Timeline: Britain’s oldest working theatre turns 250

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    Original ‘silver tickets’
    Original ‘silver tickets’

    Bristol Old Vic, the oldest working theatre in the English-speaking world, will celebrate its 250th anniversary on Monday 30 May with a weekend of celebrations planned over the coming bank holiday weekend (28 May to 30 May).

    There will be a wealth of celebrations taking place to mark the occasion but here we take a look at the long and eventful history of the theatre.

    For more a full programme of events, visit the theatre here.

    1764 A campaign was started to build a new theatre as it was a matter of civic pride that Bristol had a theatre worthy of its status as the leading provincial city in England. The advice of David Garrick was therefore sought and the theatre designed by the carpenter he recommended, James Saunders, who he called “clear-brained to the skull of him”.

    30 Nov 1764 The foundation stone was laid and because of the marshy conditions on the site, a “raft” of rushes was laid down as foundation for the building.

    1765 The theatre was funded by a group of fifty citizens, each of whom invested an initial £50 in the project, in exchange for which they received a silver ticket, which entitled them to a “sight” of any show in the theatre forever. Investors included local councillors, two future MPs and at least three Quakers.

    Early play bills from Bristol Old Vic before it received its royal patent – 1768 and 1773 – courtesy of Bristol Record Office
    Early play bills from Bristol Old Vic before it received its royal patent – 1768 and 1773 – courtesy of Bristol Record Office

    30 May 1766 The theatre opened with a capacity of more than 1,000. Built when the average lifespan of a theatre building was just 17 years – most were burnt or demolished before that – it is now the oldest working theatre in the English-speaking world.

    At that time, due to political offence caused by satirical plays, 18th-century theatre was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain under the Licensing Act of 1737 and royal permission in the form of a ‘patent’ was needed to stage plays. It had been hidden away from the street behind a row of houses. To gain admission, people had to go through these houses, belonging to a Mr Foote and a Mr Gill to access the theatre entrance itself.

    1766  The first performance at the theatre was advertised as ‘a concert of music and a specimen of Rhetorick’, thus evading the restrictions of the 1737 Act. Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers and a farce ‘The Miller of Mansfield’ were acted between the performances of the orchestra. Garrick wrote the prologue and epilogue, and reportedly dubbed the playhouse “the most exquisitely designed theatre in Europe.”

    1778 Despite various Puritan bodies – which were particularly strong in 18th-century Bristol – continuing to oppose the theatre on moral and religious grounds, it was eventually awarded its Royal patent, and enabled them to use the title ‘Theatre Royal’. This legalised its status and allowed it to openly advertise and legally perform full length plays.

    K1778 - Royal patent for Theatre Royal, Bristol, courtesy of Bristol Record Office
    1778 Royal patent for Theatre Royal, Bristol, courtesy of Bristol Record Office

    1779 Sarah Siddons played up to 30 roles in a season from 1779 to 1782.

    C1785 - Sarah Siddons as Isabella from The Tragedy of Isabella, or The Fatal Marriage. Painting by William Hamilton. Courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
    1785 – Sarah Siddons as Isabella from The Tragedy of Isabella, or The Fatal Marriage. Painting by William Hamilton. Courtesy of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

    1800 The ceiling of the auditorium was raised and sloped back to accommodate a new gallery and additional boxes, increasing the capacity to more than 1,600, which is 1,000 more than the theatre holds today. The great actress Sarah Siddons learnt her trade in this company and the theatre also hosted most of the theatrical greats of the time, including Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready and Grimaldi, the famous clown.

    1830 For a production of The Elephant of Siam on 12 April 1830, an elephant was part of the act on stage. Because the Rackhay entrance was too low to admit the animal, part of the rear wall of the Theatre had to be taken down to get it in!

    1831 Manager Richard Brunton tried to alter the theatre layout to remove the “geese” or prostitutes who used to solicit custom from the upper circle boxes.

    1834 Sarah M’Cready became the indomitable manager of the theatre, which she ran for nearly 20 years. Her ghost is said to haunt the theatre to this day.

    web19th-Century-graffiti-in-Bristol-Old-Vic1850s & 60s There is evidence remaining of 19th century graffiti in the theatre including a delightful graffiti sketch of a schooner in full-sail, probably scratched by the theatre’s carpenter E J Harwell in 1859.

