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The Bristol Old Vic is the United Kingdom’s oldest continuously operating theatre, having opened its doors in May 1766. At the time of opening it did not possess the royal patent required for the public performance of plays, so productions were disguised as concerts and the theatre’s entrance was not directly accessible from the street to minimize unwanted attention.
Architect Thomas Paty supervised the construction of designs by David Garrick’s carpenter at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, James Saunders. The theatre was closely modeled on the Richmond Theatre in Surrey (1765) for which Saunders had provided drawings, and London’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (1674 building). The Bristol Old Vic is a rare example of an 18th century horseshoe theatre.
The 50 Bristolians who had each invested £50 to fund the theatre’s building received a silver ticket which granted them “sight of any show at the theatre for the rest of their lives”.
In the absence of the royal patent required for public performance of plays (Licensing Act 1737), the opening night was described as a concert “with a specimen of rhetoric”. Prolific actor David Garrick delivered the evening’s prologue. Patrons could not directly access the theatre from the street and instead had to knock on the door of a house belonging to a man named Mr Foote and walk through his backyard to reach the theatre’s entrance.
In 1788 the theatre was awarded a royal patent and became known as the Theatre Royal Bristol, at last able to openly advertise its performances. 12 years later actor William Wyatt Dimond took over the lease and the theatre was run jointly with the Theatre Royal in Bath, a single company performing at each theatre on different days. Major alterations were made by Dimond by raising the auditorium roof to accommodate the addition of a Gallery seating 550, a new sloping auditorium ceiling, and conversion of the Upper Circle to boxes accommodating 750. The total seating capacity was 1,620.
The relationship with the Bath Theatre Royal was disbanded in 1819 and management taken up by William Macready the elder. The theatre had little success at the time but its fortunes slowly turned-around in the 1850s under the management of his widow, Sarah Macready. In 1853 the Macready’s son-in-law, James Chute, took over following Sarah’s death, however Chute lost interest when he opened the New Theatre Royal Bristol on Park Row. By 1881 the theatre was in dire financial straits however well-known theatre architect C. J. Phipps oversaw the removal of the forestage, a fire curtain created upstage of the Proscenium Arch, and installation of a new ventilator amidst a new star-studded auditorium ceiling.
The 20th century saw a number of failed attempts to revive the theatre, and by the 1930s it was in a state of disrepair. In 1942 it was sold for conversion into a banana-ripening warehouse. Public outcry led to the suggestion that a revived theatre might emulate the recent success of London’s Old Vic theatre – that it could become Bristol’s “Old Vic”. In 1943 the forerunner of today’s UK Arts Council supported the reopening of the theatre, and following the end of the war experimented with the idea of subsidizing a regional theatre by sending an acting troupe from London’s Old Vic to Bristol. The Bristol Old Vic company went on to present many successful seasons at the theatre throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and the regional subsidy model was rolled-out across the UK.
In 1963 the Arts Council’s role was taken over by Bristol City Council and the Bristol Old Vic became fully independent of its London namesake.
In 1970 a major refurbishment was begun however ran out of money before it could be completed. Coopers’ Hall (1743-44), in front of the theatre on King St and operating as a fruit and vegetable market at the time, became the theatre’s new Front of House space while the previous entrance area was converted into a studio theatre. To enable the theatre to house elaborate sets and more efficiently transfer a show’s sets directly to other theatres, the 18th century stagehouse was demolished and rebuilt with a new fly tower, the stage was leveled, and the 19th century stage machinery underneath the stage removed. Money ran out before the auditorium’s seating could be adjusted to take account of the changed sightlines effected by the now level stage, resulting in large parts of the new stage not being visible from many of the old seats. Additionally, the building changes badly affected the theatre’s acoustics. There was no money available to fix the multiple issues and they persisted for over 30 years.
In 2007 public concern for the theatre’s survival resulted in formation of a new board of trustees. With the theatre dark by this time, the new board of trustees carried out essential remedial works before embarking on the first phase of a major refurbishment, completed in 2012. The £12 million project saw the original geometry of the Georgian theatre restored, auditorium seating reconfigured and replaced, new rehearsal facilities added, and improvements made backstage.
Following a period of consultation and careful design, in 2016 the major refurbishment’s second phase broke ground. The refurbishment is due for completion in Autumn 2018 and will see all Front Of House areas reconfigured and improved with the 18th century Coopers’ Hall being returned to its original use as an events space.
The theatre boasts a large scenic workshop with direct access to the stage, situated at the House Right side of the auditorium. Workshop facilities include a full-size paintframe, operated from the workshop floor with the paintframe disappearing into a slot in the workshop floor. Although still counterweighted it is now electrically, as opposed to manually, operated. For the duration of the 2016-2018 Front Of House refurbishment the workshop has been tastefully reimagined as the “Backstage Bar” and temporary theatre entrance, with the paintframe forming a natural division of the space between audience circulation and seating/display areas.
The Bristol Old Vic actively references its history for learning and educational purposes, and throughout the building there are interesting displays pointing out period features. The Gallery retains some of its original bench seating, parts of which were frequented by soliciting prostitutes in the 18th century. A 1981 scale model of the original stagehouse and 19th century stage machinery is a popular display piece with audiences. Replica 19th century rain and wind machines have been created for educational purposes, however the pièces de résistance is the 19th century “Thunder Run” which still exists in the attic above the auditorium. The Thunder Run created the sound of rumbling thunder when smoothed beech balls of varying diameter were released down a gently sloping wooden trough. It was last used as a stage effect in a production of King Lear in 2016. There are only three Thunder Runs remaining in UK theatres: the Bristol Old Vic, Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the Playhouse Theatre, the latter two both in London. The Bristol Old Vic’s Thunder Run is the oldest of the three and is located above the auditorium for maximum effect (the London Thunder Runs are located backstage).
Over the centuries many actors have sneaked-up to the theatre’s attic and its walls are covered in their signatures and sound bites representing over 250 years of theatrical performances at the Bristol Old Vic.
The Bristol Old Vic runs occasional weekend theatre tours which last one hour and cost £12 per person. Check the
Bristol Old Vic’s website for further details.
The theatre has previously participated in the annual Bristol Doors Open Day and may do so again in the future.
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