Orchard Theatre Company, Barnstaple, Devon

Past productions

  • , The Drum, Plymouth, Northcott Theatre, Exeter, and other locations. 22nd February – 13th April 1996.
  • , The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon and The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon. 1993.
  • , The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon and South West rural touring circuit. 1st October – December 1992.
  • , Bideford College Theatre, Bournemouth Russell-Cotes Museum, and other locations. started 8th April 1992.
  • , Acorn Theatre, Penzance, Axminster Guildhall, and other locations. started 19th February 1992.
  • , west country tour. December 1991 – January 1992.
  • , The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon and South West rural touring circuit. 6th September – November 1991.
  • , The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon and West Country Tour. 14th September – 17th November 1990.
  • , Axminster Guildhall, Barnstaple North Devon College, and other locations. started 10th May 1990.
  • , Acorn Theatre, Penzance, Axminster Guildhall, and other locations. started 7th February 1990.
  • , Bideford College Theatre, Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, and other locations. 15th November 1989 – 20th January 1990.
  • , The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon and UK Tour of South West Arts region. 6th September – December 1989.
  • , The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Manor Pavilion, Sidmouth, and other locations. 17th May – 30th June 1989.
  • , The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth and UK Tour of South West Arts region. 1st February – 8th April 1989.
  • , Bideford College Theatre, The Drum, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, and other locations. 16th November 1988 – 14th January 1989.
  • , South West rural touring circuit. 10th February – 2nd April 1988.
  • , The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington, Devon and UK Tour of South West Arts region. 18th November 1987 – 23rd January 1988.
  • , UK Tour of South West Arts region. January – March 1987.
  • , The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Northcott Theatre, Exeter, and other locations. 17th September – 1st November 1986.
  • , UK Tour of South West Arts region. August – September 1986.

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The Orchard Theatre was a professional rural touring company set up to serve the north Devon community. The company originated with a group of second year students at East 15 Acting School, trained in Joan Littlewood’s methodology, who ran a pilot scheme for a north Devon ensemble theatre company in the summer of 1968. Andrew Noble, who lived in North Devon, was the driving force behind the company and it was he who named the group for the last line in John Arden’s play ‘Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance’: ‘Let’s start an orchard.’ Other members of the group were Alison Steadman, Peter Armitage and Millie Sidaway. The group presented a variety of plays and projects in 1968 including ‘Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance’, Jean Claude Van Itallie’s ‘Almost Like Being’ and ‘War Games’, ‘Edwardian Delights’ (music hall) and ‘Pirates’ (an interactive children’s project). They also collaborated with John Fox and Sue Gill’s fledgling Welfare State company on ‘The tide is right for the 30th’, a happening on the beach at Instow.

John Lane and Harland Walshaw of the Beaford Centre (founded by Lane in 1966; later known as Beaford Arts), recognised the quality and versatility of the group and secured a Foundation Grant from the Dartington Hall Trust to set up the Orchard Theatre as a regional peripatetic theatre company, with its administrative base at the Beaford Centre. John Lane’s philosophy for the revitalisation of north Devon in the 1960s was inspired by the agricultural, educational and artistic activity of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst and their Dartington Hall community of the 1920s and 1930s, which was home to Michael Chekhov’s theatre group.

With its new home at the Beaford Centre, the Orchard Theatre selected a core company of 6 actors (4 male, 2 female) who shared the East 15 training. The first production in September 1969 was Harold Brighouse’s ‘Hobson’s Choice’, directed by Terry Palmer, who was connected with Exeter Northcott Theatre at that time. Initial plans to run the company as a co-operative, with experienced guest directors for the initial shows, proved difficult and consequently Charles Lewsen was contracted as Artistic Director for a six-month stint from 1969 to 1970.

During this period the company commissioned new work as well as producing well-known plays, musicals and pantomimes for performances in village halls, schools and other community venues. Lewsen sees the Orchard as specialising in site-specific pieces inspired by festivals and celebrations; some early examples under his directorship being performances in the fireplace of a pub in Winkleigh on Hallowe’en, round the bonfire on Guy Fawkes night at Beaford and a celebration of St Lucia’s day for the Swedish workers of Dartington Glassworks. In 1970 Charles Lewsen put together a programme of ‘Plays for Easter’ to tour local churches, consisting of short plays contributed by playwrights Ted Hughes, Peter Redgrove, Charles Wood and others.

Andrew Noble succeeded Charles Lewsen as Artistic Director in 1970 and ran the company until 1978. The original fit-up platform-stage was replaced with a mobile auditorium. During this period, notable members of the company included actors Richard Griffiths and Michelle Magorian (author of Good Night Mister Tom). Several new plays and adaptations were commissioned from Ian Fell ( ‘Lorna Doone’; ‘Passun Jack’; ‘Pyrates’) Allen Saddler (‘All Basic Comforts’), before appointing a playwright-in-residence, John Wilkie ( ‘The Dicky Slader Show’; ‘High on Exmoor’; ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Baron Munchausen’; ‘M5 – The Road to the West’). Other commissions included ‘Hawker of Morwenstowe’ and ‘The Diary of a Country Wife’.

The Company moved to a new home in Barnstaple with offices, an attic costume department, a rehearsal room and scenic workshop. Paul Chamberlain followed Andrew Noble as Artistic Director and produced a number of plays about the Dartmoor farming community including ‘To Be a Farmer’s Boy’ by C P Taylor and ‘The Cuckoo’ and ‘The Lie of the Land’, both by Jane Beeson. These, along with many more established plays and musicals, were toured by Orchard all over the west country and often further afield with the company becoming a ‘flagship’ for South West Arts and attracting sponsorship from major businesses.

In 1984 Nigel Bryant succeeded Paul Chamberlain and built on the touring repertory concept with productions of well known shows coupled with ambitious adaptations of classic books. Orchard was now well established and hugely popular, taking professional theatre to people in villages and towns throughout the south west that otherwise might not experience live performance.

In 1989 Bill Buffery an actor with the RSC took over as Artistic Director of the Orchard Theatre Company. Over the next decade until the company’s demise, he directed 40 productions, acted in 18 of them and wrote or adapted 12.

Despite being in the vanguard of the regional arts movement, becoming the model for other developments in the UK and as far afield as New Zealand, the company was wound up in 2000 due to lack of funding.

Public domain text from https://snaccooperative.org/ark:/99166/w67q8mfj