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More clubs affected as Ashford Youth Theatre struggles to find new home

By Molly Mileham-Chappell

Performers in Ashford are feeling the effects months after the council announced Ashford Youth Theatre’s eviction from their premises.

The non-profit making group founded 33 years ago frequently shared their premises, an old warehouse in Dover Place, with other groups in the area, leaving them to all find new spaces to rehearse and perform.

To date, “no knight in shining armour has appeared” with the offer of a new venue for the group, according to Stella Critchley, co-ordinator of the group, who was awarded an MBE in 2006 for her commitment to theatre.

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Stella Critchley, coordinator of Ashford Youth Theatre

She said: “Nothing’s come forward yet, but we’re still hoping. All the equipment and the whole structure of the theatre has been dismantled and it’s packed in six big shipping containers which is still in the yard of the theatre and the council are quite anxious that we should be gone by the end of the month.

“We’re in a state of limbo. We’ve gone as far as we can go, packing everything away. Our young people are thirsting to do some more work.

“We do straight theatre. We chose the plays very carefully to provide ammunition for the young people to help them to grow, to challenge them, to stretch them to bring out the talent in young people that we’re working with.

“It’s really really sad that we’ve got no where to do it.”

Jess Cross, Stella Critchley and Sinead Stockman packing up the props at Ashford Youth Theatre in Dover Place

Ms Critchley continued: “Cllr Derek Smyth from Kent County Council has taken up our cause now in a big way and has approached the county council.

“We are hoping that perhaps some county council owned building may become available on a temporary basis until we’ve got some hope of finding a more permenant home.”

The technical crew often offer backstage support and take out their lighting equipment to events such as festivals and fetes.

“We’re determined to carry on. We work very hard for our money but we don’t have any official funding at all. We occasionally ask for a grant about every four years for a piece of equipment that we can’t afford. We’re quite proud of being self-sufficient.”

Ms Critchley described the kind of space the group are looking for: “Where we’ve worked most successfully always in the past is industrial units. In our own unit, we’ve done plays at one end, and plays at the other end. We’ve had audiences on two sides, three sides, even four sides.

“It’s much more stimulating to the imagination when young people are designing something if they’ve got a completely empty space. That’s what we’re looking for... is a shed!”

Stella Critchley with the shipping containers holding the theatre's belongings

The unit in Dover Place has been used by dancers from Jasmin Vardimon, Skateside and other clubs such as a computer group.

Ark Drama 2000, a non-profit community group for children based in Park Farm, have used the premises for the last five years.

Peter Webb, treasurer of Ark Drama 2000

Peter Webb, treasurer of Ark Drama 2000 said: “Stella Critchley offered us space to use for performance but also for storage of materials and to construct staging and sets.

“The problem we now have with the closure of Ashford Youth Theatre is the fact that all of the props and costumes that we had there we’ve had to relocate which actually wasn’t as simple as taking it out.

“We’ve had to completely construct a new shed to put all our items in. So the props, the construction materials, anything we’ve made that we may want to reuse... no real central place to actually make up anything, to store anything or to prepare for shows.”

Ark Drama 2000 have had to find a new venue to perform at

Mr Webb continued: “The ideal outcome from the current issue is that Ashford Youth Theatre are actually able to obtain another premises and we can go back to supporting them and them support us. It will give us chance to actually build better sets, to put on more professional performances.

“It will be good if that could happen sooner rather than later.”

Funding has been pledged to Ark Drama 2000 by a few Ashford borough councillors including Jeremy Adby and county councillor Mike Angell.

As a result, the group have managed to secure The Tower Theatre in Folkestone for their performance of Pantomania in November but will have to review their situation in the new year.

Jess Cross, Stella Critchley and Sinead Stockman packing up the props at Ashford Youth Theatre in Dover Place

Cllr Graham Galpin, portfolio holder for the town centre said: “As previously stated, it is vital to Ashford’s continuing success that the town maintains its status as the best business location in Kent so we have to maximise the potential of the Commercial Quarter to make it a business hub for the south east.

“We fully acknowledge that means difficult decisions will have to be taken along the way, as in this case. However, we have to think long term and decide what is best for the area and the future of our borough and its residents.

“Just recently Quinn Estates have received planning permission for the first office building – a 80,000 sq ft office on the site and work is due to start on this soon, which heralds an exciting new era for the area.

“The council has allowed the youth theatre to remain in the property despite the notice to leave having expired, due to the difficulties they are experiencing in finding alternative accommodation. We have also provided assistance to the group by looking for alternatives options ourselves as well as putting them in contact with local land agents."

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