A SHORT HISTORY OF HARLEQUIN
HOW IT ALL BEGAN ...
In 1976 the Junior Youth Fellowship of Giffnock Congregational Church on the south side of Glasgow decided to mount the pantomime “Cinderella” for Christmas. Their leaders – Roy Henderson, Douglas Smith and John Young - booked Eastwood Theatre for a week in November and approached Grace Smith, a fellow church member who had stage experience, to produce the show. 76 children from all over the district took part in that extremely successful production, and this prompted Grace to think that it might be an idea to start a theatre group catering solely for young people in the Eastwood area.
So, one evening in February 1977, a group of like-minded people met together in a house in Giffnock to talk through the proposal and by the end of the night had agreed to give it a go. The name “Harlequin” (the hero/rascal of Commedia, which eventually gave us panto) was chosen, a badge was designed, and a committee was formed. Eastwood District Council, the predecessor of East Renfrewshire Council, donated £100 to get the Club up and running, which is why the full name is, in fact, Harlequin – Eastwood Theatre for Youth. And so it all began….
The following is an outline of Harlequin’s development until the present time.The small sample of past productions mentioned illustrates the Club’s versatility in choice of shows, although there are certain ones we have returned to again and again, and some which will never be repeated - for various reasons!!
58 youngsters took to the stage when “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was presented in Clarkston Hall during Civic Week in May 1977, and since then there has always been a waiting list of youngsters wanting to take part in Harlequin productions. In November 1977 the pantomime “Aladdin” was presented in Eastwood Theatre with a budget in the region of £500. This year’s pantomime (2009) is also “Aladdin”, but the budget is in the region of £8,000.
In April 1978 Harlequin decided to enter the field of competitive drama by taking part in the annual Pollok Festival and were delighted to be awarded two trophies for their presentation of “Hallowe’en” by James Scotland – one for the best youth team and one for the best set and props for the entire festival. Success was repeated each year a team was entered - 1979, 1982 and 1983.
When Stewart Douglas became Musical Director for the first production of “Oliver!” in 1979, he had a vision of harnessing the talents of young Club members who could play instruments to form an orchestral section. This was what Harlequin was all about – giving young people the opportunity to extend their skills, and so for some years we had our own orchestra, and what a bonus that was.
Moving in to the 1980s, the Club began staging three shows a year - a pantomime in November for all age groups, a March show for those over 14, the senior section, and a May show for junior members between 9 and 14 years of age - a pattern followed to this day.
Tours became part of the programme in 1981 when a party of 40 Harlequins went to Moray District for the first time to present “Oliver!”. This was followed by “Oklahoma!” the next year, then there were tours to Arran in 1984, 1985 and 1986 with “Godspell”, “Grease” and “Four of the Best” respectively.
Also in 1981, as a result of much hard work and persuasion on the part of Club Secretary Isabel Young, Harlequin was given permission to present “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”. What a feather in our cap that was, because, although the licence was (and is) readily available to schools, permission to perform “Joseph” is not often given to amateur theatre groups. The Wardrobe Mistress made a magnificent cloak of many colours, a ribbon belt, and a golden coat for Joseph, all of which have since been loaned to enhance many a school production.
The senior section’s production of “Godspell” in 1983 became a highly emotional experience for those involved, both on and off stage. The memory of David Stewart, who played Jesus, as he sang on the cross and then was carried out of the auditorium on the shoulders of members of the cast still sends shivers down the spine.
In 1984, again after much hard work to obtain the licence, Harlequin had the honour of presenting the British amateur première of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. We were most fortunate to have in our ranks at that time a number of young players who later became professional – David Stewart and David McVicar in the roles of Jesus and Judas respectively, with Andrew Miller, Alasdair Stewart, Fiona McClune and Barrie Hunter in the chorus. Difficult music and technical problems were all overcome in a memorable production which will always be a unique high spot in the Club’s history.
“Annie” was the junior section show in May 1985 – unfortunately, not a West of Scotland première, as Pantheon pipped us to the post in March. In fact, since we were having difficulty finding a ‘Sandy’, our friends in Pantheon came to our rescue and the dog which had featured in their production got the chance of stardom once again, and how well he and Kirsty Steven performed!
In May 1986 it was time for the 10th Anniversary show, “Memories”, masterminded by Grace. This was an amalgamation of excerpts from all the ‘book shows’ presented over the years featuring many of the original principals reprising their singing roles. One of Grace’s overriding personal memories, however, is of falling in the theatre at the dress rehearsal and quite literally ‘breaking a leg’!! Anne Smith had to step in to take over as the narrator, and it was Friday before Grace finally managed to see the show after being released from hospital.
As we entered the 90s, various Club Nights, drama workshops, theatre outings etc had become part of the annual Harlequin calendar in addition to productions.
