Independent of the Month: ADC Theatre

Siobhan Godwood finds out about what makes ADC theatre one of the most special venues in Cambridge

The ADC is Cambridge’s home of student theatre, showing plays from Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club (CUADC), who lease the building, as well as Footlights, Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society and The Fletcher Players. It’s the smallest department at Cambridge University and has no academic aim, stating as its purpose: ‘to provide opportunities to learn about and experience all aspects of theatre, while presenting professional standard productions’. 

The theatre is the oldest university playhouse in the country: plays have been performed there since 1855, when the CUADC was formed. At the time, the building on the site was an inn and the club leased two rooms upstairs so they could rehearse and put on plays. The very first minutes book from the club is stored in the university library. 

“The theatre continued to be run by students right up until 1973, when it was taken over by the university,” explains Vicky Collins, theatre manager at the ADC. “It’s completely booked out for student productions from the different groups even during term time, apart from during exam time when we aren’t allowed to have student shows as they should all be busy revising!” 

During term time, the theatre usually presents two shows a night, Tuesday to Saturday, one at 7.45pm and one at 11pm. All the productions during term time are entirely student run, from the actors and performers to the stage hands and set builders, and there are six permanent staff members who form the theatre’s management team. 

The theatre keeps running throughout the university holidays, too, with a range of different companies who come in and put on productions. For example, over Christmas, Ballet Central visited and put on a production of The Nutcracker. 

Of course, being a university theatre does present challenges. The nature of college life is that students graduate and leave, and new – inexperienced! – ones come along. 

“That’s definitely something that makes running the ADC different from a commercial theatre,” says Vicky. “But it’s also the entire reason we exist: to be a training theatre for students. It’s so exciting having new faces coming through. At the start of each year, in Michaelmas term, we do Freshers productions, a main show here and one over at the Corpus Playroom. That’s a
real baptism of fire for the new students, and a fantastic way for them to learn how to do everything, from staging to producing a play.” 

Members of the management team help the students with sessions on how to use tools for building their sets and teach them how to stage manage, but there’s also a lot of peer training involved. 

“I was an undergraduate here myself and was involved in theatre,” says Vicky, “and it’s fantastic to learn from other students and get their advice when you’re just starting out.” 

It’s not uncommon for members of the management team to have worked their way through the university theatre system, like Vicky, although not all of them are Cambridge graduates. 

“We have team members from various universities,” Vicky explains. “Working in management is a continuation of the learning curve that starts with taking part in student productions. I call working here ‘the best grad scheme in the world’ as it’s fantastic training in all aspects of running a theatre and invaluable experience that’s hard to imagine getting anywhere else.” 

"It's the entire reason we exist: to be a training theatre"

When it comes to programming, the theatre has a very democratic approach, opening up the process to all students to bring their ideas forward for selection.

“My predecessor described it brilliantly as ‘the Dragons’ Den of theatre’. There’s a panel made up of members of The Fletcher Players, CUADC and two members of the theatre management team, and we sit down and listen to a five-minute pitch from every student who has put in an application. We generally get around 100 applications for the season, sometimes a lot more than that,” explains Vicky. “From there, we put together the programme from all of those ideas. We always keep in mind that we need to achieve a good balance of different types of theatre, both for our audience and for the students doing the shows, so that there is something everyone can get involved with.” 

The management team also plans in some of the pillars of the theatre’s season, including the annual big panto, a really big part of Christmas in Cambridge.

“The panto is the only real fixed slot that we know is a definite of each year,” says Vicky. “We work with Footlights and CUADC to put together a team for that.”

The ADC also strikes a great balance between classic and contemporary theatre, serious work and comedy, with plenty of musicals, too. And 2019 sounds like it’s going to be another fantastic year for the theatre.

“We’ve got such an exciting season coming up,” enthuses Vicky. “The one that’s already garnering quite a lot of attention is The History Boys. Our student audiences will really relate to the themes of applying to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. We’re also really looking forward to Angels in America Part One, a play that had a fantastic run at the Royal National Theatre in London. Then we have Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which is adapted from the Douglas Adams book. He was actually a member of Footlights when he was at Cambridge University, so it’s fantastic for us to be staging his work.” 

 There’s no doubt that the ADC Theatre is a vibrant, important part of Cambridge’s theatre landscape – and is sure to be for many, many years to come.l

ADC Theatre, Park Street, Cambridge CB5 8AS  |  01223 300085