Blog

History of the Theatre

Introduction

We, at the Blakehay Theatre, are often asked how long we’ve been in Wadham Street or what the building was prior to becoming a Theatre.
Our History Wall has been a long time in the making – something we wanted to do for ourselves and our patrons. The wall will be found in our Foyer, which is accessible during Box Office hours and (normally) 1 hour prior to shows/events. It will give everyone who comes through our doors the opportunity to learn about the building and its history.
Tim Oliver, our Technician and Front of House team member, has been working extremely hard; compiling all the information and ultimately designing our History Wall. He has also written a free pamphlet for people to take and read to go alongside the wall itself. We would like to thank Tim for all his hard work and efforts and cannot wait to see our History Wall come to life.
We hope that putting the building’s and our history permanently on our wall will anchor it and act as a reminder of what has been and where we came from.

The Early Years

Weston Baptist Church was formed and originally met in the Assembly Rooms in West Street (now Loves Café) in 1847. The first pastor, from 1849 – 1877, was Rev. E. J. Rodway.
In 1849, the Church and congregation began to think about building a house for God so that His worship could be carried out without the inconvenience of hired rooms. Money was raised and at a cost of something less than £1000, the Chapel was built and opened in 1850. It was able to house about 300 worshipers. The original Chapel was, however, increased in size several times due to growing numbers.
Firstly in 1862, the Chapel was found to be too small for the growing congregation. This led to the decision to enlarge the place of worship. During the rebuilding, the Church met again at the Assembly Rooms. Instead of just an enlargement, the present Chapel (as we know it now) was almost entirely a new erection. This new chapel was designed by Hans Price at a cost of £1200 using as far as possible the materials of the old chapel. The capacity was increased to about 700 and opened for worship in 1864.
Then again by 1878, the congregation had increased further so necessitated the enlargement of the church to seat 850. The former Schoolroom and manse were also built at this time.
So although the Chapel as we know it today is not the original erection from 1849 – the rebuild in 1862 used as many materials from it as possible to create the new larger Chapel. Therefore building the history quite literally into the walls.

The War Years

We’ll start with a quote, taken from the 1947 centenary brochure. We feel this captures and illustrates what our building went through during these times:
‘At 9:50pm on Saturday January 4th 1941, a bomb fell near the corner of the caretaker’s house and the corner property; smashed the stained glass windows; tore off all doors; smashed all the schoolroom roof and half the church roof; and wrought widespread damage.
During the next eighteen months repairs to the buildings were gradually done, and by the summer of 1942 the church was once again in good repair and the normal work of the church in full swing.
On Sunday night June 28th 1942, the church premises were totally destroyed by fire bombs.’
Our beautiful building remained destroyed and ruined for several years.
After lengthy negotiations with the War Damage Commission, reconstruction of the Church was finally begun in August 1950. The Commission paid for the building but members of the congregation had to provide for seating, electric lighting, organ and communion furniture. Money was raised by the Baptist Women’s League and the church was reopened, free of debt, in October 1951.
Once again, our building was rebuilt several times during the War Years – much like it was in the Early Years, but for very different reasons. However, just as before, the congregation came together to make sure the Church in Wadham Street remained as such.

More Recent Years

In 1985, with dwindling worshipers, the Church closed its doors and the building and the land it stood on was initially sold to a property developer to build a block of flats.
At the very last minute, as contracts were exchanged, the Weston Civic Trust stepped in and offered a higher sum of money to save the building. The offer was accepted.
The church was by now not in a good condition and a series of projects were launched to make remedial repairs. The original plan was to turn it into an Arts and Community centre.
The Friends of the Blakehay (as it was now renamed) hosted many fundraising events to finance the work throughout the late 1980s. Income was also raised by hiring out rooms for local clubs and/or for local bands to rehearse.
During this time, plans were drawn up and the building was converted into a Theatre with a raked auditorium being installed.
Furthermore, in 1989, the manse (now an accountant’s office) was sold off to raise even more money and pay off outstanding debts.
As you may, or may not know, The Blakehay Theatre is currently owned and run by Weston-super-Mare Town Council, alongside our sister venues; Weston Museum and the Visitor Information Centre (VIC). Here is a brief timeline of what has been achieved in the time under the Town Council:
Weston-super-Mare Town Council Timeline:
2004 – The Blakehay Theatre was bought by the Weston super Mare Town Council.
2010 – The Front of House areas were refurbished and made accessible.
2017 – The logo was changed from blue to our now signature purple.
2017 -The upper floor of the old schoolroom was adapted to become the Studio; a multi-purpose, versatile space.
2019 – Foyer was redecorated.
2020 (hopefully) – Our History Wall will be added to our Foyer wall.

Bringing us right up to the present day. Although we may not currently be in the building, we are working hard to get it ready for us to slowly start re-entering it; starting with staff and working our way to a safe space we can open to the public.

