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The Bristol Old Vic is a theatre company based at the Theatre Royal, King Street, in Bristolmarker, Englandmarker. The theatre complex includes the 1766 Theatre Royal, which claims to be the oldest continually-operating theatre in England, along with a 1970s studio theatre (the New Vic), offices and backstage facilities. Since the 1972 rebuild, it also incorporates the eighteenth-century Coopers' Hall as its foyer. The entire complex has been Grade 1 listed since December 2000.

The present company was established in 1946 as an offshoot of the Londonmarker Old Vicmarker theatre. It is associated with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schoolmarker, which became a financially independent organisation in the 1990s. Bristol Old Vic also runs a popular Youth Theatre for school age students.

The theatre was closed from 2007-8, due to the need for a major refurbishment. It re-opened in December 2008 for one year; and will then close for refurbishment, which is planned to be completed by 2012. During the closure of the King Street premises, the company will relocate to other premises in central Bristol.

History of the theatre

The theatre is situated on cobbled King Streetmarker, a few yards from the Floating Harbourmarker. Since 1972, the public entrance is through the Coopers' Hall, the earliest surviving building on the site, having been built in 1744 for the Coopers' Company, the guild of cooper in Bristol, by architect William Halfpenny. It has a "debased Palladian" façade with four Corinthian columns. It only remained in the hands of the Coopers until 1785, subsequently becoming a public assembly room, a wine warehouse, a Baptist chapel and eventually a fruit and vegetable warehouse.

The "Theatre in King Street" was built to designs by Thomas Paty between 1764 and 1766 on land behind and to one side of the Coopers' Hall, with a passage through one of the houses in front of it serving as an entranceway. The design of the auditorium was based, with some variations, on that of the Drury Lanemarker Theatre Royalmarker in London. The theatre opened on 30 May 1766 with a performance which including a prologue and epilogue given by David Garrick. As the proprietors were not able to obtain a Royal Licence, productions were announced as "a concert with a specimen of rhetorick" to evade the restrictions imposed on theatres by the Licensing Act 1737. This ruse was soon abandoned, but a production in the neighbouring Coopers' Hall in 1773 did fall foul of this law.

Legal concerns were alleviated when the Royal Letters Patent were eventually granted in 1778, and the theatre became a patent theatre and took up the name "Theatre Royal". At this time the theatre also started opening for the winter season, and a joint company was established to perform at both the Bath Theatre Royalmarker and in Bristol, featuring famous names including Sarah Siddons, whose ghost, according to legend, haunts the Bristol theatre. The auditorium was rebuilt with a new sloping ceiling and gallery in 1800. After the break with Bath in 1819 the theatre was managed by William M'Cready, the father of William Charles Macready, with little success, but slowly rose again under his widow Sarah M'Cready in the 1850s. Following her death in 1853 the M'Creadys' son-in-law James Chute took over, but he lost interest in the Theatre Royal, which fell into decline when he opened the Prince's Theatre, originally known as the New Theatre Royal, in 1867. A new, narrow entrance was constructed through an adjacent building in 1903.

Formation of the Bristol Old Vic

Chute relinquished his lease on the Theatre Royal in 1861, concentrating his business at the Prince's Theatre, which was destroyed by German bombs during the Second World War. In 1942 the lease owners put the building up for sale. The sale was perceived as a possible loss of the building as a theatre and a public appeal was mounted to preserve its use, and as a result a new Trust was established to buy the building. The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) leased the building from the Trust and in 1946 CEMA's successor, the Arts Council, arranged for a company from the London Old Vic to staff it, thus forming the Bristol Old Vic. Early members of the company included Peter O'Toole, John Neville, Timothy West, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Dorothy Tutin. The first artistic director was Hugh Hunt. An early triumph for the Bristol Old Vic occurred when the 1954 première production of Salad Days transferred to the West Endmarker and became the longest-running musical on the London stage at that time. The Arts Council remained involved until 1963 when their role was taken over by the City Council. In the same year the London Old Vic was disbanded and the Bristol company became fully independent. The Bristol Old Vic also put plays on in the council-owned Little Theatre from then until 1980.

The present theatre complex, designed by Peter Moro, was completed in 1972. The 1903 entrance building was demolished, as were a number of surrounding buildings and, more controversially, the stage area of the 1766 theatre. A new stage and fly tower were built along with technical facilities and offices. The 150 seat New Vic Studio Theatre was built in place of the old entrance, and the Coopers' Hall provided the theatre with the grand façade and foyer area it had previously lacked.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s Bristol Old Vic productions were well received both locally and on tour, but by the late 80s chronic underfunding placed the company in danger. A revival occurred under the leadership of Andrew (Andy) Hay who ran his first season with a company of 16 including musical director John O'Hara and associate directors Ian Hastings and Kristine Landon-Smith, producing nine plays in the Theatre Royal, the New Vic and on a small scale regional tour. An increase in audience numbers and a varied programme of classics, new work and popular entertainment, including annual pantomimes followed.

Local companies and small scale touring companies were given access to the studio and the Theatre Royal and an experimental space was developed in the former basement bar area. However the funding problems did not cease and the company was not financially viable, partly as a result of the relatively small capacity of the performance spaces.

Current status

Interior of the main theatre
Despite a new Arts Council funding package and the appointment of David Farr and Simon Reade as joint Artistic directors in January 2003,

the company continued to lose money. Farr and Reade briefly branded the organisation as the "new bristol old vic" and its two theatres were temporarily called the "main house" and the "studio". Farr left Bristol to join the Lyric Theatremarker, Hammersmithmarker, in the summer of 2005,

leaving Reade as sole artistic director.

