Toasting Trinity at 40

Trinity Theatre

Trinity Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year so we look back at how it was transformed from a spiritual place of worship to a cultural one – courtesy of the passionate team who run this beloved venue…

For years after it closed as a church, Trinity Theatre, as we now know it, lay desolate and derelict. The former Holy Trinity church, housed in one of Decimus Burton’s most famous architectural building triumphs in Tunbridge Wells, had long closed as a place of worship before a team of what the theatre now calls ‘local superheroes’ came to save it in the 1970s.

Their valiant and passionate protest meant that although Holy Trinity Church was lost, the building was given a reprieve.

So who were these men and women of steel? And how on earth did they change the mind of the Church Commission and the Diocese – who had already been presented with some potentially lucrative plans to sell the land to residential developers?

Well, in short when demolition called, the Civic Society answered. Formed in 1959, this local organisation’s mission is to develop and preserve the town for the good of all.

 “Trinity is a centre for community. A place to meet friends and learn”

And so, when the local landmark was threatened, members of the society sprung into action. Their campaign – and involvement with other community groups – saw widespread local opposition grow.

In response to this outcry the Church Commissioners granted a reprieve. On 14th October 1975, they gave the Civic Society just over a year (the deadline was 1st November 1976) to come up with a viable scheme to use the building. Oh, and one more condition – they had to fund it, too.

If the sheer scale of this condition conjures an image of our 70s superheroes being tied up in the path of a Kryptonite-fuelled laser: don’t worry, you’re not alone. If we move away from superheroes for a second, it’s actually more fairytale-like; a nigh on impossible task like guessing the name of a tiny man while spinning straw into gold. But relax. What do most fairytales have? That’s right: implausibly happy endings.

In the case of our own fairytale, luckily the Civic Society (and the Tunbridge Wells Drama Club, who it joined forces with to create the Appeal Committee) were not going to let a seemingly impossible task defeat them.

Echoing the efforts 150 years before, this group of men and women came together to create a much-needed addition to the community. And this is how they did it…

people sitting outside of church


Operation Tireless

Okay, it wasn’t called that, but it should have been. In a meeting much like that of 1824 when Holy Trinity was commissioned to be built, it was decided this time around that what the community needed was a venue for its musical and theatrical groups, and so the idea for Trinity Theatre and Arts Centre was born. With this vision in mind, the members of the Appeal Committee, Chaired by Lord Evans of Hungershall, canvassed, flyered – and held many civilised meetings – to curry public favour and enlist support.

The extraordinary and humbling dedication that these individuals gave – and in some cases continue to give – as well as their unfailing time, enthusiasm and energy was the recipe for success. By January 1976 the Church Commission approved their idea for a community theatre and arts centre, pending its economic viability.

Cue a LOT of fundraising, and by the deadline of 1st November the team had succeeded. In January 1977 the Diocese had officially granted their wishes – and a lease to the building!


The first bit seemed easy…

The first battle was won, but the fight was far from over. It was now time to find the funds, time and energy to make the actual conversion happen, and turn a church into a working theatre. The campaigners formed an official organisation to take the project to the next level: the Trinity Theatre and Arts Association. Herbert Storey became the Association’s first General Manager (a post he held for a decade), and through him – and the actions of the legions of incredible volunteers working alongside him – the Herculean task began.

It saw many years of work, energy and creative thinking (including using West Kent College bricklaying students to build the auditorium while learning their craft!), but what was a shell of a building, in huge amounts of disrepair gradually became a functioning Theatre and Arts Centre.


From spiritual to cultural heart of the town

This effort was rewarded in 1982 with the first shows that summer. After that, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council became involved, giving a grant to enable heating to be installed. From there, numerous grants, awards and legacies followed (alongside an unfailing amount of dedication and work from volunteers, and, eventually, employees). This resulted in new seating, a new kitchen and bar area, and a computerised box office, all of which can be seen and enjoyed today.

For the theatre itself, there have been over 1,000 shows performed since that first, miniature run forty years ago.

Other important developments – in a narrative of rebirth and new life – was the formation of Trinity Youth Theatre in 1989, which underlines the organisation’s commitment to young people. Other important uses of Trinity today include its resident community groups, from art groups to Arts Society lectures, from toddlers and parents here to play, to seniors here to sing.

Finally, the churchyard is also now a garden – a precious green sanctuary to enjoy right in the heart of the town, and a home to the wildlife that we’re committed to nurturing and encouraging.

This year we planted more trees, to honour the Queen’s Green canopy scheme, and  our gardening volunteers have ensured that all sorts of plants  and flowers are in abundance.   We hope to attract bats and swifts (the pigeons have had dominion for too long) as well as a range  of insects and other birds  and animals.

“For the theatre itself, there have been over 1,000 shows performed since that first run forty years ago”

The future

Work is still ongoing. The building will always need further repairs, and ongoing oodles of TLC. However, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the latest project ‘Open Trinity’ will see the clocktower open towards the end of this year. It will allow the public to visit the space and climb to take in the view from its rooftop. At the same time, we will launch a year-round Heritage Programme which explores Trinity’s past and looks to its future, with opportunities for conservation and new ways to understand our local history that are accessible and open to all.

