Harlow has an impressive history as far as the arts are concerned, stretching right back to the town's beginnings. Long before The Playhouse was opened, there were numerous local groups covering all aspects of the arts, especially drama. At one time, over 15 drama groups were operating in Harlow, and the competition between them meant that standards became extremely high - so high, in fact, that Harlow companies regularly took the main awards at the annual British Drama League Festivals. Music also has always been very important in Harlow - the Alberni String Quartet were the town's own professional musicians-in-residence and are now world-famous, while groups like Harlow Chorus and Netteswell Band continue to live up to their reputation for excellence. Dance, particularly ballet, has had a strong presence in Harlow since Leo Kersley established the town's first ballet school in 1959.
The Playhouse was the result of a long campaign for a proper venue for all the performing arts. In November 1957, a Theatre Working Party was set up by local theatrical figures, but it wasn't until April 1970 that the foundation stone for The Playhouse was finally laid by Jennie Lee, then Minister for the Arts. The theatre was to be a service of Harlow Council, as it still is today, and the building of it was to be funded by a number of bodies, including Harlow Development Corporation, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Film Institute and Essex County Council. The first Box Office (a hut which stood where the shop Iceland is now) opened in June 1971, and The Playhouse itself finally opened on 1st November 1971 with a Gala Show starring the young Scottish entertainer, Lulu.