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Stamford Shakespeare raises the roof

Stamford Shakespeare’s Theatre Manager David Fensom on the anniversary of the company’s own majestic roof

It’s been a year of celebrations for the Stamford Shakespeare Company. The most significant of which was the Company celebrating an incredible 50 years of producing stunning open air performances, firstly in the Monastery Gardens of The George Hotel and then, from 1977 onwards, at Tolethorpe Hall.

Visitors to Tolethorpe Hall are very familiar with the sight of the blue dome of the auditorium canopy peeking out amongst the tree tops. This year saw the 25th anniversary of the erection of that canopy. After nine years of performances at Tolethorpe Hall, audiences for the annual Shakespeare season averaged about 7,000, but there had been no increase year by year.

Because of increasing costs it was realized that something had to be done to boost audience totals and therefore revenue. The problem was highlighted when, after a record 10,000 patrons saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1984, audiences dropped to an all-time low of 5,700 in 1985. And so, in 1986, a marketing campaign was created by Derek Harrison (General Manager and honorary press officer) and launched with the first colour brochure distributed in the surrounding counties. This resulted in a remarkable increase in bookings, doubling the audience for the season from fewer than 6,000 in 1985 to 12,000 in 1986.

After just seven years the campaign increased audiences to a remarkable 28,000. The increase in ticket sales was fantastic, but there were problems ahead. The canvas canopy which covered the seats began to leak in wet weather and it was decided to find a way of building a permanent structure to protect patrons from summer showers. A brick walled structure with a tiled roof was out of the question because it would look like an indoor theatre, be unlikely to win planning permission, and the cost would have been prohibitive.

Modern technology provided the answer and on the recommendation of Derek, who researched the problem, a high tensile fabric canopy was ordered from Landrell Fabric Engineering (now Architen Landrell Associates) of Chepstow, Wales, at the time one of only four companies in Europe with the knowledge and experience of fabricating and erecting such a structure. In 1993, after seven weeks of site preparation in February/March, the steel frame and canopy were erected in April in less than two weeks. The canopy, a high tensile fabric made of PVC-coated, reinforced polyester and designed to withstand winds of up to 100mph, was manufactured in Germany and fabricated and erected by Landrell Fabric Engineering. It is similar material to the high tensile fabric used for the roof of London’s Millennium Dome.

At the time, the Tolethorpe theatre was the only one of its kind in Europe. The construction of the steel frame to support the high tensile fabric walls and roof necessitated increasing the size of the auditorium with three extras rows of 50 seats each. Seating increased from 450 to 600. The new theatre was officially opened by acclaimed actor and director Sam Wanamaker on 31 July 1993. Sam Wanamaker was responsible for the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Southwark, London. He loved Tolethorpe and he and his wife Charlotte were regular visitors to the Shakespeare productions each summer from 1987 to 1993. Since its inception, the canopy has sheltered an astonishing 815,803 audience members from the wind and rain.

Long may it continue to protect Tolethorpe audiences!

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