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Summer of fun for Westacre theatre group

PUBLISHED: 09:35 13 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:38 08 July 2010

Stephen Fry at the 2005 summer gala opening.

Stephen Fry at the 2005 summer gala opening.

The Westacre Theatre Company is promising a season of artistic delights and triple celebrations. BEN WOODS explores the company's 20 years of success.

The Westacre Theatre Company is promising a season of artistic delights and triple celebrations. BEN WOODS explores the company's 20 years of success.

PEOPLE living in the quiet corner of mid-Norfolk are used to the mass arrival of theatre fans, book worms, and film buffs that flock in each season.

But for the uninitiated, the sight of thousands of art lovers descending upon a tiny Norfolk village 34 miles from Norwich will still pose a big question.

How can a community of only 300 people, 100 houses, and a pub attract so many people and turn the heads of some of the country's best known actors and writers?

The answer lies with Isobel Smith and Andy Naylor, whose theatre company has established the village of West Acre, near Swaffham, as one of the county's prime spots for entertainment over the past two decades.

The Westacre Theatre Company, who boasts Stephen Fry as its patron, has been putting on unique productions since the 1990s by taking full advantage of the picturesque rural setting.

Using the ruins of the West Acre Priory, they began by staging plays on the banks of the River Nar where the audience was encouraged to bring a picnic and bask under the summer sun.

The same practise still takes place today, but audience members now have the chance to picnic in the meadow, or the 13th century courtyard, before watching a performance in one of two venues.

A summer theatre tent was erected on the grounds of West Acre Priory in 2005 to seat 150 people and provide a facility for staging plays in the round.

It came as an addition to the intimate 75-seat West Acre River Studio theatre set in a converted chapel where the company operates during the colder months and hosts touring shows and small scale musical events.

As well as increasing crowd capacity and providing shelter from the unpredictable summer weather, the two venues also provide a stomping ground for a group of drama undergraduates who come to West Acre each summer as part of a Bursary Summer Award Scheme.

The programme, introduced in 2006, gives talented young actors, directors, and theatre technicians the chance to learn the nuts and bolts of running a working theatre.

Together they perform the shows and take part in front of house duties such as running the bar, ushering, and selling programmes.

They also help other budding young actors by assisting summer drama workshops for children aged nine-15 years.

The company believes it is their ability to get young and old actors working together that has enabled them to produce high-quality, thought-provoking theatre that attracts sell-out crowds.

And for the 2010 season, they hope the success will continue as the company is bracing itself for another busy spring and summer festival and their triple anniversary celebration.

On May 2, the Iceni Ensemble Quartet will be performing to celebrate the company's triple birthday bash, whilst the spring and summer season is already up-running with actor Tim Bentinck from the Archers and author Rose Tremain set for appearances.

Mr Naylor, artistic director and co-founder of Westacre Theatre Company, said he felt amazed that it has been 20 years since they first staged an open air production at West Acre.

He said: “The fact that we are still going is a testament to the wonderful support that this whole venture has received from so many people over the years.”

“In May, it will also be 10 years since we opened the studio and five years since the opening of the summer tent.”

“Thanks go not only to our company members, but the unstinting front-of-house volunteers and not least our faithful audiences. Here's to the next 20 years.”

Co-founder Isobel Smith also championed the people who have the helped the theatre over the years by giving up their time and working for free.

She said over the last two decade there had always been hurdles to overcome but what stood out most was the “tremendous” support from an untold number of volunteers.

“Our wonderful volunteers together with our loyal audiences are the two elements that have encouraged us to continue year after year,” she said.

In recent years the company has also broaden its cultural horizons with the introduction of vibrant reading groups and regular film screenings.

The Riverside Readers group meet once a month and recently featured on the BBC's The Culture Show where they took part in a reading of Norfolk writer Louis De Berniere's latest book.

The introduction of the Westacre widescreen, screening of classic, cult, and contemporary cinema, and a new Wednesday Play-reading group is proving popular by providing a friendly informal atmosphere for people to come and enjoy the arts.

Tickets for Westacre Theatre's Triple Birthday Bash are priced at £25 each.

For more information call 01760 755 800, e-mail boxoffice@westacretheatre.com, or visit the website www.westacretheatre.com

See EDP's Event guide on Thursday for more details of the 2010 season.

Spring 2010 calendar:

Friday February 12: Chas Rigby and Friends in Concert. (7.30pm £10). An evening of great music from this doyen of the North West music scene.

Friday February 19: An Evening with Tim Bentinck (7.30pm £18). The actor who plays David in The Archers will be providing a comic performance of impressions, anecdotes and songs.

Saturday February 27: The Write Stuff. (10am - 4pm £35) An introduction to writing fiction with local author Sue Welfare.

Friday March 5 and Saturday March 6: Shakespeare's Female Parts Re-examined - devised and directed by Andy Naylor. (7.30pm £12). The Bard's great heroines laid bare. Juliet, Rosalind, Beatrice, Olivia, Viola, Desdemona, Mistress Quickly, Goneril, Regan, Isabella…the list of Shakespeare's great female creations is seemingly endless.

Saturday March 13. Rose Tremain in Conversation with Professor Jon Cook. (7.30pm £20). Novelist Rose Tremain, winner of the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction, talks about her life and work with extracts from her books being read by actors Nina Jacques, Ellie Tremain and John Lightbody plus a book signing at the end of the evening.

March 19, 20, 26 and 27; April 16, 17, 23, and 24: Ten Times Table, By Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Andy Naylor. (7.30pm £12)

FILMS AT WESTACRE

Wednesday, February 10 (7.30 £5) The African Queen.

Sunday, February 14 (12noon, £35 for two including lunch) Valentines Special Bright Star

Friday 26 February (7.30pm £5) Crash

Wednesday 24 March (7.30pm £5) Don't Look Now

Wednesday 14 April (7.30pm £5) Sideways

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