History

The History of The Watermill Theatre  

 

The Watermill Theatre has a long-standing history of creating engaging and award-winning theatre and has been recognised both in the UK and abroad.

 

The existence of a mill at Bagnor is recorded in the Domesday Book. The mill has served as a Corn Mill, Paper Mill and Fullers Mill with its beautiful tithe barn alongside.

In the early 1960s the mill was brought by David Gollins, with the support of this Mother Judy Gollins. Originally David wanted to turn the mill into a cathedral, but was unable to, but luckily, he had the vision and the foresight to create one of the smallest and most beautiful professional theatres in the country from then derelict watermill. Davis built the theatre himself with help from friends in the village. But the first seats did come from Winchester Cathedral.

 

Gradually the mill grew:

 

1965       Conversion of the mill into a 113-seat theatre. Occasional amateur performances.

1967      Auditorium fitted with tip up seats. Small fly tower constructed, and lighting control installed.

1968       Stable block converted into accommodation for the actors.

1971      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.

1984      Bar rebuilt and re-roofed and screen built between it and the restaurant to allow lunchtime garden bar to open.

The Watermill still retains many of its original features such as the waterwheel, wooden beams and corn chutes.

The Watermill’s first professional season opened in 1967.  


In 1988 Judy Gollins reminisced about that first season

 

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.

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

 

In 1981 Jill, together with her husband James Sargant, purchased The Watermill Theatre. Her vision and commitment to the theatre developed it from a local rep, opening 26 weeks of the year, into a nationally and internationally respected all year round producing house.

 

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. Sweeney Todd won two Tony Awards, Best Direction of a Musical, John Doyle, and Best Orchestrations, Sarah Travis. The following April The Watermill musical, Mack & Mabel, opened at the Criterion Theatre, London.

 

In the year 2004-05, the Watermill Theatre reached over 100,000 people with its work both in the theatre and on tour. This took in rural touring, workshops for schools and further education colleges and an active and highly successful youth theatre. Fraser fostered work involving primary school children, people with special needs, the homeless and always a community project where children and adults could work side by side.

Unfortunately, in February 2006 The Watermill lost a forever friend and Jill passed away. Jill believed that theatre could break down social barriers and loved seeing "the student in tatty jeans sitting next to the leader of a corporate conglomerate". She made it her mission to "provide people with opportunities of exploring different aspects of their life". She was famous for giving young artists their first break and there are countless theatre professionals in every field, from directing, acting, designing, lighting, writing, marketing and production, who owe their first job to Jill Fraser.

 

Everyone who worked at the Watermill felt like part of her extended family. She made the theatre a place where you could live and breathe the piece of work you were creating and her house was always full of actors who roomed with her whilst working. Everyone will remember Fraser's tradition of making a huge meal for the entire cast and crew to be enjoyed late at night at the end of the technical rehearsal. The legacy she left on a local and national level is enormous.

 

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.

 

The theatre was put up for sale by the Sargant family in 2008. A development board was established, chaired by Ralph Bernard, and was successful in raising funds to purchase the building and grounds. 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.

The all-male Shakespeare company Propeller started life at The Watermill under the direction of Edward Hall with the support of artistic director Jill Fraser in the mid 1990s. 


Edward Hall first worked at The Watermill in 1995, when he directed Othello – his first full Shakespeare play. Fraser and Hall's collaboration grew from this into the all-male ensemble company Propeller. They mixed “a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic". Hall set out the rules of his company, “Everyone is paid the same wage and if an actor has created a part in a production, then they will automatically receive an offer on the next one which they can refuse or take.”

 

The first time he worked with an all-male company was 1997 on Henry V which was performed in The Watermill gardens, sometimes even taking to the roof of the theatre to represent the battlements of a French town under siege. This promenade-style performance was repeated on tour, most amusingly at the National Theatre of the Philippines in Manila, where a company of 12 actors took nearly 2,000 people into the streets to enact the battle of Agincourt.

 

Until 2010 all Propeller productions were produced, toured both throughout the UK and abroad. Internationally the company toured to Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, China, Cyprus, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, The Philippines, Poland, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey and the USA.

The company grew attracting new actors and members of the company back. Members of Propeller included: Dugald Bruce Lockhart, Bob Barrett, Richard Dempsey, Sam Swainsbury and Richard Clothier.

 

Propeller won several awards, including winner of the 1999 Barclays Theatre Award for Best Director (Edward Hall in Twelfth Night), winner of the 2002 Barclays Theatre Awards Best Touring Production for Rose Rage, winner of the 2003 TMA Theatres Best Touring Production (A Midsummer Night's Dream), winner of 2004 Jeff Award for Best Director, subsequent American production (Edward Hall in Rose Rage), winner of 2007 OBIE Award for The Taming of the Shrew.

