The Victorian buildings which now house the Arts Centre were used by Hayward’s School, whose pupils included the Labour politician and Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin (1881-1951). Hayward’s Primary School continues to the present day on an adjoining site.
Prompted by County Drama Adviser, Derek Bowskill, the old buildings were transformed by Devon County Council into a well-equipped ‘black box’ drama studio to be used by schools and other organisations. This Theatre Workshop reflected the national growth of drama-in-education; Devon was one of the leading English counties in that movement. The tutor at this time was Trevor Hedden who ran regular workshops for young people including some who later became actors, drama teachers, alongside at least one playwright, a theatre director and leaders of the highly-regarded Footsbarn Theatre.
DCC’s commitment to drama (backed by the then Director of Education, Jos Owen) was so strong that the County employed a team of 8 advisers who met frequently at the studio to plan their work for young people throughout Devon. Peter Hamilton, Drama Teacher at the then Queen Elizabeth’s School, was appointed as Community Drama Tutor. Peter continued to play a major part in the development of the arts locally until his death in 2022; he provided teaching, direction and inspiration to decades of young people and adults.
Colway Theatre Trust worked with local people to create Today of All Days, a Community Play about the town in the late 1930s, specially written by playwright John Downie, running for 14 nights and performed by a cast of 120. The show re-energised the arts in the town. The Town Band, for example, was re-formed to perform in the show and has since developed into today’s successful band. From this production emerged The Brown Paper Bag Theatre Company, the Centre’s In-House Drama group which has been developing productions – many of them with original scripts - ever since.
In a cost-saving exercise, DCC withdrew funding from the Drama Centre and its Community Tutor. Determined work by local people who valued the Centre, supported by a loan from a local benefactor, led to the formation of the Centre as a charity. A constitution was written and a leasing agreement was reached with DCC regarding the continuing use of the main studio and the art room. Peter Hamilton became the Centre’s Director, alongside a Management Committee with Andrea Foxwell as Chair. Theatre productions continued and classes and workshops in other aspects of the arts were introduced.
Henry IV Part 1, the first of a series of biennial large-scale outdoor productions of Shakespeare plays, was performed on the Town Council Car Park on the site of the old market square in the centre of town, with a scaffolding auditorium to seat an audience of 400. The success of these community productions played its part in the discussions leading to the creation of the new Town Square in 2003 (see below), now the site for many community events.
With the support of a Millennium grant, an amphitheatre was created in Shobrooke Park, in conjunction with the Shelley family, to host festivals, plays and music. Over the next five years, the amphitheatre was home to very successful annual ‘long weekends’, entitled ‘Up the Park’, led by James Cookson and Peter Hamilton, offering live music, open air cinema, alongside workshops and other activities for all ages.
A major project was devised in partnership with Crediton Fire Service (which was about to move its Station House from the centre of town to accommodate the new square). An original play about firefighters was performed in the old Fire Station and an illustrated book, 'Fire, Fire' about the Crediton Brigade was produced.
The Drama Centre acknowledged the broadening of its activities by becoming Crediton Arts Centre, a charitable trust managed by an Administrator and a Board of Trustees, accountable to a strong supporting body of Friends. The Centre’s buildings began to be in almost daily use, providing a home for a wide range of arts and community activities alongside the Arts Centre’s own classes and rehearsals.
A grant from DCC secured through County Councillor Nick Way enabled the creation of a more welcoming foyer and refurbished kitchen (donated by Ashgrove Kitchens) designed by local architect and Friend of the Centre, David Treadaway.
In addition to regular grants from the Town Council and Devon County Council, a Business Partnership scheme was initiated. Four of the businesses who supported the Centre then – Ashgrove Kitchens, Peck and Strong Bakers, Veitch Penny Solicitors and Wortham Jaques Accountants - have remained loyal and active supporters. The two Crediton Rotary Groups and the Lions’ Club have also been consistent donors to the Centre.
2011 – 2018
A period of continuing expansion has seen the Centre reaching out into the community while maintaining its programme at its East Street buildings. The Centre promotes the highly successful annual Food Festival in the Square, plays a central role in the biennial Crediton Festival, including support for performances by the very popular Crediton Youth Theatre which meets each week in term-time at the Centre. CAC is also a major player in the celebrations accompanying the annual Switch-On of the Christmas Lights in the Square, for many years ran the annual Fayre in the Square, and also drove the Flags project which enabled local businesses and organisations to design and create their own banners which now enliven the High Street and the Square at different times of the year. Musicians perform in local shops and on the streets in ‘Busk It’; and in the 2017 Festival a much-praised Art Trail was created, with work appearing in local shops and in an exhibition at the Boniface Centre. The Arts Centre sees it as a sign of success when a project becomes too large for it to handle and it can be passed on to better-resourced administrative hands; for example, what began as a week or two of Arts Centre activities in the Square is now the Crediton Festival steered by the Town Team (with Arts Centre trustee Rosemary Stephenson, playing a central role) and employing a paid Festival Director. The Town Team is now exploring the feasibility of a new Community Hub in the Town, in which the Centre would hope to play its part. www.creditontownteam.org.uk
2018 and beyond
Crediton Arts Centre remains a busy focus for many artistic and community activities. There are weekly classes in painting, drawing, watercolour, jewellery making, upholstery, karate, dance and children's theatre. Our resident community theatre company, Brown Paper Bag, puts on regular workshops and productions, as do Crediton Youth Theatre. The Arts Centre has also recently been used more regularly for filming sessions, animation workshops, community group meetings and many other activities. We continue to be closely involved in activities in the Town Square and the development of the Heart Project, as well as supporting town favourites such as the Flag Project, Turning Tides and Christmas in Crediton. New partnerships have been forged with many of the surrounding villages through our bi-annual touring Shakespeare productions - The Merry Wives of Windosr in 2021 and Much Ado About Nothing in 2023. The future looks bright and Arts Centre-shaped...