Theatre Workshop Coulsdon (TWC) rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of the Coulsdon branch of Croydon Youth Theatre Organisation (CYTO), when that group folded following cuts in Arts grants. TWC’s inaugural performance wasPygmalion on 8th May 1970. And to quote The Croydon Advertiser – ‘Theatre Workshop’s detachment from CYTO was a move in the right direction’.
The group has developed a great deal since those early days, when our plays were often under-rehearsed, and sometimes lacked polish – although never enthusiasm. With each new show, something was learned, and 50 years on, TWC has evolved into a versatile, dedicated and capable group – sharing a determination to create polished and professional productions, on what by the standards of many amateur theatre groups would be counted as a pretty minimal budget.
TWC has also developed a strong social tradition, with many activities away from the plays themselves, culminating with our annual two week expedition to the wild west of Cornwall, as well as giant water pistol fights, pig roasts, and quite a lot of visits to the pub. Another highlight is our annual Christmas awards dinner at which the Theatre Workshop Artistic Talent (TWAT) awards are presented not just to the best actor and actress, but also in such notable categories as Biggest Ham and Worst Cock-up. These coveted awards are unofficially known as ‘The Donalds’, in honour of the late, great (and sometimes very cruel) Donald Madgwick, theatre critic of The Croydon Advertiser. Over the years, there have been many classic moments for the critics to comment upon – the best (and worst) of which can be found under ‘ Bouquets and Brickbats’. You will see that dear old Donald was responsible for both the highest praise and the most damning calumny. At least you always knew where you stood.
Many of our members have gone on to bigger and better things. Art Malik, probably best known for films like The Jewel In The Crown and A Passage To India, as well as the Schwarzenegger blockbuster True Lies, is a former member of Theatre Workshop Coulsdon. Art also appeared in the Bond movie: The Living Daylights – The 007 set must have seemed rather tame after the glamour and excitement of Coulsdon Community Centre! Many of our younger members, having gained a grounding at TWC, have gone onto drama school, and are now professional actors. It’s always sad to lose your brightest and best to the lure of professional fame, but it’s right that people follow their dreams.
As well as nurturing homegrown talent, TWC has also played host to quite a few original productions as well. For instance, way back in 1970, TWC staged the British premiere of a new play called The Garden Party by a young Czech playwright named Vaclav Havel, latterly President of Czechoslovakia. And in 1974, TWC became the first amateur group to stage Edward Bond’s new play The Sea – by special arrangement with the playwright himself. Richard Lloyd, a member of TWC since 1981, is a prolific writer and many of his pantomimes are published by Samuel French Ltd , the UK’s principal theatrical publisher. Odd to think of plays which were given their first airing on the old stage in downtown Coulsdon, now playing in far flung parts such as Kowloon, Nairobi, Vanuatu and New Delhi – as well as from Chorley to Colchester. (Much to his amazement, Richard’s pantos have been staged in all these places).
We pride ourselves on our track record of innovation and experimental work, having staged around 50 completely original productions – home-grown, adapted, or written specifically for TWC. Original or not, all our productions tend towards the bold, exuberant, and generally larger than life. We don’t do ‘staple’ amateur dramatic fare: farces, Stoppards and Ayckbourns. So many amateur companies endlessly recycle this same fare – we prefer a different approach.
In another innovation, in 1993 we first took a production into the open air – to what seemed at the time the fairly improbable surroundings of the beer garden of our local, The Woodman Public House, in Woodmansterne, Surrey. Our first pub theatre production in the open air was a challenge for a small group, combining two forms of performance which were both completely new to us – pub theatre and open air theatre. We enjoyed the experience though, and were pleased to attract an audience of 400 people over six performances. We thought that was pretty good. The following summer, over 600 people came to our July production. By 1995 the audience had swelled to 1,100. Our 1999 production of Twelfth Night managed to pack 2,300 people into just eight performances.
In a very short time span, what had begun as a modest and slightly eccentric adventure for a small theatre group, had become a tremendously popular and established feature in the local dramatic calendar – a special annual event. By request, we also took our 1996 – 1998 summer productions to a second new open air venue – the stunning natural backdrop of Bewl Water reservoir near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. 1,250 people came to see the three performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we staged at Bewl in 1996, including 650 people on the final Saturday night – giving us our biggest one-off audience ever and an all time TWC record.
In total we staged open air theatre in the garden of The Woodman for the 16 years – some of our happiest days and best productions ever. Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – nothing ever stays the same. The overgrown, undeveloped garden at The Woodman which had been such a hidden, idyllic setting in 1994, had greatly changed by 2010. Most of the trees had gone, a new, brickbuilt sports hall with neon floodlights had sprung up right next door, overlooking the garden, and the whole environment had just become much busier and more rowdy. To such an extent that staging open air theatre had become impossible. We were therefore pleased to take up an offer from Coulsdon Manor Hotel, to try our hand at a different venue for our 40th anniversary. And that’s been home to our open air summer shows since.
There have been well over 500 members of TWC down the last 50 years, including the current bunch. Some stayed for just one production, some have stayed for 50 years. They’ve all have contributed to making TWC into the successful group it is today. If you’re an ex-member of TWC and would like to contribute any images, memories, or biographical details, please email email@example.com If you would like to become part of the group, please click on our link for TWC recruits to find out more.