Swindon is a cultural nadir, you say? Not a patch on its mighty neighbours, Bristol and Bath? Think again. With a fresh crop of companies entering the fray, a thriving Fringe Festival and a host of troupes spearheading new writing, in recent years the town has earned its stripes as a vibrant alternative theatre scene. MARION SAUVEBOIS rounds up the key players breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries - together - in Swindon


The troupe, which recently celebrated its second anniversary, was born of sheer necessity, artistic director and founder Laura Barnes insists. From would-be actors rejected by the capital's drama schools to thesps unable to afford the tuition and hobbyists far too old for youth drama groups, one thing was clear: Swindon needed an outlet to satisfy the needs of the theatrically-minded.

"There were a lot of opportunities up to 18 in Swindon and then it's that idea of ‘Off you go! And pay an arm and a leg to go to drama school’, to follow the official route," says Laura, a former education and outreach coordinator at Sixth Sense. “What about the unofficial route, what about finding another way and gate-crashing?"

Gatecrash, which was recently appointed New College's resident theatre company, is split into two sections: Gatecrash Ignite, for amateurs looking to wet their toes, and Gatecrash Evolve, for professionals, aspiring actors, writers or directors, or gifted amateurs committed to honing their skills and braving the stage.

Gatecrash holds various masterclasses throughout the year and produces at least one show headed up by a crew of industry professionals who mentor students in their field of choice whether it be design, tech, acting or production.

For more information go to gatecrashtheatre.co.uk


Not strictly speaking Swindon-based, the Royal Wootton Bassett company was founded a year ago by artistic director Anna Friend. And it already has a string of awards to its name.

The group welcomes children as young as four up to 16.

It is divided into several strands: the school - Quirky Bird Juniors - a senior section and two professional companies, Quirky Bird Young Company and Quirky Bird Theatre.

Collaboration and unity within the company and within the wider Swindon scene is key for Anna.

"It's about the ensemble, learning to support each other," says Anna, who was recently appointed resident director at The Alma Tavern & Theatre in Bristol and will take over Gatecrash this month for the duration of Laura Barnes's maternity leave. "And appreciating that everybody has a role to play and is part of the process. In the same way, it's important to get that cross-pollination between companies in Swindon. It's not about single units. It's essential to talk each other up and lift each other up."

To join Quirky Bird go to www.quirkybirdtheatre.com.


You may remember it as Sixth Sense, one of the town's oldest theatre companies, with no fewer than 30 years to its credit. Prime, which is funded by Arts Council England and based at the Wyvern Theatre, is made up of a professional adult company and youth theatre troupe. The recent rebranding heralded a new era in the history of the group, which expanded its focus - and offering - from strict actor training to playwriting, technical tuition and production mentoring. The workshops are all run by professionals and experts in their respective fields.

"We want to give young people a chance to experience every aspect of theatre, to find something in theatre that excites them," explains artistic director Mark Powell. "And it’s important for young people to work with professionals, with the people they aspire to be."

Last summer the progressive youth theatre company unveiled its first in-house production written and produced entirely by its young members under the supervision of associate director Aaron Parsons.

To join Prime Theatre go to www.primetheatre.co.uk.


Five years since it hit the ground running with just seven shows on the bill, the Fringe has proved the sceptics wrong.

From an underground event, it has become a firm favourite in the town’s cultural calendar and drawn companies and performers from as far as Brazil and Serbia. Back for a fifth round in April, the team has upped the ante with a packed 10-day festival featuring no fewer than 40 home-grown and international acts.

"We've grown exponentially every year," enthuses co-founder and award-winning playwright Matt Fox. "In the beginning it was mostly attended by people affiliated to one of the local theatre companies. But last year we noticed a change for the first time. A new core of people came because they were interested in new theatre. We're now on the Fringe map nationally and we're thrilled."

While international troupes, musicians - and even a Brazilian clown - will form part of the line-up again this year, at its heart the event is still very much Swindon-centric, Matt insists.

