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Theatre Royal, Bristol

Theatre Royal, Bristol

First Opened: 30th May 1766 (253 years ago)

Also Know As: Bristol Old Vic

Former Names: The Bristol Theatre

Website: www.bristololdvic.org.uk Open website in new window

Telephone: 0117 949 3993 Call 0117 949 3993

Address: King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED Show address in Google Maps (new window)

Featured Photos

Overview

The Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre Royal 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 Foundation Stone was laid on 30th November 1764, with the intent of opening the theatre the next Summer. The 50 subscribers 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”.

The Circle, as originally built, consisted of nine boxes which were named for dramatic poets: Shakespeare (center box), with Johnson, Vanburgh, Row, and Steele to the right; and Fletcher, Congreve, Otway, and Cibber to the left. The eight upper side boxes, on either side of the Gallery, bore the names Garrick, Witcherley, Addison, Farquhar, Dryden, Lee, Shadwell, and Colman. The Pit (Orchestra/Stalls level) accommodated 320, the Gallery 530, and the Boxes 750, giving a total seating capacity of 1,600.

Messrs. Powell, Arthur, and Clarke took a lease of seven years on the theatre and presented its opening night in late May 1766. 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 1777 the theatre was awarded a royal patent, reopening on 30th November 1778 as the Theatre Royal, Bristol. John Palmer, a brewer and chandler from the neighboring town of Bath who had invested in the theatre there and secured its royal patent in 1768, took out a 20 year lease on the theatre. Palmer obtained the royal patent and completed work in the Gallery (conversion of the upper boxes into a full gallery, with new raised ceiling, seating 550, for a total seating capacity of 1,620). The theatre was run jointly with the Theatre Royal in Bath, a single company performing at each theatre on different days. By 1785 Palmer had transferred his licences to actor William Wyatt Dimond.

C.J. Phipps’ late 19th Century Auditorium
C.J. Phipps’ late 19th Century Auditorium

The relationship with the Bath Theatre Royal was disbanded in 1817 when the theatre was acquired by Mr John Boles-Watson, who had an unsuccessful run at the theatre and in March 1819 the lease reverted to William MaCready the elder. MaCready was an actor with little experience of management and so entrusted management to his son, William Charles MaCready. In August of 1819 the theatre was fitted with “coal-gas” lighting, replacing the earlier oil lamps. The theatre had little success at the time but its fortunes slowly turned-around in the late 1840s and 1850s under the management of his widow, Sarah MaCready. In September 1845 Sarah “Mrs Mac” MaCready became lessee and manageress of both the Bristol and Bath Theatre Royals. Mrs MaCready died 9th March 1853 and she was buried in the cathedral in Bristol, next to her husband. 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. in 1867 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 was completed in late 2018, seeing all Front Of House areas reconfigured and improved with the 18th century Coopers’ Hall being returned to its original use as an events space.

Scenic Workshop
Scenic Workshop

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 paint frame, operated from the workshop floor with the paint frame 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 was tastefully reimagined as the “Backstage Bar” and temporary theatre entrance, with the paint frame forming a natural division of the space between audience circulation and seating/display areas.

19th Century Thunder Run
19th Century Thunder Run

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 four Thunder Runs remaining in UK theatres: the Bristol Old Vic, the Globe Theatre in Plymouth, Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the Playhouse Theatre, the latter two located in London. The Bristol Old Vic’s Thunder Run is the oldest 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.

Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances

Movies

Television

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Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Theatre Royal?

The theatre runs regular tours, generally every Thursday and Saturday morning at 10:30am, which last one hour and cost £12 per person (£10 concessions). Spaces regularly included on the tour: the new Bristol Old Vic foyer; the Georgian Auditorium, Stage, Gallery, and Pit passages; the Paintshop and Paint Frame; the Weston Studio; and Coopers’ Hall. Access is subject to theatre operations at the time of your tour and some areas may be restricted. Check the theatre’s website Link opens in new window for further details and online booking.

The theatre has previously participated in the annual Bristol Open Doors Link opens in new window event and may do so again in the future.


Upcoming Special Events
** CANCELED ** Theatre Tour

** CANCELED ** Theatre Tour (9th April 2020, 10:30am)

** THIS EVENT HAS BEEN CANCELED **

Explore the Georgian auditorium, working Paintshop, Weston Studio, historic Coopers’ Hall and more, on one of our Theatre Tours.

