We recently spoke to Sheringham Little Theatre’s Director, Debbie Thompson. She is coming up the 20 years at the theatre and confesses she probably has the best job in the world.
Coming from a theatrical family, with the late great Nicky Henson as her cousin, it meant that theatre has long been in Debbie’s life. She explains, “Whilst growing up, he [Nicky] was at the height of his career, working at the RSC and the National Theatre and being on telly. He even had his own TV show, so I used to idolize him and went to the theatre from a very early age. He watched all my audition speeches and helped me get into drama school, and he also helped me get my first job in the West End.”
Debbie started out as an actor but realised she also wanted a family, something she admitted she knew would be hard to balance. “I decided that I would teach drama because I love young people and I love being a mum. Just as I started teaching, I was offered the job at the Little Theatre. I thought ‘oh, but I don’t know how to run a theatre’ then ended up really enjoying it and realizing that running a theatre meant I could really work with young people, actors and directors, so it was just the perfect job” she explained.
Under typical circumstances, the theatre would be busy producing and preparing for their summer repertory season and celebrating their 60th anniversary. However they decided it would be better to cancel the event this year because of the financial risk and uncertainty surrounding the future; but Debbie reassures us there are some exciting ideas and activities coming up this Summer, “The pandemic has made us reassess everything we’re doing and to think in different ways, which I’ve found really inspirational and enjoyable. I know we’re not really allowed to say that, but I have enjoyed the freedom it’s given me.”
She tells us about how she has been “led and inspired” by the young people who dashed back to Norfolk after being forced to abandon their universities, requesting to do something in response to the black lives matter movement. As a result the ‘Rewriting Rural Racism’ project began and has been developing over the past year.
Debbie explains, “We have worked with a lot of artists of colour and migrants, and it has culminated with a one-man show by a mixed-heritage young lad who grew up in Norfolk and shared his experience of being the only mixed-race young man in Norfolk. It’s a humorous look at it, but at the same time the message is very important. We need to learn and be more educated about black lives and the history of black migration into Norfolk.”
They also produced a film called ‘We Are One’, based on the history of migration in Norfolk. Debbie continues, “It was a really positive film. It was supposed to only be 30 minutes, but ended up being 90 minutes because there were so many stories. We had lovely poems, music, dance, and artwork. It was a fantastic piece and now we’ve got that film for the rest of our time, which is great.”
The ‘Rewriting Rural Racism’ project has given the theatre an opportunity to reach out to younger and more diverse audiences, which Debbie says has been really exciting and good fun. “Our goal now is to sustain that and make sure it continues because I’d hate it to be a flash in the pan. We need to embed that in to what we’re doing now, and really keep these relationships and develop them,” she adds.
Following on from that, the move into digital events has been really beneficial to the Little Theatre, after the success of streaming their one-man show from the ‘Rewriting Rural Racism’ project to a worldwide audience and a live-streamed pantomime to 200,000 children in primary schools across the country for free; streaming is definitely something the theatre hopes to continue with and believe is a positive to come out of the pandemic.
Sheringham Little Theatre has also been very lucky to receive Emergency Funding from the Arts Council, along with Furlough support. When the Culture Recovery Fund came through on round one, this helped keep them afloat and pay the overheads; but it was the unexpected second round of this support that really made a difference as it has given them money towards creating some exciting things that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford to do.
For example, this summer there’s a new piece of writing called ‘Ghosted’, written by local young writer James McDermott. It’s about a group of young people that grew up in Sheringham, and it’s being shown on the seafront. Audience will go down to the seafront to watch the action, and hear it through headphones. There will also be a production of ‘Two’ with Joyce Branagh (Kenneth Branagh’s sister) which is going to be set in the theatre bar.
They are now reopen and looking busy. They kicked off with a piece from the Norfolk & Norwich festival called ‘The People’s Cabaret’ (Weds 19th May) which sold-out, then on the Saturday (22nd May) there’s a one-woman show called ‘George Don’t Do That’, and it’s a nice comedy piece that Debbie believes really appeal to the loyal audiences who have been missing the theatre, this show will also be done as a fundraiser.
Debbie is aware of those who might be sceptical to rush back to the theatre, especially with the roadmap suggesting no requirement for social distancing as of the 21st June. “We will keep wearing masks, and we will keep all our procedures in place with sanitizing and one-way systems because I think people are going to need to build their confidence up again.
I have been cautious in my programming right up until September, and we’ve got a lot of outdoor events because people seem to be feeling safer being outdoors. I think we’ve got to be prepared to either step back into more regulations or restrictions, or just to be flexible” she says.
However, she seems quite comfortable in the chaos, remaining upbeat and enjoying the challenge of how it keeps you on your toes.
I commented on her positivity and she explained honestly, “Programming can become very routine because we know that the pantomime and summer repertory works, and we’ve got acts that come back yearly, so rubbing all that out and having to start afresh, in a new way, has done me the world of good. My husband said I look as if I’ve lost 10 years and I do feel it. Obviously, it’s been a horrible time but, despite it all, some positive things have definitely come out of the pandemic.”
Thank you to Debbie for taking the time to speak with us! We can’t wait to see what the future holds.
For more information on the shows and projects mentioned, along with further updates on the Sheringham Little Theatre, visit sheringhamlittletheatre.com.