Oswald Carver hardly knew what he was starting when he built a gymnasium in Chadwick Street, Marple in 1898.
He thought he was founding a Lads’ Club to keep the working class boys of Marple off the streets (and out of the pubs) and help them build strong and healthy bodies.
It is not quite clear whether Carver succeeded in his ultimate aim, which was to breed “healthy minds” inside all those healthy little bodies.
Meanwhile, in 1906 a small group of lively and presumably healthy-minded people was founding the Marple Dramatic Society.
In the early years of the 20th century it was very much in fashion to indulge in amateur dramatics. Stockport Garrick was founded in 1901 and had its first production in February 1902 of the Merchant of Venice. Marple, not to be outdone, founded the Dramatic Society and set off, undaunted by their competitors, with a successful and aptly-named production of The Rivals.
The society, having no permanent home, moved about between the Shepley Hall, the Old Tannery and various church halls until after the Great War, finally coming to rest in Carver’s Recreation Club, commonly known as the Carver Institute.
By this time the Society had amalgamated with Marple Literary Society and was growing apace. Nothing was too difficult for these intrepid actors to attempt. Shaw, Shakespeare, Ibsen, were all grist to their mill.
In the 1920s, the future of the amateur theatre looked rosy. Audiences flocked to sit on uncomfortable benches in a draughty hall to see plays by leading writers.
In no time, sufficient money as raised to buy the building and the transformation scene could begin. Gradually, the draughty old hall was turned into a cosy little theatre with a separate foyer, a good-sized stage with a small apron front, several dressing rooms, refreshment rooms and all the necessary facilities.
Comfortable plush seats were added – although at that time, they were on the level – and lighting and sound equipment installed.
It took a good deal of hard work and money to transform the interior into what was called at the time “the finest little theatre in the area” but during the 1950s it seemed as if the work had been in vain.
The professional theatre was ailing as television and bingo claimed huge audiences and it looked as if the amateur theatre was doomed.
But the quality of the Carver productions and the loyalty of Marple people saved the day. The pantomimes were renowned and local girls jostled for the honour of becoming one of the dancing “Carver girls” – just as we have a waiting list for our junior section today!
Competition for parts in productions was stiff and the society attracted ex-professional actors. Sometimes original plays by local authors were produced; and the tradition of high-quality sets and costumes was established.
The sixties saw a renewed interest in live theatre; but just as the Carver seemed set to benefit, a development proposal cast a threat over the very building itself.
Fortunately, it did not proceed and the theatre survived – only to be faced in 1975 with a large bill for fire safety measures. This was paid from the first year’s profit from the newly acquired bar licence, which continues to contribute a healthy amount to our annual running costs.
The theatre later had its major refurbishment when raked seating and the lighting & sound box were installed, giving us our present structure; this was further enhanced by the lottery grant of 1998 which provided the stage improvements including the revolving stage section.
But it is the people, not the building, that makes a theatre; and although most members are happy to enjoy the experience as a hobby, some of the best Carver actors have gone on to professional careers and many juniors have chosen dance or drama schools.
We can be justly proud of our history.
Adapted from “The Story of a Deceptive Building”, published for the 1972/3 season; with acknowledgements to Heather Baguley.