The small stage with the very bright lights

From the bright lights of the West End to the oil lamps of a farming village.

It hardly seems like the obvious career path for a successful actor but for Mark Stratton and wife Sheila it has been like coming back home.

Esk Valley Theatre Company''John Thorp''w122220e

Esk Valley Theatre Company''John Thorp''w122220e

He had started his working life in the farming industry and despite heading to London to tread the boards, his affiliation with the Esk Valley had never gone away.

He loved the steady lifestyle of Glaisdale and the happy memories of times gone by that came with it but what he didn’t love was the need to travel over 50 miles to see a theatre show.

So Mark and Sheila set about bringing the experience, thrill, sights and sounds to the Esk Valley for the local people to enjoy on their own doorstep.

The Esk Valley Theatre Company has been established for nine years now but the couple, who met while they were both working at the Nottingham Playhouse and moved to Glaisdale 21 years ago, admit it has been a hard act to change a traditional rural village’s perceptions of ‘theatre folk’.

Esk Valley Theatre Company''Maureen Hutchingson''w122220d

Esk Valley Theatre Company''Maureen Hutchingson''w122220d

Mark said: “I had come here since I was a boy, it was a place I came with my dad fishing on the river and when I met Sheila I used to being her here on holiday and used to say wouldn’t it be great if we could live here.”

So they set up home here and it was during 2005 that Mark took inspiration from a theatre company in Southwold operating from a church hall for a five month season throughout the summer months.

He thought if it was being done there, there was no reason it couldn’t be done in North Yorkshire and so ever since then for a three week stint each year, the Robinson Institute is transformed into a full working theatre complete with set designers, 102 seating auditorium, a bar and professional actors recruited via an audition process in London.

Mark said: “Living in the countryside it had always been a thing of mine that we had to go to Middlesbrough, York or Scarborough to watch a show. There was always the desire to do something for a rural community that had more benefit than a one night show.

Esk Valley Theatre Company''Mark and Sheila Carter''w122220c

Esk Valley Theatre Company''Mark and Sheila Carter''w122220c

“It has certainly been a battle to win hearts and minds and to get people to realise it is their theatre and not just me and Sheila with some theatre people thinking it is all about them. That is the last thing we wanted it to be, we wanted it to be a community event with professional standards,”

And even the most hardened theatre critic would be hard pressed to question that.

Even the man himself, award winning playwright and actor, Sir Alan Ayckbourn has said: “The Esk Valley Theatre is very much my sort of theatre. Created for a community and run with love by people who care. And it shows in the results, believe me.”

He in fact has recruited actors for his own productions on the back of having seen them perform at past Esk Valley Theatre Productions as has observational comedy writer, John Godber, who is also a regular member of the audience.

Esk Valley Theatre Company''w122220a

Esk Valley Theatre Company''w122220a

As well as providing opportunities for locals to watch theatre, the company in turn provides a platform for up and coming actors as well as attracting interest from former soap actors.

Mark said: “The people we have asked are jobbing actors but we have had bigger names come and meet us at auditions but we have not cast them.

“The criteria is finding the right actor for the job regardess of what they have done before, and it is about giving actors opportunities that they have not had before.”

From humble beginnings where Mark and Sheila didn’t even know if anyone would turn up to the first event it has outgrown their dining room which serves as ‘the office’.

In between productions, Mark still continues his career as an actor and Sheila is involved with dance examinations and choreography while still trying to fundraise in order to put on the shows.

The budget for the last one was £36,000 which has to pay for the acting fees and the running costs. It is usually boosted by funding from the Arts Council but with such cash boosts becoming fewer and far between the need for sponsorship, whether is be £25 to £1000 is even more prevalent.

While the brand is not for profit, it has proved beneficial for local businesses with the cast, crew and theatre goers all using local b&bs and pubs like the Board at Lealholm, Broom House at Egton and the Arncliffe in the village.

And with all true professionals, despite what happens ‘the show must go on’ and there have been a couple of moments through the years where the pair have wondered just how it did.

Sheila recalls how with half an hour to curtains up there was a power cut and last year one of the audience passed out and was rushed to hospital.

She added: “At the beginning they said we would be lucky to run for three nights let alone three weeks. We have people from all over the country who are regular theatre goers but we have had those farmers coming through the door who have never set foot in a theatre, they thought they would have a go and actually enjoyed it.”