New Era Players started in the late 1960s as a ‘breakaway’ group from Newbury Dramatic Society. The group wished to perform more avant garde plays at the time. When I joined, New Era Players had been in existence for a short time, having performed 2-4 plays, of which The Killing of Sister George and Boeing Boeing were two of the early plays, but I believe there were one or two others.
In 1969 NEP did not have a home to call their own. Play readings took place in members’ homes, as did some rehearsals. Some rehearsals took place above the then Red Cross shop in Bartholomew Street; some took place above Jim Crowe’s hardware shop in Cheap Street (the building is still there, but no longer a hardware shop), and some took place in the old Victorian School (now a private residence) at the junction of Greenham Road and Burys Bank Road. Valerie Maskell also recalls rehearsing in the Battery End scout hut, and in the Bricklayers Arms pub in town.
Venues for performance varied. The first play I was involved in was Present Laughter and this was performed at Newbury College which was then situated next to the roundabout opposite what is now the Waitrose site. The College site is now an estate of modern houses and flats. We performed Romeo and Juliet in The Waterside Centre in town, serving up homemade scones and cream in the matinee interval to add to the coffers and offset some of the expense of hiring the venue. However, most of New Era Players productions were staged at ‘The Plaza which had been a cinema in the past, and was converted into a hall with stage, lighting, etc. The Plaza was situated at the bottom of an alleyway accessed from The Market Place. There were other shops including a barber shop along the alleyway. The Plaza was pulled down, along with the other shops to make way for Dreweatt Neates new offices with car parking at the back, next to The Museum.
We used to perform for two nights –Friday and Saturday and sometimes a matinee on Saturday afternoon. We had access to The Plaza on Thursday evening to erect flats, move in furniture, stage props, etc. A dress rehearsal would also be held on Thursday evening, making for a very late night, and performances were on Friday and Saturday. There was no box office – all members did their best to sell tickets and get bums on seats. We would all return on Sunday morning to dismantle the set and clear the theatre. I remember at times having to sweet talk a rather grumpy caretaker to let us have extra time to do this. At this time, the Corn Exchange was also available, but with a much larger capacity, and more expensive to hire, it was out of our league.
At that time we had an arrangement to hold rehearsals at St George’s church hall (the one that is now New Era Players theatre). The building was not in a very good state of repair, and very soon, there only remained New Era Players and a Brownie pack using the hall. Around this time – mid 70s, (I think) The Plaza was demolished and the Players found themselves without a permanent suitable venue for performances. In actual fact, the demolition of The Plaza was the catalyst which led to New Era Players acquiring St George’s church hall, and eventually turning it into a proper theatre.
….To be continued…..