Tuesday, 09 August 2022

Exit stage left, the woman behind success of Kenton

THE outgoing managing director of the Kenton Theatre in Henley says she wants to thank

THE outgoing managing director of the Kenton Theatre in Henley says she wants to thank the community for its support.

Wendy Bowsher, 48, will step down at the end of next month after 15 years as the only paid employee of the historic New Street venue.

She first volunteered there in 1983, when she was 15 and a pupil at Gillotts School.

She was invited by Paul Kershaw, her art teacher, to help paint the backdrop for that year’s Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society production of Funny Girl. She was already a keen actor and dancer, so she agreed.

Over the years that followed, she continued supporting the theatre as a stage hand, barmaid, props assistant and later as stage manager.

During this time she appeared in several shows for HAODS including the musical Barnum, for which she learned to juggle, and Singing In The Rain, in which she performed a tap routine beneath water sprinklers.

Mrs Bowsher, who has lived in Henley all her life, was made a trustee in the late Nineties and hired as a paid fund-raising manager in 2001.

In this role, she raised enough money to renovate the lighting in the main auditorium.

In 2004, a year before the Kenton celebrated its 200th anniversary, she was offered the post of managing director but initially turned it down as she felt it was too much responsibility.

Mrs Bowsher, who was previously a buyer for greetings card firm Hallmark, said: “I didn’t like the idea but I was persuaded.

“When I thought about all the pleasure the theatre had given me, I wanted to give something back.”

Over the past 12 years, she has overseen an increase in audiences from about 10,000 people a year to 40,000. She has also raised about £600,000 for improvements through grants, private donations and events. She said her proudest moment was helping to raise £350,000 in six months so the trustees could buy the freehold of the building, which is Britain’s fourth oldest working theatre, from the Henley Municipal Charities in 2010.

The success of the campaign, called Kenton For Keeps, meant the board could refurbish the venue as it saw fit and add extra facilities to attract more customers.

Last summer, the theatre shut for two months while the foyer underwent extensive refurbishment at an undisclosed cost. It was the first time it had been revamped in at least 50 years.

Mrs Bowsher said: “Buying the freehold was the most important thing that happened in my time. It ensured the Kenton would remain a theatre for the people of Henley in perpetuity.

“It gave us control of our own destiny as we could channel our income into upkeep and improvement. She is a very demanding old lady but it put us in a better position to apply for grants.

“It also raised our profile outside Henley. Many acts and companies now consider us part of the ‘tour circuit’ and that brings people in from further afield.”

Mrs Bowsher has played a part in programming and under her watch the Kenton produced its own shows for the first time as part of its year-long bicentennial festivities.

These included Thomas Morton’s The School of Reform, the first show ever performed at the venue in 1805, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy and a variety revue.

The occasion was also marked by installing a canopy outside the front entrance and new cloakrooms, for which Mrs Bowsher led fund-raising efforts.

In 2012, the Kenton staged its first professional Christmas pantomime, Cinderella. The show, directed by Heather Simpkin, proved so popular that several matinées were added at the last minute to meet demand.

Mrs Bowsher said: “I was so delighted when the board agreed to that. We promoted it at Henley’s Christmas shopping evening with a life-sized ‘glass carriage’ and people couldn’t take their eyes off it.

“For me, that’s what theatre is all about — it’s doing something a bit magical and bringing joy to everyone, no matter how old they are.

“We now stage more shows for children and families than we used to and also invite more schools to perform on the stage. It’s very important to get the balance right between professional and community programming.”

Another achievement was securing a night with stand-up comedian Michael McIntyre in February last year when he was was warming up for a UK-wide arena tour.

The tickets sold out in 30 seconds.

Mrs Bowsher said: “I can take the credit, or perhaps the blame, for that one!

“It’s all about having good relationships — the offer came out of the blue from an agent I knew.

“I was very proud though I did worry whether our booking system would cope. We were overwhelmed by the demand but it all went well and nothing crashed.”

She said McIntyre proved to be a “really lovely, charming man”.

“Performers like him enjoy coming here because they get a small, intimate audience who are good at giving feedback,” she said.

Mrs Bowsher, who announced last month that she was departing for “personal reasons”, will be pursuing a new career in property but hopes to remain involved with the theatre in a lesser capacity.

She said: “Being managing director here is much the same as in a business, but from time to time you have to give extra help if other roles haven’t been filled.

“There may be times when no one else is doing publicity or facilities management, but those tasks still have to be completed and responsibility filters back up to you. The show always has to go on.

“I’ve been truly humbled by the praise I’ve received in recent weeks because, after all, I’m just one person playing my part in keeping this lovely old theatre open and alive.

“I have a passion for the theatre and the fact that it’s a charity but I’m not the only one. There are people who’ve been volunteering here for decades because they love it so much.

“It has a wonderful family atmosphere here and I think a lot of friendships have been struck among the team.

“Historically, the Kenton has gone through periods of closure but because so many people give their time for free it has remained open for 48 consecutive years, which is the longest time since it opened.

“It is of enormous value to Henley. Estate agents say they’re often asked whether the town has a theatre — it’s a factor in many people’s decision to move here.”

Mrs Bowsher said her successor’s biggest challenge would be recruiting and retaining enough volunteers.

She said: “They are our biggest asset but people’s circumstances are forever changing so there’s a constant struggle to fill the shifts.

“However, our team is very dedicated. One year we had people walking all the way in from Peppard after their colleagues got snowed in and couldn’t help with the pantomime at the last minute.

“We will always find a way to carry on, no matter how many hours we have to put in.”

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