Once upon a time there was a byre…
In 1933, a local freelance journalist and playwright named Alexander B Paterson founded the original Byre Theatre with help from Hope Park Church’s theatre group. Together they renovated a semi-derelict cow byre (leased from the Council for £10 per annum) and quickly transformed it into a space able to accommodate their theatrical output. This marked the beginning of the ‘St Andrews Play Club’, which still performs at the theatre to this day.
The original Play Club members’ resourcefulness ensured that the theatre underwent constant improvements. Cushions were first provided for audiences to sit on until 74 seats were later obtained from the local cinema. Sets were built out of driftwood from the famous St Andrews beaches and the ladder to access the loft-based changing room was taken from an out-of-commission World War navy vessel docked at Inverkeithing! The first play performed in front of an audience at the old Byre was Sidney Box’s Murder Trial in 1935. Within a couple of years the theatre had established a considerable reputation and attracted such large audience numbers that it was barely able to accommodate them.
The War years…
Eager to improve their theatrical skills, the company used theatre profits to send Russell Mather to Edinburgh Drama College as a full time student from 1937 – 39, on the understanding that he would teach what he learned during the week to the Play Club members at weekends. Russell had barely completed his course when war broke out and he joined the army.
Play Club activities were temporarily halted when most of the company entered active service. In 1939, the ‘Dundee Repertory Company’, under the leadership of Robert Thornley, had a six week season at the Byre while its theatre was being reconstructed. In spring 1940, Elliot Playfair, Hugh (Hastings) Williams, Douglas Storm, Edith Ruddick, Flora Britton and Pauline Reeves formed the first ‘St Andrews Repertory Company’. They enlisted the help of Chas Marford, former stage manager at The Old Vic Theatre in London. Chas wrote of the 1940 season in St Andrews: “Terrible things began to happen on the continent. The War really came upon us. All the European countries fell. We didn’t know what to give ’em at the Byre, but under my guidance we embarked on a policy of plays I’d known as cast iron box office stuff, never been known to fail, and we did ’em somehow or other, to fast failing audiences. It looked as though Britain was going to be invaded any day. Then all the chaps in the company were called up, and after a month in which I worked my notice, the season ended.”
Chas returned to the Byre with his wife Molly in 1941 and the couple continued to stage a number of productions with help from two Play Club members: Millie Paterson and Emma Todd. In 1943, the theatre faced problems due to the lack of available performers and a suitably skilled workforce, but in 1945 A. B. Paterson returned from the RAF and Chas Marford handed management of the theatre over to him.
In 1964, ‘Friends of the Byre’ was formed in anticipation of a new theatre building and Jenny Rodger was appointed as President. On the advice of A. B. Paterson, architect Mr T. P. Rodger visited the Mermaid Theatre in London and used it as a basis for the new Byre Theatre which would be erected on a site thirty yards north of the original. In 1969, after more than 30 years and numerous productions, the original Byre Theatre was demolished. The final performance was The Grouse Moor Image by William Douglas-Home on 3rd January. The curtain was left open at the end of the performance to symbolise a flow of continuity into the new building.
With funds raised by a public appeal and the local authority, the new theatre building was opened for approximately £40,000 in 1970. The opening performance was A. B. Paterson’s version of Weir of Hermiston. The theatre’s facilities were modest, for both public and staff, but it was thought to be a rather grand affair when compared to its predecessor! The new building could hold 140 people, doubling the old Byre’s capacity.
Another new Byre Theatre…
Before his death in 1989, A. B. Paterson wanted to modernise the Byre Theatre yet again. His vision was for the building to meet the requirements of a new generation and he wanted to create suitable facilities for those with special access needs (including visual and hearing impairments).
The Byre Theatre, as it stands on Abbey Street today, cost £5.5 million to build and, having been carefully designed by award winning architects Nicoll Russell Studios of Broughty Ferry, has fulfilled A. B. Paterson’s final wishes. The building opened in 2001 with a critically acclaimed performance of Into the Woods.
The theatre continued to impress and maintained a constant 5 star status as a top tourist attraction in Scotland. However, in January 2013 the Byre Theatre of St Andrews went into liquidation after experiencing financial difficulties.
A happy ending and a new beginning…
The Byre Theatre officially reopened its doors once again in October 2014 thanks to a management agreement between the University of St Andrews, Fife Council, and Creative Scotland. Jack and the Beanstalk, written and directed by Gordon Barr (Artistic Director of ‘Bard in the Botanics’), was the first professional production to take place following the reopening and entertained audiences from 27th November 2014 until 3rd January 2015. Prior to this, the St Andrews Play Club returned to their true home to perform Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and a student production of The Importance of Being Earnest was staged by Mermaids (University of St Andrews’s Performing Arts Fund).
The Byre Theatre is committed to being an artistic and cultural hub at the heart of St Andrews, for the local community and beyond. Come along and be a part of our history in the making – we look forward to welcoming you to this very special theatre where the theatrical heritage spans more than 80 years.