COMMUNITY Studio Productions will officially open the doors to its new premises next week. They hope to provide a welcoming community space for those who want to explore the many opportunities the theatre can bring. They have taken over what was an art gallery on Savoy Lane in Newcastle, which has stood empty since 2014. They signed the lease in June of this year, and since then have worked to bring the building back to life, including carrying out much of the decoration themselves.
Community Studio Productions (CSP) has said the completion of its new home was thanks to “dedicated volunteers (some of whom are not even members of CSP) all willingly giving up their free time, plus with the generosity of local businesses who donated items to help us get to where we are today, to create a community hub that is a vibrant shared space, which has so much to offer the community”.
The local group continued: “We have created a purpose-built drama studio, where we intend to perform in-house, immersive theatre productions. “It is also intended that the space will be used for events such as open mic nights, stand-up comedy, poetry and play readings.” Community Studio Productions is a non profit registered charity community drama group. It began life as the Castlewellan Studio Players in 2019, but has changed its name to Community Studio Productions, with the ambition of providing a resource for those in the community who may not have had the opportunity to experience theatre. CSP is entirely run by volunteers who reside and work in the Newry, Mourne and Down district. The chair is Mark Hasley, who is originally from Ballynahinch and vicechair Mark Asante is originally from London but now lives in Newcastle.
The rest of the group are a mix of people from all over the area, from Downpatrick to Castlewellan and Dundrum. Their aim is “is to give people from all aspects of the community the opportunity to be involved, whether it be on stage or behind the scenes, assisting in outreach or fundraising.” The group also aims “to promote wellbeing, build confidence, self-esteem and unity in an encouraging environment through a variety of platforms.”
Taking over the venue at Savoy Lane is an important step. The group felt they needed a place of their own – to practise, perform, and to put on smaller, immersive shows beyond the bigger productions. Siobhan Miller, from Newcastle, is the treasurer, and has been on the committee since 2019, when Castlewellan Studio Players first started. “Now we have a home, and a place for people to come to,” Siobhan said. “This building has come to life. The more people we can have in there the better.” A few years ago they decided to switch from being an amateur dramatic group to focusing more on being a community group that runs amateur dramatic productions. “We started as a straight drama group of seven people who wanted to put on Irish plays,” Siobhan added. Chairperson Mark Hasley explained a key reason for the name change was to emphasise how community is at the heart of the group’s ethos. “Anybody can walk through this door,” he said. “They can come in and just watch for a night or two to see if they are interested.”
From the seven who started the Castlewellan Studio Players, the group has ballooned to 25 members. “In the last three months it feels like there is always someone new who wants to come in and join and get involved,” Mark added. Siobhan said: “We have a range of members who perform, write, who do social media, backstage lighting. It is not just about performing. “When Castlewellan Studio Players started it was just drama. But it has evolved, partly due to Covid. We have done radio drama, original plays. We have evolved at stages. We have filmed sketches. “We have had members who edited those.” The group feels an important element of its work is providing an outlet for those people with special needs, or disabilities, who want to perform. “They are the people we are reaching out to,” Mark said. “Before we were a drama group, but now we attract young adults who are on the spectrum but have fallen through the cracks. “They get to 16 or 17 and they might not be catered for. This is a way for them to get out of the house and get them doing something. “It is a social group. We are not going to turn anyone away. We will welcome everyone.”
The group takes in members from Newcastle, Castlewellan, Dundrum, Downpatrick and Crossgar. And the age range is from 18 to 70-plus. “Everyone gets on so well,” Mark said. “The older members love the younger ones being there.” The next big show is the play ‘Dinner for Six’, which will be performed in The Lodge in Castlewellan next month. It was written by one of the members. “It is a laugh a minute and we are hoping to get a good response,” Mark said. Siobhan added: “It is something lighthearted, but it is also relatable. “A lot of what we do is comedy but there is also something underlying that is serious.”
They are hoping for a good turnout as the group is currently self-funded. As a registered charity the members fund most of the work themselves, though they are hoping to apply for grants in the future, to help them with expenses such as rent, insurance and props. But money is not the driver for the choice of play. “The play we put on is not for financial gain,” Siobhan said. “This is a play that the people in the group want to do.” ‘Dinner for Six’ will be performed for four nights in November at The Lodge, Castlewellan. Tickets are available now from Cushla’s Beauty Salon in Clough and also from the ADHD Hub, Newcastle. CSP will also be hosting the first of three immersive theatre performances in the new year and work is already under way towards a large, outdoor festival, inclusive to all, at the end of next summer. CSP has been working closely with the ADHD Hub in Newcastle, The Lodge in Castlewellan and Dunlewey Addiction Services and are excited for the upcoming projects in the next few months and the prospect of working alongside many other community organisations.
The group sees drama and performance as more than just entertainment. Siobhan said: “Creativity is a major thing for me. I have been in drama since I was young. “It is one of the best things for mental health. “I am a recovering alcoholic, and this drama group has been a major part of my recovery. “I believe in drama therapy. It is therapeutic coming along, seeing these people. “Now that we have this building, I want to build on the addiction services in the area with the drama group, to help more people.” Mark said: “Since Covid people aren’t doing what they used to do. “I had mental health problems and I joined CSP two years ago and it helped me. “People get to a certain age, and they want to just sit in the house. “But if they come here, they love it.” The opening of the new facility at Savoy Lane in Newcastle will take place next Tuesday (17 October) from 11am to 4pm. Everyone is invited to pop in for a look at the space – a space they hope will be used by many.