The Cosmopolitan Players originated in 1955 in the suburb of Far Headingley, about two miles north of the centre of Leeds, when they were known as St Michael’s Association. Today, it is a predominantly student area with the rugby/cricket ground an important attraction. But back in the 1930’s, the focal-point was the remains of the famous ‘Shire Oak’, (a traditional meeting place for people) and the area contained a mix of Leeds manufacturing industry and shops on a busy tram route and tram depot. St Michael’s Church had a large congregation and the middle-class officials of the church promoted activities ‘to educate and entertain’ the local population. This would have included the performance of drama and music. Venues for performance would vary - Headingley Hall, tearooms, cafes, outdoor parks and pavilions. Apart from church groups (one in Hunslet formed the Leeds Gilbert & Sullivan Society), many large employers in Leeds also promoted sports & social activities that would include ‘performance activities’, such as Montague Burton’s in East Leeds, who had hundreds of factory and office employees.
From 1925, as college departments moved out of the Leeds Mechanical Institute building on Cookridge Street, the Albert Hall, the main circular ‘speakers auditorium’ had been used for the performances by the British Drama League who collected post-show donations. In 1949, a cinema-style stage, completely out of keeping with Brodrick's original design was constructed in the Albert Hall, it obscured the ornamental ceiling in the lecture hall and part of the scrolled balustrade was removed. The building was officially opened as The Civic Theatre on 7th October 1949 (for ticketed performances). Leeds City Council agreed to subsidise the use of the ‘new theatre’ for the numerous local, amateur dramatic groups, if they formed an association under the Leeds Civic Arts Guild. St Michael’s Association started using the Civic Theatre in 1951. Now, as a city-centre group, performing and rehearsing in the café across the road on Cookridge Street, and attracting new members in the city, they renamed themselves The Cosmopolitan Players in May 1955.
Amateur dramatic groups were very different then. They would have well over a hundred members, often admission was by a meeting/audition in front of the societies committee. There would be sub-committees to run many other activities; Greenrooms, set construction & scenery painting, parties & fund-raising, etc. Amateur dramatics societies also had ‘patrons’, often well-to-do Leeds business people and middle-class professionals, who made donations, used their political influence and connections, and were pleased to have their names listed in the show’s programme. Obviously, a patronage-relationship with say a high-class furniture retailer had mutual benefits, in the loan of items for a play set and the business publicity advertisement with a large audience for a ‘run’ of a play.
In the 1950’s amateur groups would pay a director a fee to produce a show - Tom Webb had a seven year contract directing all COS shows in the sixties, later Gerry Armytage was a regular producer in the 1970s’. The theatre-actors had to be ‘very well-spoken, but in the late 1960’s, the new ‘gritty’ style of film in the cinemas provoked an interest in Northern actors with regional accents. Younger Leeds actors found that after an initial taste of Civic Theatre stagework, they could go to London, find film work, join the BBC or be accepted into drama schools (on free-place scholarships) – Peter O’Toole being one example. COS boasts of being a ‘start’ for Geoffrey Davis (tv Doctor in the House), (actor/pianist), Mark Curry (Blue Peter). Productions in those days often had large casts, there were lots of opportunities.
Apart from acting, many learnt skills such as scenery painting, costume and make-up. Before technology many things had to be done manually and a large crew would be needed for each show. Pearl Baxter recalled the “smell of size” (stage-cloth glue) bubbling away in a small boiler. There were a lot of talented people around backstage and amateur theatre is a lot of fun. Many family members would join; Judith Unwin joined in 1960, meeting and marrying set-constructor, Barry (he is COS President), Eileen Pattison joined in 1970 and introduced her husband George and daughter-in-law, Marion, Pam Elsey joined in the 70’s bringing glamorous daughter Debbie into a lot of productions, and son-in-law Steve Furness has acted in our recent play.
In the 1970’s, art and theatre did well, it was funded and helped, nationally and locally. In 1983 there was a complete refurbishment of the Civic Theatre, the proscenium was re-modelled, using the original pillars and columns from backstage as inspiration for the design. The auditorium was renovated, and the ceiling re-decorated with stencilling and gold leaf, the chandelier was restored and the balcony fronts fitted with specially made brass light fittings. However, there were huge economic changes in Leeds by the mid 1980’s, factories closed, Leeds industry of tailoring and steel collapsed. Leeds had to pick itself and recreate itself as a commercial city. It did so by taking advantage of being on the motorway and recruiting ‘yuppies’ and national commerce from down south, to work in the new tower-block banks and call-centres. The cities stores were overtaken by shopping mall centres. Shift-working became more prominent for the workers, television had gone to colour with more channels on offer, Leeds city-centre started to get noisy and rowdy, this affected the ageing audiences who would come to see traditional plays at the Civic Theatre. The Cosmopolitan Players tried a couple of musicals in the 80’s using just an accompanist, it also started to introduce more comedy and theatre-standard titles into its programme, in a bid to put ‘bums on seats’, several were directed by Pam Elsey and Mike Wilkinson.
In the 1990’s, with dwindling audiences and society membership, despite the start of more cross-working within the Guild (particularly with Leeds Children’s Theatre adults), the old structures started to erode. For example, in the 1980’s all the society’s ‘books’, minutes and archives became lost in “various moves”, soon the financial situation started to become serious. The core of older members initiated many fund-raising events to pull COS back from ‘the brink’, eventually it was down to ‘pledges’ of money to keep COS afloat. Arts funding had disappeared, countless other Leeds amateur groups such as The Proscenium Players, Burton Players, etc had now disappeared and even new theatre ventures and break-away groups such as Screaming Blue Murder floundered and sunk. In 2003, LIDOS member and previous COS Chair, Bryan Craven ‘took the reins’ and the challenge of turning The Cosmopolitan Players around. He did this by bringing ‘telly-favourites’ to the stage, starting with ‘Allo ‘Allo, facilitating cross-working with LIDOS adult actors, bringing in existing skilled theatre-people, pushing ticket-selling, reducing theatre overheads and tighter management of the society. Productions started to operate at profit.
Today, The Cosmopolitan Players is doing okay, our shows are popular and recently have been nominated for awards. The society still has to face challenges, in particular retaining talented younger players, theatre-parking remains a problem, we have no on-site storage … and in competing and getting an audience in a major, busy, bustling and hustling city-centre.