The history of the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe Place
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 'Twelfth Night' (24-28 July and 31 July-3 August).