Specialist Feature Article

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.

 

 

 

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Opera on the Marina, Rebecca Newman interview

People’s soprano Rebecca Newman has expressed a soft spot for Hull in an interview at The Minerva pub on the Marina as she prepared to take part in the first Opera on the Marina event and outlined some future plans too.

Speaking first of her recent experience touring with international superstar Russell Watson she said the tour “Absolutely everything, and more,” that she had hoped it would be.

Despite an incredible schedule over several months there is still no let up for this incredibly hardworking lady for at least a few weeks yet as she promotes her forthcoming show in Lichfield and a programme she’ll be doing on BBC Radio 2 with Sir Terry Wogan.

“I’m hoping come the 20th July I might get a couple of days off and maybe switch my phone off,” She says with a little giggle.

Moving onto her appearance at Opera on the Marina as the headline act she explains it’s fantastic to be back in Hull and, as much as she loved being on tour with Russell Watson, it was going to be nice to be able to do some more on stage and show her full repertoire.

“I can have a bit more of a rapport with the audience and tell a few more stories, that sort of thing.”

Her passion for Hull came over very strongly as we spoke about the impending performance with Hull classical group Tre Amici “It’s fantastic, I think I do more stuff in Hull than I do in York where I live now, I think I’ve done so much stuff in Hull over the last couple of years it’s more like a bit of a second home at the moment.”

She then explains about future events, “I’ve got a new booking agent so we’re looking the next year ahead and there will be a tour next Spring so it’s likely there’ll be a tour date in Hull then.

“We’re also looking to bring out another album next Spring as well just ahead of the tour.”

This entirely enchanting lady then continues to say that they’re looking at some slightly different options but it’s probably going to be a similar project to Dare to Dream with crowd funding so everybody can feel part of the creation of the album again.

We then start talking about the incredible support of the Newmaneer’s who follow her in massive numbers and who she has an incredibly close relationship with wherever she goes, “They’re amazing, they support me by buying tickets to performances like this one this evening and buying CD’s, that’s important.

“But also they’re important to me because I don’t think they realise how much they keep me going when I have a low day, when I’m tired you know, when some of my equipment’s broken and I’ve got to get the car fixed and when you hit the normal challenges.

“People only see the successes and things when they’re right because I tell people about them but when something goes right a hundred things go wrong and I keep plowing on regardless and it’s the wonderful support that I receive that keeps me going in many, many ways.

“They’re so friendly as well and that great because it helps me and also attracts more people to my support base because people look at it and they maybe think they’d like to be part of that club.”

The next question while all around us is a hive of activity is if there’s anybody else in particular she would like to sing with to put on the list next to the likes of Russell Watson and Aled Jones who she’s already worked with which draws a very definite response with a little cheeky glint in the eyes.

“Oh absolutely, Alfie Boe wants to sing with me but we haven’t been able to sort that out yet, he keeps asking me ‘When are we going to sing together?’ But, when I can I will be there with bells on, but he’s got a management company to work with so it’s not always as simple as that but I would love to get the opportunity to sing with Alfie.

“Also Noah Stewart is a fantastic tenor who I met a couple of years ago, he’s a very talented, and very hardworking singer who I would like to work with.”

Getting onto the subject of favourite venues places like the Royal Albert Hall are inevitably mentioned but she clearly also enjoys a nice intimate venue and the tour with Russell Watson has obviously provided her with chances to sing in some venues that she has really enjoyed although some do seem to have blended together.

“On the tour there were times when I wasn’t really remembering where I’d been but Buxton was beautiful, Basingstoke was fantastic, Leeds Grand was very good and Hull New Theatre was also fantastic with easily one of the loudest audiences on the whole tour.”

And with that the interview was ended as she has to go and prepare for what turned out to be a fantastic show on Hull Marina, we can only hope that she is back in her second home sooner rather than later.

Rebecca Newman on stage

Very Personal Stars At Hull New Theatre

Superstar tenor Russell Watson brought his Up Close and Personal Tour to the City of Culture and gave a near full-house a treat with his flawless voice and a very personal touch.

From the moment he stepped onto the stage at this beautifully intimate, yet slightly grand, venue he had the audience in raptures as he took them on a musical and spoken journey through the last 25 years of his life.

Stories were recounted, from 25 years ago when he won a Karaoke at The Railway Inn in his hometown of Salford, through to the present day and his tour with new classical singing sensation Rebecca Newman, A.K.A The People’s Soprano.

He delighted the audience as he came down from the stage to shake hands with several of them and, for most of the evening, he had them spellbound as his magnificent voice took on both classical songs and some classic pop songs.

He had the star quality to combine Cavalleria Rusticana with Ave Maria, belt out classic hits like King of the Road and The Sound of Silence and get up close and personal as well.

The performance of The Prayer between him and his special guest was simply electric and his combination with the All For One Choir also resonated with stunning effect and his interaction with the audience, such as allowing them to take pictures for a flashing light effect was quite magical too.

Rebecca Newman’s performance just into the second half of the show also added a sprinkling more of star quality as she treated us to a hugely polished performance of the title track to her Number one selling classical album Dare to Dream which will live long in the memory for all those who were there to see it.

