Stage is set for a return to the theatre
John and Ronnie Lowery’s connection with Gainford Drama Club goes back to the 1990s and returning to the dale after a spell living abroad, they renewed ties with the club, where Ronnie has been secretary for the past 14 years while John has worked back stage on every performance since 2005. In addition, Ronnie is a member of the Teesdale Quilting Group and Barnard Castle Inner Wheel. John, meanwhile, is a familiar face on the touchline at Barnard Castle Rugby Club, where he is currently president, and as a member of Barney Rotary Club. Ronnie sat down to tackle this week’s question and answer feature.
What first sparked your interest in the stage and theatre?
I have always been interested in the theatre, watching and reading plays and secretly wanted to try acting but not having the courage to do so.
When we were children my sister and I, along with our cousins, would make up little plays to perform for our parents.
Years later, after seeing Laurence Olivier in Hamlet, I found an unexpected love for Shakespeare.
Can you remember your respective first times on stage?
John has never – and says he never will – perform on stage.
My first time on stage was many years ago when I belonged to the Staindrop WI. We did a short piece from Shakespeare’s Henry V for an area competition, which we did not win.
Whilst living in Brentwood, Essex, for a short time, I was part of the WI drama group, acting and singing for the first time, in a few pantomimes.
Returning to Barney and seeing a piece in the Mercury about the start of a new drama group, I went along to The Witham with my daughter.
A year or so later this group became the Castle Players and we were lucky enough to take part, as was John’s daughter, in their first open air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I was also part of a little group in Bowes when we performed pantomimes, written by Val Fryer, in the village hall there.
At the same time I was a member of Barnard Castle Inner Wheel and we performed little plays and shows in the Parish Hall.
What’s best – being on stage or working behind the scenes?
John enjoys helping backstage. He and his team will build the sets, paint and decorate them and then he will be there every night of the performances, with another member, working the lighting and sounds systems, as well as curtain pulling.
For me, I really enjoy being on stage, learning lines, and taking on different roles.
Sadly, age and lack of mobility have reduced my opportunities on stage now.
I am pleased to have also had the chance to make costumes and soft furnishings for sets and, more recently, the opportunity to direct, which I enjoy, but acting would still be my first choice.
How did you get involved with Gainford Drama Club?
I had seen many of the club’s plays in the early 90s, after discovering the lovely theatre in Gainford, and was eventually introduced to the club by Joan Hillery-Robinson and became involved immediately helping with stage management.
John became involved much later, almost by accident. When picking me up from a rehearsal one night, help was needed with the lighting desk so he volunteered and that was it, he was asked to help from then onwards.
You’re both longstanding members of the group – what’s so good about Gainford Drama Club?
The Gainford Drama Club is a very friendly group and always welcomes newcomers.
It is wonderful to be part of a group whose members have always been dedicated to ensure we produce enjoyable plays as professionally as possible, which has been proved by the success of the club for more than 70 years.
There is a chance to have a go at different aspects of theatre as well, and not just treading the boards.
Everything is run by a very good committee made up of members, which offers the chance to be part of the decision making team.
What has been your personal favourite production – and why?
I have loved all the plays I have taken part in. When I look back, the one play that stands out for me on a personal level, as it was the most challenging, was Quartet, by Ronald Harwood.
It is set in a residential home for retired opera singers and musicians.
With only four cast members, we had to learn the words to the quartet from Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi, so we could mime to it at the end of the play, which brought the house down every night.
For John even though he enjoys building sets, his stand out set build was for The Ladykillers, which required an upstairs room to hold six people and a window for the throwing out of bodies, plus a roof scene, in addition to a living room and front door.
On our very limited size stage this was quite a challenge for all involved.
And which are the shows that go down best with the audience – drama, farce, comedy etc?
A good comedy always goes down well with audiences and the cast members, but the group like to have a go at dramas once in a while.
Plays such as And Then There Were None. by Agatha Christie, and Accrington Pals, to name just two from the last few years, were also loved by audiences and very successful.
The club was established more than 70 years ago... is it as popular as ever or, like many organisations, is it difficult to attract new and especially younger members?
The club encourages new members of all ages, although with younger people we might only have them for a short spell before they go off to university, drama schools etc so it can be difficult at times for teenagers.
There has been an influx of men recently which is always good. Even during lockdown we have had quite a few inquiries about joining the Club. Anyone interested can visit our website or contact me (ronnielowery14 @gmail.com) for more details.
As an amateur theatre group, how difficult have the past 12 months been?
Like everyone, the club has had difficulties financially, but with various fundraising activities we are managing to keep afloat.
Members have been meeting for play readings and committee meetings via Zoom, and some members have written plays for us to read and to possibly perform in the future.
Are you optimistic about the return of live theatre to Gainford?
Extremely optimistic. As soon as restrictions are lifted, rehearsals will start up again, hopefully, to produce something for November.
It all depends, of course, on what will happen during the next six months.
Plans are to return to our scheduled two plays a year, spring and autumn, and we have some members wanting the chance to direct, choose the play and the cast, for the future productions.
Where can people find out more about the club?
There are always postings on Facebook and Twitter and also the Gainford Drama Club website, (gainford dramaclub.co.uk) has all the information about the Club, contact details, news, pictures and video clips to watch.