Building the theatre – a brief history

By Ian Newton, former Head of Bedales (1992-94)

Before I arrived in September 1992, I attended a number of early appeal meetings. The governors’ intention was to build a new theatre as a centenary building and to finance it half by appeal and half from school funds. There was a good deal of enthusiasm for the project, though I remember some disagreement between professional actors in the Bedales diaspora, who favoured a less intimidating proscenium arch design, and those more familiar with school drama who largely favoured a more thrust approach, placing less reliance on the power of young voices.

The ambition was for a theatre of ‘wigwam’ design by Ian Templeton, of award-winning Hampshire County Architects. It was to cost £2m, and this required the appeal to raise around £1m. This was set against the construction of New Boys’ Flat, which started in September 1992, and cost £1.8m from the school’s own resources. It was designed by (Sir) Colin Stansfield Smith who led the Hampshire team.

As the appeal progressed, it became clear that it was unlikely to raise the necessary sums, and that the school would be in difficulty if it proceeded with the theatre without that income. Coincidentally, Alison Willcocks (staff, from 1983; head, 1994-2001) and I were working with Matthew Rice (1975-80) on a new prospectus and, in one of our visits to his studio in Fulham, he sketched a much simpler and cheaper approach, involving a courtyard set against the existing drama studio completed on the fourth side with a Hampshire barn, to be moved from an existing site. Unlikely as it was that this would gain planning approval (moving barns being less acceptable than when the original barns were moved), it set us thinking and Matthew suggested we talk to Charley Brentnall at Carpenter Oak who had been responsible for moving the original barns. Charley Brentnall put us in touch with Roderick James (timber frame specialist architect) and Peter Clegg (specialist architect in ventilation), who started developing designs. The theatre was to be timber framed and draw, not on artificial ventilation, but on natural ventilation through the tall ‘chimney’ in the centre. This fitted with the school’s environment ambitions.

The change in plan caused difficulty with some who had already contributed to the appeal. It led to a difficult opening meeting addressed by Sir Hugh Beach (Chair of Governors, 1990-96) which was expertly chaired by Kiffer Weisselberg (1954-61).

In due course, construction started with framing done on site and pegs made in part by Dunannie pupils. It was opened in 1996 and named after Lord Olivier. I gathered later from Sir Hugh that in fact it cost about £2m of which the governors contributed £1m from school funds – so no different from the original! This was apparently due in part to the insistence of building control, unfamiliar with this type of construction, on what they were thought by the architects to be unnecessary additional features.

A key contribution to the success of the project was the appointment of Mike Morrison (staff, 1993-2000), who came from Monmouth School in 1993, to be the first head of drama. While the theatre debate raged, in the term before he took up his post, he brought a small play from Monmouth, performed in the Reading Room, which led at least this observer to question why we needed a new theatre at all if he could create such magic in the simplest of rooms!

Celebrating 25 years of the Olivier Theatre

By Esther Biddle, Old Bedalian

I can remember such anticipation at the opening of the Olivier Theatre at Bedales, not least because we had all seen it rise up slowly over the months and years, but also because we could see how the building would change the scope of dramatic performances and drama lessons in school life.

I joined Bedales in Block 3 in 1994 and performing – both as a musician and an actress – was part of the everyday fabric of my time at the school. I was in Block 5 when I was cast in a production of My Mother Said I Never Should, which was directed by two sixth formers and was the first public performance in the newly finished Theatre.

Prior to this, all Drama lessons had been in the Drama Studio, Lupton Hall and the Quad – long before the big glass doors were installed – so the change for all of us was absolutely ginormous! I can remember the thrill of starting rehearsals inside the Theatre and going onto the stage. The auditorium felt so big, and we certainly felt very special and important. Suddenly the work we were producing felt like proper theatre. The beautiful carpentry and framework makes it such a gorgeous building to be in as an audience member, and as young performers we were so excited to have our own proper backstage area with mirrors, lights and a shower!

Everything about that first production was suddenly on such a large scale. Not only the lights and backstage, but the addition of Joanne Greenwood and her amazing sets and costumes took this production – and all those afterwards – to a professional level. In fact, I don’t think anyone can talk about the Theatre without mentioning Joanne. She revolutionised the standard of all the productions at Bedales, which matched the standard of the amazing Theatre itself. I remember high painted pink banners at the back of the stage going all the way up to the top of the doors and being so impressed with the scope of the stage and the theatre space. It gave us as performers a huge playground, and so many entrances and exits through all of the blue doors.

I don’t recall any of us being particularly nervous – most of us were so used to performing at school. Looking back now though, we probably should have been, as it was so well attended because it was the first show in the Theatre and many parents, especially those who had bought seats, wanted to see the new addition to the school.

The play itself looked at four different generations of strong women across the 20th century. As an adult and a mother now, I understand the themes and beats of this play so much more. I hope that we managed to capture some of them in our production. 

It was a privilege to appear in this first show at the Olivier Theatre, where I performed many more times throughout my remaining years at Bedales and beyond. Having your Drama lessons in a 350-seat Theatre is an amazing educational environment, and hands down shaped my career as an actress and musician. I feel so lucky to have been at Bedales when it opened.