The Swallow Theatre is a restored and converted byre at Moss Park, Ravenstone. It is located about three miles from Whithorn (Scotland’s earliest Christian settlement and one of its very oldest towns) and ten miles from Wigtown (Scotland’s book town).
Moss Park was purchased by Jill and David Sumner in 1990. Both had a passion for theatre, and were inspired by the outbuildings at Moss Park to realise their dream of having their own theatre.
Over the next few years some informal play readings were arranged with friends and a small invited audience, and then (in May 1995) an evening of World War II songs and poetry to commemorate VE Day. By that time the invited audience had grown from just three (at the first play reading) to around thirty, with many others expressing interest, so they decided to take the plunge and become an official theatre – a performance space that could be used by local musicians and theatre groups, and visiting artists also.
Planning permission was granted just before Christmas 1995, and restoration work began in May 1996. There were five events over that first summer — verse and music, a Concert Party, a visiting choir and the Solway Festival Poets, and a new play by Jill — The Last Post, about the Battle of the Somme — in September.
The summer season was great fun but quite hectic, as shows were interleaved between the almost continuous building work. Improvisation was the order of the day: on one occasion a pile of building sand was turned into part of the set! Pallets were acquired from a local garden centre for staging and raising the back rows of seats.
As the audience grew people were asked to bring their own chairs; but thanks to a small Lottery Grant (awarded in 1998) and a ‘Sponsor a Seat’ campaign, the theatre now has a fully retractable seating system with fifty comfortable seats. With the help of Galloway Groundbase, a toilet block was added at the end of 1999 and disabled car parking in 2000.
The early years
Jill died in June 2001. Swallow House was built after she died and is used to provide accommodation to visiting performers, and as a self-catering cottage. The Burnet Room (now the site office but originally used for interval refreshments, meetings, play readings and rehearsals) was opened by Jill’s sister, Ann Hasler, in April 2004.
Each year swallows had nested in the barn, producing at least one brood, sometimes two. During performances the adult birds would swoop through the tiny gap at the top of the barn door, feed their young in the nest (to a short chorus of excited twittering) and fly out again, seemingly unperturbed by the goings on below. So the name for the venue had to be “The Swallow Theatre”.
For obvious practical reasons we have had to exclude the swallows from the theatre itself, but they now nest in the pend (passageway) at the foot of the path on the approach to the theatre.
Over the years the number of productions presented at the theatre grew. Over the years the venue has presented a wide range of events — drama (including original work), music (classical, folk and jazz), poetry and play readings, and ‘theme nights’.
Several well-known musicians, actors and music groups have visited the theatre and the venue has also produced in-house events such as pantomimes and Christmas plays, and plays especially written for the intimate small space at The Swallow Theatre. Visitors often comment on the unique and magical atmosphere, and visiting actors and musicians love the essence of performing with such immediacy to the audience.
Change in owners
In 2016 The Swallow Theatre celebrated its 20th anniversary as a professional venue and it was also the first year of the theatre being under new ownership.
The new owners are as equally passionate about theatre and the performing arts as David still is and Jill was when they built this amazing place. The new owners have embraced the history of theatre and its unique place in the local community. Their personal interest is in the technical aspects of theatre, and so they invested in new equipment which has enabled a wider range of productions to visit.
A new downstairs foyer/bar area was created in what was previously an office. This is now named The Sumner Room in honour of the founders.
In 2020, as for so many, COVID-19 had a massive impact. Theatres were amongst the first places to be required to close, and the last to re-open. The rules in Scotland were stricter than those in England and apart from two events at the start of 2020, and a handful of socially-distanced events in 2021, we were closed for two years.
However we used the time productively …
After more than 20 years of Dumfries and Galloway weather, the original agricultural-style roof of the theatre was showing its age. A major fundraising event took place which enabled the theatre to be re-roofed in early 2021.
Also in 2021, a new door opening directly onto the theatre garden was put into The Sumner Room, together with an access ramp to provide step-free access (the theatre already has step-free access).
The owners enjoy searching out the best small-scale theatre work that the UK offers, and bringing it to southwest Scotland. They try to see a show for themselves before inviting a new theatre company to The Swallow Theatre.
We are lucky that theatre companies and musicians love to return, and we try to offer a balance each year between returning and new performers.
We like to offer drama and music that is not available elsewhere in the region, and which requires a professional theatre space (e.g. blackout, lighting, sound facilities).
This results in a curated programme of outstanding professional events from some of the top performers on the UK small-venue touring circuit.
The future looks good for The Swallow Theatre. We have a growing base of audience members visiting the theatre from a wide geographic area, and a network of valued performers whose work we are proud to present.
We have plans to continue developing the sustainability of the venue, in particular in its use as a creative retreat and development space for artists to come and stay and work while they create new work.
The theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2026 and we look forward to reaching this milestone and taking the venue forward for the next few decades in its delightful history.
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