Jan Hunter spoke to award-winning playwright Sue Pierce about the life-changing potential of drama, and the arts

As a former teacher of drama, I have had to deal with the changing value placed on this subject area by the whims of different governments and head teachers. There is no doubt in the current climate that the arts are being squeezed in many schools, and the value of life-skills they provide, are being overlooked.

In Stokesley we are blessed with Dan Brooks’ popular Crash Bang Wallop youth theatre, and on a visit to Saltburn, I was introduced to Sue Pierce, secretary and award-winning playwright of the community drama group, Saltburn 53.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sue Pierce

Housed in arguably the most beautiful building in Saltburn, which is run by Saltburn Community and Arts Association, Saltburn 53 is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, and its reputation is legendary.

“We are a multi-generational group, with members from early teens until late 80s,” says Sue. “And this place is my spiritual home; it’s where the magic happens. Young people these days are unfortunately part of the Britain’s Got Talent generation which is ruthless in its pursuit of fame. Here we work collaboratively, respectfully and as a part of a team. Everyone who creates and contributes to a production, being equally important.”

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Each year Saltburn 53 takes part in the All England Theatre Festival for one-act plays, of which there are various rounds, starting in Saltburn in February, and ending in a British final in July. In this competition, the company has been highly successful on many occasions, and Sue herself has twice won the Geoffrey Whitworth National Award for the plays she has written for the group – the first two plays of a Welsh trilogy, one of which she had published. She has also won a best director award.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sue Pierce being presented with the Geoffrey Whitworth Trophy for the playwriting competition at the British final in Belfast with Mary Peters and Ian Clarke

“Reaching the national finals as we have done, your eyes are opened to all possibilities by seeing the work of other groups,” she says. “It’s inspirational. I love the creative process, and working so closely with others enriches your life. Although I have had no official training in theatre, I have just learnt on the job. Also in a collaborative process we all value each other, and just do what has to be done. On a couple of occasions at the end of a show I have been cleaning the toilets at midnight.”

Sue was born in Wales and is very proud of her heritage, which is steeped in songs and storytelling, her father being a great teller of tales. She left Wales to seek work and opportunities, eventually studying languages at university.

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“I moved away from Wales but it will always be a magical place for me,” she says. “I love the Welsh stories and the music, the telling of tales. One of the first plays I wrote for the group was about the Aberfan disaster. It is through the challenges of staging this, and the collaboration of many ideas that I realised anything is possible in the theatre. Our slag heaps and dust were made from black material which sparkled under the lights. Once when I suggested we had a train on stage for one of our productions, I was immediately asked, ‘how big do you want it?’”

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sue Pierce with her Welsh springer spaniel Seren

Sue tried her hand in the fashion industry when she left school, having dreams of a glorious career as a buyer travelling the world, but reality soon set in, so she set her sights on being a language teacher, a job she loved. She started teaching in Birmingham, but then had an interview in Middlesbrough. She didn’t think she could settle there, as she had always lived in the countryside, so refused the job.

When she got home the head teacher phoned her, asking her to return and talk to him. He told her,”quitters never win”. That spurred her to take the job, and this has been her mantra ever since. At first she lodged in Guisborough, with the head of English, but after meeting her husband, Andrew, the couple lived in Ormesby for a while, then bought a house in Saltburn in 1986. Andrew is the musical director of Saltburn 53.

Sue’s interest in drama and theatre stems from her influences from childhood, and the music and drama departments she had at school.

“When I was studying languages, I always picked the theatre option, so knew a lot about European drama,” she says. “At school I was the first to be offered the spare ticket by my teachers to any productions, if I hadn’t already agreed to go.”

At the moment she is working towards a diploma in singing, and has for 30 years belonged to the Renaissance choir in Saltburn.

Wilma Gardiner-Gill, arts development promoter of Saltburn Community and Arts Association, says: “I have known Sue Pierce for over 20 years as a member of the ‘53 drama group and as a trustee who has served on our board here at Saltburn Community and Arts Association.

“She has always been supportive of me personally and of the organisation as a whole.

“In 2013 she was instrumental in helping me successfully secure the Tyne Tees Peoples Millions to enable the theatre to be completely refurbished to the tune of £50,000. We then managed to be the nominated charity of the year by the Co-op in 2019.

“Sue and her husband Andrew have organised and managed many youth concerts over the years to give young musicians an opportunity to perform on stage.

“She has been a valuable asset to the organisation, and her enthusiasm and talent is a huge benefit for all the theatre-going community whether as an actor, director, writer, festival organiser or just someone to offload to. Someone whose opinion is valued always.”

When asked what message she would give to readers, Sue says: “George Elliot once wrote ‘it’s never too late to be what you might have been’.

“Believing in yourself and who you are, and contributing, I think is so important. People do get such much out of rehearsing together and performing; being a part of a community. I would like to invite all young people to our theatre – come on inside and see what we can do for you. We have a lovely space here. Come and give us a try, you would be most welcome.”