Written by Colin Young in 1998
In the years before the Second World War, theatre was moribund in Kidderminster. During the war the old Opera House or Playhouse was used as a sugar warehouse and remained derelict until 1948 when it was bought by the Nonentities Society, refurbished and opened as a professional theatre. The story is well known in theatrical circles. What Kidderminster had from 1948 was unique: a professional theatre owned and run by amateurs who often played alongside the professional company in weekly rep (with the knowledge and active support of Equity - which again was and is unique). It is an example, quoted in at least one of the histories of theatre written over the years, of an ideal way to run a small-town theatre.
For twenty years The Nonentities ran The Playhouse with little or no help from District, County or Arts Council. They employed professional directors, including Bobby Gaston and Jack Wood, a resident professional rep and touring theatrical companies as well as presenting six of their own productions each year.
That all went when The Playhouse was compulsorily purchased to make way for a ring road! The Nonentities, under their Chairman and Founder, Kenneth Rose decided to fight back and took the District Council to the Lands Tribunal and in the Lands Tribunal judgement of 1967 the Nonentities received over £ 160,000 in compensation. This was a landmark judgement, another unique instance - the first time full re-instatement value had been given to the plaintiff in a hearing for the compulsory purchase of a theatre.
The Nonentities found themselves back where they had been in 1937, once again they had nowhere to perform, but now they were £167,000 richer and members of a large and complex Trust pledged to build a 600 seat theatre.
The future of the Society and its work was put into the hand of a small Ad Hoc Committee who reported to the Society in April, 1968. Their first task was to find a home, which they did in the shape of the St. Oswald's Parish Hall, a brick-built church hall in Broadwaters, Kidderminster.
The Nonentities moved to St. Oswald's on the closure of The Playhouse in June 1968 and in September, 1968 opened their first season in their new home. Although it may appear to view the events of nearly 30 years ago through particularly romantic rose-coloured glasses, it would be true to say that the young management committee of those days viewed their work as a commitment to keep theatre alive in Kidderminster. Indeed a trawl through the archives of the Society reveals just those words being used again and again about the Society's role and destiny.
Be that as it may, hand in hand with running a season, in a new and demanding venue, was the business of The Rose Theatre Trust. This had been formed to build a 600 seat theatre. It soon became apparent that the Trust was too large and unwieldy, that the Council, though interested, was in no position to promise any significant financial aid, that The Arts Council had no interest in such a small-town venture and that the proposed theatre was, anyway, far too large to have any long-term viability.
The history of that time is to a large extent contained in the full histories of the Society which may be accessed at the Theatre. What is interesting is that the whole process of questioning the wisdom of the project was provoked by the Nonentities, in particular by two members of the company, Young and Meredith who, in October 1971, provided a paper whose figures suggested that a 600 seat theatre was not viable in the town. It soon became apparent that their calculations were accurate and that their fears over the possible creation of a white elephant were justified and after a long and involved series of meetings the Trust was dissolved and The Nonentities were left, once more, as the main standard-bearer of theatre in Kidderminster.
Whilst all this was going on, the seasons continued of course at St. Oswald's. Improvements were made. Over a couple of years three sites were investigated as having potential for conversion to a 200 seat club theatre, indeed The Nonentities drew up plans for two of the sites. For a variety of reasons, including the withholding of planning permission, the proposals failed and eventually the Society decided to convert the St.Oswald's building. This was done and the theatre opened as The Rose in 1981.
Certain facts deserve high-lighting. The conversion cost the Society over £ 300,000, the money coming from the prudent stewardship of the Lands Tribunal award and 13 successful seasons at St. Oswalds. There was no aid from local industry, there was no money from the Arts Council and there was only encouragement but no financial aid, other than rate relief from the Council. Once more The Nonentities, on their own, with their own money, expertise, commitment and faith were keeping theatre alive in Kidderminster as they had since 1937.
When The Rose opened in 1981 the Society pledged itself to bring back professional theatre to Kidderminster. It did just that at its own expense and its own risk. Since 1981 over 70 companies* have played the town presenting well over 110 productions. It is worth noting that among the companies and groups that have performed at The Rose are ATC (ten times, including two Residencies in which, with aid from the District Council and the Arts Lottery 6 local schools were able to take part in workshops run by the Artistic Director of ATC) and Cheek by Jowl, the country's premier touring company (four times). The Birmingham Repertory Company have visited 10 times, Hull Truck 5 times, Compass Theatre 4 times and The National Theatre of Brent, The Coull and Perry String Quartets twice each. The Society has brought The Royal National Theatre to the town as well as such luminaries as Honor Blackman, Edward Hardwicke, Virginia McKenna, Roger Rees and David Suchet in various one-man and touring shows. All this, it must be emphasised at no expense to any person in Wyre Forest except The Nonentities. How many other towns in the country can say that the responsibility for bringing professional theatre to the town, the responsibility for providing any theatre is in the hand of 100+ volunteers?
And it wasn't only professional playing. In 1981 before the theatre re-opened all local amateurs were invited to a meeting to discuss their involvement in The Rose. The Society had resolved that the theatre be open to all, that it couldn't be just for The Nonentities. Only two other amateur groups attended. The Society, however, persevered and within a few years, by offering the hire of the theatre at a nominal fee, were able to bring the Kidderminster Operatic Society back to the town after nearly 20 years away. Today 5 local societies regularly use The Rose - and the rent is still not a truly economic one.
In 2012 we welcomed the Carpet Trades Musical Theatre Company who presented their musical show at The Rose for the first time.
Nearly 30 years ago the Lands Tribunal decision was delivered in a lengthy document. The Commissioner commented ... I am satisfied that the continued participation of the Society is essential to the continuation of theatre in Kidderminster whether on its own or in collaboration with the Council. It may be suggested that there is even more truth in that sentiment now than when it was first written.
*Since the date of writing, many more have appeared at The Rose