On the evening of the 20th November in 1928 a small group of Ilkley ‘worthies’ met in a committee room in Sedbergh Buildings at the bottom of Cowpasture Road to discuss the formation of a theatrical society for the town.  By the end of that evening the group had decided the new society would be called ‘The Ilkley Players’ and they planned that their first production would be The Man From Toronto by Douglas Murray.  It was presented in St Margaret’s Hall for two nights at the end of January 1929.  

The members from that first production planned that any profits ‘would be devoted to the improvement of the stage, the stage lighting in the hall, drop curtains and ‘tip-up’ chairs for the comfort of the audience’. Two committee rooms were later needed to accommodate the growing membership, and the adjoining wall was demolished to join the two rooms.

The Committee Minute Book for April 10th 1932 states in closing:  

“The AGM would be held on the premises whether the members had to scale a mound of bricks and mortar or whether the rooms could be decorated by then.   The Chairman then went home to lunch and the meeting broke up in enthusiastic hilarity and good-natured disorder.”

By 1931 there were sixty members and double that by 1934.  In 1930 the Players had moved to the King’s Hall which was to be their home until June 1937 when the cost of hiring that venue was discussed and the amount of £15.15 shillings per performance meant that it was impossible to make a profit, so new premises were sought, and the upstairs furniture store of the Liberal Club situated at the bottom of Weston Road was hired in the summer of 1938.  

For two years the Players continued as a private members club with admission by invitation ticket only, together with an individual ‘donation’ in a sealed envelope of 2/6d because they were denied a public performance licence as there was no adequate fire escape.  One was built in 1940 and served the theatre until its subsequent removal in the re-development of 1997.

During the war years with many members away in the services, the Players continued to perform, often with a cast of only three or four actors, and apart from the occasional performance at home, a production of Private Lives in April 1940. There was a demand for entertainment in local garrison theatres, hospitals, hostels and for munitions workers, and the Players went on tour, sometimes playing to an audience of a thousand in Leeds, Halifax, or in Skipton and the surrounding areas. Visits were also made to several village halls in the Dales.  In 1942 a committee was formed to establish the Ilkley Players Concert Club to perform Sunday High Class Music.  Audience demand became so high that the concerts moved to the Winter Gardens in 1943, and these events later became the Ilkley Concert Club which still thrives today.

The Players continued to renovate their theatre until 1960 when they had the opportunity to buy the whole building for £1,750.  During the following years the premises were steadily improved, largely under the leadership of David Wildman who joined the Playhouse in 1958.   David became the Player’s Artistic Director for many years and his uncompromising and overwhelming influence and vision was felt in every aspect of the theatre, particularly as a designer of memorable sets.  David also instigated in 1975 the Players first visit to perform at the Minack Open-Air Theatre, that magical venue overlooking the sea in the far south-west of Cornwall. The visits have continued almost every two years since then.

In 1995 the Playhouse embarked on applying for a Lottery Grant which eventually enabled the building of new workshops, dressing rooms, a large costume department and the Wildman Studio Theatre which was officially opened by Ilkley’s Alan Titchmarsh in 1998.  David Wildman had taught Alan and fostered his initial interest in theatre as a teenager.

Now the Playhouse has approximately six hundred members including patrons and actors, and the theatre produces eight main house plays every season in the Wharfeside Theatre and several productions in the Wildman Studio and the premises are regularly used by visiting theatre companies, musicians, writers and poets, stand-up comedy nights, Ilkley Film Society, the U3A, and as two important venues for the Annual Ilkley Literature Festival.  Green Room classes for youngsters to learn stage craft and improvisation are held weekly during the winter months.

Since its inception Ilkley Playhouse has become one of leading non-professional community theatres in the country, and together with its Board of Trustees and Theatre Committees, dedicated staff and volunteer supporters it continues to be a creative and disciplined society... and it is worth confirming that the members have a lot of fun and, as in April 1932, often enjoy ‘good natured and enthusiastic hilarity’.