Founded almost 100 years ago, remarkably forward-looking and still echoing in contemporary times, Siân MacGregor found their elusive history irresistible when researching children’s theatre as part of the MLitt Theatre Studies programme.
“Cuckoo! Item Number One!”
The call which signalled the start of every show was coined when its inventor was barely older than her young audience. Entertaining thousands of children every year, Bertha Waddell ran her Children’s Theatre for 4 decades – her bright introduction appearing at every performance, just as she did.
Yet only scraps and snippets remain of this determined and innovative lady and her company, in faded memories, press cuttings and well-thumbed copies of her four collections of pieces written for performance. Much of what remains can be accessed through the collection at the Scottish Theatre Archive; many details remain a mystery.
Bertha Waddell, by rights Roberta Johanna, was born in Uddingston, in June 1907 and in 1919 her family moved to ‘Caldergrove’, a late Georgian country house near Blantyre. Her sister Janet Jane, universally known as Jenny and apparently the quieter, was two years older; both were educated by governesses. Neither of them ever marrying, the sisters stayed on in the family home together, which was one of several grand houses built in the area by the Coal Board in the 19th Century. They later called it their “workshop” as it was there that the sisters built their own props, set and costumes. The girls’ father, John Jeffrey Waddell, was an architect, with offices in Glasgow’s Bath Street; he specialised in sympathetic renovations and additions to churches all over Scotland. Little is known of his wife Jean, who was by various accounts a teacher or headmistress, but both parents took the young Bertha and Jenny to the theatre as well as to speech, drama and music classes in Glasgow city centre. Bertha eventually gained the LRAM for singing and elocution, and at age 15, a lead role with the respected Scottish National Players with whom she performed for several of her teenage years. For her own part, Jenny became a skilled pianist, and eventually the ‘cuckooing’ “quaint announcer” accompanying and calling out each section of their performances by number and title. Their early training was fervently put to good use – for example, a single sheet of paper in the Archive serves as a programme and running order for a performance the Waddell sisters organised in order to raise funds for Red Cross Day. On closer inspection, the date denotes that they were not yet even into their teens, and already directing a small company of young players (of ‘masters’ rather than ‘misters’) – presaging a lifetime’s work.
It was on the 19 November 1927 (when Bertha was aged just 20) that the pivotal performance took place in central Glasgow, featuring Bertha, Jenny and a few others now unknown. Although it is difficult to determine specific details, a hired room in the McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street was the venue, and the event, by a “pioneer company” was “entertainment entirely for children”. Even Bertha herself called it “such a very new experiment”. To modern theatre-goers, it might not seem unusual for a show to be created and performed for the under-12’s, yet at the time (with a few notable exceptions), children were usually offered only short puppet shows in holiday towns in terms of age-specific live entertainment. When asked about performances for children for a newspaper article in 1952, Bertha commented rather dismissively that, “Twenty-five years ago, it was all cantatas. … ‘Princess Chrysanthemum’ or lots of little girls with parasols”. Even pantomimes were largely geared towards an adult audience. In typically bashful style, Bertha later called her 1927 performance a “little idea” – but it in fact seems to have formed the basis of the Glasgow Children’s Theatre Company. (Only later, possibly as they toured much further afield, or grew more confident, did she add her own name to the Company).
It is from the early 1930’s that we have the first concrete evidence in the STA of Bertha’s “very new experiment” gradually becoming established as a theatre company for children, which ran ceaselessly until 1968, each year with a different repertoire to tour. From the simple programmes produced for each season, we can gain an insight to the company’s fundamental formula for shows, but also something of its ethos and intentions, and even the company’s well-to-do supporters. For instance, the simply-styled thick paper programme lodged in the Archive lists the company’s full cast, each performance item in order of performance, the names of the ‘Committee’ (board members) and finally, “Miss Waddell wishes to thank..” recognising “all” who had made the show possible. With such limited space, any of this could have easily been omitted in favour of more advertisements to help fund the company, but the inclusion of names and credits displays something of the Waddells’ sincere appreciation of – and belief in – their work and company. For researchers, these sparse details provide valuable beginnings of trails to investigate.
Beyond these printed names, specific details are scant; Bertha’s original scripts were reportedly destroyed at her request, in the 1980’s, and the wealth of props and costumes donated to a local college, since disbanded. However, we do have a handful of black and white photographs of stage sets and actors, coloured by descriptions from various other sources. Newspaper cuttings and living memories give us enticing details which bring the company to life: one year, there was a particularly memorable bright green dress amongst the “immaculate” costumes, an apron “starched and stark white”, and always an overall impactful “good stage picture”. Detailed descriptions of how best to achieve certain props, costume, and even vocal phrasing noted by Bertha in her 4 volumes of rhymes for performance also give clues to her style and ethos, and what the audience would expect. That audience, suffice to say, was “rapt”, paid close attention, and in exchange were imbued with what was often their first, influential, experience of theatre. Noted for her clear diction, and for being somewhat “glamourous, very theatrical” and “genteel and ladylike”, small hints and minutiae like these tell us that Bertha knew her business well, and took it seriously. For instance, despite the simple card covers of her books of rhymes (adapted from the traditional versions), once inside, we read her confidence when addressing her intended audience – instructions and suggestions always shyly speckled with gentle humour, as were the shows themselves.
If we did not have material nestled in the archives, it would be difficult to believe that Bertha and her loyal company ever existed at all, much less performed for thousands of children, including two generations of royal audiences (even once in the Throne Room). Their tours all over Scotland (and sometimes beyond) were later supported and endorsed by several education committees and the Arts Council, and were undertaken for 10 months of every year, with 2 summer months for preparation. The company’s “little van” in convoy with the “little car” took them to halls and schools far and wide – that is, except when visiting outlying isles by plane, boat and chartered steamer, the packed props apparently looking “like a jumble sale”.
All in all, in these archives we find an inspiring and fondly-remembered precedent for today’s theatre for children, respected and respectable performers and a particularly tenacious leading lady. Above all, great adventures, on stage and off – indeed, worthy subjects themselves of a tale told for children.
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All references available upon request – primarily from the Scottish Theatre Archive, GU Archives & Special Collections.
With thanks to interviewees & advisors: Giles Havergal, director; Margaret Tomlinson, drama teacher & trainer and longstanding member of the Citizens Theatre board; Professor Ian Brown, playwright; and Claire McKendrick, Chief Library Assistant.