The Old Stagers, or OS, are claimed to be the oldest surviving amateur dramatic society in the world and began as part of one man's idea of having an annual Cricket Week at Canterbury. They first acted in Canterbury in 1842, and have done so every year since, except for the two World Wars. In July 2001, OS celebrated their 150th season.
Canterbury Cricket Week
In 1842, John Baker was the Honorary Secretary of the Kent County Cricket Club. As part of this new cricket festival, he had the idea of asking some of his more thespian cricketers to help perform plays in the evening at the Orange Street Theatre in Canterbury.
He had some unusual talent at his disposal. Perhaps the most notable was the Hon Frederick Ponsonby (later Earl of Bessborough).
It is debatable whether Harrow School1, cricket2, or acting were his greatest passions. Probably cricket - but in some ways, all three were part of a whole, and it was he, along with his friend Charles Taylor, who in 1842 founded the dramatic society, which in 1851 was christened the Old Stagers.
How is it that the society has survived this long, and indeed has a longer history than the Promenade Concerts, which began in 1895, the Wimbledon Tennis Championships since 1877, or the modern Olympics that started in 1896? A society, which was born in only the fifth year of the reign of Queen Victoria herself?
There are perhaps two main reasons - the Society's unique relationship with Cricket and with the county of Kent, and the fact that members of OS take their acting seriously.
Apart from often having guest professionals in the productions, most members of the Society are 'would-be' full-time actors. Many have distinguished themselves in their chosen careers - almost all are united in having seriously considered acting as a 'living'. Some combine professional performing with their 'other' jobs and their work with OS.
Perhaps the society's longevity also owes something to the fact that its approach to its work is reminiscent of the theatre in which many of the past 'greats' grew up and learnt their trade before film and television took such a toll on the art of live performance. The repertory tradition - the sense of a company where actors regularly work together and share the leading roles - where experience is built up over many years and where the craft is learnt, as it were, 'on the job', is enshrined too in the OS tradition.
This is not to suggest that the Society started with this aim in mind. Its founding members are unlikely ever to have expected it to survive until its 150th season. And it is doubtful if the Old Stagers would have survived if their sole aim had been to enjoy themselves.
Devoted to Cricket
Unlike the members today, the originators of the society were cricketers first and actors second. It is recorded that they...
... devoted themselves indefatigably to the game [of cricket] during the day, and found comparatively little time for rehearsals. Scenes were rehearsed in corners of the cricket field or in the dressing tent, at any odd moments that were available. Nothing but the indefatigable energy of youth, combined with an intense love for theatricals, could have kept the ball a-rolling when once started.
It is highly doubtful whether today's audiences would be as accommodating to such an approach. As with all Victorian institutions, OS has adapted in order to survive, and pretty quickly.
Even as early as 1843, professional actresses were appearing with OS, which suggests that the acting was taken seriously from the outset. Among those who have taken part include Mrs Nisbett, Irene Vanbrugh, Ellen Terry, and Lena Ashwell.
The realities of today's theatrical profession reduce such opportunities, but even so actresses such as Rosalie Crutchley, Rosalind Knight and Patricia Lawrence have appeared in post World War II productions.
At the end of the week, after the last two performances of the play, there has traditionally been performed 'The Epilogue' - a topical, musical, light-hearted revue.
It is written each year by a member of OS, rehearsed during the week, and these days performed on Friday and Saturday nights after the play by everyone involved.
Reading past Epilogues provides a fascinating glimpse of what has been judged topical over the years - the politicians who were ridiculed, the ideas which were satirised, and the institutions which were lampooned.
The tradition continues, so that every part of each year's Epilogue must be original, a mixture of songs and sketches, with reverence for nothing save cricket and Canterbury. Its contents are only revealed to the actors by the author on the first Saturday of the week, when it is formally read and the parts and music distributed for rapid learning and assimilation.
Past Epilogues, programmes, play bills, photographs, drawings and cuttings spanning the entire 160-year history of OS are kept in large leather bound volumes.
To the historically-minded of the OS these 20 or so volumes provide much fasination and amusement as they are a permanent reminder of how the OS traditions have endured for so long.
Old Yet Changing
Despite a reverence for the traditions, OS must also adapt constantly to the preferences and expectations of each new generation of audiences. So far as it is in their power to ensure it, no Old Stager would ever allow the tradition, which began in 1842, to be broken.
In August 1999, the distinguished journalist William Deedes wrote the following in the Daily Telegraph concerning Canterbury Cricket Week and the Old Stagers.
Around this time of year, while the Second World War was on, I consoled myself by thinking that Canterbury Cricket Week, founded in 1842 with its tents and famous lime tree, unchanging in a changing world, was the sort of thing I was in business to preserve. Most of us had daydreams like that in those days. This year, I took a long look round the ground between the showers. Then I caught sight of a programme for the 149th season of the Old Stagers at Canterbury's Gulbenkian Theatre, which accompanies the week - they were playing Ronald Gow's version of the Sackville-West novel The Edwardians. And there was the lime tree. A dream come true.
It is a dream that the Old Stagers are determined to maintain as a reality.