The Theatre Royal at 40 – An Undergraduate explores the historic impact of a community.
We met Sam Jenkins at the celebration of 40 years since the Theatre Royal was saved. Threatened with demolition in the 1970s an action group was formed comprising of six dedicated Winchester residents who wanted to save the building for use as a permanent theatre which Winchester lacked at that time. A charitable trust was formed and subsequently purchased the building in 1977. Theatre Royal Winchester was then opened the following year on 1 November 1978 by the esteemed actor/playwright Robert Morley. Sam has been researching the theatre as part of his studies at the University of Winchester and has kindly agreed to share his experiences and findings with us.
I am Sam Jenkins, a second year history student at the University of Winchester. As part of my degree I am currently undertaking a module called ‘Exploring Past Localities’, where I am exploring a local tenement in the Winchester area, tracing the tenement’s origins as far back as possible, right up to its use in the present day. This will culminate in a presentation of my findings in December. As a keen fan of cinema and theatre-going, I quickly chose the Theatre Royal as my tenement to explore. To fully equip me for the task, I received training to use resources from the Hampshire Record Office, where much historic documentation can be found on the Theatre Royal and the tenement of land it occupies.
One of the key aspects of this module is to consider the importance of ‘history-from-below’, an idea that has emerged in historiographical thought since the 1960s. This is the concept that historical writing should consider the role of ordinary individuals, and the impact of the civic community, rather than just focusing on how history was shaped by those in power at the very top of society. The sense of a rooted community spirit was very evident when I visited the Theatre for its 40th Anniversary celebrations on the 1st November.
It gave me a wonderful opportunity to meet first-hand some of the key people involved with saving the Theatre from being demolished in the 1970s. The guests I met included surviving members of the original ‘gang’ who came together to fight against the building’s planned demolition order, some of the volunteers who helped operate the Theatre when it first re-opened, as well as other members of the Winchester community and their family members who are connected to the Theatre’s history.
As an undergraduate I am expected to thoroughly explore the evidence when completing my assignments – historians are quite rightly expected to justify their “facts” or interpretations through multiple sources. While these sources can take many forms, they are often found in the form of a monograph (book) or journal article. To be able to actually see the theatre as it stands today and directly meet people involved with its development is a real honour, and the greatest joy is that it brings the research I am producing to life, quite literally. It reminds me that the role of the historian is not just to tell stories for storytelling’s sake – history is about real people, and ensuring that the collective efforts and achievements of real people are properly commemorated and appreciated for future generations.
The Theatre Royal would not be standing today had it not been for the generosity, commitment and determination of the Winchester community. This will be reflected strongly when I come to deliver my presentation.
Find out more about the history of the Theatre Royal Winchester here.