Sam Walters on the Orange Tree's 40 fruitful years

Sam Walters in the 1970s Sam Walters founded the Orange Tree with his wife, actress Auriol Smith, in 1971

Sam Walters, co-founder of Richmond's Orange Tree theatre, is the UK's longest-serving artistic director.

As the venue celebrates its 40th anniversary, he reminisces and looks forward to staging a Vaclav Havel play never seen before in the UK.

The Orange Tree theatre was born, above a pub, on New Year's Eve 1971.

As Sam Walters recalls: "It was a lunchtime show, the play was Go Tell It On Table Mountain, and we got in 50 or 60 people. But there was still the same amount of people waiting on the stairs.

"I rushed backstage to the actors, who agreed to do the play twice. So we told the second audience to have a drink in the bar and come back in an hour."

In 1991, the venue moved from its old home above the Orange Tree pub to a purpose-built auditorium in a former school across the road.

A sign outside the building proudly proclaims it as London's only permanent in-the-round theatre.

"It is something I am obsessed about," admits Walters who, 40 years on, is still its artistic director. "It's very liberating.

"If the theatre is going to survive it's got to develop and use what makes it unique, and what makes it unique is you share it with the people you're watching it with.

"It's not a private performance like the computer screen or the DVD at home," he continues.

"In a theatre-in-the-round, you see the play against a backcloth of other members of the audience."

Modern resonance

The Orange Tree's 40th anniversary season begins with the UK premiere of Vaclav Havel's The Conspirators. It was written in 1971 - the same year the theatre made its debut.

The venue has a long association with the former Czech president and put on its first Havel play in 1977.

A magazine article from the 1970s gives a glimpse of the old pub theatre A magazine article from the 1970s gives a glimpse of the old pub theatre

Set in a country were a revolution has ousted the former dictatorship, The Conspirators was the first play Havel completed after he became a banned author in Czechoslovakia following the Soviet invasion of 1968.

With demonstrators on the streets, the chiefs of police, the army, the law and the intelligence services take action to protect the fragile democracy.

Although The Conspirators is not Havel's favourite play, Walters was inspired to give it its UK premiere as it resonated with this year's Arab Spring.

Walters first met Havel in Czechoslovakia in 1989. He had arrived in Prague on a travelling fellowship and found himself - quite by chance - pitched into the middle of the Velvet Revolution.

"Havel knew I was coming," recalls Walters, "but then all these things happened.

"So instead of visiting him, as I imagined, under the eyes of the secret police, the first I saw of him was in Wenceslas Square where he was making a speech to half a million people."

Havel visited the Orange Tree in 2008 when it staged the international premiere of his most recent play, Leaving.

Theatre to toilet

So after 40 years in the job, how does Walters feel about his label as the UK's longest-serving artistic director?

"I suppose it's true until somebody comes up and challenges it," he says.

"Sometimes I think I've been a bit timorous - being a big fish in your own little pond instead of jumping into a bigger one.

"But I've had the freedom to put on anything - whether it's a forgotten play from Edwardian times, a French farce or a Chekhov. And I've enjoyed being able to develop relationships with playwrights over decades."

As for the old theatre space where it all began on 31 December 1971, Walters reveals it is now occupied by the pub's lavatories.

"One actress who'd been in a lot of plays there went over and sat on the loo - and cried."

The Conspirators is at the Orange Tree theatre, Richmond, from 31 August to 1 October.

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