The Place Bedford was originally a Boys’ Club, built in the late 1960’s, and focusing at that time on boxing, which was a popular pastime of boys and young men at that time. The old anchor points for the boxing ring corners can still be found under the stage flooring. As time went on, boxing became less popular and also there was increased social pressure for girls to be included in the activities. The Organisation which built and ran the building (The National Association of Boys’ Clubs), changed its name to the National Association of Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs to address this growing need. As a result the building and the land on which it stood became a Youth Club, with its own resident Youth Worker.
Alongside the normal Youth Club activities the venue was used for gigs, live music and dances. Many Bedford residents remember the building in this capacity from growing up during the 1980s & 90s.
Sadly interest and funding for 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 they would be interested in taking on the lease.
This approach was made as another project to build a theatre in Bedford, in which the Trust was playing a substantial role, had fallen through for a number of reasons. After much deliberation the trustees at the time thought that it presented an interesting and exciting opportunity. For some years there had been an appetite for the opportunity to run their own theatre, all having been involved in local community drama groups, and it was seen there was a need 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 transferred 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!
They also had to consider how best to lay out the venue, as it now became known. It originally had a small raised 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 they going to pay for it? 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 anything 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 they 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 which included the conversion of the upper floor of the building into rehearsal and meeting rooms, with the main ground floor area (in which the boxing ring had once stood) being converted 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 first objective was to create rehearsal rooms for the local community groups as their facilities were becoming unsuitable. These were ready by September 2002 and the theatre was in a state of completion by October to enable there to be a soft opening evening. The formal opening being 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 some a number of ‘resident’ groups and has developed a packed and varied programme of theatre 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. Hopefully it is seen as an asset to the people of Bedford and that it will continue to be supported by them.