We hope to see you all very soon in the beautiful and historic Blakehay Theatre.

Live Theatre vs Online Stream

With the current global situation, we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances where theatres are closed. Not only do I work in a theatre, I love attending live theatre. During this time, so many theatres are stepping up to the plate and are still delivering fantastic theatre content in whatever way they can. Most of this is taking the form of streaming previous performances that have been live recorded, for either cinema broadcasting or future DVD/Blu-ray release. So, I thought it would be really interesting to compare the experiences: live theatre vs online streaming.

Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? Live theatre is an experience – it’s not as simple as just watching a show.
I don’t know about you, but I often get gifted theatre tickets and that instantly adds the idea that visiting the theatre is a treat. Sometimes you make a whole evening of it: go out for dinner first or deem it a date night. Theatre tickets can also be expensive, depending on what you are seeing and where. The money you spend to go to the theatre can further aid the opinion that visiting the theatre is indeed a treat.

Additionally, there is an atmosphere when you visit the theatre that can not be recreated. The buzz of a full capacity audience, bustling around in the foyer or bar and the sudden hush that comes across the venue when you realise the show is about to begin. In a theatre environment, you are surrounded by people who are all attending for the same reason as you; to see the show. Therefore there is an instant rapport among the audience – for the love of the show, in one way or another, or simply for the love of theatre. This is something that online streams simply cannot replicate. However, it is amazing that people are going that extra mile to make it feel that way when social distancing. I’ve seen people creating tickets, dressing up to visit the living room and, of course, preparing lighting, snacks and beverages for the occasion.
Online Streaming does have some advantages though. These recordings don’t just happen – a lot of thought and preparation goes into them e.g. the angles required for each scene, when a wide shot or close up is required or where the focus needs to be in a given moment. Therefore, you don’t miss anything important when watching. I have experienced this first hand. I saw a show and due to where I was sitting, there was a side of the stage/set that was slightly obscured from my view. When I watched the same production on DVD, I saw a moment I had missed when watching live.

Furthermore, toilet breaks. The blessing that is the pause button. You don’t have that awful guilty feeling at home when you need to use the bathroom – trying carefully to get past the other audience members to the aisle to make your way out mid-performance. Especially if you end up needing the bathroom during a performance where leaving the auditorium mid-performance means you cannot re-enter! (Yes, I’ve been there). Online Streaming gives you that flexibility to just pause the show momentarily for whatever reason.
It also allows you, to a certain extent, to watch the show at your convenience. A lot of the streams currently are accessible for 48 hours minimum, some for a whole week. It means people working unconventional hours or those waiting for the children to fall asleep are still able to watch the show, even if they’ve missed its premiere.
Most importantly, online streams are providing all of us with that little bit of theatre that we need in this trying time. The fact so many theatres and companies have found a way to deliver us content we otherwise can’t access in its normal format is truly great.
That show you couldn’t see because you were working?
The show you couldn’t see because it wasn’t coming to a local venue?
Your favourite show you couldn’t see again due to financial reasons?
All likely to be solved by this industry adapting and still working incredibly hard on what they, and we, love.

Let us know what streams you’ve watched and which has been your favourite so other people can share the experience!
Speak again soon,
Jasmine

N.B In these unprecedented times, please consider donating to live streams, theatres and charities if you have the means to do so. For me, especially, it feels like they have kept us going and given us new things to watch and enjoy in a situation where there isn’t much else we can do.

Who is Frank?

You may have heard me talk about Frank? Who is he and where did he come from?

Well, some of you may know that before I was manager of the theatre, I used to teach dance at the theatre since 2004 on a Sunday morning. I started off teaching in the studio and then moved onto the stage.

At that time, I used to enter the main house auditorium through our accessible entrance and run up the stairs to turn on the house lights by the entrance to the lighting box.

Now the seats that we have in the main house are new and were put in, in about 2010. There used to be a few more seats and they were very heavy but would easily spring up if you weren’t careful.

Every Sunday morning I used to climb the stairs to turn on the lights and every morning the very top chair would go down as if someone was sitting on it. At the end of every session I would again run up the stairs to turn off the lights and the seat would return to its upright position. This was my first introduction to Frank.

Now I must say that I have no idea if Frank is their name, whether they are male or female, but I started saying good morning and goodbye to Frank from the start and it’s kind of stuck, so Frank it is. They don’t seem to mind it!

Over the years whilst teaching we had a couple of incidents that can’t be explained especially the mysterious piano playing….

