Forty Years of Second Thoughts – with Ian McLean

“Recollections may vary,” as the Princess of Wales famously said, and it’s probably also true of how Second Thoughts came about!

Back in the early 1980’s, Alan Hawkins, a member of Cygnet Players in Studley, had recently moved to Stratford. His initial inspiration for a new kind of theatre came from attending a classical music concert in Banbury, and his thoughts turned to how classical music and drama could be combined. He discussed his idea with Phil Trory, who had been inspired by the Al Stewart song, ‘Nostradamus’. Phil Trory, a fellow member of Cygnet Players, had been inspired to write a drama based on this song, and the prophecies of Nostradamus to which it referred, and by this time had already developed a working script. Another strand of inspiration was John Barton’s RSC production of The Hollow Crown, certainly in terms of seeing the potential of a historical drama.

So, Alan and Phil took the idea to Cygnet Players, but they couldn’t see its potential. Slightly frustrated, Alan and Phil thought about creating a group in Stratford to develop the idea further and bring it to the stage. Several meetings then took place, some of which also involved Roger Gowland. At one point, Roger and Alan approached The Phoenix Players, but were turned off by what was – then – Phoenix’s taste for pantos, farces and whodunnits. Meanwhile, the idea of setting out to link classical music to drama had somewhat fallen away.

What the initial protagonists were sure of is that they didn’t want to create a “normal” drama group. In Phil’s words, they wanted ‘to move away from a hierarchy of elder statesmen’ and ‘didn’t want a committee to squash ideas’. To this day, Second Thoughts has never had a committee!

Meanwhile, Alan, Phil and Roger had come up with a name for a group to take this forward –The Centuries Drama Workshop. Anxious to attract recruits, they created a recruitment campaign and invited prospective interested parties to attend a meeting at the Thatch Tavern in Stratford. It was at this meeting that Kevin and Estelle Hand, and a certain young man called Steve Farr, were recruited.

Concurrent with these events was the 1983 RSC production of The Dillen, a promenade performance which included ‘the people of Stratford’. Although not directly connected with the development of the Nostradamus project, the energy and climate created by the Dillen revealed a considerable number of performers who were open to the idea of a new drama group in Stratford.

From this point on, there was a series of workshops, many led by Estelle, at the Teachers’ Centre (now the Library Car Park) with a view to developing the script further. Estelle was also instrumental in attracting a number of younger members through her connections with the High School. Besides Phil, Steve Farr and a number of others got involved with developing the script. However, in the end, the project collapsed, probably due to it being overambitious and the perceived difficulties of finding an audience, not to mention a case of too many cooks.

At this point, a desire to work on published scripts emerged, and with the change in philosophy came a desire for a change of name. Various ideas were put forward, from the traditional ‘Stratford upon Avon Players’, to the ‘Royal Martian Theatre Company’ (guess who put that idea forward) and, from Roger Gowland, based on the Thatch Tavern, the pub in which the group met, the ‘Stratford Thatchers’. Given who was Prime Minister at the time, this last suggestion bombed.

In conversation, Alan Hawkins pointed out that the group was having second thoughts, and, at the suggestion of Thelma Sanders, this name was adopted by the nascent group – and so Second Thoughts was born!

The First Production

Worry not, dear reader. I’m not going to write an article about each production! However, our very first outing merits an individual essay. Having decided to abandon the Nostradamus project, there was a clear shift within the group towards seeking out and performing published works. After some discussions, Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions was selected, partly because it is simple to stage and also because it offers a lot of opportunities for the growing number of local actors that were gravitating towards Second Thoughts.

The play was performed on 29 June 1984 in Binton Village Hall due to a connection between our first Chair, Alan Hawkins, and a friend, who lived in Binton and was associated with the management of the hall. Binton Village Hall is most assuredly not a large space. In fact, Phil Trory was operating the lighting and sound boards from the ladies’ loo!