Taking our inspiration from the community here over the past  200 years, we will also continue to campaign tirelessly for more funds and more work, giving back to this regal building and uncovering more of its secrets. We’re always looking for people to join us on this adventure, too, so please do come and visit, volunteer, or just have a coffee.

“There’s so much pride to be found here”

“I’ve been a resident of Tunbridge Wells for a year now and I’m starting to get the measure of the place. I am beginning to develop that civic pride that turns a place from just somewhere you live into a real home. And there is so much to find pride in here. Our extraordinary wealth of green spaces, the heritage buildings and sites dotted around, our wealth of burgeoning independent businesses and our bevy of incredible cultural establishments. But what really makes a town special, is the people.

Becoming a parent for the first time in the last few months has made me appreciate the power of community even more, and I am proud to preside over a venue that so truly holds the people it serves at its heart. Sure, Trinity provides entertainment to the town – and we intend to do that better and more interesting ways every single day – but for some, we are so much more than that. Our building is a centre for community. A place to meet friends and learn. A place to talk about the issues that matter over a good cup of coffee. A place to bring the children to play in our beautiful garden or indoor toy stage. It’s a place for the vulnerable to feel secure and for the discontent to feel fulfilled.

The work we do is more than that seen on or stages. From story-time on a Friday morning, to senior singing on a Wednesday afternoon, our programme is packed full of opportunities to engage and offers a refuge for many.

Like many ‘commuter towns’ close enough to feel the burn of the metropolis on our shoulders, a large part of our population still choose to spend their leisure time elsewhere. But why?  The Forum continues to fight tooth and nail to find more and more extraordinary ways to support emerging talent. The Amelia celebrates our history whilst giving us a place to congregate and plan our future. The Assembly Hall brings us spectacular entertainment from huge commercial hits. We are so very lucky to be home to so much culture.

Our society is great, and growing greater by the day, as more investment comes in and a renewed sense of who we are as a town begins to take shape. I believe that the arts will play a big part in that.

Whether it’s for a coffee or to see comedy we at Trinity stand ready to welcome all of you through our doors.”


Culture vulture: Why there’s something for everyone at Trinity


Many well-known comedians have appeared at Trinity; some have performed their “Warm-Up” shows in Trinity’s 290-seat auditorium before they tour larger venues such as the O2 or Hammersmith Apollo


Lee Mack and Tim Vine


These well-known musicians / singers have appeared at Trinity:

Cleo Lane & Johnny Dankworth/Humphrey Lyttleton Band/ Julian Lloyd Webber/John Williams/Annie Ross/Jacqui Dankworth/Stacey Kent/Tina May/Alan Price/Georgie Fame/Kate Rusby/George Melly/Kiki Dee/Hazel O’Connor and Acker Bilk

Along with many tribute shows:

Letz Zep/No Jacket Required (Phil Collins)/The Who Show/G2 Genesis/Floyd in the Flesh

In Trinity’s first twenty years there was also much classical music, with lunchtime concerts and monthly presentations by the Green Room Music Club.


Humphrey Lyttelton and Tina May / Floyd in the flesh?


With no cinema in the town centre, Trinity began showing films in 2001, and has continued to present over 100 screenings a year. The opening Gala in 2001 showed Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Trinity also shows live opera, ballet & theatre from the world’s top companies – The National Theatre / The Globe / RSC / Royal Opera / Glyndebourne / Royal Ballet / Bolshoi / the West End.

The fairest lady of all


Trinity’s Christmas shows are never pantomime – instead, the theatre produces its own professional family shows based on classics:

Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1999) and The BFG (2013)/Oliver! (2015) / The Wizard of Oz (2017) / Wind in the Willows (2018) / A Christmas Carol (3 different productions)/The Prince & the Pauper (2021)

Big Trinity-produced musicals have also graced the stage in Summer productions, including: Spamalot (2016) and The Producers (2018)


The BFG / The wizard of OZ


More than just a place for performance, Trinity’s Creative Engagement team cater for the whole community, for all ages:

Children’s groups: Baby’s Rhyme Time / Children’s Storytelling / Youth Theatre for ages 7 to 19 (16 groups!) / Senior Cinema monthly / Move with Music and Senior Sing for the over 55s

Youth Theatre: runs a summer programme, presenting at least three musical shows (this year The Addams Family, The Jungle Book and Seussical the Musical). Recent highlights have been Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd and Legally Blonde. The groups frequently take part in the National Theatre’s Connections series. They are again presenting a new play at this year’s Edinburgh Festival

The education department: also works in over 20 local schools each week and sees over 420 children using drama to help them with their speech, language and communication needs. There are also art classes, film-making courses and costume/ mask-making workshops. A recent addition has been the monthly Repair Cafe.

Dracula Rehearsal

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