    1867 In 1867, as King Street became a risky and undesirable river-side slum, a New Theatre Royal (later renamed the Princes Theatre) was built and opened on Park Row and the theatre on King Street was renamed “The Old Theatre Royal” and then, as it became more and more down-market, “The Old” or even ‘The Old Gaff’.

    1905 Electricity was used to light the theatre’s auditorium for the first time. Theatres were previously lit by gas and, earlier still, by candles and oil lamps, which had caused so many to burn down.

    1939-1945 Much of ancient Bristol was destroyed during World War II but the theatre sustained only slight damage. Most of the original theatre machinery survived until this time.

    Thunder-Run-with-balls---Photography-by-JonCraig.co.uk
    Thunder Run with balls Credit: JonCraig.co.uk

    28 Jan 1942 After falling into a state of disrepair and a series of failed attempts to revive it as a theatre, the Bristol theatre was sold at auction for £10,500 to the Metal Agencies Company, who planned to turn it into a banana ripening warehouse. A similar fate had befallen the 1772 Theatre Royal in Liverpool, which served as a warehouse for over 80 years before its demolition in 1970.

    1 May 1942 An appeal was mounted to save the theatre. At a crowded public meeting, a cannonball was released down the 18th century thunder run to rally support

    11 May 1943 Bristol Old Vic Thunder Run – one of only three left in the country and the oldest by 130 years. With support from the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (C.E.M.A.), the forerunner of the Arts Council, the theatre reopened with a production of She Stoops to Conquer.

    1954 - Bristol Old Vic UK premiere of The Crucible, starring Rosemary Harris and Edgar Wreford. Photographer: Desmond Tripp. Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
    1954 – Bristol Old Vic UK premiere of The Crucible, starring Rosemary Harris and Edgar Wreford. Photographer: Desmond Tripp. Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

    1946 C.E.M.A (soon to become the Arts Council) decided to experiment with the idea of subsidising a regional theatre for the first time by asking the London Old Vic to send a company of actors to the Theatre Royal in Bristol. The first production by the Bristol Old Vic Company was The Beaux Strategem which opened on Feb 19, 1946 – 70 years ago.

    21 Oct, 1946 The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School was opened by Laurence Olivier, shortly after the foundation of the Company itself. Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, past students include Brian Blessed, Naomi Harris, Olivia Coleman, Theo James, Stephanie Cole, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Patricia Routledge, Miranda Richardson, Greta Scacchi and Gene Wilder.

    1951 The theatre closed for redecoration during the summer. A photographic record was made of the backstage areas.

    1946-1950s The new Bristol Old Vic Company presented a series of highly successful seasons with a dazzling array of actors including Rosemary Harris, Cyril Cusack, William Devlin and Pamela Brown and a range of hit productions from the British premiere of The Crucible to Salad Days, the most successful musical of its time.

    1955 Peter O’Toole joined the company and rapidly came to dominate the stage in a series of memorable roles, notably Hamlet. It was that performance which inspired Sir Richard Eyre (then a schoolboy in the Upper Circle) to pursue a career in theatre.

     1957 - Peter O'Toole as Hamlet with Wendy Williams as Ophelia. Photographer Desmond Tripp. Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection

    1966 The theatre’s profile and success continued with West End transfers, European tours and a planned tour of Canada and USA. In 1967 an appeal was launched for funds for a major redevelopment, which included the integration of the neighbouring Coopers’ Hall. Coopers’ Hall was a historic hall built in 1743-44 for the Coopers’ Company. It had subsequently became a public assembly room, a Baptist Chapel and, by the 1970s, it had become a fruit and vegetable warehouse.

    1970-72 A refurbishment created more space for scenery and enabled the theatre to transfer shows efficiently to bigger theatres in London. It also included the construction of a studio theatre (the New Vic), making Bristol Old Vic the first regional theatre to have its own studio, and the conversion of the Coopers’ Hall to the theatre foyer.

    1977 - Alan Rickman in Dick Whittington, Bristol Old Vic Company at the Theatre Royal. Photographer: Derek Balmer. Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
    1977 – Alan Rickman in Dick Whittington, Bristol Old Vic Company at the Theatre Royal. Photographer: Derek Balmer. Courtesy University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

    1972 Following the refurbishment, the theatre reopened in January 1972 with a production of Trelawny by George Rowell (based on Trelawny o the Wells by Pinero). From 1972, the Bristol Old Vic Company ran three theatres concurrently in the city, presenting more than 30 plays a year, a unique achievement in British theatre.