The Voice himself also showed more of his vocal range as he took on the normally female sung I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

This tour finishes this month but, after the welcome he received here, it must surely only be a matter of time before Russell Watson returns to Hull.

Between now and then however classical music fans will have another treat as Rebecca Newman will be back here on 7 July to headline Opera on the Marina.

Interview with Number One Classical Album Singer Rebecca Newman

Rebecca Newman is a very busy lady, in fact she has been for about the last decade, but in recent times her incredible workload has been on a rapid increase.

In 2005 she started busking where she could revealing her enchanting voice to those who could stop and listen, then she started self financing CD’s to engage with a wider audience.

She then started touring to help raise funds for charities such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.

Finally, with the help of her fans, known as the Newmaneers, she made the break into mainstream classical/crossover album production with a major philharmonic orchestra behind her as she went to Prague to record her number one selling album called Dare to Dream.

Sitting in the entrance to Hull New Theatre on the teatime a few hours before her appearance there on 17th June the People’s Soprano snatches a bit of time to speak about Dare to Dream, charity work and touring with international superstar Russell Watson, which is what has brought her to the 2017 City of Culture.

Asked about her success as the first ever self-released soprano to go to number one in the classical album chart she tells me how she felt confident when she first set out to do it, but then how that gave way to surprise at actually managing it at the time.

“I felt yes, we can do this when we started about 18 months to two years earlier, but then it was really hard work getting the infrastructure and we didn’t have as much of a pre-order period as I would have liked and pretty much no time on iTunes and Amazon so we kind of relied an awful lot on people buying it in the first week.

“Once it came to it I thought, oh I don’t think we’re going to do it, but then when we started getting the sales figures I was comparing my ranking in the overall top 200 to any other artist who would qualify for the classical album chart, I couldn’t think of anybody else that was actually higher in the chart who would be classical chart eligible.”

We then started discussing the tour which has brought her to Hull this time, I asked her what is it like touring with such a huge star as Russell Watson and, as I would expect from her generally very relaxed demeanor, she seems to be taking it all in her stride saying it’s the same as touring with anybody else, although you can see a definite excitement in her eyes.

“We’re both very professional in what we do, he turns up and rehearses with the choir, we’re almost like ships that pass in the night because we’re almost on different schedules, I’m at the front meeting people before the show while he’s rehearsing, then during the first act he’s on the stage whilst I’m getting ready so we do miss each other quite a bit.

Charity work is the next subject and she tells me about the homeless charity that she’s just become a patron of called Socks and Choc’s which was recently started in Birmingham and she is going to help expand across the country.

“It was set up by a man in the police force who was quite touched by a man dying in a fountain in Birmingham, it was a guy who had been a problem with other officers but he always used to get on with Ian, they used to have a bit of banter.

“He set the charity up as a way to break down barriers and encourage people to do collections and at the last count they had collected 8,500 pairs of socks and they had been distributed and it’s making a very big difference to people, small comforts like that.

“Now it’s expanded to include hats and scarves and sleeping bags and things like that, there’s lot’s of different things they’re doing with the charity but it’s focusing on socks and chocolates, a nice simple message.

“His motto is lot’s of people doing a little bit is better than a few people doing a lot.”

She then says why homelessness is a cause quite close to her heart, “For years I was out street performing and so I would regularly talk to Big Issue sellers and finding out how they’d become homeless like when they’d gone into care and then been in and out of Foster homes and they maybe had problems keeping themselves settled and secure.”

We then continue to the subject of City of Culture and a glint appears in the eye of the York based singer who confirms she would love to be involved in 2017 and then recounts about previous times she’s been working in Hull at things such as the Queen’s jubilee and the Christmas Lights switch on which clearly hold fond memories for her.

“I’m sure there will be lot’s of great events and I’ve been here a few times before so yes it would be great to do something here then.”

Singing with classical group Blake is another recent highlight for the new girl on the classical scene so i asked her if there is much of a difference between singing with them compared to singing with solo stars like Russell Watson or Aled Jones to which she replies that there is.

“When you’re singing with an individual you can be a bit more individual with what you sing, you still have to be sympathetic to the other person and not try to upstage them, you need to be sympathetic to how they sing.

“When you’re in a group you have to appreciate, it has to be a bit more structured, so it’s a little bit less free. But also what you’re getting in a group is bit more layer of a harmony and a different kind of sound and a different kind of sound around you as opposed to when you’re singing with just one other person, so they both have their own benefits.”

Finally chatting about Opera on the Marina, which will bring this wonderful singer back to Hull on 7th July as the headline act, there is again a brightening of the eyes which belies the tiredness that her energy sapping schedule must cause.

“That’s going to be a really great night, there’s some fantastic acts billed for that finishing with me in the evening, good food, good company and it should hopefully be a great night.

Opera on the Marina is taking place outside The Minerva pub with tickets available from HullBoxOffice.com starting at a price of £12.50 and includes Leroy Vickers, Farino and Tre Amici in its line-up.

Rebecca Newman pic