FOR the first time in its long and illustrious history, Bristol Old Vic has a real facade, a proper welcoming entrance with a spectacular foyer – the exciting contemporary front is part of a multi-million pound transformation which was unveiled to the world (and to great acclaim) at the start of the autumn season.
The ten-year £26 million project to safeguard the theatre’s future culminated in a dramatic redevelopment, by leading theatre and Stirling prize-winning architects Haworth Tompkins. The result is a warm and welcoming venue to attract wider, more diverse audiences, and place the theatre at the heart of the city’s public and cultural life.
A full-height timber and glass-fronted foyer, revealing the original auditorium façade to the street for the first time, acts like a covered public square. Huge sun-shading shutters, incorporating the text of Garrick’s inaugural 1766 address and a poem by former Bristol city poet Miles Chamber, highlight the theatre’s long history and look forward to its future role in the whole community.
The foyer provides an inspiring place for the local community to enjoy throughout the day as a café, bar and meeting place.
The internal layout has been completely transformed, with the restoration of the Georgian Coopers’ Hall as a public assembly room, a studio theatre created in the old barrel vaults, mezzanine galleries, winding staircases and viewing platforms. Together, they provide new flexible spaces for productions, events, experimental theatre and city-wide participation.
From November, the fascinating history of the oldest continuously-running theatre in the English-speaking world will be on show to the public with exhibitions, interactive experiences, tours and workshops telling some of the amazing stories of a playhouse that has been entertaining Bristol for more than 250 years. Highlights include an interactive experience exploring the history of the creation of sound in the theatre, including a chance to see the 18th-century Thunder Run, an ancient contraption that simulates the sound of thunder above the auditorium.
The project has been led by artistic director Tom Morris and chief executive Emma Stenning, who embarked on the challenge when they arrived at the theatre nearly 10 years ago, after it had been threatened by closure. The latest transformation complements the theatre’s ambitious Year of Change programme to re-engage with communities across Bristol.
Tom Morris says: “We are inviting the amazing people of Bristol to become part of an exciting new era for the theatre. When it was first built in 1766, the theatre was a space where people from every walk of life would congregate to be inspired and entertained. Over 250 years, as fashions changed and the theatre became increasingly hidden from public view, Bristol Old Vic may sometimes have seemed to only belong to the privileged few.
“With this transformation, we are returning the theatre to its origins as a place for all and a new welcoming space where everyone can feel at home. The theatre will play a new role in bringing communities together, offering people a place to come together and socialise, as well as providing visitors with the chance to delve into its fascinating history through our new unique heritage experience.”
Bristol Old Vic, the place where many of the country’s great actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Greta Scacchi, Peter O’Toole and Jeremy Irons, once honed their craft, has a unique place in British theatre history. Known as the finest example of Georgian theatre in existence, it has only survived to its remarkable age through a mixture of luck, economic accident and the extraordinary passion of the people of Bristol who have rallied around to keep it alive whenever it seemed in jeopardy.