ONE of the Tyne Valley’s best-loved amateur dramatic groups is preparing to celebrate its 20th birthday.

Dragon Tale Theatre Group was formed in 2000, and ever since has worked with actors of all ages from the Prudhoe area to produce an annual Pantomime.

The autumn half-term is eagerly anticipated in Prudhoe for the group’s pantomime. Their success is even more remarkable when you consider that they perform not on a professional stage, but in a middle school gym. The group moved to Highfield Middle School following the demolition of the old Prudhoe High School building.

One man who has been there since the beginning is Stu Rutherford, who joined as a 12-year-old actor before going on to direct the last three performances.

Stu, now a teacher at Highfield, explained how the group came into being.

He said: “In 2000, it was going to be a one-off performance. A group called Prudhoe and District Millennium Association decided to mark the millennium with a pantomime.

“After the first one, a group within that group decided they wanted to stage one every year, and Dragon Tale Theatre Group was formed.

“Since then it’s grown, we’re up to over 100 people involved now.

“Over the existence of the group, we’ve had 650 people involved – some have done one or two shows, some have been here for years.

“I think it’s the community feel of the group that brings people to us, along with the fact that in Prudhoe, we’re the only amateur dramatic group, which is a big draw. It gives people an opportunity.

“The quality of our shows brings people back to be in them and to watch.”

The first panto – Old Crocks, Frocks, and One Smoking Dragon – was an original work written by Jennifer McGee, but since 2004 they’ve stuck to traditional pantomimes such as Snow White, Dick Whittington and, most recently, Rapunzel.

It’s clearly working – Dragon Tale’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk last year saw them win the award for best pantomime in the north at the National Operatic and Dramatic Awards (NODA) evening, which took place at the Grand Hotel in Gosforth in September.

“It was amazing,” said Stu. “To receive that award as part of the 20th anniversary was the icing on the cake.

“It gave us reassurance that as a group, people like what we do. As a group, we were thrilled to win it.

“We’ve had three or four nominations for individuals, but this was the first one for an overall performance, so it was lovely. Everyone felt they had contributed to the win, it was so nice.”

The theatre group is run as a charity, and has provided opportunities for both young people and adults to explore music, dance, and drama.

As a group, it seeks to promote an improvement in self-confidence, self esteem and social interaction by placing equal value on the skills and contributions each member brings.

It’s not just actors that benefit – members of the group are involved in every part of productions, including sound and lighting, props, fund-raising, and ticket sales.

Stu added: “We have a reputation within the am-dram world for doing everything ourselves. We make our own backdrops and costumes – we’ve got quite a collection stored away now.

“That’s the essence of our shows – we try and use as many of our member’s talents as we can.

“Everything we do for our members is free – the members don’t pay. We want to be inclusive to anyone at all in Prudhoe and the surrounding area. We do a lot of fund-raising behind the scenes to do that.”

As well as the annual pantomime, singers and dancers from the group often perform at some of the biggest events in Prudhoe’s calendar – most prominently appearing in the parade at the annual Prudhoe Town Fair.

To mark its 20th anniversary, the group held an awards evening with members past and present, as well as a musical showcase at Prudhoe Working Men’s Club.

In a break from tradition, Dragon Tale will be putting on not one, but two performances this year. the group will be moving into musicals for the first time, with a performance of Oliver.

Stu added: “With it being the 20th anniversary, we’re trying something new and doing a musical.

“We have a lot of members who have done musicals and musical theatre, so there was a feeling that we wanted to try an musical, and it seemed like the right time.

“There’s a great feeling about it. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge with regards to acting in a musical, as it’s very different to acting in a panto.”

Oliver will be performed in April, before the group go back to rehearsing for next year’s pantomime in May.