Open a theatre in one of the roughest parts of Portsmouth? Richard Stride thought he was mad. So did others. But he’s done it in the middle of a recession. Chris Owen report.
At school, dyslexic Richard Stride says he was put in a corner and told to draw while the rest of the class got on with life.
One of the few things he remembers of his undistinguished educational career in Portsmouth is a visit by a theatre company.
The actors left a deep impression, inspiring him to win a place at drama school in London and leave the city of his birth at 18.
Suddenly the talent, which had remained hidden at Springfield School, Drayton, blossomed, and pretty soon after graduating from drama school he struck lucky.
Very matter-of-factly he says: ‘I did very well coming out of drama school, I must admit.
‘I ended up in a Hollywood movie – First Knight – with Richard Gere and Sean Connery.
‘In fact, my first scene on film with was with Sean Connery. I was a little shaky, but I went on to do things like Shakespeare in Love, some Star Wars movies and Gladiator.’
Richard, now 39, has a heavy cold. He is swaddled in a thick jumper when we meet in his book and DVD-lined office deep in the bowels of one of Portsmouth’s most historic buildings.
He could have postponed our meeting, but in true trouper fashion the show had to go on.
A return to the city – he grew up at Cosham – was never in his game plan, but now he finds himself as artistic director of the Groundlings Theatre in the Old Beneficial School, Kent Street, Portsea.
The grade II* listed building was built in 1784 and oozes history. Richard has taken it back to its roots.
‘Most people knew it was once a school, but that was downstairs and not a lot of people knew it always had a theatre upstairs.’
Enthusiastically he takes me on a tour. The 200-seat theatre, where the set is being built for the current production of The Crucible, is reached up a winding, creaking staircase.
Richard points to a huge old fireplace. ‘It was over there that Elizabeth Dickens’s waters broke while she was attending a theatre performance and the next day she gave birth to Charles.’
‘And up there,’ he adds, peering way up into the huge ceiling are the brackets on which there was a portrait of Queen Victoria. Apparently it was hung there when she visited.’
Giving guided tours of a 227-year-old building was not on the agenda when Richard created the Groundlings Theatre Company in London.
‘I was getting an awful lot of TV and film work and by the mid-90s I really had a desire to do some Shakespeare. I love it, but had never had much opportunity to do any.
‘So I thought I would start a little company, run it for a season and then go back to filming.’
He called it Groundlings after the nickname given to Elizabethan theatregoers who stood in front of the stage eating, drinking and hurling abuse at the actors as they performed. The first show, in 1997, was performed on a site close to the Globe theatre on the South Bank.
‘Our whole ethos was to provide good quality, fun, engaging theatre, but cheaply. Just like in Shakespeare’s day.’
The company, still based in the capital, was successful. It launched workshops and toured the country and one venue was the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth.
Richard continues: ‘It was so successful that they asked us to come back and do their Christmas show. We did The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with professional actors and some from the community.
‘That went really well, got some rave reviews and then some of the amateurs took me hostage in the dressing room and demanded that I start a drama school.
‘It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I gave in and started with a small group of 16 and I started commuting from London to Portsmouth.
‘To be honest I was rather hoping it would fizzle out, that eventually they’d get bored and drift away. But that never happened and I became deluged with people wanting to join.’
Eventually he was spending more time in Portsmouth than London and moved back to the city to run Groundlings as a volunteer while earning his living from film and TV work. He’ll be appearing in panto – Sleeping Beauty – in York’s Grand Opera House this Christmas.
But if it was going to work, Groundlings needed a permanent home, so Richard went to Portsmouth City Council and asked about premises. And they came up with the building affectionately known as the Old Benny.
‘We had offices in Fratton Community Centre, the sets were at Havant and the costumes were in St James’s Hospital, but when I saw finally saw the inside of the Old Beneficial School I wondered if we were doing the right thing.
‘It was an utter mess. It was damp, fire-damaged and there was no heating or electricity. In one corner was an eight-year-old bottle of milk.
‘And all the time I was wondering if a theatre could really survive in the middle of rough old Portsea.’
But he found an investor and Richard and a team of volunteers turned the building around in four months to open with a variety show in May 2010.
‘I must have been mad and there were many people who shook their heads and sucked through their teeth saying the city did not want or need another theatre.
‘But we’ve proved it could be done. Since we opened our ticket sales are up by 38 per cent in the middle of a recession when so many theatres are down by 15 per cent.’