Under Hedda’s leadership, The Watermill Theatre cemented its reputation for producing consistently high-quality work and as a place where emerging theatre talent continues to be nurtured and supported.

 

Emerging directors including Jessica Swale, Jamie Glover and Paul Hart, we’re given an opportunity to develop their work and skills. The theatre also entered into partnerships with a number of producers, including Fiery Angel, Trademark Films and Jamie Wilson Productions. These relationships offered greater opportunities, including taking The Watermill’s work to a wider audience. For example, following a sell-out run at The Watermill, the theatre’s production of Calamity Jane in 2014, produced in association with Jamie Wilson, Paul Elliot and Duncan C Weldon Ltd, played to 220,000 people nationwide.

 

The theatre expanded its activities, creating new events and activities to encourage different people to visit and existing patrons to engage with The Watermill more often. The work of the Outreach department grew significantly offering many more opportunities for people to take part in the life of the theatre.

 

Significant infrastructure projects were also undertaken including the installation of a heating and cooling system using state of the art green technology and the re-roofing of the theatre and restaurant.

 

Hedda’s contribution to The Watermill was recognised in the 2014 UK Theatre Awards where she was voted Theatre Manager of the year.

 

Reflecting on her time at The Watermill Hedda said It was a great privilege to lead this unique organisation, to have worked in this beautiful venue with superb artists and to have had such a fabulous in-house team working with me. I had a wonderful time living and working on site - I know there is no other theatre in the country that is able to make work within such a spirit of community and collaboration.

The Watermill Theatre are proud to work alongside a number of talented creatives. Over the years a number of such have received the accolade of becoming an Honorary Associate Artists at the Watermill.  


John Doyle

John Doyle is a Scottish Director of musicals, plays, and operas. He has served as artistic director at several regional theatres in the United Kingdom, where he has staged more than 200 professional productions during his career spanning over 40 years. For his 2005 Broadway production, first performed at The Watermill Theatre, of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he won a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award.

 

Until 2008, Doyle was an associate director at The Watermill Theatre. While working at the theatre he become known for his unusual approach to musical theatre, often featuring casts who are both actors and musicians, accompanying one another on musical instruments while simultaneously playing roles. His last production at the Watermill Theatre was Merrily We Roll Along in March 2008

 

Edward Hall

Edward Hall is an English theatre and film director who founded the all-male Propeller Shakespeare company of which he became Artistic Director, in 1997. Hall began his professional career as a theatre director at the Watermill Theatre in the early 1990s. At the Watermill, Hall directed a number of Shakespeare plays, including Henry V and The Comedy of Errors.

 

To find out more about Propeller please read above.

 

Ade Morris

Ade has written and directed for a wide range of commissions, including the Watermill Theatre. His work spans across plays for young people, screenplays and radio, for theatre in education, special needs groups, and for professional training.

 

Ade’s plays have been performed in The Watermill’s auditorium and on tour. Ade has most recently worked with the Watermill on a revival of Lone Flyer: The Last Flight of Amy Johnson which was performed in October 2020.

 

Euan Smith

In 2015 Paul Hart was appointed the current Artistic and Executive Director.

 

Hart first came across The Watermill while studying as a student. He soon found a way to persuade Edward Hall to work for him by opening Propeller shows at the Watermill. From there, the then artistic and executive director Hedda Beeby invited Paul to direct, Paul directed four shows freelance before taking over as Artistic Director.

 

For more information about where we are now visit our About Us page here

 

The Watermill Ensemble

 

Romeo and Juliet was Hart’s first production with Watermill Ensemble in 2016 and featured a young company of multi-talented performers, including accomplished actor-musicians, with a 50:50 gender split. It’s aim to combine Shakespeare’s texts and live music creating new versions of the plays which will tour. They also form part of The Watermill’s education programme.

 

Announcing the new ensemble Hart said ‘The Watermill has always been the most wonderfully nurturing place to create work and the space itself forces you to think outside the box. We’ve found it’s the perfect environment to create productions that are bold, fresh and irreverent. I’ve loved making work with the casts of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and we can’t wait to get back into rehearsals to try something new. I think a good ensemble forces everyone in the room to up their game and be experimental.’

 

The Watermill Theatre’s productions have included Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To date the company have toured both nationally and internationally including Neuss Shakespeare Festival Germany, and recently successful London transfers to Wiltons Music Hall.

 

For more information about The Watermill Ensemble click here.