The Watermill Theatre: Though She Be But Little, She Is Fierce

Photo Credit: The Watermill Theatre

Located in the rural village of Bagnor, near the West Berkshire market town of Newbury, the Watermill Theatre is remarkably prominent in its field for a regional theatre outside London’s sphere of influence.

Converted from a 19th century mill in the 1960s by David and Judy Gollins, the Watermill Theatre saw its first professional season in 1967. Under the leadership of Jill Fraser MBE from 1981-2006, The Watermill grew from a local repertory theatre opening 26 weeks a year, to an internationally-recognised production house that was open all year round. The Watermill boasts only 220 seats, and has a small, low stage that allows the performers to be intimate with the audience. The original mill wheel can still be seen as audiences enter the auditorium.

Shows originating at the Watermill, such as a Sweeney Todd revival, would transfer to the West End and then to Broadway. The Watermill’s 2004 revival of Sweeney Todd, directed by John Doyle, was internationally recognised for its lack of orchestra – instead utilising multitalented actor-musicians, a unique feature of many Watermill productions due to the theatre’s small size and lack of orchestra pit.

Photo Credit: The Watermill Theatre

The West End and Broadway transfers of Sweeney Todd followed the Watermill’s lead here, with the 2005 Broadway version, performed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, crediting superstars such as Patti LuPone as ‘Mrs Lovett/Tuba/Percussion’ for her roles as both actress and musician. Doyle won Best Direction of a Musical at the 2006 Tony Awards, alongside colleague Sarah Travis whose unique reworking of the original orchestrations for a ten-person cast of actor-musicians won her the Tony for Best Orchestrations.

Since then, the Watermill has gone from strength to strength. The 2014 production of Calamity Jane was sold out, and was played to 220,000 people nationwide. Recent successes include the opening of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s satirical hit Trial By Laughter; Jez Butterworth’s “modern classic” Jerusalem; their 2020 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lauded by BroadwayWorld as a “truly majestic, mysterious delight […] witty and not to be missed”; and the Watermill’s production of Amélie, again noted for its use of actor-musicians. Amélie transferred to The Other Palace Theatre in London, running until February 2020, and has been nominated for three Olivier Awards; Best New Musical, Best Actress in a Musical (Audrey Brisson) and Original Score (Barnaby Race).

Now, however, the Watermill faces a dilemma. Forced to close their doors on 17th March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the theatre has had to make decisions that will determine its future. Their ‘ACT NOW, to help us act tomorrow’ fundraising campaign was met with “incredible support” as the Watermill was “blown away by [the] generosity […] we remain grateful and humbled by the support that [donors] have shown us during this challenging time”.

Photo Credit: The Watermill Theatre

Yet the ever-enterprising Watermill team has not been discouraged. ‘At Home with the Watermill’, created by the Outreach Team and industry professionals, ran from 6th April to 27th June. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, the Watermill offered free live events, from Q&As and interactive workshops with professionals to wellbeing sessions “to look after our mental health in a gentle, relaxed, and fun way.” Interviews with puppeteers, writers, and set designers are just some examples of the resources, and are still available to watch.

As well as being a hub for theatre, The Watermill also offers a platform for local artists. Open Studios is a non-profit organisation set up in 1988 to celebrate artists in Hampshire and West Berkshire area, and every May since, artists have opened up their studios and exhibitions to the public free of charge to “create a dialogue between the artists and the community.” Prior to the pandemic, the Watermill was looking forward to exhibiting the works of three local artists; Diana Barraclough, Paul Harvey, and Jane Skingley.

Skingley – known for her spectacular interpretations of seascapes and clouds – spoke to The Indiependent about how the lockdown has impacted her work. She has also released an online ebook, titled Turbulence, of small paintings she has created during the lockdown period for the public to enjoy, which was met with great success and allowed her to sell paintings as far afield as the USA and Canada, as Skingley observes that through online exhibitions, her art has reached a wider audience, and praised how “the Watermill Theatre [has kept] providing arts to their audience, as well as providing a showcase for the artists involved.” She notes that online exhibitions will likely be a continued in a post-pandemic world, although “they will be in addition to, not replacing real physical exhibitions. It’s hard to beat the pleasure of experiencing a work of art face to face”.

Photo Credit: The Watermill Theatre

Speaking to The Indiependent, The Watermill Theatre’s Artistic and Executive Director, Paul Hart, observed the “striking” response to the Watermill’s outreach, as the theatre “[has] discovered access to new audiences with people logging in from as far afield as Australia”, a reaction that he believes “will inform new ways of working […] to help make our work even more accessible.” When asked about the Watermill’s role as a cultural hub for the West Berkshire area, Hart noted how the Watermill has contributed over £2.5m to the economy, “a familiar story across the country” as regional theatres are “absolutely vital” as public cuts “decimated local services in recent years”, leading theatres like the Watermill to “[plug] many of those gaps […] with their community work”.

Looking to the future of the Watermill, Hart is optimistic, hoping that the theatre can “focus on the ideals that made us so well-known and loved.” Despite potential budget cuts, “the ethos that drives the [Watermill] will be the same – inventive and collaborative”, citing the possibility of utilising the theatre’s stunning grounds, set on the bank of the River Lambourn, for outdoor performances.

It is clear, then, that despite the pandemic, The Watermill Theatre has a bright future ahead. From its humble roots as a Victorian mill to its current status as a “focal point” for both its local community and the international theatre scene, the Watermill is a shining example of triumph in the face of adversity.

Words by Ellen Knight.

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