"Our primary function is to give a platform to Swindon acts. There are lot of people doing great things in Swindon in different pockets and I wanted everybody to come together in a grand explosion of creativity."

For more information go to the Swindon Fringe Festival Facebook page.


The new kid on the block, the art cooperative in the former Palladium cinema in Rodbourne is spearheaded by artistic director Dan Rivers.

The concept is simple: to provide an incubator - in the same way the Town Hall once acted as an experimental hub - for students, fledgling and established artists and creatives of all disciplines, from drama and drawing to sculpture and filmmaking.

“This place is about founding something totally unique; the moment you walk in it gets your brain working and heart pumping," says Dan. “It's a place to create, to be inspired, to meet people. It’s a place to take risks and experiment.”

Many community groups, artists and theatre troupes have already bought into the venue’s ethos. In fact the team behind Swindon Fringe Festival has already signed the Balcony up as one of its host locations next April.

As well as a space to create, the Balcony is available to theatre groups for performances and artists to curate exhibitions.

To find out more, go to the venue’s Facebook page.


A champion of new writing, Whole Hog Productions was founded in late 2008 by local actors and directors Matthew Clift, Ryan Gilks, Phil Regan and Steve Sprosson. A year later, the company unveiled its debut production, Directions, an absurdist comedy by local historian Chris Scott, which went on to win best play as well as the best actor and best supporting actor awards at the Harold Jollifee One Act Play Festival.

Since then Whole Hog has staged numerous original works and scooped no fewer than 30 awards.

"Our main offering has been new work, so we were really the first group in the town to tackle new plays alongside other writers such as Matt Fox of Madam Renards and later on, Pete Hynds at TS Productions," says Matthew, who acts as the troupe's advisory director. "Our ethos is to take the work seriously but not ourselves too seriously. Joint artistic directors Fenella Harrop and Becky Cann are keen to get Whole Hog's name known in other towns and cities. So, our work is always developing, which makes members excited about the future ahead."

To get in touch visit wholehogproductions.weebly.com.


The company has three distinct strands. First is Acting South West, which offers actor training to students auditioning for drama school or university, professionals keen to brush up on their technique and beginners looking to develop confidence in performance. There is the company, Wrong Shoes, dedicated to producing unique, often interactive and always provocative collaborative work; and finally, the group's latest venture, Shoebox Theatre.

A relatively new development, Shoebox is a rather exciting project. Determined to give actors and theatre companies a space to show their work and experiment without the usual prohibitive costs, Luke teamed up with Artsite and reinvented its gallery in the town centre as a charitable community theatre. Now a Swindon Fringe venue, it is the beating heart of alternative theatre in the town.

“The idea was to support emerging artists, celebrate experimentation and engage the community in contemporary theatre," says Luke. "Actors who want to create their own work struggle with venues and support. Swindon is too expensive in terms of hire so we wanted to offer them a space to create work and where they could share that work; and gradually take it to other towns."

For more details visit www.shoeboxtheatre.org.uk


Born out of the now defunct Old Town Theatre Company in 2011, TS Theatre is the brainchild of actor and playwright Pete Hynds. His mission was to "push buttons", produce thought-provoking theatre and stage original plays on par with the exciting yet challenging new writing emerging from the capital. From a reworking of A Clockwork Orange to a play inspired by Operation Yewtree, there is no topic the troupe won't tackle.

"The ethos of TS from the beginning was getting a good idea and running with it - not talking yourself out of it. When I was at drama school one of my teachers said to me, 'One of the most important things you will do is create your own work'. I thought it was all rubbish, but he turned out to be absolutely right."

In that spirit, members are encouraged to be bold, take risks and tiptoe out of their comfort zones to write, direct and produce work in a supportive environment.

"We want people to enjoy making theatre. It's about sharing skills and experience."

To find out more visit tstheatreproductions.co.uk.