Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, prepares suitable send-off for Sam Walters

Richmond and Twickenham Times: Legend: Sam Walters Legend: Sam Walters

After 43 years at the helm, the Orange Tree Theatre’s founder Sam Walters is approaching his final curtain call as artistic director at the playhouse.

Mr Walters announced his departure from the Richmond theatre last year, along with his wife and associate director Auriol Smith.

His swansong will be a festival, starting on Monday, showcasing new and old work from former Orange Tree directors.

The final performance of the programme is a lunchtime show on June 29, bringing full circle to Mr Walters’ stewardship.

He said: “The first performance, when we were putting on shows in a room above the Orange Tree pub, was a lunchtime on December 31, 1971.

“And I have organised for it all to come to an end with a lunchtime performance.

“The natural way would have been to do a production but I think it is more interesting to look to the future, getting directors to come back with ideas.

“It has been a life rather than a career and I have been there an awful long time - most people are artistic directors for between five and eight years before moving on.

“Because I have always had the freedom to do what I wanted, I have been able to satisfy my work here.”

With just three weeks remaining, Mr Walters admitted the time just felt right to leave the theatre he founded in 1971.

He said: “I didn’t know if I would die on the job - I think my time is up now, especially as we move into such a different age with social media.

“It’s a younger man’s game.”

The 74-year-old counts as highlights giving a home for writers such as James Saunders, Martin Crimp and Torben Betts, whose recent hit production Invincible is transferring to St James Theatre next month.

He said while difficult to single out specific achievements, the Orange Tree’s association with former Czech Republic president and playwright Václav Havel is something to be proud of.

“Sometimes you are removed from the real world playing make believe but getting involved with Havel, one felt attached to something very real,” he said.

“Us doing his plays while he was in prison in the Czech Republic, he knew about it and it helped him cope with the ordeal he was going through - very little but it was a small contribution.”

The Orange Tree hosted the premiere outside of Prague of Havel’s last play, Leaving.

Mr Walters’ 172-seat theatre is unique for being the only permanent theatre in-the-round in London, which he describes as “the most shared experience of entertainment”.

He said: “If theatre is going to survive, it has to utilise what makes it so special.”

Paul Miller takes over as artistic director at the end of the month and Mr Walters said he does not expect sweeping changes to be made.

He said: “He has done a lot of good work and been involved in some excellent productions but it is not going to make people think ‘what is going on?’

“He is doing a play by DH Lawrence, well we have done a play by DH Lawrence, there will be changes but I don’t think the audience will find huge differences.

“As for me, I have an awful lot of tidying up to do - I like teaching and doing work in drama schools so I might wait and see.”

For details of the festival programme, visit orangetreetheatre.co.uk.

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