Bedford Players Trust

Founding trustee, Rae Levene, has written an extensive history of the creation of Bedford Players Trust, and their activities in Bedford over the past 3+ decades.
We welcome any corrections, additions or omissions to this ongoing story. As he says… “It has been a long, long time.”

Building trust

Bedford Players Trust officially came into being in late summer 1984 but had been under consideration for some time previously.

When I came to Bedford in 1977 the amateur arts scene was very clearly defined. There were two theatre companies, Bedford Dramatic Club {now Bedford Drama Company} and The Bradgate Players {now Swan Theatre Company}. Alongside them were two musical theatre companies: Bedford Marianettes and Bedford Amateur Operatic Company {later ShowCo – sadly no longer in existence}.

Each group had its own approach to what it offered its audiences and members, and there was little or no crossover, certainly not between groups working in the same area of the arts. Despite many attempts to create a different environment, little or no movement was achieved until external circumstances demanded change. 

Both the theatre groups had issues with the loss of rehearsal premises, resulting in a combined approach to the Borough Council for help. The Council offered the groups the opportunity to take over an unused cricket pavilion in Allen Park, as well as some help with the necessary works to convert it. This meant the two groups were sharing the building but not necessarily anything else. Nevertheless, it was a start. 

Unfortunately, this arrangement was short-lived as the building was subject to an arson attack resulting in substantial damage not only to the building but also to all the costumes, set and props that were stored there. This meant that the two groups were homeless again and for the next few years moved from place to place rehearsing shows in spaces with little or no storage.

This could not continue and it was clear that something needed to be done on a more permanent basis.

Working together

Some of us got together to see what the options were and, unbeknownst to us at the time, this was the beginning of Bedford Players Trust [BPT]. We approached the local authority to see if they could help with providing a site upon which permanent rehearsal facilities could be erected.

At the same time, a local company, Granada TV Rental, whose secretary was known to us, offered surplus temporary buildings. The council came up trumps with a plot of land at the southern end of Kimbolton Road (part of the old ‘House of Industry’) and it seemed that with this and the potential of the temporary buildings, the future looked bright.

Unfortunately, before matters progressed further the company, whose head office was away from Bedford,  decided that the temporary buildings should be offered to other parts of the organisation around the country.

All was not lost though because the company was very supportive of the project and offered to allocate some of their charitable funding to support the venture, but could only do so if we were a charity. With the offer of financial support, substantial steps were taken immediately. I, as the lawyer in the team, undertook to create and register a charity – although this was not my area of specialism (at the time – As it turned out this was the start of a very rewarding part of my practice for the next 35 years!)

Bedford Players Trust was born with the objective of promoting ‘the Arts’ in all its forms to the people of Bedford and the surrounding areas. It was registered with the Charity Commission on the 17th October 1984.

Through various means, further funds were raised by the two amateur theatre groups and Bedford Amateur Operatic Society, which by this time had joined forces in the project. The Trust was thus able to purchase secondhand temporary classrooms, no longer required by the education department of the County Council. These were erected on the site provided by the Council on a 25 year lease to the Trust for this purpose.

Eventually, by March 1986 the rehearsal premises were ready for the grand opening. During the build a new group, The Company, had been formed and joined so that a vibrant centre for the amateur performing groups in the town was there for all to use.

An ambitious new path

Having created such an important new facility for the town,  the Trustees looked for other projects which we could undertake to further the Arts and Culture in Bedford. 

Discussions were held on a regular basis with Councillors and council officers about how to achieve this and the first project that was suggested was for the Trust to take over the Civic Theatre in Bedford town centre, make the necessary facility improvements and to programme it with local amateur groups and some professional work, necessary as the amateur groups were unable to produce sufficient creative output to fill a year-long programme. 

Professional programming was something which we as trustees had no knowledge of delivering. We therefore sought advice from the Arts Council England officers based in Cambridge. The first meeting proved to be very enlightening and during it I and John McPherson, a fellow trustee,  were asked if the Trust would like to host a visit of the Royal Exchange Theatre [RET] from Manchester as part of its national tour and, if so, they would be willing to provide funding towards the cost.  

This was a fairly major undertaking and we suggested that we have time to think about it. It turned out that there was not much time as the tour dates were near to being finalised. On the way back from Cambridge we thought about it and decided that it was worth further investigation. That was just as well, as the next day we were informed that ACE had already confirmed to the RET that Bedford should be put on the touring schedule as the final venue of the tour. This was the beginning of a very fruitful 12 year association with the RET. The first visit in 1988 was for three days and sold out each performance. Subsequent visits extended to a full week with 2 different shows on offer, all of which sold extremely well, most as sell outs, and it showed an appetite among the people of Bedford for even more high quality professional theatre.

Creating new possibilities

Our energies were not only focused on the professional entertainment element of the Civic Theatre project. We were also looking at ways to improve the facilities at that venue, not only for audiences, but also those using it. It was clear that the Civic Theatre had failings when it came to adapting the modern needs of a space with that name. 

Plans were drawn up in conjunction with the council officers which satisfied, so far as the building allowed, the needs of audience and users alike. On presentation of the plans to the Council a decision was taken to see if a different, more ambitious project could be undertaken by the Trust. Consideration was to be given to improving Bedford Corn Exchange aiming to take over management from the council and to run it as a major arts venue for Bedford, and the surrounding area. 

