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Bristol Old Vic set to become major heritage destination after Lottery award which will also bring to life theatre's extensive archive

Bristol Old Vic King Street main exterior at night Jon Craig

Press release issued: 13 October 2016

Bristol Old Vic is set to be transformed into a major heritage destination with the announcement today of a £2.4m Heritage Lottery Fund award.

The investment will fund the refurbishment of the historic Coopers' Hall, enable the reveal of the original 1766 theatre façade, and ensure that the Thunder Run is both accessible to the public and fit for future use.

Alongside this significant contribution to the planned capital works, the grant will provide for a substantial programme of conservation, cataloguing and digitisation of the theatre’s archives, which are held between the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Record Office.

Furthermore, the development of a new digital platform, the installation of new heritage interpretation and interactive exhibitions at the theatre, and a wide reaching programme of tours and activities will ensure that Bristol Old Vic, already recognised as a centre for artistic excellence, will also become an internationally significant heritage destination.

Chief Executive, Emma Stenning, said "Bristol Old Vic has long cherished the very special place that it holds in the hearts of Bristolians far and wide – thousands of whom flocked to King Street this May to celebrate the building’s 250th birthday.  It's a feeling that has inspired our heritage project, and we hope that in protecting and sharing the architecture and archives of the theatre in new and exciting ways, we are in fact creating a celebration of the people of this city, who have cared for it, without fail, for so many years.”

Bristol Old Vic's ambitious 2-phase refurbishment began with the redevelopment of the theatre's historic Georgian auditorium, (completed in 2012), and now looks to redevelop the Front of House spaces, create a new Studio theatre and preserve the unique architecture of the building and its archives.

As a result of the HLF award, architectural conservation and renovation can now take place including:

  • Major renovation of Coopers' Hall, which has served as a staircase and foyer for the theatre since 1972. The project will return this unique 18th century Guild Hall to its original dimensions, with a grand hall at piano nobile level, allowing it to function as a public space once again.
  • The reveal of the original 1766 theatre façade for the first time in its 250 year history.
  • New public access to the theatre's historic roof space; home to the famous Thunder Run, the 18th century ‘surround sound’ system consisting of weighted balls being rolled down wooden gutters built into the rafters to create the sound of thunder in performances. Bristol Old Vic’s Thunder Run is the oldest example of only three to be found in the UK.

In addition, the project will enable a unique partnership between Bristol Old Vic, Bristol Record Office and Theatre Collection.  By working together, these organisations will develop new ways to connect the extraordinary wealth of historic material with the public, whilst also using it as a continued source of creative inspiration for artists, students and other enthusiasts.

Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: "This is fantastic news for Bristol and our nation's theatrical heritage – and just in time to celebrate Bristol Old Vic’s landmark 250th anniversary!

"Today's investment, which would not have been possible without National Lottery players, will secure the future of fascinating archives, open up historic and characterful spaces and reveal its incredible story as the world’s oldest theatre."

Bristol Old Vic's substantial archive is held by both the Theatre Collection and the Bristol Record Office.

The archive of the Bristol Old Vic Company from its foundation in 1946 is held by the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, an Accredited Museum. The archives held at Theatre Collection span the entire remit of the company’s work including production records such as a prompt books, programmes, production photographs, posters, show files and press cuttings. Alongside this, the Theatre Collection holds key archives that help tell the story of Bristol Old Vic. These include those of actors, directors, designers and theatre historians which will also be made available to the public as of this project.

Jo Elsworth, Director of the Theatre Collection, said: "This is fantastic news for the history and heritage of theatre in Bristol. The University's Theatre Collection has a long-standing relationship with the Bristol Old Vic and I am delighted that we will be able to work together, with the city's Record Office, to share this fascinating archive with the public."

The Theatre Royal Archive, covering the history of the building from its foundation in 1766, is held at the Record Office, a Designated Archive. The records contain material concerning the establishment of the theatre and include the first minute book, which begins with the meeting of Alexander Edgar, Roger Watts and Thomas Symons on the 25 October 1764, as they begin to plan for the theatre which would open two years later.

Ray Barnett, Head of Collections and archives at Bristol Culture, said: "We are incredibly excited to be collaborating with Bristol Old Vic and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection on a project that will enable us to conserve, catalogue and digitise the historic archives of the Theatre Royal. The result will be a detailed and accessible online resource that pieces together 250 years of theatrical heritage in Bristol."

A talk - bringing the history of the Bristol Old Vic to Life - will take place at the Theatre Collection (21 Park Row, BS1 5LT) on Saturday, November 12 from 3pm-4pm where you can find out how the Bristol Old Vic plans to protect and share the heritage of Britain’s oldest theatre and bring its archive to life. The project, which involves a partnership between Bristol Old Vic, the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Record Office, will use a range of techniques – from heritage animateurs, to digital innovation – to offer new ways of presenting the theatre's long and fascinating history. An archivist, curator and outreach producer will tell you how it's all going to happen.

To book tickets - click this link

Take a look at our gallery which is just a small snap shot of the treasures included in the archive. There are lots of famous faces!

Further information

About the University of Bristol Theatre Collection

The Theatre Collection is one of the world’s largest archives of British theatre history and Live Art and is an accredited museum and international research facility open to all.  Founded in 1951 to serve the first UK university drama department, its collections range from 1572 to the twenty-first century and its visitors include everyone from international scholars to family historians.   We enable the Collection to be used for education, research, innovation, enjoyment and inspiration by all those who wish to do so.

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