Pegasus memories

First published in Features The Oxford Times: Photograph of the Author by

DESPITE putting the plans for a £6.3m revamp of the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford, on hold for a year to enable organisers to meet their fundraising target, a reunion party has been planned at the theatre tomorrow night to collect, not money, but memories.

Although several well-known actors began their career at the Pegasus, and thousands of youngsters have passed through its doors over the years, much of the theatre's archive material has been lost.

By inviting past and present members of the Oxford Youth Theatre to meet up and share memories, it is hoped that a new archive can be established.

A video booth will be erected for that very purpose.

Head of marketing for the Pegasus Theatre, Gill Jaggers, explained that most of the archival material that has been lost dates right back to 1962, when the Oxford Youth Theatre was first formed by drama advisor for the city council Roy Copeman.

"They would meet, rehearse and stage those early productions in the building behind the Pegasus Theatre, which is affectionately known as the shed.

"Many of the children who use the shed now are actually following in the footsteps of their parents who were original members of the Oxford Youth Theatre."

She went on to say that it was probably their parents who helped Roy Copeman reconstruct the shed by building partitions to create two separate rooms.

They may even have helped paint the walls, too.

Even now, many of those original attempts at bringing colour to the shed can be seen alongside artistic efforts of the countless children who, during the past 45 years, have added their own imaginative touches to the walls.

The shed, which is a converted Nissen hut, began life as a school canteen for SS Mary & John Primary School.

It is now in a very sorry state. The locks no longer work properly, there are creepers pushing their way through a leaking roof, lagging from overhead pipes is peeling away and cracks are appearing in the walls.

Nevertheless, its crumbling walls still resonate to the sound of children's laughter as they continue to make it their own - just as their parents did all those years ago.

Using the shed as a rehearsal, storage and performance space in 1962 was initially seen as a temporary measure until a new, permanent youth centre could be built during the redevelopment of St Clement's.

Unfortunately, the proposed plan for a new centre never came to fruition and the site has remained the Oxford Youth Theatre's headquarters ever since.

The only major change over the years came when the new auditorium, costing £28,000, was built in 1975 thanks to fundraising efforts by the youngsters.

This 18-foot-high, box-like structure, measuring 60 feet by 40 feet, is thought to be the first purpose-built youth theatre in the country. It provided the youngsters with a venue in which to stage their productions and freed up space in the shed for rehearsals, set building and workshops.

Sadly, even this building is no longer fit for purpose, as it fails to provide adequate facilities for performance or audience and its original office space has been decommissioned due to severe damp problems.

Ms Jaggers explained that these problems have not curtailed the youngsters' enthusiasm and their work focuses on giving young people the opportunity to make the theatre their own.

This vision has stood firm ever since Roy Copeman discovered that young people do not want everything ready-made for them and that they are happiest when they can see a thing evolving through their own efforts and enthusiasm.

There has certainly been no shortage of enthusiasm at the Pegasus over the years.

There has been no shortage of talent either.

Several actors and theatre professionals have risen through the ranks of the Oxford Youth Theatre since its inception, and with initial support from Pegasus, companies such as Theatre de Complicite, The Right Size and Peepolykus have gone on to gain worldwide acclaim.

Individual artists who owe their success to Pegasus include Oxford-born TV and film actor Patrick Mower, who can now be seen starring as Rodney Blackstock in ITV's popular soap Emmerdale.

Actress Rosalind Ayres who played the part of Lady Lucile Duff Gordon in the epic film Titanic also began her theatrical training as a member of the Oxford Youth Theatre, so did writer and broadcaster Misha Glenny and actress Amantha Edmead.

Sean Foley and Hamish McColl who call themselves The Right Size are quick to pay tribute to the Pegasus staff, who were there when they needed inspiration and a space to rehearse and try out their wacky comedy routines in front of a live audience.

The duo met at Pegasus and made Oxford their base for some considerable time.

They still return to the theatre to create new productions with members of the Oxford Youth Theatre.

Sean, who grew up in Oxford and was a member of the Oxford Youth Theatre for many years said: "Pegasus are so supportive of young people. I remember the workshops and all that encouragement which came just when we both needed it."

Simon Briggs, artistic director of The Studio Theatre Club and an original member of the Oxford Youth Theatre, says he probably owes most of his current life to his time at the shed - particularly the many adaptations of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels he has written and staged since those early days.

Simon saw Roy Copeman as an inspirational leader with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

"It was Roy who taught me and other generations the basics of stage craft - being seen, being heard, being comfortable on stage, being professional and making sure the audience got to see the best show you could manage. He challenged your ability and stretched you."

Simon, added that Roy never really sought recognition for all the time, effort and energy he put into the Oxford Youth Theatre.

"I always feel that the pity of it is that as a result he never got any recognition. It would be good if there could be some permanent acknowledgment of his contribution.

"Obviously those who meet on Saturday to discuss their memories of the Oxford Youth Theatre could make good this omission, as I am sure that they will all feel, as I do, about the way he helped us all. The Oxford Youth Theatre changed the direction of my life. I know it changed others' too."

Novelist Philip Pullman, patron of the Pegasus, was not a member of Oxford Youth Theatre, so his memories do not stretch as far back as Simon's.

But that has not stopped him getting involved with many of the projects and workshops staged at the Pegasus.

He frequently works with the youngsters and helps them with their productions. When he was asked to become a patron he accepted immediately.

He said that given opportunities, skills and the confidence to express themselves, young people can be "astonishing".

"My years in teaching have taught me how important it is to engage young people and help them rise to a challenge - and that's exactly what they do here."

With so many people admitting they owe a great deal to the Pegasus Theatre, the shed and Roy Copeman, Ms Jaggers believes that gathering their memories will be an extremely rewarding task.

"Although we have a few press cuttings and photographs of those early days, so much of our archive material has been lost over the years. This means that when the bulldozers remove the shed next year they will be removing all those memories embedded in the brickwork and its many layers of paint too."

The Oxford Youth Theatre started with a core of about 40 performers but quickly grew to 200, but as Ms Jaggers points out, since its inception hundreds, if not thousands, of young people have played their part in shaping what the theatre is today.

She said that one of the interesting things that has come out of trying to trace the history of the theatre is the challenging productions that the youngsters staged in terms of it being new work and work that wasn't what an amateur group would traditionally do.

As well as being the home to the Oxford Youth Theatre, there have been numerous acts staged at the Pegasus too.

Each year about five professional productions are staged there.

Last year, 400 people were linked with the Oxford Youth Theatre, but more than 1,300 people took part in arts pursuits and workshops linked to the theatre, which means there are a great deal of people out there who may have memories to share.

On Saturday night there will be a live band, a performance by the current Oxford Youth Theatre members, video reports, displays of memorabilia and the video booth where memories can be shared. The doors open at 5.30pm.

If you would like to book your free place for the evening phone 01865 722851. If you cannot attend this event, but have memories, old programmes, photographs or posters, please call this number anyway.

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