The Place Bedford was originally a Boys’ Club, built in the late 1960’s on land leased for 75 years from Bedford Borough Council.
Initially it focused on boxing, a popular pastime for boys and young men at that time. The anchor points for the boxing ring can still be found under the stage flooring. As time went on, boxing became less popular and there was increased social pressure for girls to be included within the activities as well.
Subsequently, the National Association of Boys’ Clubs, became the ‘National Association of Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs’ to address this growing need, and the building became a Youth Club with its own resident Youth Worker.
Sadly, over time interest in the activities provided by youth clubs waned and slowly the building fell into some disrepair despite the valiant efforts of the people who were in charge of the club. During the latter part of the 1990’s it was used by bands for rehearsal and sometimes for dances.
By 2000 it was clear that its future as a youth club was limited and so the Borough Council approached the trustees of Bedford Players Trust to see if we would be interested in taking on the remaining 40 or so years of the lease. This approach was made as another project -to build a theatre in Bedford- in which the Trust had played a substantial role had fallen through for a number of reasons. After much deliberation the trustees thought that it presented an interesting and exciting opportunity as we had for some years had always wanted the opportunity for the Trust to run its own theatre. All the trustees had been involved in local community drama groups and wanted to be able to provide better facilities than those which existed elsewhere in the town at that time. Discussions were had with The National Association of Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, also a charity, and which had the ultimate responsibility for the lease, the Borough and The Charity Commission to enable the lease to be assigned to the Trust as a number of terms needed to be negotiated, not least to enable us to use the building as a theatre and to sell alcohol!
Discussions were had with The National Association of Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, also a charity, and which had the ultimate responsibility for the lease, the Borough and The Charity Commission to enable the lease to be assigned to the Trust as a number of terms needed to be negotiated, not least to enable us to use the building as a theatre and to sell alcohol!
We also had to consider how best to lay out the venue, as it now became known. It originally had a stage, where the main seating block is now, and basically little else that looked useful in a theatre though there were rooms upstairs which could be used in some way.
Agreeing to take on the lease was the least of the trustees problems. How were we going to pay for it was the major hurdle? Immense trust was shown by the members of the Grants Committee of the Harpur Trust in the proposed project when they made a substantial grant to get the whole project off the ground and a major fund-raising initiative followed.
Unfortunately, before any of the legal requirements could be concluded, the building was vandalised not once but twice within a week which meant that the original budget had to be revised upwards, especially as the rooms upstairs had all been damaged to such an extent that were unusable. Fortunately, the trustees were able to identify a funder who was able to provide the additional funds needed and the grant from the Harpur Trust enabled the trustees to raise funds from other groups, organisations and trusts and the project got off the ground in March 2002 with a programme of substantial internal modifications. These included the conversion of the upper floor into rehearsal and meeting rooms and the main ground floor area (in which the boxing ring had once stood) into a fully-equipped 130-seat theatre in a thrust configuration with associated foyer and dressing-room facilities.
During the building process, the Trust received generous help from local traders, builders and suppliers which was especially welcome as a fair bit of the work was carried out by the trustees themselves ably supported by friends and colleagues.
The initial objective was to create the rehearsal rooms for the local community groups as their facilities were becoming unsuitable and these were ready by September 2002 The theatre was in a state of completion by October to enable there to be a soft opening. The formal opening was in January 2003 with public performances of Jim Cartwright’s play “Two”, performed by local group Blackout Theatre Company. Since that time, the venue has become home to a number of ‘resident’ groups and has developed a packed and varied programme which includes theatre, music, film and the spoken word.
Since opening, The Place has grown in use, programming and attendance and most satisfyingly in stature within the community and among funders. Hopefully it is seen as an asset to the people of Bedford and that it will continue to be supported by them.
Justin Phillimore [Chair]
Rae Levene [Secretary]