Amateur dramatics with a difference
Forget village halls, wobbly sets and ill-fitting costumes – traditional concepts of amateur dramatics have no place in the world of the Miller Centre Theatre Company in Caterham as Paddy Cooper discovers.
The non-professional theatre company, made up of 270 acting members from all round the wider area, has its own professional-standard theatre and a £100,000 a year turnover.
They perform nine shows a year, working as an old-style repertory company with a show in rehearsal and one in performance at almost all times.
They also have a costume store of 5,000 items and workshop facilities to build all their own scenery.
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The Miller Centre's skilled Wardrobe Group is currently producing highly detailed costumes, from fabulously beaded gowns to authentic-looking hose for the year 1183.And Peggy Mayes, the Miller Centre's wardrobe mistress, has ensured that the greatest historical accuracy is being used in making costumes for their current production The Lion in Winter.
This has included consulting Austin Back, a local traditional country leatherwork and saddlery specialist. Austin has extensive knowledge of leatherwork throughout the ages and produces replica products on request.
The company, which has been in operation since 1977 when it was set up by their founder Michael Pilch, using his own money, also donates a percentage of the box office takings for each production to a charity nominated by the membership while also fully funding the day-care centre for the elderly that occupies part of their building.
One of the key members of the group is Peter Whittle – a retired journalist and documentary film maker from South Croydon who not only acts, photographs the shows, acts as the press officer and does the theatre newsletter, he has also just stood down as the theatre's artistic director.
His wife Suzie also works as a director at the theatre.
Peter said: "Our theatre is as good as anything you'd see between Shaftesbury Avenue and Brighton.
"A man who came to a recent show thought we were a professional touring company – it's a centre of theatrical excellence.
"We have an eclectic group of people who float between a number of companies in the area."
Peter, who has been involved with the company for nearly 30 years, still keeps up a punishing theatrical workload despite having recently turned 80.
"Being retired, the theatre gives me a good reason to get up in the morning and keep my brain active", he said
"Nobody believes that I'm 80. I don't look it and I certainly don't feel it.
"I had a birthday party recently and a lot of people asked what it felt like to be 80.
"I had to tell them honestly: 'I have absolutely no idea'."
The theatre hosts readings of all their forthcoming shows so that prospective members can decide whether or not to audition.
Auditions are held regularly for forthcoming productions, with cast members finding out if they have been successful the same day.
There have even been forays into professional acting for some past members, with one actress going on to appear on TV with Dame Judi Dench in A Fine Romance.
The company performs a wide variety of straight plays and musicals, both small and large scale, ranging from their production of The Matchgirls by Bill Owen, star of Last of the Summer Wine, which had a cast of 28, to their most recent, Tom Stoppard's Heroes, which was a three-man show.
Heroes closed last week and garnered rave reviews.
Next month, they will be staging the play Happy Birthday by Marc Camoletti, in which Peter Whittle will be performing.
This was the show in which he first appeared with the Miller Centre Players, 30 years ago.
Their June/July show, the historical drama The Lion in Winter by James Goldman, will be touring to the prestigious open-air Minack Theatre Summer Festival in Cornwall.
For more information, go to millercentretheatre.org