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 Dennis Potter's 'Blue Remembered Hills' (20-23 and 26-28 July). 

Upcoming events

Playwrights, Pioneers and Provocateurs

Wed 24 May 2017
11:00-17:00
This new exhibition explores the work and relationships of Edy Craig and her circle of friends in the LGBTQ community. From groundbreaking plays to intimate friendships, Playwrights, Pioneers and Provocateurs celebrates their important stories.

May half term crafts

Sat 27 May 2017
11:00-13:00
Every day except Tuesday children will be able to make picture frames and kites in the garden at Smallhythe Place.

Costume Tours

Sat 27 May 2017
13:00-13:30
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.

Old Herbaceous

Sun 28 May 2017
19:30-21:00
Sprinkled with nuggets of gardening wisdom 'Old Herbaceous' is a witty portrait of the most archetypal - and crotchety - head gardener ever to plant a row of bulbs at a British country house. Performed in the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place.

Wilde without the Boy

Fri 09 Jun 2017
19:30-21:30
This award-winning dramatization of De Profundis, the letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his gay lover from prison, aptly comes to the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place fifty years after the partial decriminalization of homosexuality.

LGBT Poetry Weekend

Sat 10 Jun 2017
15:00-16:30
LGBT Poet Laureate, Trudy Howson, will be reciting a number of her poems, some written for Smallhythe Place to celebrate its LGBT history. There will also be talks in the Barn Theatre.