Husband and wife Mark Stratton and Sheila Carter have achieved something special in the North York Moors over the past ten years.
Theatre in the countryside is generally limited to annual pantomimes, amateur dramatic society productions and touring companies that play for one night only at each of several village halls throughout the county.
What you don’t expect to see is a play being professionally staged and performed in the middle of the Moors for a whole summer season, but that’s what Mark and Sheila have, for a decade, brought to the village of Glaisdale despite its tiny population of 1,018.
Each year the Robinson Institute, built in 1911, is transformed from being the local village hall hosting dance classes and weekly meetings to an auditorium with a purpose-built stage set and tiered seating.
The Esk Valley Theatre sign goes up at the gateway and fairy lights are strung around the two gazebos on the lawn in front of the hall where patrons are served glasses of wine as they arrive.
When Mark and Sheila started out their first year consisted of 18 performances to a total audience of 1,400. By the end of the latest run of 28 performances of Willy Russell’s ‘One For The Road’, it will have been enjoyed by around 3,000 people.
Numbers of course don’t mean everything but try this. Such is the clamour for work that the actors who make up this year’s cast of four came from an initial 800-1,000 submissions from their agents.
Mark was born in Middlesbrough and worked in North Yorkshire for renowned pig farmer Ian Brisby and at Moorland Trout Farm before going to drama school when he was 21 and embarking on a career that has seen him play roles throughout the world on stage and screen.
He and Sheila, an in-demand choreographer from Oldham, moved to Glaisdale 27 years ago, providing them with a haven of peace and tranquillity from their normal working lives after Mark had initially tempted her with the allure of stress-free weekends. Mark had no vision of Esk Valley Theatre when they first moved in to the village.
“What set us off thinking about it was when I had done a one-man show for a lovely lady called Jill Freud in Southwold in Suffolk. She puts on summer seasons of quality productions in a converted hall and that’s what set us thinking that we could do the same in the middle of the North York Moors.
“We batted ideas around in our heads for a few years and then we thought it was about time we either put up or shut up.
“I don’t think people could believe what we were proposing and many felt that we would be lucky to run a professional theatre for three days rather than three weeks.
“From the outset we were concerned about creating a sustainable theatre event that didn’t just bring artistic quality to the area but also economic benefits for the local businesses in terms of bed and breakfast accommodation, pubs and restaurants.
“We have local farmers and country people who have now been to the theatre for the first time in their lives. One chap wouldn’t come for years but I eventually persuaded him and he hasn’t missed a play since.
“We feel strongly that we are giving people an experience that enriches them in some way and that in this day and age where most stuff is done through a screen that the theatre is one of the few forums that provides opportunity for debate, shared laughter and can take you on an emotional journey. There are still many who have a preconception that theatre is something other people do. One chap said to me he didn’t do culture, but he now comes.”
In the past decade the plays have varied from the works of UK playwrights such as John Godber, Willy Russell and Stephen Ayckbourn to American playwright Neil Simon.
“It was a big culture shock coming to live here,” says Sheila. “But this village has such a great community spirit and we’re fortunate to be a part of it. Mark has recently appeared on TV in Emmerdale and also on a commercial for lung cancer. Everyone here kept asking him whether he was feeling better.”
Help the story to continue
To bring drama to the Moors, Esk Valley Theatre relies on financial support but North Yorkshire County Council’s funds for the arts dried up years ago, says Mark, while the Arts Council’s funding decisions have been hit and miss.
“We’re now in the position where we haven’t enough resources,” Sheila explains. “We have some brilliant help but it’s been so hectic this year that we haven’t even had time to think about next year’s production and we need that in place soon so that we can apply for funding again.”
Current production ‘One For The Road’ runs until Saturday, August 30. Call the box office on 01947 897587.