Wigan Little Theatre

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In the autumn of 1943 a small group of nine people met in a small studio near the Parish Church to discuss the formation of a play - reading and discussion group, and a programme of Sunday evening meetings was arranged. Two months later a small room was rented and members of the circle paid a shilling a week for a box, to sit on. Early in 1944 these pioneer members appointed a provisional committee to draw up a constitution, and make enquiries for a suitable building on the rapidly expanding societies behalf. Wigan Little Theatre came into being as a Friendly Society.
56a Market Street, became the headquarters - Large room, coal hole and comfort station - and all activities, secretarial, workshop, rehearsal and reading, flourished there. And the first annual subscriptions became due on March 1st, 1944. 56A was a challenge in itself. Gloom and late war austerity fought week by week a long losing battle with crowded readings and close rehearsals.
On weeknights one could find pieces of sets in construction or the actors in rehearsal, in the knowledge that the set had to be erected on a stage on a Monday night, and the play dress-rehearsed on the Tuesday.
That stage was at St. Michael's Hall in Shaw Street, and it was to be the group's platform for three and a half years. By now the Theatre had a full compliment of officers and group leaders and the committee comprised fifteen. Until our own building could be discovered the productions were staged at St. Michael's for three nights at a time, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
In November 1944, Fred Kay produced Arms and the Man and the play was a conspicuous success. Four hundred Wiganers were now members and the financial success of the productions in following months, together with monies raised by private efforts, enabled the pioneers to plunge.
In St. Michael's, after due preparation in 56a, some four plays a year were staged. One-act evenings and various social devices helped to provide the maximum interest for members. While the reign at St. Michael's was blooming, the committee had taken an option on the derelict cinema, which is now our theatre, and the sojourn at 56a ended, for all rehearsals and preparation could now be held in the equally spare surroundings of the Alliance.
This was in 1946, and it was a condition of the building license for its conversion, that as many jobs as could be done by amateur labour should be. Expert advice duly delegated to eager novices directed the stripping of plaster and pickaxing of underground passageways each evening, while by day the joiners and plasterers spread their masking finishes. The cinema had been reached by a central passage between semi-detached shops with accommodation over. The dividing wall was demolished to provide our long basement, foyer and lounge rooms. A passage below the auditorium was hacked out to lead to dressing rooms below stage, and the stage itself extended outward into the auditorium to make an effective area of thirty feet by eighteen, with a plastered cyclorama at the back. In addition, two attic rooms became a lighting and sound gallery with space for film projection.
The final weeks of preparation were frenzied. By February 1948, productions had raised £850, interest free loans had been encouraged to the tune of £820, members' private efforts had brought in £1,450 and the scheme by which our supporters endowed seats in the theatre at £5 each had produced £500.
In all, when the theatre opened, £3,500 had been raised to cover the deposit on the building and necessary alterations amounting to £2,500. This was followed by a generous interest free loan of £4,000 by Mr. F. T. Hanson, which put the theatre on a solid footing.
Therefore, it was with real optimism that on Saturday, March 6, 1948, Fred Fairclough as Chairman, could call on the Mayor for that year, Councillor E. Maloney, to declare the Wigan Little Theatre open. The secretary read many messages of goodwill from prominent persons in the amateur movement up and down the country, and Mr. Phillip Robinson of the BBC, and a founder member of the Bradford Civic Theatre, who had given extensive advice to us on our constitution and ways and means to find funds, made this wish: "May you always get the plays you want, the actors you need and the audiences you deserve".
As thousands of patrons will verify, an action packed fifty odd seasons and four hundred and something productions were to follow during which Wigan Little Theatre has firmly established itself as one of the leading amateur theatres in Britain. In 1989 a £200,000 face lift helped to make the "old Alliance" a premises to be even more proud of. Since then Wigan Little Theatre has continued to update its technical equipment, a totally refurbished and modernised Box Office being the latest development.

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