Saving a Theatre

PUBLISHED: 14:16 30 December 2007 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Bristol Old Vic at dusk

Bristol Old Vic at dusk

The most oft-quoted statement made about the Bristol Old Vic is that it is the oldest continuously working theatre in the country, which is a tad ironic because at the moment it is closed. When the Bristol Old Vic (or rather the Theatre Royal Bris...

The first point that needs to be made clear is that the Theatre Royal (the building) and the Bristol Old Vic (the production company) are distinct entities, each with their own board. And then there is the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which is also separate, but that's another story.

Scott explains that the Theatre Royal and the Bristol Old Vic (BOV) need to exist without each other. "The reason the building is in the state it is now is that the BOV theatre company rented the Theatre Royal Bristol, they didn't have enough money to invest in the infrastructure of the building, and the building had no money of its own generation, so therefore nothing happened to it for 30 years. They need to co-exist but they also need to exist on their own and not be saddled by each other," says Scott.

"This building has been a theatre for 240 years and it will continue being a theatre. As far as the theatre company is concerned, that's a completely different kettle of fish, the model for that will change because it won't be a full-time producing theatre. There will be elements of the BOV theatre company that might go out into Bristol and make theatre in Bristol, as opposed to making it at the Theatre Royal. But we're going through a consultation process at the moment."

Meanwhile the physical refurbishment is about to take place. It has been estimated that the work will cost £9 million and so far they have raised £6 million. £2 million has come from the Arts Council, £1 million from Bristol City Council, another £1 million from the Linbury Trust (a Sainsbury family charitable trust), £1 million from various other trusts and donations, and £1 million has come in since the public phase of the appeal, which began last summer.

Scott says, "We're thrilled by the fundraising response but there is still a lot of work to do and there are many ways people can help us.

"The projected reopening date is late 2009, and the target is to raise another million before March, and the remaining £2 million will be an ongoing process between then and the time we reopen. Originally we said we'd reopen in 2008 but that's been pushed to 2009 simply because of the nature of the project. It's a very old Listed building so it's going to take time to do and you never know quite what you're going to unearth, so there's quite a large contingency in place. There are elements of the refurbishment that can be pared back, that we don't have to do immediately. If we don't raise the £9 million, the refurbishment will still happen, and the building will reopen."

Curiously, despite the time and expense of the refurbishment, as a member of the audience you probably won't notice much in the way of alterations. According to Scott, "If you walk into the auditorium and look up you will see no change whatsoever, maybe a few small cosmetic changes but nothing significant. If you look down you will see new carpets, new seats and when you sit down you will be a lot more comfortable with the temperature."

However, the building is being completely rewired and replumbed, some structural work needs to be done, the front of house will get a makeover, access for the disabled is being improved, plus the toilets and bars will get a new look.

"The projected reopening date is late 2009, and the target is to raise another million before March"

The obvious way the public can help out is by giving a straightforward donation, but there are some more interesting fundraising schemes. You can, for example, sponsor a seat for as little as £250 and have your name on the back of it for the next 10 years. There are 600 seats in all, and a third have already gained sponsorship. Or if you're feeling extravagant you could go for the Royal Box for £20,000, and if you're feeling incredibly extravagant you can buy a silver token for £50,000.

The silver token scheme is a revamping of the means used to pay for the building of the theatre back in the 1760s. Fifty local merchants came forward and purchased the tokens, which entitled them or their heirs to the sight, but not necessarily seats, of every performance. Apparently some of the original silver tickets are still in circulation and still being used. The new tokens don't have quite the same rights but are said to be beautiful specimens crafted by the crown jeweller.

The theatre was constructed on King Street in the Bristol docks district amidst fears that it would increase idleness, indolence and debauchery. But in 1778 it was formally embraced by the establishment when it was granted a Royal Licence from King George III.

A major redecoration in 1881 gave us the auditorium we see today, most notably the star-studded ceiling around the great centre rose. By the Second World War the theatre was in decline and only narrowly survived the bombing of the city centre. But in 1943 it became Britain's first state-subsidised theatre and three years later gained its first resident company, an offshoot of London's Old Vic Theatre - hence the new name, the Bristol Old Vic. The last major overhaul was in 1972, which saw the opening of the Studio Theatre and additional front-of-house areas incorporating the 18th-century guildhall, the Cooper's Hall.

Since the War there has also been the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which achieved independence in 1989 but close affiliations have been maintained. Many esteemed actors of stage and screen, like Daniel Day Lewis, Patrick Stewart and Miranda Richardson have passed through the school and used the theatre.

"There is a lot of support not just for the building but the theatre companies," says Scott. "There are a lot of famous names out there who are lobbying to keep the name alive and we relish that support. People like Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Timothy West, a lot of high-profile and well-respected British actors. It is a well-loved theatre and it will continue to be a well-loved theatre."

To donate call 0845 882 2799 or visit

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