The first line delivered in the play, and therefore the first line ever delivered in a Second Thoughts production, was spoken by Sarah Ann Kennedy, who has subsequently found minor fame as the voice of Miss Rabbit in the Peppa Pig children’s cartoons. The cast of Confusions included Steve Farr – hard to believe that he’s still around 40 years later!

Second Thoughts in the 80s

I don’t want to simply produce a list of productions here because you can find that on the group’s web page, but rather give you a flavour of what life in Second Thoughts was like during these early years.

Alan Hawkins remained our Chair until 1987, when Kevin Hand took over. Estelle and Kevin were pivotal to the group’s success in the early years, and Estelle directed many of our productions around this time, including Dark of the Moon, The House of Bernarda Albaand The Hollow Crown, whilst Kevin directed Celebration and Sweeney Todd.

As Treasurer 1986-1993, the author knew all too well that money was very hard to find in the early years. We had to resort to cheese and wine and Bring and Buy events to raise a small amount of funds before the penny dropped that putting on productions that people actually wanted to see in numbers would help our finances more than anything else.

However, this experimental and developmental stage of Second Thoughts’ history was very exciting, and our early commitment to remaining a democratically run group was cemented during this period. Although meetings were sometimes contentious, we still managed to offer a programme of successful productions without falling out!

For performance venues, we used the Stratford College Drama Studio during 1985-1987. However, we found it difficult to book the space at the times we wanted and so looked to the recently built Civic Hall (now the Playhouse) for our productions in 1988 and 1989. This effectively became our home for most of the next 25 years, although the double bill of one act plays, The Dumb Waiter and The Dock Brief, was performed in the old Scout Hut in Broad Street.

So the 1980’s wasn’t an unqualified success for Second Thoughts – but at least we lasted longer than Mrs Thatcher!

1990-1994

The early 90’s was an exciting time for Second Thoughts, with the group really established as a regular part of the Stratford amateur theatre scene. We continued to mount a wide variety of productions at the Civic Hall (now the Playhouse) with one or two exceptions: Indians, directed by Annette Stocken, which was the last show we produced at Stratford College Drama Studio, and a couple of productions at the Alveston Manor Hotel: This War Without an Enemy, directed by Jeanette Brown, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Estelle Hand.

Kevin Hand remained in the Chair until 1993, when he was succeeded by Mairi Macdonald. Their contrasting styles of leadership fitted well with the group’s development and we were lucky to have both of them in this important post during this period.

Two directors were particularly prolific during the early 90’s: Jeanette Brown, who, in addition to This War Without an Enemy, also directed Wild Oats, Arden of Faversham and The Rover. These were all well received but, unfortunately for Second Thoughts (but not for Jeanette!), romance blossomed across the Atlantic and she soon went off to marry Keith Ford and live in Alberta. Second Thoughts’ loss has proved to be the Strathmore (Alberta) Theatre’s gain.

The other prolific director during this period was some bloke called Ian McLean (Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Andorra and Black Comedy) – I wonder what happened to him?

It was also time to say goodbye to one of our Founder Members – Thelma Sanders, who, after Black Comedy, emigrated less far away –Oxford, to be precise. Thelma has however been brilliant at staying in touch – and in membership – throughout all the intervening years, and recently attended, and contributed to, the Bring and Share evening held on 1st March.

The crowning glory of this period must surely be our first ever outdoor production. Under the brilliant direction of Estelle Hand, we performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the cedar tree in the garden of the Alveston Manor Hotel. Unusually, we performed this across four weekends (a Friday night and a Sunday afternoon) stretching from early June to early September 1994. Val Harris was cast as Puck, but as her pregnancy became ever more obvious, and her mobility more obviously affected, she handed over the baton to Maggie Curtis for the last two performances. Incidentally, one Becky Hallworth made her debut as a child fairy – yes, the same Becky Hallworth who now runs the Playhouse!