Hull Playgoers Society celebrates its 115th anniversary this year, the society, which is the oldest dramatic society in Hull, and played a large part in the creation of Hull New Theatre, continues to push boundaries with its productions and expansion ideas.
Founded in 1901 by Arabian-born Hull resident Duce Mohamed, the society started life in the assembly rooms in Kingston Square when it was known as the Shakespeare Players, and had its own theatre, the Little Theatre, in the old town.
However in its 20th year, financial problems, which beset any amateur, or professional, company saw then president Tom Sheppard join forces with Holbrook Jackson, who was in the process of forming a playgoers society in Hull, similar to those in Leeds and other large towns.
Rather than having two societies fighting against each other to keep alive, Sheppard and Jackson decided to come together, the result was the launch of Hull Shakespeare and Playgoers Society in 1921.
Meetings were held in a studio in the Assembly Rooms, which is now the New Theatre as we know it today.
In 1924 Edgar Appleton, who at the time was a leading figure in amateur theatre, suggested the name be shortened to the more manageable title of Hull Playgoers Society.
Despite the name change the societies aims remained the same, as they do to this day, underlined by Sheppard as, ‘To stimulate interest in the whole art of the theatre, and enable its members, by readings, discussions, lectures and performances, to become acquainted with the best in modern and classical drama’.
When the ‘Repertory movement’ started in 1924, respected actor/director Arthur R Whatmore decided to bring his repertory season to The Little Theatre, which was in Jarratt Street, next door to the Assembly Rooms.
Whatmore enlisted local actors, stage managers and electricians. The Little Theatre did three or four seasons of ‘Rep’ every year, in the meantime Hull Playgoers put on several productions there to keep the theatre alive.
Other elements of theatre that we see today can also be traced back to the early years of the movement and Hull Playgoers, for instance ‘Suggestive’ advertising helps to fill a theatre.
In March 1926 the Eastern Morning News published an article that stated, ‘Whilst on the subject of Hull Playgoers Society, a great controversy seems to have been brought about by the announcement that Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine is to be produced by Mrs James Downs at the Little Theatre. The majority of members seem to be scandalised at the sordid character of the plot, and the outspoken details of the dialogue. If some of the indignant communications received by the president were to be published, there would not be a single seat available by the time of the first night of the production’.
Soon after that sell-out production the society showed that they hadn’t forgotten their roots as a Shakespearean company by putting on a version of Romeo and Juliet, with sweethearts Lawrence Nicholson and Audrey Dannett playing the title roles.
The couple became engaged at the time, subsequently married and remained as active members of the society for many years beyond that.
That production also saw more experimentation for the society, director Haworth Earle, using the imagination and artistry that the society was, and still is, renowned for, decided it was possible to emphasise the emotion in a play, with the use of light and colour alone.
It was an experiment that worked very well and was hailed as a triumph by audiences who appeared to be part of the crowd at Verona as the Playgoers moved through the auditorium.
In November 1929, with a membership of about 400, the society moved into the Old Gaiety Picture House, the new playhouse opened on 6 December with a performance of three original one-act plays and, in March 1930, the society created history by giving the world’s first modern-dress production of Much Ado About Nothing.
In 1937 Little Theatre manager Peppino Santangelo took over the then vacant Assembly Rooms and construction work to convert the building into a theatre began. Despite the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 Santangelo persuaded directors to keep up the work.
In October 1939 Hull New Theatre opened with the production of Me and My Girl. Santangelo had wanted to open it with a Repertory Theatre season, but the war made it impossible due to a lack of local actors so they had to get outside companies to it instead.
After that in 1940 it was decided that, due to call-ups to active service, it was impossible for Hull Playgoers Society to carry on at that time, although some members did go and do work entertaining the troops with E.N.S.A.
After the war ended in 1945 a public meeting was called to see what sort of response the society would get if it started working again, with support still very enthusiastic the society wasted no time in starting work again.
In 1951 it was suggested that a junior section of the society should be formed, as a result the Playgoers Workshop was formed with Margaret Burnett as its chairman and Beryl Ashburn as the secretary.
The society first used Hull Truck Theatre in 1980, when it was at Spring Street, and are still regulars on its stage since it moved to Ferensway a few years ago.
On the expansion front they started their fringe theatre last year, which gives theatre makers a chance to show a work in development in front of an audience.
President of the society Serena Myers says: “We have regular play readings, along with two productions a year, one in Spring, the other in Autumn.
“We recently did a version of Cyrano De Bergerac at Hull Truck, and in November we’re presenting Mary Shelley at Endeavour.”
The society will also be presenting a piece of work called Last Panto in Little Grimley at the Lord Mayor’s parade on Saturday 11 June, when Shaun Chaytor and his wife, society member Claire Wildey, take office.
The fringe theatre was started with the staging of a production called Girls Night Out at Fruit theatre on Humber Street, this developmental piece was then selected by Hull Truck, where it was staged with great success, proving the power of being able to develop work in front of an audience, they then followed that with Up Pompeii.
Writer/editor Mark Bones of fledgling Radio Faces Theatre Company says: “Hull Playgoers is a great inspiration to our new company, their fringe theatre is a fantastic idea which we support whole-heartedly.
Speaking of the influence of the company, he says: “They are a driving force as we head towards City of Culture, their productions are always of a very high standard which any company should aim for.”
The society welcomes new members, applications can be made to become a member on the website hullplaygoers.org.uk, which also has details of recent and upcoming performances and readings.
The society is showing a production called The Lamplighter, a story based on the subject of slavery, in 2017 which should, undoubtedly, be another spellbinding performance from this multi-faceted company.
Rehearsals take place, every two weeks, on Wednesday evenings at 7.30 pm at Newland Primary School on Newland Avenue, members are welcomed to try acting, working behind the scenes, to read plays to the society, do chapter and verse or just to be entertained.
This article would be published in Browse magazine, a local arts and culture magazine with a connection to the City of Culture board, the target audience would be theatre goers, theatre makers and people interested in getting involved in City of Culture.