Our Story

History of the Theatre

We opened our doors in 1965 as a proud memorial to the much-loved French actress who had made her home in Effingham Common, and whose warmth, humour and talent gave her an unrivalled position on the English stage for nearly fifty years.

The first Artistic Director was Laurier Lister who delighted audiences from his opening production with Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave in A Month In The Country; The Cardinal of Spain featuring a powerful performance by Max Adrian; Sybil Thorndike's penultimate role as the murderess in The Viaduct; Wendy Hiller and Gladys Cooper in Somerset Maugham's The Sacred Flame; Alec Guinness's riveting scientist in Time out of Mind to A Midsummer Night's Dream which featured the complete Mendelssohn Score, especially recorded by a sixty piece orchestra.

After ten years Val May took up the reins of Artistic Director and built on this success, continuing to balance classical and popular theatre with Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Chekhov rubbing shoulders with Coward, Priestley, Ayckbourn and Stoppard. From mammoth musicals to distinguished modern works by Michael Frayn and Anthony Shaffer, 34 premieres were staged and 27 productions transferred to London’s West End during the decade, which enabled the theatre to stand on its own two feet and withstand the withdrawal of the Arts Council subsidy.

James Barber began his association with his hometown theatre as Assistant Stage Manager in 1978, quickly progressing to Deputy and Company Stage Manager roles before becoming General Manager, and succeeding Val May as the Theatre’s Director in 1992.  One of the most consistently successful regional theatre managers in recent decades, James’ tenure saw the Theatre create 157 productions (including 77 new plays), which toured to over 80 different cities, providing 873 weeks of product for other regional theatres and 58 transferred to London.  After nearly 40 years of dedication to the Yvonne Arnaud, James passed away on Friday, December 29, 2017.

Joanna Read joined the Yvonne Arnaud as Theatre Director and Chief Executive in January 2019.  A theatre director by profession, Joanna was Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Salisbury Playhouse prior to her most recent role as Principal and Chief Executive of LAMDA, The London Academy of Dramatic Arts.

We opened our Mill Studio in 1993 to provide a venue for small-scale work by professional companies that would not otherwise be seen in Guildford. It is also the home to our growing Creative Learning programme. The historic Old Town Mill dates from the eighteenth century and had previously been used as the theatre's scenery workshop. In 1997 its success was rewarded with a Lottery grant to upgrade the facilities, and since then it has continued to expand its audience and the range of productions presented. 

Today, we offer an exciting mix of classical and contemporary work staged by new, lesser-known and established writers, on both the Main Stage and in the Mill Studio.  Ballet, opera and children's events as well as music, comedy and contemporary dance all feature in our programme of events.  In addition, we present film seasons and host an annual art exhibition. We are proud to produce our own acclaimed annual pantomime and to offer opportunities and activities for community engagement all year round.  

We gratefully acknowledge the support of Guildford Borough Council and our loyal audience.