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Posted: Wednesday 21 May, 2014
Next Stage Theatre Company turned 20 years old on Sunday 18th May - exactly 2 decades after it opened with its first ever production: Educating Rita.
Next Stage Artistic Director Ann Garner decided to celebrate the occasion with a production of company patron Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden which ran 13th-17th May. The two separate plays are designed to run simultaneously in two different auditoria, with audience members staying in one place and the actors running between sets. This was an ambitious project to pull off, but Next Stage succeeded with flair, ending the week’s run with a Matinee and Evening performance on Saturday 17th May.
On Saturday, Next Stage’s work was further honoured when the playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn himself visited the company’s home at The Mission Theatre in Corn Street. Sir Alan watched House in the afternoon and Garden in the evening, and was seen to be enjoying the shows very much.
In between the matinee performance and the evening, Sir Alan participated in an interview with Bob Constantine of ITV West Country. During the interview he talked about how Next Stage have always been great supporters of his work - they have produced 14 of his shows - and how it was wonderful to see an amateur company performing to such a high standard.
On Sunday 18th May, the company celebrated its 20th birthday with a gala reception at the beautiful Roman Baths with special guests Sir Alan and Lady Heather Ayckbourn. 120 friends, patrons, supporters and members of the company came together for wine and canapés around the Great Bath. Also in attendance were Don Foster MP, His Right Worshipful the Mayor of Bath Malcolm Leas and Chairman of the BANES Councillor Martin Veal.
As the sun set over the city, Company Director and co-founder Andrew Ellison proposed a toast to Next Stage and all it has achieved over the years. He quoted from the first production in 1994 Educating Rita:
Frank - “Are you suggesting I miss a night at the pub to watch a play by amateurs in a church hall?” Rita - “Why? Just cos they’re amateurs you’ve gotta give them a chance. They have to learn somewhere. And they might be good.” Andrew said he very much hoped that over the years Next Stage actors had demonstrated that they are good - a group of amateurs who strive towards a professional standard of excellence in everything they do.
Long-time friend of the company, Don Foster MP, took to the microphone next to talk about what Next Stage means to the city of Bath. He read from an email Artistic Director Ann Garner had sent him describing the talented group of 11-18 year olds who make up Next Stage Youth Theatre Company, who are also celebrating 20 years of existence. In the email, Ann says: “I tend not to make a big thing of all our young actors who have gone on to become professionals, because, what has always given me the greatest satisfaction is those youngsters who are NOT so talented and will never be great actors but who, through the fun and friendship of Next Stage Youth and the self-esteem and confidence they gain from performing with the company, find their voice and grow tall and take some of that new-found confidence with them for the rest of their lives.”
Ann herself made the penultimate speech of the night She began by paying tribute to 2 friends and patrons recently departed, Chris Harris and Brian Roper and said how terribly sad it was that these 2 individuals had died so recently. Ann sent the company’s sympathies and love to the families of both these kind and generous men.
Ann then described her life-long passion for all forms of theatre and her dream of running a company which performed the sort of cutting-edge drama not often produced by amateur companies. She spoke of the two main attributes one needs in order to run a successful organisation:
Have a vision and be able to unblock toilets!
Be prepared for hard graft and always see a door closing as an opportunity to change direction, regroup and probably find at least 2 open doors along your new path. Ann reminded people that you only achieve things when you are uncomfortable and forced to make decisions and changes.
Ann then went on to tell the assembled guests how fantastic, yet how surreal, it felt to now be standing where she was 20 years on from the start of the company in May 1994 and with over 150 plays to the company’s credit, knowing that she runs her own theatre and being able to look around at all the patrons and friends gathered at the Baths who had made it possible.
In particular, Ann mentioned Phil Jackson, Theatre Manager at The Minack in Cornwall, who first invited Next Stage to perform at this beautiful venue in June 1998, and has invited them to come back regularly since. Also thanked by Ann were her “greatest productions”: her children Beccy, Alexa and Chris, her partner Andrew Ellison: co-founder and Director of Next Stage; Ian Burton and Brian Howe: inspirational friends who have supported Next Stage since its inception; generous patrons Linda and Russ Carr, Andrew Brownsword, Andrew Fletcher and of course Sir Alan and Lady Ayckbourn for their patronage and support of Next Stage.
Sir Alan was next introduced to the assembled guests to make the closing speech of the night. He opened with a reference to politics, and said how lovely it was to hear a politician - Don Foster MP - talk so passionately about theatre. The audience laughed as he then asked Don to try to spread this attitude throughout parliament. Sir Alan went on to describe how proud he was to be patron of such a hard-working, highly talented theatre company, and how honoured he was that they produced so many of his plays.
Sir Alan concluded his speech by saying that he has been inspired by Next Stage, that if he had been starting over again Next Stage was a company he would wish to be involved with as the seriousness with which the company approaches its craft blurs the boundary between amateur and professionals.
To see the interview that Sir Alan Ayckbourn did with Bob Constantine of ITV West on Saturday 17th May click here.