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

Fri 30 Jun 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.

Costume Tours

Sat 01 Jul 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.

Hamlet

Thu 06 Jul 2017
19:30-21:30
Following the murder of the King, Hamlet finds himself questioning the world around him when his father's ghost returns to avenge his killing.

Romeo and Juliet

Fri 07 Jul 2017
19:30-21:30
Shakespeare's famous play about two young lovers from feuding families. Love comes at a high price for Romeo and Juliet, whose rival relatives make their whirlwind romance fraught with banishment and bloodshed.

Blue Remembered Hills

Thu 20 Jul 2017
19:30-21:45
Dennis Potter explores the joy and anguish of childhood in this poignant and humorous drama where the children are played by adults. Performed by the Summer Theatre Company.

The Wind in the Willows

Sat 05 Aug 2017
18:00-19:45
Join Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad as they embark on the adventure of a lifetime and battle with a pair of pick-pocketing weasels to save Toad Hall. Performed in the open-air.