Theatre Britain closed its doors last month after more than two decades of entertaining audiences in the Lone Star State. The single-stage company in Plano, Texas offered the region a unique transatlantic exchange, presenting classic British farces, new works by British playwrights, and original holiday pantomimes, or pantos. Founded by two Brits, Jackie Mellor-Guin and Pauline Bourqui, in Dallas in 1996, the company then moved 20 miles north, to Plano in 2010, with Sue Birch, another Brit, as the company’s president and treasurer. Now she and her husband, Ian Birch, the company’s production manager and set builder, are traveling back home across the pond, leaving behind a legacy of British plays, old and new, including a beloved tradition of holiday pantos for Texan families.
ALLISON CONSIDINE: Why move now?
SUE BIRCH: My husband and I have been working with Theatre Britain for 20-odd years. We have loved it here, and we made our home here. I am very proud of what Theatre Britain has achieved. But as we are getting older—we have no family here, it is just the two of us—it seemed like a good time to move back while we are young enough and healthy enough to have another life over there and to be with family.
The other thing is that last year around this time, Mark Trew, our very great friend—and Theatre Britain’s resident photographer, who took all of our production and publicity photos—passed away suddenly. He was only our age, and it sort of concentrated our minds a little bit about not being near family. This really was a personal decision, rather than a company business decision.
Was there any discussion about passing the leadership to someone else?
The board thought very carefully about that, but then came to the decision that we should go out on a high and just say, “We achieved this and we need to come to a close.”
What was the mission of Theatre Britain?
Our mission was to produce and promote work by British playwrights. It really started as one of those “Let’s put on a show!” moments, with four British women sitting around having a cup of tea and saying, “There is no panto here, let’s put one on.” Jackie, who really was the mover and shaker behind the company and who writes the pantos every year, moved to L.A. in 1998, and the company went dark for a few years. I couldn’t take it over then because I didn’t have a work permit, but then I found a play I wanted to do in 2002, and decided to revive the company—at which time I was legally able to. Everyone who came to see it loved it, but the question they kept asking in the lobby was, “When are you going to do another panto?”
For our readers who don’t know: What is a panto?
Here’s where the famous “two countries divided by a common language” comes into play. American pantomime is silent, British pantomime (“panto” for short) is anything but. It’s a fairytale told in the style of a melodrama, with outrageous characters, audience participation, songs, dances, corny jokes, puns that make you groan, and a story that works on two levels—with plenty for the kids and for adults alike. Pantos became something that we had to do every year because people didn’t want it to go away. And that is the sad part about closing the company down—that it is going to go away. And there is nothing quite like it in North Texas at all.
Do other U.S. companies produce pantos?
Not many. There is a company in Houston, Stages Repertory Theatre, that started to do one a few years ago. There is a company in Chicago that does them as well; one of our principal boys who did Snow White with us years ago lives there and does panto with them. It is so interesting for us to have introduced it to Texas and to have seen how it has grown. Rather massively, actually—like a mushroom! Now we have American families who consider it their tradition. We see them year to year and the kids have grown. There is a rite of passage with panto, because it is full of innuendo and double entendre—that goes right over the heads of the children. They come each year, and it is a rite of passage when they finally get the jokes. They look at their parents and go, “Oh, so that’s what you’ve been laughing at for all these years!”
Looking back, what are some of your favorite productions at Theatre Britain?
I would say my two favorites are Cinderella and Dick Whittington.
What are your plans for the future?
I am going back to be an actor. That is where I started. I always wanted to be an actor, since I was a very small child. I went off and did other things, and ended up being a project manager with a computer manufacturer. It became clear that when I got into my early 30s that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, and so I gave that up and went to train as an actor. That is still my first love. I’m sort of a project manager again instead of being an actor. So I am really looking forward to going back and just working on that side of things.
Where are you headed?
We’re going to the Wirral, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool. There is a great theatre scene there, which I am really looking forward to checking out. It will give me a chance to go and see lots of new things.
How are you feeling about the transition?
It has been a really exciting adventure. When we got here, we thought it was for 18 months and that we’d be going back. I had some great acting experiences here, not just with Theatre Britain, but also with Dallas Children’s Theater, Theatre3, Circle Theatre—all of those great theatres and some smaller companies as well. That is what I thought I was going to be doing, acting. And somehow this wonderful thing came about and this theatre grew. It is very interesting for me to hear responses from actors and patrons when we told them that we were going to close—the love that we felt from them, and how many wonderful things they’ve told us about how our work has touched them, and how they are going to miss us terribly. That’s very gratifying.