1992 saw the senior section present “Grease”, inviting as many as possible of the cast of the 1985 production to come along to the Friday night performance and reunion afterwards. In common with most other groups, “Grease” for Harlequin has that magical something which gives it a special place in everyone’s affections, and so there was a very good turn out!
When we presented the West of Scotland amateur première of “Barnum” in March 1995, Stage Manager Barry Kyle and his team produced what many people said was the best set seen in Eastwood Theatre. What a buzz there was as everyone in the cast had to learn different skills at circus workshops and Michael Adair, Barnum ‘to a T’, did all his own stunts.
In May, by way of a change, the junior section had the chance to perform plays again when they presented Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”. Taking up the theme of the play, we ran a ‘golden ticket competition’ at each performance, with the lucky winners being given a tour of Duncan’s Chocolate Factory in Bellshill (where nothing unpleasant happened to anyone!).
The next year we could not resist the challenge of yet another West of Scotland première, “Zodiac”, by Alan Plater, Vince Hill and Johnny Worth – an unknown show, with 14 singing principals, and handwritten manuscript music! What a worthwhile battle it was though, for when Vince Hill and Johnny Worth came to see the production, they professed themselves very pleased with our interpretation of their show.
The satirical black comedy “Little Shop of Horrors” was the senior production in 1997. An excellent set and very strong performances by the 4 principals, notably 14 year old Ricki Lorenzo as Seymour, and a cast of just 16 ensured yet another first class offering to Eastwood theatregoers.
The Club’s 21st Anniversary year, 1998, opened with “A Night with Harlequin” in the Carmichael Hall one snowy evening in February – a nostalgia trip for about 140 invited guests, including 12 members of the cast of the first production and 3 members of the founding committee. A fine display of photographs was a great talking point and there was an extended “Memories”-type cabaret before the buffet supper and cutting of the birthday cake made by Anne Queen. On leaving, everyone received a copy of ‘Grace’s Memoirs’, a booklet about the history of the Club entitled “The First 21 Years”, on which some of this article is based. The final anniversary event was a car treasure hunt and barbecue for current members one sunny afternoon in September.
There were special programmes for all the productions - “Return to the Forbidden Planet” in March, “Annie” in May, and the first-ever repeat of the first-ever show, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, in November. Loosely based on “The Tempest“ by William Shakespeare with overtones of “Star Trek”, “Forbidden Planet” with its 1960s music had a number of outings over the next couple of years, and every performance finished with the audience and the cast dancing in the aisles!
In March 1999 we brought Gershwin’s classic musical “Crazy for You” to Eastwood Theatre for the first time. We had a great set and some lovely costumes and wigs, and were pleased to welcome the NODA Scotland Councillor, Celia Walker, at one of the performances as part of her Centenary grand tour.
In June 1999 we took “Forbidden Planet” on tour to East Renfrewshire’s twin town of Albertslund, near Copenhagen. In a unique international collaboration, Harlequin supplied the cast and much of the technical expertise, and students of the Danish Musikskole, led by our MD, David Fisher, provided the musical backing. This was yet another of Grace’s ground-breaking ideas – and, believe it or not, it all worked beautifully!! Everyone had a ball. The cast gave great performances and were great ambassadors for Scottish youth.
Grace directed the 1999 pantomime, “Babes in the Wood”, with Christine as producer – the first time a mother/daughter team had held the reins. She then decided to step down from active participation in direction/production for Harlequin after 52 shows. To mark her tremendous contribution to our Club, we were delighted to make her an Honorary Member, and subsequently Honorary President in 2002.
THE 21st CENTURY
“Half a Sixpence”, the March 2000 production, marked a change from the norm, in that someone other than a club member or an ex-club member headed the production team for only the second time in 23 years. This homespun formula might not work for all groups but, for Harlequin, it seems that it does. A Rehearsal Weekend close to show week was introduced for the first time for this production and it has been with us ever since.
We were delighted when several club members gained coveted places on the Dance School of Scotland Musical Theatre Course, which had been set up in 1998 at Knightswood School and spent S.5 and S.6 studying singing, drama, and dance as well as academic subjects before moving on to various theatre schools down south. But the downside for us was that, as a result, they were no longer able to take part in our productions.
We had been aware for a long time what a great benefit it would be to have our own club rooms, and over 2000/2001 that ambition was realised with the acquisition of the lease of the refurbished Mickel Hall in Clarkston. It gave sterling service until the end of 2005, when it unfortunately had to be demolished to make way for a property development.
“Calamity Jane” was the senior section show in 2002 when Harlequin reached another milestone, the 25th Anniversary. Commemorative badges, key rings and polo shirts were produced, and a fancy dress party and karaoke was held at the Carmichael Hall in June for current members and invited guests.
