In the early 1960s David Gollins, with the support of his mother Judy Gollins, had the vision and the foresight to create one of the smallest and most beautiful professional theatres in the country from a derelict watermill. The building itself dates from 1830, being used as a corn mill, a fullers mill and a fine paper mill before it was converted for the first professional theatre season in 1967.
JILL FRASER, MBE
Artistic and and Executive Director
1981 until February 2006
In 1981 Jill, together with her husband James Sargant, purchased The Watermill Theatre. She led the development of the theatre from a local rep, opening 26 weeks of the year, into a nationally and internationally respected all year round producing house.
The Watermill has toured to 21 countries including the UK, particularly with the hugely successful all-male ensemble company Propeller, which Jill co-founded with Edward Hall.
It was in the last 8 years of her life that the success of Jill’s vision was recognised with many productions winning national awards as the best in their field. Shows such as The Gondoliers, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rose Rage, and Sweeney Todd transferred into the West End with the latter also transferring to Broadway. Jill was particularly proud in November 2006 to attend two consecutive opening nights in New York for shows that originated at The Watermill. The following April The Watermill musical, Mack & Mabel, opened at the Criterion Theatre, London.
THE SAVE THE WATERMILL APPEAL
In June 2005 the Save The Watermill appeal was launched to enable the board of trustees to buy the theatre from Jill Fraser & James Sargant and carry out improvements, repairs and development of the buildings. In 2008 it was announced that the £3 million fundraising appeal target had been reached. This amazing achievement was thanks to a whole host of people and organisations. Over 4,000 individuals, trusts, foundations and businesses gave money to the appeal which was also supported by David Suchet, Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Timothy West CBE, Prunella Scales, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and David Soul.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In 1988 Judy Gollins reminisced...
David wanted to turn the mill into a cathedral, but he couldn’t so he turned it into a theatre instead. He worked on it himself and with friends from the village, everyone helped. But the first seats came from Winchester Cathedral.
The first year local actors did two plays in the summer. They were delighted to be inside for the first time – usually they were outside. One day a big, dirty car drew up and a big, dirty man got out. He said he was tired of running theatres in London but had seen this one and could he run it for us. David said "no" but I said "yes", so he paid all his own expenses, but no rent. The first play had only three actors; the man never rehearsed them, and they did as they liked. Later we discovered he owed money everywhere, including the actors’ salaries. Equity asked me if I wanted to continue with the theatre on my own, but I said "no".
The next summer I decided to open the theatre. An actor friend told me how to go about it – where to find actors and the business of running a theatre, and letting people know about it. There were no lavatories. The ladies had to use the house, and the men used a cupboard by the mill wheel. It was just a hole in the ground and a bucket. In those days it didn’t matter and the bucket was emptied into the stream. It was worse for the actors. The only access to the dressing rooms was from the back of the stage.
David borrowed some money from a millionaire friend and we spent it on the kitchen and improved the barn and the lavatories. The second summer we did up the stable block. It had been two rooms for horses and tack, then we used it as a workshop. Then David built the foyer with help from friends.
Gradually it grew and got better known...
||Conversion of the mill into a 113-seat theatre. Occasional amateur performances.
||Auditorium fitted with tip up seats. Small fly tower constructed and lighting control installed.
||Stable block converted into accommodation for the actors.
||Auditorium rebuilt to seat 170. Foyer and spiral staircase constructed. Bar and kitchen extension added to restaurant, also cloakrooms, workshop and Dutch House for extra actors’ accommodation.
||Bar rebuilt and re-roofed and screen built between it and the restaurant to allow lunchtime garden bar to open.
Artistic Director from 1976 – 1978
I first saw The Watermill on a spring day in 1975. Anyone visiting The Watermill for the first time is likely to be enchanted; but on that crisp, sunny, spring day, well before the start of the season, it seemed to exert an extraordinary charm.
Although the overall structure is little changed, the theatre was a much more primitive affair in those days. The present car park was a grassy field (unfortunately liable to resemble a quagmire before the end of a busy season), there was no running water in the theatre (except through the roof), so no washbasins or loos for the actors; bowls of water had to be carried up to the dressing rooms above the auditorium and an elsan chemical loo would provide unrehearsed sound effects if anyone was absent-minded enough or desperate enough to use it during a performance.
The auditorium and roof were un-insulated so in cold weather it was freezing and in summer, baking. I particularly remember Basil Lord trying to apply his make-up for Sleuth with a thermometer reading 110 degrees in his dressing room! The lack of insulation also rendered the auditorium a much noisier place than it is today; after heavy rain the roar of the mill-race provided considerable competition for the actors.
I don’t think any member of the 1976 company was seen in anything but shorts and T-shirt throughout the entire season. The river dried up – we carried floundering trout and stranded crayfish from the nearly dry river bed to the refuge of the albeit severely depleted mill pool – the lawn turned brown and cracked and we tried not to flush the loos. Which reminds me that was the season we installed the loo and the washbasins for the actors.
Three years passed in a flash. As a ‘city boy’ I had for the first time watched crops grow, ripen and be harvested; sat at my desk and watched a heron take a trout from the river only a few feet away and shared my workplace with voles, kingfishers, tawny owls, yellow-hammers, flycatchers and most magically of all, on a few evenings each year, in the silent dusk after the audience had all gone home, a solitary nightingale singing fit to bust on a post outside my office. Long may The Watermill continue to thrive!
David Gilmore left The Watermill to take up the post of Artistic Director at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton. He is now a highly respected freelance director, responsible for such hits as Daisy Pulls it Off, The Hired Man and Jeffrey Archer’s play Beyond Reasonable Doubt.
David Gilmore looking back in 1988
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