Stockton’s Georgian Theatre is the oldest Georgian provincial theatre in the country.
Standing in Green Dragon Yard, this grade II listed building was built in 1564 as a tithe barn, used to store the tithes (one tenth of the annual produce) collected from the local farmers and businessmen as a kind of local tax to the church.
It wasn’t until 1766 that Thomas Bates, the manager of a company of players and comedians decided to acquire the barn and turn it into a theatre to present his own, and travelling, productions.
He made a number of alterations to the building before it could be used as a theatre including raising the original sandstone walls with brick. With the addition of a stage, a pit and a gallery, and with its barnlike interior, it was typical of the layout of provincial theatres at that time, rising about thirty feet to the roof space, with a floor area of about sixty feet by thirty feet. It was known as the Oxford Road Playhouse at that time and was on the Northern circuit of theatres that played host to touring companies and plays. Heavisides said of it 'it consisted of a low passage which was liberally strewn with sawdust, a pit which accommodated one hundred people, and a gallery which was separated by a wooden partition, on which spikes were fixed to deter people in "the gods" from climbing into the pit'.
Bates owned and managed the theatre for 20 years of fluctuating fortunes when, in 1786, having fallen on hard times, he passed it on to his nephew, James Cawdell, a popular actor of the day.
As well as being a successful actor, James Cawdell was a respected playwright, poet and business man. He was, apparently, also a very generous man as he not only assumed his uncle’s debts but allowed him an annuity of £64. Initially renting the theatre for an annual fee of £20, he eventually purchased if from a Mr Spark for the grand sum of two hundred guineas.
In 1798 Cawdell retired from the stage and rented the theatre to Stephen Kemble, a much respected member of the celebrated theatrical family. On 12 January 1799 Cawdell died at his home in Durham. In his will, as well as making provision for his wife, he left annuities for his theatres (he had several by this time). He was clearly a successful business man as when he rented the building to Stephen Kemble he charged him £30 per annum – 50% more than he had paid himself!
Kemble was a big actor in more ways than one , his most famous role was that of Falstaff (Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor) which he played without any costume padding – he is reputed to have weighed 30 stones! In 1815 Kemble gave his farewell performance on the stage of the Oxford Road Playhouse playing his Falstaff role for the last time, so ending Stockton’s connection with one of the most distinguished theatrical families in the land. He died in 1822 and is buried at Durham Cathedral.
While the theatre was in his hands, Kemble made many improvements to the building and layout but it wasn’t until 1818, when the theatre was managed by Anderson and Faulkner, that 12 boxes were added to the auditorium. Seats in these boxes were priced at three shillings and two shillings, with the gallery tickets costing one shilling. The addition of the boxes increased the earning capacity of the theatre but none of the many managers who succeeded Cawdell were able to make it pay as well as he had.
Over the years famous artistes from many of the London theatres, such as Drury Lane and the Lyceum, appeared here in performances of Shakespeare and musical comedy. It is said that Junius Booth, the father of Wilkes Booth who was to assassinate President Lincoln, played here with great success, as did Mrs. Jordan, the mistress of King William IV.
This was not to last and by 1858 appearances by the big names from London were few and far between. The place degenerated into a Music Hall and its name was changed to "The Oxford" with the price of the seats in the gallery a mere two pence.
The building changed hands many times before being refurbished and re-opened as the Theatre Royal under the ownership and management of a Mr J Samuels in January 1866. The change of name didn’t improve its fortunes and the frequent changes of ownership continued until 1874 when it eventually closed as a theatre.
It was converted to use as a Salvation Army Citadel in the latter part of 1874 but the building was in decline and eventually it was taken over by J.F.Smith and Co. , Nebo Confectionery, for use as a sweet factory and warehouse. It continued in this role until 1972 when the works closed. The building fell into disrepair and was in a poor state when it was acquired by Stockton Council for around £14000.
The building was eventually renovated and in 1980 re-opened as a community space, still in the ownership of Stockton Council. This is marked by the plaque on the outside of the building bearing the legend ‘This stone commemorates the re-opening of the Georgian Theatre. Originally opened in 1766. Re-opened by Councilor Jim Cooke, Mayor. 29 April 1980. The building underwent a range of uses, functioning more as an historic building than an actual working venue, until 1993 when it was handed over to the Stockton Music & Arts Collective. It became a centre for music and the arts and in 2007 was given an extensive makeover, with new dressing rooms, toilets and a bar being added. In 2008 the exterior of the building was also given a facelift as part of a regeneration program of the area and its development as the Cultural Quarter of the town centre.
Today the building is still owned by Stockton Council but managed by the Tees Music Alliance. It is now a successful music venue with many local and nationally successful bands appearing as well as jazz performances and plays.