“…And now for something completely different…” 2003 saw the seniors venture into the realms of Gilbert & Sullivan with their presentation of the swinging “Hot Mikado”. The show was full of energy and the set was fantastic but incredibly simple, with the band on stage on raised scaffolding. Who would ever have thought you would see the Mikado (in the guise of the godfather) tap dance, but tap dance he did!
In October 2003 Club secretary Tam McLean received the now famous letter giving us permission to present “Les Misérables”, Schools Edition in March 2004. We would be one of the first non-school groups in the UK to do so, as it had only very recently become available to amateur groups whose performers’ top age was 19. After 12 weeks of intensive rehearsals, show week arrived; so too did the revolve (8 hours to build – 1 to dismantle!). The run was totally sold out and every performance received a standing ovation from the audience, something very rarely seen in amateur theatre. This was a special show and, for this generation of performers, it was their “Superstar”. “Les Mis” cost the Club over £22,000 to stage and, despite being a total sell-out, still ended up losing nearly £6,000. The director, Kenneth Robertson, is in no doubt that it was worth it and that anyone who was in it or saw it would agree.
Eastwood Theatre closed at the beginning of August 2004, ‘for about a year’, for some much-needed upgrading, and Clarkston Hall became our home once again….. for the next 2½ years! Thankfully, our faithful if somewhat smaller audience followed us there and continued to support us. Due to space restrictions, shows with static sets seemed to be the order of the day, and we managed to squeeze in two pantomimes as well. The last one, in November 2006, was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – our first ever production at the same venue in 1977. We had come full circle!
2007 – more celebrations! A 30th Anniversary dinner and cabaret spanning three decades of shows performed by current members was held in Clarkston Hall in February, and in June there was an adventure weekend at Auchengillan, culminating in the release of hundreds of black and white balloons. The winning balloon ticket was returned from County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, more than 200 miles away! The Club’s history was updated and “The Continuing Story of Harlequin” was produced, picking up from where the 21st Anniversary booklet left off. Past and present members were invited to submit their memories of their time in Harlequin and a selection of these appeared in a section of the booklet. The words that were used the most were “fun”, “laughs”, ”tears”, “hard work”, “happy times”, “making friends for life” – need we say more?
Harlequin was delighted to be the first of the amateur groups to perform in the newly opened and rebranded Eastwood Park Theatre in March 2007. The seniors’ 30th Anniversary production, “South Pacific”, proved to be a popular choice and sold well. The juniors presented old favourite “Oliver” for the sixth time, and the pantomime that year, “Dick Whittington”, was our 100th production – a pretty amazing achievement for a Club as young as we are!
In 2008 the seniors tackled “Seussical, The Musical”, which is based on the wacky and much-loved stories of Dr Seuss. The production dates more or less coincided with the release of the film “Horton Hears a Who”, which made it a very topical choice of show. There was loads of work for the chorus; the costumes and set provided an explosion of colour; and great music and lively choreography meant that our audiences could not fail to have a feel-good experience.
Acting on various recommendations, “All Shook Up” was chosen for the senior show in 2009 and, as the plot claims to be based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, it was educational too! We were delighted to welcome professional director (and former Harlequin member) Alasdair Hawthorn as the leader of the production team. Family attics were raided in search of 1950s fashion items, and the cast took the Elvis Presley music and choreography on board with great enthusiasm.
This new show was followed in May by a specially adapted young performers’ version of an older Broadway hit, “Guys and Dolls Jr”. Did it work? Of course it did! All the favourite characters and songs were there, and ‘Sit down you’re rocking the boat’ brought the house down as always!
How far the Club has come from that first pantomime all those years ago!
Our Constitution states that Harlequin exists to stimulate interest and encourage young people in all aspects of theatre. In the beginning only Grace had any stage experience/expertise, so the whole thing became a learning experience, for youngsters and adults alike. From the early 1990s, however, the second generation began coming through to give something back to the Club which had played such an important part in their lives as young performers. Not only our Club, but other amateur societies in the West of Scotland and beyond have benefited from the talents of production team members who had their first opportunities in Harlequin. We are proud of those who have joined the professional ranks, and those who are currently in training. In the administration field also, young people have continued over the years to take up places on the committee and as office bearers. From 1992 onwards there is an ever-growing list of members who have qualified for NODA badges for 10 years’ service to amateur theatre, and some of our ‘youngsters’ have now rather scarily received NODA 25 year badges!
They say a company is only as good as its people – the same might be said of an amateur theatre company. During its existence the Club has indeed been fortunate in the quality of its leadership and to have had the services of many, many people too numerous to mention individually who have given unstintingly of their time, talents, and energies to ensure its success and smooth running. Harlequin is now well respected as one of the longest established youth theatre groups in Scotland.
AMR October 2009