    30 May 1972 The New Vic Studio opens and becomes renowned for innovative productions.

    1973 The longest-serving employee, chief electrician Tim Streader, joined the theatre aged just 17 – he worked there for 43 years!

    1989 Bristol Old Vic Theatre School becomes independent from the theatre

    1994 Bristol Old Vic Young Company was set up by Sally Cookson and Heather Williams and has today become one of the largest regional youth theatre companies in the UK, with more than 350 members. Multi-award winning, it has brought two productions to the National Theatre.

    2007-8  In July 2007, the theatre was closed for refurbishment. Following several packed public meetings in the winter of 2007/2008 a newly formed board of trustees appointed Dick Penny, the director of the Watershed Media Centre, as executive chairman.

    2009 Artistic director Tom Morris (War Horse, Swallows and Amazons, The Crucible, Associate Director National Theatre) and chief executive Emma Stenning were appointed to run Bristol Old Vic. Tom and Emma previously ran the Battersea Arts Centre together.

     Sian Phillips and Michael Byrne - Juliet and her Romeo 2010, credit Simon Annand

    Sian Phillips and Michael Byrne – Juliet and her Romeo 2010, credit Simon Annand

    Their aim was to strengthen and develop the theatre’s reputation for exploration and ambition – looking towards local collaborations and partnerships as well as securing an international reputation for bold, ambitious work. Their tenure at Bristol Old Vic has been characterised by an inspired mix of  classics (The Crucible), innovative new writing (Does My Society Look Big in This?) and a combination of the two (Juliet and Her Romeo).

    Bristol Old Vic has toured across the US with productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; to Hong Kong (Jane Eyre/Faith Healer/A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and also transferred productions to the West End (Swallows and Amazons). Two productions to have originated at Bristol Old Vic – (Peter Pan and Jane Eyre) are also now in co-production at the National Theatre for 2016-17 season.

    Sep 2012 The first phase of a major refurbishment was completed after a £12 million fundraising campaign. This re-established the original geometry of the Georgian theatre, replaced and reconfigured the audience seating, improved the backstage and created new rehearsal facilities.

    Bristol Old Vic - auditorium 1 – Credit Philip Vile
    Bristol Old Vic – auditorium 1 – Credit Philip Vile

    Feb 2014  Bristol Old Vic’s rude and radical A Midsummer Night’s Dream became the best-ever selling show at the theatre and later went on an international tour, to venues at Hong Kong, Washington, Boston and Seoul.

    Feb 2014  Sally Cookson’s bold two-part adaptation of Jane Eyre begins at Bristol Old Vic.

    Autumn 2015 250th anniversary season announced, featuring a production from each of the four centuries in which the theatre has operated. Highlights include Long Day’s Journey into Night directed by Richard Eyre, starring Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville, King Lear starring Timothy West, Stephanie Cole and David Hargreaves- a co-production featuring students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School- and a new musical The Grinning Man directed by Tom Morris.

    Jan 2016 The theatre’s acclaimed production of Jane Eyre is broadcast across the US with NT Live. Plays produced by the theatre have been performed in 27 cities across 11 countries

    12 Jan 2016 The historic Thunder Run was restored and successful test runs completed. It is now set to be used in one of the special anniversary productions in the summer, King Lear starring Timothy West, one of the theatre’s famous alumni, where it will be heard by audiences for the first time in over 70 years.

    April 2016 Over 7.5m people have seen a theatre production at Bristol Old Vic since it was established – last year (2015-2016) nearly 123,000 tickets were bought for a Bristol Old Vic production, 36% of them for the first time.

    May 2016 The 250th anniversary weekend itself will centre on a weekend of celebration over the May Bank Holiday (May 28-30, 2016), including a one-off special performance, the launch of a new digital heritage project and opportunities for community and amateur groups to perform on the Bristol Old Vic stage as part of Bristol Open Stage. The festivities will culminate in a street festival on 30 May, the date of the actual birthday.

    June 2016 As a major fundraising drive to raise £12.9 million by Bristol Old Vic reaches its final stages, the theatre is about to embark on its next phase of redevelopment. With Stirling Prize winning architects Haworth Tompkins on board, the front of house spaces will be revamped and the Grade I listed Coopers’ Hall returned to its original 18th century form. Works are due to start in June and completion expected in 2018. Initial support has been secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the heritage project which will see Bristol Old Vic’s extraordinary history brought to life.

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