Combining myth, fact and Bristolian folklore, our Theatre Tours expertly weave past and present into a thrilling and informative experience. Gain an in-depth knowledge of Bristol Old Vic’s two-and-a-half-century history with one of our experienced tour guides: from the origin of the Georgian theatre’s design, to details of our 2018 renovation.

The perfect morning for anyone with an interest in 18th or 19th Century theatre, architecture and Bristol Old Vic’s rich history.

Tours generally run Thursdays and Saturdays at 10:30am and last approximately 60 minutes. Comfortable shoes advised. Please advise your tour guide if you are uncomfortable with heights. Tickets £12 (£10 concessions).

Spaces regularly included on the tour: the new Bristol Old Vic foyer; the Georgian Auditorium, Stage, Gallery, and Pit passages; the Paintshop and Paint Frame; the Weston Studio; Cooper’s Hall.

Additional Info: Audio Enhancement via a headset of the loop system is available; Our Tour script can be requested in advance or on the day; The Tour includes steps, and whilst every effort has been made to make this tour accessible, the gallery can only be accessed via steps.

As a working theatre with ongoing performances, rehearsals, and other technical work, there are certain times when parts of the building will be inaccessible. We do not schedule tours during busy periods, and are committed to providing as much behind-the-scenes access as possible. In rare circumstances it may be necessary for tours to be rescheduled.

Click here to go to the event website. Link opens in new window

Further Reading

Online

Books

Technical Information

Flying System
Counterweight System
Double-purchase operated from Stage Right Fly Floor
Linesets
33 (4 lines per Lineset)
General Information
Seating Capacity
Total 540 (Pit 128; Dress Circle 133; Upper Circle & Boxes 134; Gallery 127; Standing 18)
Historic Photos & Documents

Historic files shown here may be subject to copyright; review our “Fair Use” statement here.

Photos of the Theatre Royal

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium
  2. Auditorium: Pit
  3. Auditorium: Dress Circle
  4. Auditorium: Upper Circle
  5. Auditorium: Gallery
  6. Front of House
  7. Weston Studio
  8. Coopers’ Hall
  9. Coopers’ Loft
  10. Noises Off
  11. Exterior
  12. Backstage
  13. Fly Floor
  14. Auditorium Attic and Thunder Run
  15. Scenic Workshop
  16. Exterior: 2016-18 Front-of-House Renovation
Auditorium

The theatre’s original color scheme was stone-colored walls, panels in pale green and cornices/capitals picked-out in gold. The current scrollwork and ceiling decoration dates to C.J. Phipps’ makeover in 1881, with the color scheme being Victorian.

Immediately upstage of the boxes on both sides of the stage, where vertical arrays of technical equipment are now located, were “Proscenium Doors” which allowed actors to enter and exit the stage using conventional doors located very close to the audience. Proscenium Doors were a hallmark of Georgian theatre design; the doors would have originally been fitted with knockers and bells.

Auditorium: Pit

The Pit is what would now be called the Stalls, or in US terms, the Orchestra seating. The Pit would have originally consisted of benches where common people would have sat to attend the theatre, quite often bringing food with them to eat during the performance (or throw at the performers if they were not impressed).

Auditorium: Dress Circle

The Dress Circle is roughly level with the Stage and originally consisted of boxes of varying sizes which essentially surrounded the stage on three sides.

The Dress Circle’s remaining boxes (Macready Box house right, Royal Box house left) are now open to the stage, however their original configuration was as enclosed audience boxes flanking the sides of the original stage.

Immediately upstage of the boxes on both sides of the stage, where vertical arrays of technical equipment are now located, were “Proscenium Doors” which allowed actors to enter and exit the stage using conventional doors located very close to the audience. Proscenium Doors were a hallmark of Georgian theatre design; the doors would have originally been fitted with knockers and bells.

Auditorium: Upper Circle

The Upper Circle is the level above the Dress Circle and Pit area, and looks down onto the Stage. Originally most of the Upper Circle was divided into small boxes. It was later opened-up into regular seating with a single box remaining at either side closest to the Stage.

The Garrick Box, located House Left, features a hatch which used to open directly onto the Stage. In the 18th Century the VIPs who sat in the box did not socialize with the hoi polloi out in the galleries, rather it was expected they would socialize with the actors during intervals between performances, hence the hatch open to the Stage.

