The history of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place

Archive black and white photograph of the barn in 1928 at Smallhythe Place, Kent, home of Ellen Terry between 1899 and 1928.

Built in the late 1600s, the thatched barn was later transformed into a theatre in 1929 by Ellen Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, as a way to keep her mother’s legacy alive. We still put on a diverse programme of performances throughout the year, as well as open-air shows in the summer.

Creation of the theatre

Throughout Ellen Terry’s residency at Smallhythe Place her daughter, Edith, had always wanted to turn the barn into a proper theatre and use it to stage public performances, but Ellen refused – she wanted to preserve the property as a refuge from acting. Nevertheless, in 1928 Edith decided to proceed with her plan, with a view to holding a Shakespearean matinee on the anniversary of Ellen's death the following year.

To make this happen, Edith established the Ellen Terry Fund and Memorial Matinees in 1929, and arranged a benefit at the Palace Theatre in London which raised enough money to get the barn ready despite holes in the roof and gaps in the timbered walls. Edith also raised funds for the theatre in other ways, including by “selling” 100 chairs (with rush seats) for £1 each. The chairs cost only 5 shillings (25p) each, so Edith was able to put 15 shillings (75p) from each sale towards financing the theatre. The “purchasers” had their name engraved in pokerwork on the front of the chair back. Today, the barn theatre is grateful to have received funding to refurbish these chairs from the Rye & District National Trust Association.

As Edith had intended, The Barn Theatre was opened to the public on 31 July 1929, a year after Ellen Terry's death, by which time a 19th century shelter shed to the side of the theatre had been refurbished for use as dressing rooms. Edith chose the play, made the costumes, oversaw the set designs and rehearsed the cast. The tradition of an annual commemorative performance is still kept alive; this year’s performance is William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (26-29 July and 1-4 August). 

Upcoming events

Triumphant Women

Fri 20 Apr 2018
11:00-17:00
New exhibitions, Edy Craig: Women, Suffrage and the Theatre and The Shakespearean Lectures of Ellen Terry will be on display at Smallhythe Place celebrating the women of Smallhythe in the Suffrage movement.

Costume Tours

Sat 21 Apr 2018
13:15-13:45
Delve into the store for a peek of the delicate and lavish costumes once worn by Ellen Terry and her actor friends. With fascinating stories attached to each garment, costume tours are an opportunity to discover a rich theatrical history.

Wuthering Heights

Sat 19 May 2018
19:30-21:30
When Cathy's father brings home an orphaned Heathcliff, the effect will echo for generations. Emily Brontë's only novel is a timeless Gothic classic of passionate love, revenge and despair.

My Dog's Got No Nose

Sat 26 May 2018
19:30-21:30
Following their sell-out performance of 'Old Herbaceous' at Smallhythe Place last year, Kick In The Head Productions return with a play by Ron Aldridge. Performed by Giles Shenton.

The Taming of The Shrew

Fri 01 Jun 2018
19:30-21:45
Convoluted relationships, mischief and transformation, East 15 Acting School bring the Bard to the boards with this timeless comedy.

Twelfth Night

Sat 02 Jun 2018
19:30-21:45
Shakespeare's humourous and heart-rending tale of unrequited love is brought to life on stage by East 15 Acting School.