The Taunton Thespians

by John Wilkins (writing as Chairman, 1966)
Part 4: Growth and Disaster

With such increased activity a new type of organisation was inevitable, and the old benevolent despotism gave place to a set of regular officers elected by a formal membership. Similarly, other aspects of policy gradually evolved. More plays needed more producers and a large panel of these was built up, the inexperienced ones cutting their teeth on private productions. More players were needed, and, to train these, classes were established-at one time three of these were running concurrently. Other players, mainly young housewives, formed a Children's Theatre which gave afternoon performances in primary schools. The importance of youth was recognised, and a teenage section, "The Pleiades" came into being, to be followed more recently by another Group, "The Twenties," which combines acting practice with play production. Since amateur drama embraces more than acting only, there is a scenic department served by a succession of talented designers; a lighting section with ample equipment; and a wardrobe department which not only dresses all Thespian productions, but also has provided costumes for many other West Country societies.
These manifold activities had to be pursued in a variety of make-shift rented premises, garages, army huts, a rifle range, and, above all, some old stables known affectionately as "The Dump." It was decrepit, draughty, and it leaked, but we loved it, rehearsed and built scenery in it, and did Studio Productions there. But we lost it in our "Year of Disaster." This began in October, 1960. The stage gang had just finished the fit-up for next day's opening of a play at the Odeon, and at 2 a.m. sallied forth, raincoats buttoned up against driving rain. By 7 a.m. Taunton was under three feet of water, the Odeon was awash, we lost lots of equipment and the play was off for six weeks.
After ordeal by water, ordeal by fire. Next May, the old "Dump," now ironically like tinder after a dry spell, went up in flames, leaving us a few twisted lanterns, charred remains of rostrums and scorched and soaking drapes. We knew it was destined some time for demolition to make way for a car park; perhaps there was wry satisfaction in seeing it end its days in a blaze of glory, and it did indeed contribute some extra publicity towards the Society's 100th full-length production, "Teahouse of the August Moon," which took place in the autumn.
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