Arts Editor Sophie Maxwell caught up with Kevin Jackson, a volunteer and board member of The Lantern, to delve into the past and present of this quaint Victorian theatre.
Tucked away in the leafy suburban streets of Nether Edge lies the Lantern Theatre. It is at the heart of local community theatre, but often neglected by students due to its distinguished location outside of the university bubble. The grade II listed building has been standing for over 120 years, making it the oldest surviving theatre in Sheffield. Its 84 seat capacity offers intimate performances from budding and semi-professional actors, telling the tales of up and coming stage writers. Despite its modesty, the theatre is run by an army of enthusiastic volunteers who love to put on over 10 shows a year.
“It’s 100 per cent voluntary work” boasts Kevin Jackson, who works for a learning company, creating training courses and videos as his day job. “We have front of house volunteers, as well as those who pay a membership, who are also involved in the creative side.”
Becoming a member of the theatre means becoming a member of Dilys Guite Players (DGP), the in-house community theatre group and registered charity who own the theatre.
“As a paid member, you are an owner of the charity and the theatre. It’s very much a community theatre, for people in Sheffield who want to get involved.”
Jackson tells of students who venture to the theatre and flourish, including how the youngest board member Harry Rowbotham started out. “He came to do tech in his spare time whilst at university, and he just loved it. It’s like a lot of people, they come to the theatre, they see it and never want to leave it. He’s now our technical director.”
The DGP host a number of schemes to encourage engagement from the wider community and to platform surrounding creative talents.
“New Writing Festival is a collection of small pieces, that are no longer than 20 minutes long, with a minimal cast of no more than five, played to a black box set,” continues Jackson.
“It’s open to anybody who has a piece that they would like to put forward for consideration. Each year they’ve done it, it’s grown. Some years we’ve had up to 60 entries. The next festival will be in February.
“Another scheme is Write On, a festival of one act plays, which are often longer pieces than those in New Writing. We’ll choose two different plays: It’s twice the opportunity for people to get something new on stage. This will happen late next year.
“There is a wide gamut of things people can get involved with. Originally, when it was set up, it was about educating people in the arts and all its forms. What we’ve tried to do since 2013 is broaden that a bit, so that people can get involved in different ways. We’ve had people make film trailers for us, people writing, photographers. We want to link it all together.”
There is much more than meets the eye when it comes to The Lantern. There were three main predecessors who were responsible for the creation and upkeep of the theatre before the DGP.
“It was built in 1893 by the Webster family who owned the house next door. William Webster was a wealthy steel manufacturer in Sheffield. The widely accepted story is that back in the 1890s he wanted to build a theatre for his daughter who wanted to act, as he didn’t want her to move to London. Whether or not this is true or not we’ll never know, but that’s the story that has been passed down.
“We know he died not long after it was built, and his son became head of the household. At some point after that the theatre changed hands, going to Charles Richardson. During the war it went into disrepair. In the late 1950s, actress Dilys Guite saw it. She was walking past the theatre gates and her son dropped a toy out of his pram. She saw this building and thought ‘what is it?’”
Dilys saw a future for the theatre, but shortly after moved away from Sheffield. Upon her return six years later, living on the road the theatre also inhabits, she decided to take action. In 1958, Dilys made an appearance on Women’s Hour to share her story. Jackson summarises the broadcast.
“From her kitchen window she could see the top of the theatre, the lantern itself. She was cleaning her dishes one morning and thought ‘today will be the day I make some headway with this theatre’.
“It was just after 9am she left the house to visit Richardson. By 9:25am she walked back into the house with the keys of the property and permission to renovate it.” Headstrong Dilys and her friends renovated the theatre, leading to the reopening in 1957. “Richardson thought Dilys had done such a great job that he gave her the deeds and the theatre.”
With a history dating back over a century, and with Halloween approaching, Jackson spills on whether or not the theatre is in fact haunted. “Yes, absolutely. On E row, seats E5 and E7 are often found down. Also along that row, that’s where a figure has been seen by people who work in the theatre. We’ve had incidences where people feel someone holding their hand as they walk down the aisle of the theatre.
Sat in the dressing room within the attic of what once was a stables, Jackson tells of the temperament of a ghost sighted within this very building. “We presume he was the stable hand here. Some people describe him as an angry man.”
Despite multiple sightings, Jackson assures me there have been no frightening experiences. “We’ve actually named the ghosts. They’re just looking after the place.”
There are plenty of opportunities to get involved at The Lantern, from showing off your artistic flare to simply joining the audience for a brilliant, potentially even supernatural, evening of theatre.
Next up is John Godber’s Christmas Cracker, showing 10-15 December. All students are eligible for concession tickets. See the website for further details.