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Modern Theatre: The Repertory Movement

Annie Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre, printed page from a magazine, Manchester, 1952

Annie Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre, printed page from a magazine, Manchester, 1952

The repertory theatre movement was forged out of the passion and conviction of two individuals, Barry Jackson and Annie Horniman who believed that a wide variety of theatrical experience should be made available to people at a price they could afford. Horniman believed that by subsidizing theatres you could both raise the standards of performance and broaden the programme a theatre could offer to its community.

After a chance meeting with W B Yeats in 1903 Annie Horniman put up the money to open the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904.

Annie Horniman was the daughter of a wealthy tea merchant with no family connections to the theatre, but she recognised the cultural value of the state subsidised repertory companies in Germany.

Horniman discreetly donated money to the Avenue Theatre in London to produce a season which included the first commercial production of a George Bernard Shaw play, and the first London production of a William Butler Yeats play

The Gaiety in Manchester

In 1907 Horniman also bought the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester. Director Lewis Casson and his wife, the actress Sybil Thorndike, worked with her on the project. They too were committed to showing their audiences as wide a variety of theatre as possible including the work of the 'Manchester School' of playwrights, notably Harold Brighouse and Stanley Houghton. In just ten years they produced over 200 plays. In 1917 the theatre was forced to close because of financial difficulties.

Birmingham Rep

Birmingham Repertory Theatre opened on 15 February 1913 with a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Its founder Barry Jackson had started to produce plays in 1907 on an amateur basis, playing in small venues such as local halls. Jackson, like Horniman was passionate about the need to offer the people of Birmingham a wide variety of theatrical experience, and personally subsidised the building of the Rep Theatre as a base for his company. He took on the role of artistic director producing a wide range of plays, and experimented with the first modern dress versions of Shakespeare's plays. Jackson was also a great fan of George Bernard Shaw and directed many of his plays. In 1923 he premiered Shaw's Back to Methuselah.

The repertory movement in Britain played an important role for local writers and as a training ground for actors to experiment and expand their repertoire. Other important repertory theatres included the Belgrade in Coventry which was the first purpose built post-war theatre; the Citizens' in Glasgow and Liverpool Playhouse.

The funding crisis of the 1980s was particularly hard on regional reps; some were forced to close, whilst others had to present a slimmed down programme, performing plays with small casts and employing actors on a single contract basis. This crisis in funding brought much criticism of the Arts Council which had consolidated resources to fund the big national companies at the expense of regional theatre.

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