A Brief History of the Progressive Players

A scene from The Pitman’s Pay A scene from The Pitman’s Pay

In 1920 the Gateshead branch of the Independent Labour Party decided to form an “amateur dramatic club” with the aim of promoting and encouraging cultural activities. From this was born the Progressive Players, though any political links have long-since ceased; we are a non-political, non-sectarian organisation, and a registered charity.

The Progressive Players’ very first production, in January 1920, was The Man of Destiny, a one act play written in 1897 by George Bernard Shaw. The plays of Shaw figured quite prominently in our early years. They were popular with our audiences, and our 1923 production of Pygmalion took in the tidy sum of £16!

Alongside works by the likes of Shaw, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Wilde, plays by local authors were frequently given their first performances by the Progressive Players. The most successful of these was The Pitmen’s Pay, a sociopolitical drama written by one of the society’s founder members, Ruth Dodds.

In our first decade we operated on a very tight budget. Hiring costumes for period plays was particularly expensive, and so in 1927 we decided to make our own instead. The Progressive Players wardrobe soon proved to be a great asset, with the hiring-out of costumes offsetting some of the losses from our less-successful productions!

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s we performed at numerous venues, but most of our productions were staged at Westfield Hall on Gateshead’s Alexandra Road. This was a popular meeting place for cultural and political societies. Unfortunately, relations became strained, and in 1939 the Progressive Players were given notice to quit.

Happily, however, “funds suddenly became available” for the building of what would become the Little Theatre in Saltwell View, just a few hundred yards from Westfield Hall. The funds were, in fact, generously provided by Ruth Dodds and her sisters, Hope and Sylvia, all founder members of the Progressive Players.

The construction of the Little Theatre was not without its problems, thanks mainly to the outbreak of the Second World War. Nevertheless, after a few setbacks (including one near-miss by a German bomber), the Little Theatre was ready for use by the autumn of 1943. It is, as far as we know, the only theatre in Britain to have been built during the war.

The Progressive Players’ inaugural production at the Little Theatre was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in October 1943. It was directed by Alida Richardson who, in her notes for the programme, wrote:

“Poetry and beauty are two things for which ordinary people are unconsciously thirsting, and the Little Theatre is fulfilling its function in bringing these good and refreshing things back into ordinary life amid the horror and turmoil of war”.

In 1948 we began mounting productions during seven months of each year, increasing to eight in 1964. The now-familiar pattern of ten productions a year was established in 1967, missing out May and August. We also ran a public competition for the designing of a new logo. The winner, inspired by a theatrical mask, was the PP symbol in use today.

During the summer of 1974 a London filmmaker invited us to appear in a short film called The Brass Band. Several members of the Progressive Players took part in an enjoyable week-long shoot amongst the sand dunes of Holy Island and Alnmouth. The Brass Band won a gold medal at the 16th World Festival of Independent and Amateur Films in Belgium.

Ruth Dodds, founder member and enthusiastic driving force of the Progressive Players, sadly died in 1976 at the age of 86. Her sister Sylvia had died in 1969, followed by Hope in 1972. The Dodds sisters contributed enormously to the Progressive Players and the Little Theatre in so many ways, and we are proud to carry on their legacy.

Youth groups have formed part of the Progressive Players at various times in its history. The ‘Stage 1’ group was perhaps the most notable, giving a number of public performances at the Little Theatre during the 1980s.

2020 was the centenary of the Progressive Players. However, the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that our celebratory programme of plays was cut short in March, when lockdown restrictions were introduced. The Little Theatre, like so many others, was forced to close. But, in 2021, an opportunity presented itself to try something different…

A scene from Lockdown in Little Grimley A scene from Lockdown in Little Grimley

The organisers of the Durham & Sunderland One Act Festival, then in its fourth year, decided to run the 2021 event entirely online, with all entries being recorded under lockdown conditions. The Progressive Players entered with two plays; The Quintessential Quintet by Frances Bartram, and The Signalman by local playwright Matthew Harper. The Signalman won, earning us a place in the Northern Area Final of the All-England Theatre Festival in Saltburn. There the Progressive Players were again triumphant, moving forward to compete in the Grand Final in Bridlington.

In October 2021, after lockdown restrictions were lifted, the Little Theatre finally re-opened. The Progressive Players staged Lockdown in Little Grimley, an aptly titled one act comedy by David Tristram. We donated 50% of ticket sales to local NHS charities.

In March 2022 the Progressive Players again entered the Durham & Sunderland One Act Festival with An Evil Thing by Gateshead playwright Sarah-May Simpson. The live event took place at the Alun Armstrong Theatre in Stanley, Co Durham. Though we didn’t win, the play itself received the Allan Monkhouse New Writing Award. In August 2022 An Evil Thing was again performed by the Progressive Players, this time in the society’s first ever appearance at the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The Progressive Players strive to present audiences with a varied programme of dramas, comedies and thrillers (and the odd pantomime). We look back on our history with pride and move into our second century with confidence.