The Hunter’s theatrical icon, Young People’s Theatre, is the living fulfillment of a dream born during the 1950s in the minds of the Novocastrian team, William and Betty Ford. For more than 50 years Young People’s Theatre has fostered the aim of theatre for young people by young people in both class and performance environments.
The company began as the Newcastle Children’s Theatre under the auspices of The Newcastle Dramatic Art Club. The initial target group was children from age seven to young adults. Early classes were held in local halls with the fees then being eleven shillings and six pence per annum (approximately $1.15), plus a joining fee of 5 shillings (50c).
The first production of Newcastle Children’s Theatre was The Wizard of Oz. This was performed at Mae Robertson Hall, an upper floor in a building at the corner of Stewart Ave and Parry St Hamilton. Later productions were staged during the school holidays at the Roxy Theatre Hamilton, but with the sale of the Roxy in 1968, plays were presented in various local school halls and churches such as St Lawrence O’Toole Hall, Broadmeadow. Bill and Betty Ford’s company also hired the Newcastle Repertory premises in Lambton for Bill’s adaptation of Frank Dalby Davidson’s Australian classic, The Sacred Stone.
With the increasing difficulty in finding suitable material for young performers, Bill Ford decided to write his own. Over a period of years, he wrote not only the scripts, but also the words and music for over twelve pantomimes and plays. Multi-talented, Bill also designed, constructed and painted the scenery, designed the costumes, directed the musicians and lighting, directed and co-directed the productions and often played in them!
Renamed The Young People’s Theatre in 1967, the group took possession of the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of Lindsay and Lawson Streets, Hamilton on 15 May 1973.
This is the site of the current theatre complex. Funds for the establishment of this new building were raised through donations, debentures and the sale of $25 Share Certificates.
In the 1970s, the group was known as Young People’s Theatre and Arts Centre. This company not only conducted classes in theatre training and staged productions in its newly renovated premises, but also classes and vacation schools in Jazz Ballet, Art, Pottery, Magic and Puppetry. Further building conversions followed, with the complex consisting of a 140 seat auditorium, foyer, dressing room and costume storage attic with a weatherboard cottage attached for scenery storage.
On 23 September 1995, the auditorium and costume storage areas were completely destroyed by fire. Finding itself homeless for the second time since it’s inception, the company now staged the majority of its productions in the Civic Playhouse. However, the phoenix rose from the ashes! On the 22 September 1996, as a result of enormous Local and State Government and community support and the optimism and sheer tenacity of the Young People’s Theatre Members, the first sod was turned to begin the building of the new theatre on the existing site.
This 148 seat theatre was officially opened on 23 January 1999 and today houses four or five productions each year. About three hundred students attend weekly classes for drama, movement and stagecraft in a variety of local venues.
The Ford vision of theatre for young people by young people continues to be realised. Production casts, stage and technical crews are, as always, students enrolled in the Theatre School, with the occasional invited adult performer. So…… the spirit lives on.