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Progressive Players - The Early Years

8 September, 2013


An account by Don Walker


The Progressive Players is a group with no political bias, which is ironic, because it started life under the wing of the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

In 1919 the ILP in Gateshead was looking for premises where its members could have social and recreational activities. The place they found was Westfield Hall, a red-brick building about two hundred yards north of where the Little Theatre now stands, just across the road from Shipcote Swimming Baths. Among their activities was a drama group which soon took the name Progressive Players, although the name was not formally adopted until some years later.


The drama group thrived, but under adverse conditions. To begin with there was only a small temporary stage which was totally inadequate. This was soon replaced by a proper stage, but it had to be demountable, because the hall was multi-purpose and a permanent stage would have got in the way of other activities. This eventually led to a situation where the drama group, which had progressed from one-night stands to three-night runs, had to go into the hall on a Sunday to build the stage and the set for their dress rehearsal, then "strike" them before they went home, then coming in early on Wednesday to go through the whole setting-up process again prior to their opening night that evening. After the last performance on Friday evening, the set and stage had to be struck again before they went home. (Saturday evening, on which they cast covetous eyes, was sacrosanct to the more lucrative activities of dances and whist drives). There are no known photographs of the Westfield Hall productions, but we have to assume that the sets they built were rather less elaborate than we usually have in the Little Theatre!


Little Theatre rennovations

Despite these difficulties, and a worsening relationship with the ILP, the Players prospered, attracting more members and larger audiences, and because of the problems they began to look elsewhere. They knew of the site at the top of Saltwell View, allocated Numbers 1 and 2, which had been vacant for as long as anyone could remember, used mainly by Sunday evening soapbox orators. It was the ideal size to accommodate a foyer, small auditorium and stage, but more space would be needed for dressing rooms, costume department, rehearsal rooms etc.
This was available in Number 3, but unfortunately people were still living there. However this eventually came up for sale, and in the summer of 1939 the house and vacant site were bought and plans drawn up for a new theatre.


Alas, in the autumn war broke out, and the site was quickly commandeered for a barrage balloon. Building was suspended and for the next few years the Players put on their plays wherever they could. Then in early 1942 the balloon was removed and building recommenced. But Fate was not finished yet. One night a Luftwaffe bomb was dropped just inside Saltwell Park gate. The blast blew out windows all the way down Saltwell View and demolished a tree, one large branch of which landed on the partly-constructed theatre roof.

A Midsummer Night's Dream October 1943, opens the Little Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream October 1943, opens the Little Theatre
Fortunately no serious damage was done, and by October 1943 the building was sufficiently complete for us to open
with a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", giving rise to our proud boast that this is the only theatre built and opened in this country during WWII.


But where did the money to build it come from? This is where the Dodds sisters, Hope, Ruth and Sylvia come in. Three remarkable women with a keen interest in theatre, they were founder members of the Progressive Players, and their enthusiasm, energy and talent were influential in the success of the group in the early years. They were also comparatively wealthy, and it was they who funded the building of the theatre. They formed a limited company, The Little Theatre (Gateshead) Ltd, of which they were the sole shareholders, although in the course of time the Progressive Players acquired all the shares and thus became owners of the theatre. For an amateur group it is a great responsibility and sometimes onerous, but it is a great advantage, and one for which we can never thank the Dodds sisters enough.


Don Walker