These days, theatre fans in Sheffield are spoilt for choice. The Crucible, the Lyceum and the Studio dominate the city centre. But that’s not to mention the Library Theatre and the Montgomery Theatre. The University has its Drama Studio too, while the Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge is just one of a countless number of hidden gems scattered across the city.
It’s easy then, to forget how lucky we are. Fortunately, the British Library has spent the last few years working on a project to help modern theatregoers appreciate how far British drama has come in the last forty years.
The Theatre Archive Project is led by Professor Dominic Shellard from the University of Sheffield’s English Literature Department. Since 2003, he and a team from the University and the British Library have been building an archive of scripts that were banned before 1968 and documents that tell the story of post-war British theatre.
One key element of the initiative is the Oral History Project. Researchers have travelled far and wide to speak to the people who were involved in theatre in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s – from the writers and directors to the staff and the audiences.
Full transcripts of the conversations are up on the British Library’s website, and delving into the archive retell the story of Sheffield’s performing arts scene. It offers a narrative on the development of the city’s theatre industry, as observed by the people who were there to see it.
Barbara Silcock, for example, recalls the suspicious odour of gas that seeped from the Lyceum balconies. She also reminisces on the hugely successful production of The Stirrings In Sheffield On A Saturday Night, which premiered in 1966. The play told the story of the ‘Sheffield Outrages’, as the 19th century struggle between the Saw Grinders’ Union and the non-union labourers came to be known.
The Stirrings was directed by , who was the founding Artistic Director of the Crucible. In his contribution to the archive, he relives the hard work and excitement that led up to the theatre’s opening in 1971.
“Going to Sheffield then, at that time, for me was marvellous, because I had a chance of putting up a new theatre. How many directors get that chance?” he asks.
“The actual story is that the City Council said, ‘we want to build a new theatre’ because Leeds was getting one, Nottingham’s got one, Belgrade Coventry. You know, everybody’s got to be in, and they felt Sheffield shouldn’t be left out,” he said.
The process was a source of some controversy at the time, due to the decision to build a thrust stage, which extends into the audience on three sides.
“We had awful criticism. I mean, Sheffield, I think, now has taken to the theatre, but we didn’t build a theatre; we built a performing space,” said George. “It’s a performing space that’s very powerful.”
After last year’s £15m refurbishment of the Crucible, this power continues to resonate today, and Current Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres Daniel Evans is uniquely placed to soak up this sense of history. When he was recently interviewed for the Oral History Project at the Lyceum, he reflected on his time playing Ariel in in 2002.
“It was amazing to be in a city where the theatre was so respected and so ubiquitous,” he said. “That’s something you don’t get in London because there are so many theatres and because the communities are so disparate.”
This is one of the key elements of the Oral History Project that connects the stories of the past with the sentiments of today – the bond that citizens have with their theatres.
“The people of Sheffield feel very very proud of [Sheffield Theatres] and that is something, as an Artistic Director, that I’m very proud of,” said Evans.
“To hear the history of how this all started and how it transformed the city, and to hear those ideals that lie behind it is truly inspiring.”
These ideals are expressed most poignantly in the words of Christopher Baugh, a leading member of The Society for Theatre Research. In his 2003 interview, he discussed his first trips to the theatre when he was 15 and 16 years old.
“You went to the theatre because you liked the activity of going to the theatre,” he said. “You liked to go along and sit and watch people doing things that you couldn’t do and taking you on a journey.
“The play was a kind of a vehicle for that. In other words, I went along to the theatre not to see a play, because I didn’t know the authors, I didn’t know the titles.
“You went along to the theatre simply because it was an enjoyable thing to do.”
Some things never change.