In July 2007, the board of trustees made a shock decision to close the theatre due to its need for refurbishment. Reade left without announcing the closure to staff, most of whom were made redundant. Many members of the theatre profession feared for the future of Bristol Old Vic as a producing organisation.

Facade of the Old Vic
several public meetings in the winter of 2007/2008 a new board of trustees was formed and they appointed Dick Penny, the director of the Watershed Media Centremarker and the former director of the city's Little Theatre as executive chairman. The Bristol Old Vic will work throughout 2009 in the Theatre Royal Complex, after the completion of safety works in Autumn 2008. They plan to relocate in 2010, possibly to L-shed, a former dockside warehouse, where the company produced A. C. H. Smith's Up the Feeder Down the Mouth and Back Again in 2001. In 2012 they will move back to the re-developed Theatre Royal complex. Some reservations about the plan have been expressed, especially in respect of the knock-on effects on other Bristol arts organisations which are suffering funding cuts from the city council.

On 25 February 2009 the company announced that Tom Morris, currently an associate director at the Royal National Theatremarker and formerly head at Battersea Arts Centremarker, had been appointed as Artistic Director.


The Bristol Old Vic has a long history of taking productions on tour both within the United Kingdommarker and overseas. Notable production toured include Hamlet, Arms and the Man and A Man for all Seasons to Ceylon and Pakistan in 1962-63;

Hamlet and Measure for Measure to America, Holland and Belgium in 1966-67 and Man and Superman to the June Schauspielhaus Festival in Zurich, 1958.The company has also made frequent visits to the Edinburgh Festival and productions have toured to the Theatre Royal Bathmarker, Oxford Playhousemarker, Royal Court Theatremarker, London and the Young Vicmarker, London amongst others. Co-productions have taken Bristol Old Vic plays to most of Britain's major theatres.

Artistic directors of the Bristol Old Vic

Name Period Notable productions
Hugh Hunt 1946-1949 The Beaux' Stratagem, The Playboy of the Western World, An Inspector Calls, Romeo and Juliet
Allan Davis 1950 Arms and the Man, Julius Caesar
Denis Carey 1950-1954 The Merry Wives of Windsor, Macbeth, An Italian Straw Hat, The Alchemist
John Moody 1954-1959 The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Recruiting Officer, As You Like It
John Hale 1959-1962 The Clandestine Marriage, A Taste of Honey, Rhinoceros, Richard II
Val May 1962-1975 Brand, The Killing of Sister George, Hamlet, The Italian Girl, Uncle Vanya
Richard Cottrell 1975-1980 The National Health, Hedda Gabler, As You Like It, A Doll's House, A Midsummer Night's Dream
John David 1980-1986 Judy, King Lear, Wild Oats, Arturo Ui, The Tempest
Leon Rubin 1986-1987 The Doctor's Dilemma
Paul Unwin 1987-1991 The Man Who Had All the Luck, Hamlet, The Master Builder
Andy Hay 1991-2002 Blue Remembered Hills, The Duchess of Malfi, The Hairy Ape, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Marat/Sade, A Streetcar Named Desire
David Farr and Simon Reade 2003-2005 Loot (Farr), The Odyssey (Farr), Private Peaceful (Reade)
Simon Reade 2005-2007 The Birthday Party
Tom Morris 2009-present

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, opened by Laurence Olivier in 1946, is an affiliate of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, an organisation securing the highest standards of training in the performing arts, and is an associate school of the University of the West of Englandmarker. The School began life in October 1946, only eight months after the founding of its parent Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, in a room above a fruit merchant's warehouse in the Rackhay near the stage door of the Theatre Royal. (The yard of the derelict St Nicholas School adjacent to the warehouse was still used by the Company for rehearsals of crowd scenes and stage fights as late as the early 1960s, notably for John Hale's productions of Romeo and Juliet starring the Canadian actor Paul Massie and Annette Crosbie, a former student of the School, and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac with Peter Wyngarde. Students from the Theatre School frequently played in these crowd scenes and fights.)

The School continued in these premises until 1954 when royalties from the musical, Salad Days by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds were given to the School towards the purchase and conversion of two large adjoining Victorian villas in Clifton, which remain their base today.

In 1995, that donation was formally recognised when a new custom-built dance and movement studio in the School's back garden was named the Slade/Reynolds Studio. The School provides comprehensive training courses for theatre, radio, film, and television professionals and its graduates are to be found in key positions as actors, directors, set designers, costumer designers, lighting designers and stage and company managers throughout the world.

Among the most notable of the many distinguished actors on the School's list of alumni are the Academy Award winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeremy Irons.

See Alumni of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

See also


Further reading

  • B. Little &, P. Moro, The Story of the Theatre Royal Bristol, Trustees of the Theatre Royal, 1981
  • K. Barker, The Theatre Royal Bristol: The First Seventy Years, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association, 1961
  • A. Gomme, M. Jenner & B. Little, Bristol: an Architectural History, Lund Humphries, 1979
  • Walter Ison, The Georgian Buildings of Bristol, Kingsmead Press, 1952
  • Kathleen Barker, The Theatre Royal Bristol 1766-1966: Two Centuries of Stage History, The Society for Theatre Research, 1974 ISBN 0-85430-022-8
  • Audrey Williams and Charles Landstone, Bristol Old Vic—the First Ten Years, J. Garnet Miller Limited, 1957

External links

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