full-length plays during their sojourn, when once again they were evicted because the owners wanted the hall for their own purposes. The Society at once started a search for new premises, but for nearly two years this proved fruitless. During these two years, the Society, together with other major drama groups in the area were invited to take part in three festivals at the Pavilion Theatre Weymouth. This they did with great success. They also presented a number of one-act plays and a religious play ‘Shadow of the Eagle’, in St Johns Church Portland.
By the end of 1971, things were looking grim for the Society; storing scenery and equipment acquired over the years was a big problem. There were no halls available on Portland for staging plays and it looked as if then Society would soon be disbanded, having reached the end of the road. Nevertheless, they felt that at least they had given Portland twenty-four years of live theatre of a high standard, having presented forty-six full length plays and numerous one-acts. So it was with great sadness that arrangements were put in hand for the winding up meeting.
However, by good fortune and article in a local paper on the Society’s plight was seen be the late Captain Chibnall and Mrs Chibnall, who were well known for their interest in and support of local community projects. They contacted a committee member and arranged a meeting where Captain Chibnall and Mrs Chibnall explained that they were thinking of buying the disused Primitive Methodist Hall in Fortuneswell. Having satisfied themselves that the members of the Society were enthusiastic, capable and determined, this philanthropic couple offered to lease the upper floor to them at a rent of only £25 a year. The Society would convert this floor (the chapel) into a theatre while the Chibnalls retained the lower floor (the hall) for letting purposes. The chance to acquire a theatre of their own must be the dream of every amateur drama group, but is one which few realise, To make the dream a reality takes far more than luck and generosity, so in the late summer of 1972 the hard work of conversion began.
The first major task was to strip the chapel of its furniture and fittings, leaving only the shell. The pulpit, pews and choir stalls were sold to buyers who were keen to obtain some fine examples of Victorian carving, or large quantities of seasoned timber in excellent condition. The building, dating from 1869, is only 55 feet long by 31 feet wide, with a raked gallery 15 feet deep, extending the whole width if the building. In addition there is an annexe (the former vestry) 17 feet long by 14 feet wide. Into these spaces it was necessary to fit a stage, auditorium, cloakroom, dressing room, workshop and scenery store, wardrobe space and lighting control room. Fire regulations however, limited seating to 100.
Plans were prepared and submitted to the Local Authority for approval. They were most co-operative and did everything they could to help and advise, both then and during the whole life of the project. A regular working party of about eight people was joined by others who helped when they could. A retired master carpenter led the construction team, which comprised engineering craftsmen and electrical and mechanical engineers, whose professional expertise proved to be invaluable.
The stage and proscenium were built first. The gallery was divided to accommodate the workshop, store and wardrobe on one level, with lighting control room at the lower level. The building had to be completely rewired and cabling for the stage lighting installed. A false ceiling was constructed over the auditorium to conserve heat and to transform the ‘Churchy’ atmosphere of the building into a more intimate feel. A catwalk was incorporated alongside the ceiling to provide a direct route from the scenery store to a point above the stage where the items of scenery could be lowered into place. At a comparatively late stage in the construction period new fire regulations came into force which required the erection of fire check walls above the proscenium arch and the lighting control room, setting the work back several months. Finally the seating was installed and the theatre decorated, so ending six years of unremitting hard work, culminating in the official opening of the new theatre in October 1978.
At the beginning of the project a fund-raising committee was formed and during the construction period many fetes, jumble sales, coffee mornings and other events kept the money coming in. Donations were also received from supporters and well-wishers. The project had involved some 11,000-man hours of voluntary labour and cost £3,500 at the time, a figure which would have been much higher but for the volunteers. Costs were also minimized by being able to obtain good second-hand timber locally and by being given the auditorium seating. During the six years of conversion, no outside financial support at all was received either from local or national sources such as Southwest Arts of the Local Authority.