I was teaching on the stage as normal when I heard a piano playing, thinking it was just the singing teacher or the track on my music I ignored this however, later on that morning we were all in the auditorium, kids sat on the stage and all teachers sat around talking to them. Suddenly we all stopped and looked at each other when we heard a piano playing. We accounted for everyone in the building and I went off to investigate.
Behind the stage is the ground floor dressing room and this was where I could hear the music coming from. I slowly opened the door to find the music stop and the old upright piano in the corner of the room with its lid down.
I shut the door to make my way back around to the stage when the music started again. I again went back to the dressing room and as soon as I opened the door the music stopped. I shut the door and waited outside and sure enough the piano playing started again so I pushed open the door as fast as I could but as soon as I looked into the room the music stopped. This went on a couple more times then the music just stopped.
I made my way back to the stage and admitted that I had no idea where the music was coming from and that there was nobody there. I blame Frank!!

It’s not just me though….

Not long after I started working at the theatre, I was having a conversation with the housekeeper, who had been there for several years, when she started talking about the ghost. I stood quietly whilst she spoke about how she had felt someone walk past her in the corridor and that she didn’t like being in the building on her own as she felt someone was there with her. I blamed Frank!!

We had a charity running a café in the theatre bar for a few months and one of them asked me who was talking in the disabled toilet? I explained that I was the only one in the building with her and I hadn’t heard anything. Sure enough if you are in the toilet you can hear people talking through the sink quite clearly! We blame Frank!!

Weston College students were in the theatre rehearsing on the stage for their upcoming show, there were only 4 of them, whilst I was working in the box office with the theatre closed to the public. One of them came running out of theatre to me in the box office looking panicked and almost in tears. I asked her if she was okay and she could hardly breathe but kept asking who the man was? I asked her what she meant, she said they were on stage and she saw a man in the windows of the top doors into the theatre watching them. I explained to her that I was the only other person in the building and that no-one could have got there without getting past me. We blamed Frank!!

Sometimes you hear unexplained noises, lights going on or off and a cold wind where you wouldn’t expect it. We have had a paranormal investigation, but they couldn’t find Frank but I know he’s there.

Most of the staff (past and present) are not happy about being in the theatre alone, but I love it. He’s friendly and never done anything to harm anyone.

So we live with him, I always say good morning and goodbye. Have a little chat with him if I’m alone.

So next time you visit do say hello to Frank, I think he likes to be acknowledged!

As they say all great theatres have a ghost!
Sally (Theatre Manager)

9 Year Anniversary – Sally

So today marks 9 years of me being here at the Blakehay Theatre. Yes that’s a full 9 years I have been here since April 2011. I thought it would be nice to share my first day with you…..it was different!

On my first day I was excited and nervous about what I had got myself into. I was asked to meet the Town Clerk at the council offices in Grove Park at 9am. We had a meeting in his office where I met the Facilities Manager who was to be my line manager.

You see I did not start as the Theatre manager but the theatre supervisor with the Facilities Manager overseeing the Blakehay, Weston Museum and the Waterpark. Please note that he had only been in the job a week himself!

Anyway, after a meeting with them both at Grove House, I was sent over to Weston Museum to have a meeting with the Facilities Manager (he was based there) and the Museum Supervisor (the museum was only taken over on the 1st April that year) to have a chat about how we would have weekly meetings and catch ups.

Now all this was great but time was marching on and we were now at 2pm and I hadn’t even set foot in the theatre!

A few days before my official start date I was called by the Town Clerk to say that the box office had been covered by agency staff and that the current one would be leaving before I started. Okay I said, little to my knowledge that on my first day I would be whisked into interviewing agency staff for the role!

So at 2.30pm, myself and the facilities manager finally end up walking back to the theatre, yep I had finally set foot inside the building!
Here I was met by the acting manager, taken up to the Studio, set up some tables and straight into interviews! Luckily the three of us were there, but I can honestly say I had absolutely no clue what to ask as I didn’t know the job myself! Anyway by 4.30pm we had picked a suitable candidate and they were to start in a couple of days.

After the interviews I was given a very large bunch of keys by the acting manager, told how to lock up and set the alarm and was then left with a good luck and a closing of the front door by both ex-acting manager and facilities manager.

Stood in an empty foyer with no clue what to do, I was now the theatre supervisor and set about trying to work out what key fitted which lock and where all the light switches were!

That’s it, that was my first day. Talk about a baptism of fire!!

Well within the year I managed to recruit some staff (only me, a housekeeper and our agency recruit, for a while) became the Theatre Manager and started building up the theatre with shows (only 2 on the books on my first day)!

There were struggles and stumbling blocks along the way and trying to adjust to how councils work but I have loved all 9 years of being at the Blakehay Theatre and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I can honestly say that I still have that excitement of going to work each morning, thinking of ways to improve and adapt to the needs of the community and the entertainment business and have had the pleasure of working with an amazing team of staff, past and present.

In this time where the building is closed and we are all hunkered down in our homes, I am still excited and working on how we can further develop the theatre further when we are all back!

Theatre is in your blood, it doesn’t matter if you are on or off the stage. It’s the roar of the audience, the tingle in your skin when a show comes together the overture plays or the house lights go down and I am grateful that I am a part of that and long may it continue.

Stay safe and I hope to see you all soon!