‘You can’t say that the city’s culture scene is a desert any more’

The Kings Theatre

Key figures aiming to bring Kings Theatre into 21st century

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Tucked away in the heart of Portsea is an historic building that was once a music venue and school house.

Built in 1784 and known throughout the city as the site where celebrated novelist Charles Dickens’ mother went into labour, it’s now bursting with children’s workshops and performance rehearsals.

Jim Wring, Heather Uden and Kirsty Malloy rehearsing for Blithe Spirit. Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (132373-6)

Jim Wring, Heather Uden and Kirsty Malloy rehearsing for Blithe Spirit. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (132373-6)

The Groundlings Theatre has only been in the building for the past three years, but it’s a hub of activity for budding actors.

Richard Stride is the artistic director of the theatre and has been head of the Groundlings Theatre Company for the past 13 years. Since opening in 2010, the theatre has put on more than just shows.

Richard explains: ‘We have a writers’ group which creates plays, short stories or works of fiction. It’s all for free, and we also have our company of elders.

‘We go out to schools, colleges and universities to perform plays, and we produce our own theatre and education shows where professionals tour the country.’

The Groundlings Theatre welcomes touring professional productions. There’s even a wardrobe packed with a range of theatrical costumes, and the venue can be hired for events.

Throughout the summer there’s a range of workshops for children, and young actors can join the theatre’s drama school (which is always looking for new members). There’s also free entertainment, including storytime and live music, on Sundays.

Jonas Hanway was born on the site of Groundlings Theatre just over 300 years ago in 1712. To celebrate the man who is credited with popularising the umbrella, the theatre hosts an annual festival.

Richard says: ‘Last year the BBC used our costumes for filming to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic. They also used our location and some of the actors here.

‘We also have an agency which puts actors up for work. The theatre is involved with the Portsmouth Making Waves Festival too.’

The theatre has hosted the annual Festival of Christmas for the past 10 years, and is regularly involved with local events. This December, it will put on its first Christmas pantomime, Aladdin.

But the Groundlings Theatre Company was working for a decade before it found a permanent home. So why did Richard, a professional actor, decide to start it up in the first place?

Richard says: ‘Judi Dench gave me the idea. I was working on Shakespeare In Love (which came out in 1998) and I was talking about how it would be great to start up a theatre company. She said “Why don’t you do it?” And I thought ‘‘why not?’’’

Once he had accepted the challenge, Richard got to work creating the Groundlings Theatre Company. But he believes the drama school came about completely by accident.

‘We were based in London, but putting on a Christmas show with the New Theatre Royal down here. We had a cast of professionals but went about finding children from the local area to take part. It ended up being very successful.

‘Young people came up to me afterwards and asked me to start a drama group. I did but, to be honest, I thought they would get bored quickly.’

They didn’t. And with just 16 pupils to start with, Richard refused to take on anyone else. Eventually he caved in and the number of students shot up to 130.

In hindsight he realises how important the training is for them.

‘I think if you give young people a challenge, they will aspire to reach it. If you ask them to aim really high and wait, they will achieve it.

‘They achieve far more than they thought they could ever do, especially if you give them the tools to do it. They have so much passion and drive.’

He adds: ‘They don’t have those things that get in the way when you’re an adult, like doubts. I give eight-year-olds Shakespeare, and they understand it and they take it on.’

Entry to the Groundlings Drama School is by an audition which is held at least once a month on a Saturday morning. Styled as a workshop, those who attend don’t need to prepare anything.

Some of the courses on offer include youth drama (which is split into the curtain, swan and rose groups), adult acting classes and TV and film.

Richard says: ‘I think it’s important to give them the opportunity to get involved with the arts, and a lot of the young people here have done amazing work. I want the theatre to have a real company where you could give eight actors employment for eight months or a year.’

With many young actors training in the city heading off to the bright lights of London, Richard wants them to give the local area a chance.

He explains: ‘There are so many brilliant things in the city. You just have to look at how much money Les Miserables brought in for the city by being filmed here. Having the arts is a wonderful thing.

‘It would be great to get a bigger sense of arts in the city and Portsmouth has everything going for it. There are amazing opportunities and over the past week I couldn’t move for things that have been going on.’

Richard adds: ‘You can’t say the culture scene in Portsmouth is a desert any more, it’s a flourishing Amazon jungle. The past 10 years have been a culture turnaround.’

Go to groundlings.co.uk for more information.

WHAT’S COMING UP

 Heritage Open Day Tour – September 12, 13 and 15.

Take a backstage tour of the theatre and discover its history.

There’s 1pm and 3pm tours which last an hour and it’s free admission.

 Flux Theatre presents The Dumb Waiter – September 12.Ben and Gus are hardened professionals and they don’t ask questions – until now.

It’s showing at 8pm and tickets cost £6 to £8.

 Faulty Towers Murder Mystery – September 13

There’s a dead body in the soup and questions have to be answered.

It’s showing at 8pm and tickets cost £22 including a two-course meal.

 Olaf the Vikings Orrible Tale – September 14

Olaf heads out on an invading quest to find Thor’s magical belt.

It’s showing at 11:30am and 2pm and tickets cost £5.50 to £7.50.

 Dumptown Abbey Murder Mystery – September 21

An evening of murder, suspicious and petticoats with lords and ladies.

It’s showing at 8pm and tickets cost £22 including a two-course meal.

Costume hire is available at the wardrobe from £10.

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