With the opening of the new theatre imminent, it was decided to change the name of the Portland Dramatic society and call it The Royal manor Theatre Company. The members felt that this name would reflect the fact that the theatre was part of the social life of the island and Royal Manor of Portland. The first play in the new theatre ‘Wedding of the Year’ ran for three nights, but because of the demand for seats. Performances were successively increased to six at which they have remained ever since.
When Captain Chibnall decided to sell the property in 1980, the Company approached the Borough Council to ask for their support in obtaining a bank loan. The Council responded by proposing to purchase the building and lease it to the Company at a yearly rental. Captain Chibnall agreed to sell it for his original purchase price, plus the cost of improvements, which he had made, a total of £8,500. The transfer of ownership was completed in May 1980. The Council gave the Company the option to purchase from them at the same figure within five years.
Immediately a Building Appeal Fund was launched. A member generously offered a £5,000 interest-free loan repayable over ten years. By 1982, two and a half years before the option expired, the total purchase price had been raised and the building became the property of the Royal Manor Theatre Company. The loan was repaid in full by 1985. Many improvements have been made since that time. The front windows have been renewed, a new gas central heating boiler has replaced the oil-fired one; wardrobes have been enlarged and the annex has been re-roofed, fitted out and decorated as a ‘green room’. An area has been equipped as a make-up room, new lighting equipment has been purchased, a lighting control outfit has been designed and made by a member, the ladies and gents toilets in the foyer have been refurbished and new radiators installed in the auditorium. A sound absorbent ceiling has been fitted over part of the lower hall and will be completed when finances permit. A complete new set of drapes (stage curtains) and stage flooring had been donated by Rotary International, following a request from Portland Rotary Club.
Since the theatre opened, more than £30,000 has been spent on the foregoing major improvements and many other lesser ones. Professional assistance has been kept to an absolute minimum to reduce costs, most of the work being done by volunteers known as the ‘Wednesday Working Party’. Members are kept fully occupied in acting, working backstage, building, erecting and decorating sets and scenery. It says much for the dedication of the Company’s comparatively few members, some of who spend many hours of their spare time in activities connected with the theatre.
The Royal Manor Theatre can be regarded as Portland’s ‘Little Theatre’. The Company’s first aim is to provide live theatrical entertainment of a high standard for the local community within easy reach of their homes. Another aim is to provide and improve education in all aspects of drama. This has been recognised by the Charity Commissioners who have granted the Company registered charitable status. The lower hall is available for let to non-political and non-sectarian organisations, it is also used by the Company for committee meetings, rehearsals etc.
A junior group called the ‘Playmakers’, currently about 20 strong, has been running since 1978. Children between the ages of 8 to18 years old are trained in all aspects of the theatre including acting, improvisation, drama, games and other theatrical devises. They have given performances of one-act plays, a Victorian music hall and have participated in the senior group’s pantomimes to the delight of enthusiastic audiences.
2005 saw the 58th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Manor Theatre Company. From it’s inception in 1947 to May 2005, 139 full-length plays had been performed, together with numerous one acts and sketches. Of these productions, 90 (including two open air productions and six pantomimes) have been presented under the aegis of the RMTC since 1978.
In 2002 for the first time, the Company entered a British Drama Association annual festival with ‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ and were awarded a certificate of merit.
In 2004 RMTC won the producer’s cup, the team cup and the Betty Palmer Cup for the best play ‘After Magritte’ by Tom Stoppard and the trophy for the best set. RMTC’s entry was then sent forward to the next round and was awarded a certificate of merit.
In 2005, the RMTC was awarded the team cup and two certificates of merit for ‘Trip of a Lifetime’ by Bill Cashmore and Andy Powrie.
2007 saw the company enter its 60th year. To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, members and friends of the company enjoyed a meal at the Weymouth and Portland Sailing Academy, on the 3rd February 2007. Guests were entertained to the sounds of local musicians whilst they talked about their experience with the company and the shows they had seen over the years.
Members look forward in the hope that the Company will grow in strength so that it can maintain live theatre in the district, bearing in mind that the nearest regular professional performances are in Yeovil.
Thank you very much indeed for your support, long may it continue
Written by Alan Palmer, Ann & Boots Coman.