Auditorium: Gallery

The Gallery is the highest level of seating and is not original to the 1766 theatre; it was added around 1800. Seating in the Gallery consisted of wooden benches, some of which are still in situ, and is where ladies of the night would try and drum up business while the show played-out on the stage.

The theatre’s original color scheme was stone-colored walls, panels in pale green and cornices/capitals picked-out in gold. The current scrollwork and ceiling decoration dates to C. J. Phipps’ makeover in 1881, with the color scheme being Victorian.

Front of House

Front of House areas were the subject of a major multi-million pound redevelopment project which was completed in September 2018.

Previous to the renovation the main entrance was through the basement of Coopers’ Hall; post-renovation the entrance is an entirely new space created to the west of the previous theatre entrance, with Coopers’ Hall being transformed into a studio theatre, events space, and loft space.

The massive windows facing onto King St are shaded by screens made of steel, stenciled with the words of David Garrick’s address at the theatre’s opening in 1766.

Weston Studio

The Weston Studio is a new performance space created as part of the multi-million pound Front-of-House redevelopment project, completed in September 2018.

The gallery level is at main floor level, below Coopers’ Hall, and extends down into the basement of the building which was originally built as a barrel store.

Coopers’ Hall

Coopers’ Hall, originally built 1743-44, was incorporated into the theatre in the 1970s. As part of the theatre’s 2016-18 Front-of-House redevelopment project Coopers’ Hall was returned to its 18th Century glory.

Coopers’ Loft

Coopers’ Loft was created in the 2016-18 major redevelopment project and is a small low-ceilinged studio space above the historic Coopers’ Hall (built 1743-44). The original mid 18th Century ceiling beams were exposed as part of the project (albeit strengthened with modern beams).

Noises Off

“Noises Off” is an interactive exhibit on the use of sound effects in live theatre. The exhibit includes recreations of 19th Century wind and rain machines, and culminates in a look at the 19th Century “Thunder Run” still in-situ in the attic above the theatre’s auditorium.

Exterior

The theatre gained a proper entrance through the Coopers’ Hall in the early 1970s.

The entire Front-of-House area underwent reconstruction and expansion during 2016-2018 to provide enhanced audience facilities and additional performance spaces. During the project audiences entered via the Stage Door, and the Scenic Workshop – including use of historic paint frame as a bar – was temporarily turned into an audience reception area.

As part of the the redevelopment project a new entrance space was created to the left of Coopers’ Hall. The massive windows for the new development are shaded by screens made of steel and stenciled with the words of David Garrick’s address at the theatre’s opening in 1766. The new space includes a cafeteria and welcome spaces for all performance venues at the theatre complex.

Backstage

The theatre’s 19th Century stage machinery was removed in 1977 as part of a renovation which saw the stagehouse rebuilt and the stage levelled. A further renovation 2007-2012 completely re-worked the backstage facilities and the theatre now boasts state-of-the-art technical facilities.

Fly Floor

The theatre’s 19th Century stage machinery was removed in 1977 as part of a renovation which saw the stagehouse rebuilt and the stage levelled. A further renovation 2007-2012 completely re-worked the backstage facilities and the theatre now boasts state-of-the-art technical facilities.

Auditorium Attic and Thunder Run

The Bristol Old Vic’s Thunder Run is one of only three Thunder Runs left in the UK, and the only Thunder Run located above the auditorium as opposed to backstage. The Thunder Run was most recently used in a production of “King Lear” in 2016.

The theatre’s attic dates from 1800 when the ceiling and roof were raised to accommodate a new Gallery level in the auditorium. Many actors have snuck up into the attic and left their mark on the attic walls.

Scenic Workshop

During the 2016-18 Front-of-House redevelopment project, audiences entered via the Stage Door. The Scenic Workshop, including its historic paint frame which featured as a bar, was temporarily turned into and audience reception area.

The paint frame, originally manually operated, is now electrically operated. Painters work at floor level and the paint frame descends into the basement - a very convenient arrangement.

Exterior: 2016-18 Front-of-House Renovation

Photos from the £25M Front-of-House reconstruction and expansion project which took place from 2016 to 2018, providing enhanced audience facilities and additional performance spaces.



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