Gallery Players celebrate milestone anniversary by opening new studio theatre
- Credit: Andrew Clarke
Last year The Gallery Players, one of Suffolk’s premier theatre companies, was supposed to have celebrated its 35th anniversary. The idea was that members past and present would have come together to stage a nostalgic trip down memory lane at a glittering concert.
As luck would have it, Covid prevented this significant anniversary from being just an exercise in recreating past triumphs. During lockdown, the Gallery Players entered into an agreement with Ipswich Council to take over the running of the former New Wolsey Studio in George’s Street and plan to open it later this year, not only as their new home, but also as a rehearsal space and a community venue for hire.
Steve Taplin, son of Gallery’s founder the late Pat Taplin, says this is the realization of a long-held dream, for the company to have its own space, but also thinks this is a suitably positive statement about the future of the company in this anniversary year.
“We are tremendously proud of what has gone before – what we have done in the past – what we and Mum did over the last 30-odd years – and of course we want to celebrate that – but this new Gallery Studio is all about looking to the future and where The Gallery Players are heading in the next 35 years.”
The Gallery Players were founded by Woodbridge-based theatre fan Pat Taplin in 1985 to do small-cast, quirky shows that many, larger, societies often over-looked. While she was teaching The Gallery Players staged one show a year but soon after early retirement Pat started uncovering works by neglected composers and the number of shows soon increased to four a year.
The scope of the productions also expanded. Starting with Company in 1988 The Gallery Players have staged virtually every Stephen Sondheim musical, mixing well-known epics like Sweeney Todd with the little-known Pacific Overtures and Assassins. The only major show from the Sondheim canon still to make it onto the Ipswich stage is his 1984 masterwork Sunday In The Park With George.
Until they acquired the Studio Theatre, Gallery performed in a variety of venues including regular dates at the Sir John Mills Theatre, The New Wolsey and in the early days at Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion.
Although, Gallery Players is no longer a one woman show, Steve says that the company’s steering group maintains their founders guiding policy of uncovering new or little-known shows. Recent productions have included Lucky Stiff, Spelling Bee, Urine Town, A New Brain, The House of Bernarda Alba and Grow Up Grandad.
In the past 35 years Gallery Players have staged 102 productions – both musicals and plays – and a cross section of ‘moments’ from some of those shows are being recreated by current performers in an online concert in early April to mark the delayed anniversary of this pioneering theatrical company.
Newcomer and youngest steering group member Wade Ablitt, who started off his relationship with theatre by being a Gallery Players audience member, has been charged with curating the digital festivities and providing a ‘virtual’ backdrop to the songs and performances.
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“The concert will be broadcast free of charge on the Gallery Players YouTube channel so we would like as many people as possible to join us and enjoy some of the best show tunes from a wide cross section of musical theatre.
“We have tried to get some long-time members to revisit some of their favourite songs as well as offering some of the more recent recruits the opportunity to try their hand at something new.
“During the evening there will be an opportunity to donate to help kit out the Gallery Studio and make it a fantastic venue for local theatre.”
Steve said that in addition to being a home for Gallery’s shows, it would also be available for hire and open during the day for community and education uses.
So looking back what have been some of their favourite milestones? Steve ponders for a second. “There have been so many. In the early days Company and The Hired Man were special because that’s when we first really established our reputation. Company was our first Stephen Sondheim show staged at a time when not many people knew who he was.
“The Hired Man was so special because composer Howard Goodall, the man behind Blackadder and all manner of TV themes, came down and took one of our rehearsals.
“Then the smaller shows at the John Mills were a chance to do something different. Mum loved doing On Golden Pond there and we managed to create a town square in a tiny space for The Baker’s Wife and an Irish pub and church hall for A Man Of No Importance.
“Then, we also done some larger scale shows at the New Wolsey such as Into The Woods, Spring Awakenings, Spend, Spend, Spend and our last production Alan Bennett’s The Lady In The Van. I suppose our most prestigious show was the world premiere of a show called Galileo which was written by Martin Waddington, former music director of The Wolsey during the leadership of Dick Tuckey.
“Ask me again tomorrow and I’ll could come up with a completely different list. I’ve just remembered our production of A Little Night Music and The History Boys, not to mention Blue Remembered Hills and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. I could go on forever. Stop me now.”
Covid restrictions allowing, the Gallery Players are looking to stage two production later this year. Former Wolsey Theatre regular Brian Ralph is directing a production of Macbeth which should have originally gone on stage last Easter and in September, the Gallery Studio Theatre will open with a two week run of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in which the audience get to write the last scene of Charles Dickens unfinished work.
The Gallery Players 35th Anniversary Virtual Concert will be broadcast on Saturday April 3 at 7.30pm on the Gallery Players YouTube channel.