Although this was a much bigger project we took it to heart and outline plans and costs were produced and submitted to the Council. This must have whetted the councillors’ appetite as, with support of the Arts Council, they commissioned a report by a nationally known arts consultancy into the feasibility of various venues and sites for conversion or new build. 

Their interim report was produced in May 1989 and unfortunately the eventual cost somewhat dampened the Council’s enthusiasm, although they had been warned of the potential ballpark figure at the outset.

We were not disheartened, though, as by this time the rehearsal premises on Kimbolton Road had been completed and were up and running successfully. The first visit of the RET had taken place, and a visit from The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) as part of their national tour due to arrive in Bedford, September 1988. 

A second visit by the RET took place as part of the British Telecom Bedford Festival, a six week festival across a number of venues in Bedford and some of the villages in April/May 1989. This was primarily organised by the Trust though it could not have happened without a large number of others getting involved. The Festival included both community and professional theatre, a huge programme of live music, and many other art forms. All supported by  substantial financial investment from BT [British Telecom as it was then].

Subsequent to this, we promoted a second visit by the RSC that September and a number of professional shows at the unimproved Civic Theatre and the Corn Exchange. All in all it had been an eventful 18 months from that off chance remark at the offices of the Arts Council in Cambridge, all organised by a small group of unpaid volunteer trustees.

Making new friends

Current Lead Producer for Bedford Players Trust enjoying the 1989 BT festival

Over the next few years the Trust maintained management of the rehearsal premises on Kimbolton Road. Initially working alongside a management committee comprising elected members of the groups using the space. We eventually handed this over to the management committee at their request.

We continued our association with the RET, welcoming the company back to Bedford as part of its annual national tour and helping it to play to sell out houses for a week each year. We welcomed the City of Birmingham Touring Opera on a number of occasions: Perhaps the most adventurous of these was the complete Wagner’s Ring Cycle over 2 nights for which we put raked seating into the Corn Exchange for the first time

All these events and audiences showed that there was an appetite for high quality professional theatre to compliment the already very active community groups. We tried to stimulate this interest further by working closely with the Bowen West Theatre, sadly no longer, in joint promotions of theatre and dance at their venue. We also organised events at the request of the council in Bedford Park, and during a number of River Festivals, at which we were asked to focus on the performing arts element.

All this collaborative working by the Trust resulted in being asked in 1998 to take part in the creation of a performing arts centre on the old Pilgrim School site on Brickhill Drive. This was a collaboration between Bedford Borough,  Bedfordshire County Council [which still existed at that time], De Montfort University [which managed the higher education provision in Bedford as part of its Leicester campus] and the Harpur Trust. Bedford Players Trust were asked to provide the independent chair, and I drew the short straw among my fellow trustees.

This was a very exciting project which, if it had happened, would have created a 300 seat theatre with a small studio, and all necessary facilities including teaching space – set to become the home of the university’s Performing Arts degree. A lot of work went into this project from all sides but unfortunately it was not to happen and the partnership collapsed without a venue ever coming together. 

However, a lot of good did come out of it. Although De Montford University very soon left Bedford, its role being taken over by the new University of Bedfordshire, and the County Council ceased to exist, there was a lot of goodwill within the Borough and the Harpur Trust for the work that BPT had put into the project.

As a result we were offered the opportunity to take over the lease of the Youth Club on Bradgate Road, with a view to converting it into a theatre with rehearsal space for the community groups. This latter aspect could not come soon enough, as during the initial conversion work on the new site, the old rehearsal facilities on Kimbolton Road were hit with a second and more devastating arson attack razing the building to the ground. Performing Arts once again needed a new home.

This opportunity presented us with the same dilemma as our original one in 1986: the chance to take on promotion of professional theatre with only limited prior experience of promoting work like this. Further. none of us had run a theatre venue before. However, never ones to shirk a challenge we set about using our own professional skills to make it happen. Drawing on the support of friends and associates from within the community groups and elsewhere, every possible favour was called in, hoping to build a new home for creativity in the town.

Trusting our building

Bedford Players Trust took over the building lease from the National Association of Boys and Girls Club and arranged for building plans to be drawn up to enable the necessary planning consent to be granted. Most importantly, we raised the necessary funds to enable the project to be completed: a sum of £110,000 in about 6 months, made possible by the faith that the Harpur Trust had shown in the project, and the trustees personally, contributing the first and largest contribution. 

Eventually the Trust was able to open the doors of The Place in January 2003, less than 2 years after first being shown the building by council officers. The rest, is as we know history. (read about that history here)

Since then the focus of the Trust’s activities has, naturally, been on The Place as a venue, though in furtherance of its objects it has promoted arts based activities away from the venue in places like Bedford Castle Mound and Russell Park with outdoor theatre, and the Castle Lane archaeology site with outdoor cinema experiences. It recently ran a project, Audience Development in the Community, principally funded by the Harpur Trust, looking at ways to increase engagement with members of the many diverse communities that live and work in Bedford, seeking to develop arts & culture-led projects with them. 

Working towards the future

Looking forward, the priority for Bedford Players Trust remains very similar to its founding principals: to ensure that performing arts and culture has a vital place to play in the life and growth of the town, ensuring that local people living and working here feel that creativity has relevance and value in their lives. 

Alongside this grand ambition, there is still the need to continue with improvements to the facilities; developing the relationships we have with professional artists and companies; promoting new writing and local talent; and developing stronger relationships with all the various communities that call Bedford home, whilst not losing the deep connection it has with the community groups that have formed such an important part of its history.

Interesting times ahead!

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