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Bristol Old Vic launches major new heritage experience, bringing its 252-year history to life

Artist’s impression of projection mapping project Bristol Old Vic

Artist Hana Whaler at work Bristol Old Vic

Press release issued: 25 October 2018

The final piece of Bristol Old Vic’s radical reinvention falls into place next month with the launch of its brand new interactive heritage experience.

The fascinating history of the building, the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, will be brought to life in a collaboration with Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection as the theatre unveils a host of experiences and attractions, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

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.

The Theatre Royal Archive, covering the history of the building from its foundation in 1766 until the 1940s, is held at the Bristol Archives, which holds a nationally Designated collection. The records include 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.

The transformation of the theatre into a heritage attraction is part of a ten-year £26 million programme, including £2.4m from the HLF.

Over the weekend of 9-11 November, Bristol Old Vic will introduce its new interactive experiences, exhibition spaces, tours and workshops that tell the story of this iconic theatre over the last 252 years.

After a launch event on the evening of Friday 9 November, visitors will able to access the new heritage experiences from 8am on Saturday 10 November, every day of the week, during the theatre’s opening hours.

Booking is only required for guided tours which will take place twice weekly. With stunning video projections, an immersive augmented reality experience and fully redesigned public areas within the theatre, it will become one of Bristol’s key visitor destinations with something for everyone.

As part of the Heritage Lottery funded project, the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Archives are digitising over 10,000 photographs, documents and playbills and posters. A selection of these images will be available for visitors to the theatre to explore via a digital touch table.

Some of the other highlights include a new augmented reality app which will enable visitors to experience what the theatre foyer was like in the 1760s, 1860s, 1910s and 1970s based on documents, plans and photos from Bristol Archives and the Theatre Collection. Visitors can access the app by using on the in-house tablets or by downloading it via the app store.

A timeline showcasing 250 years of Bristol Old Vic history, inspired and informed by the archives at Bristol Archives and theTheatre Collection, has also been created by sign-painter and illustrator Hana Whaler. Trials and Triumphs stretches across the entire horseshoe wall of the pit level outside the auditorium, and beautifully illustrates the history of the building using imagery and material from the theatre’s past.

And from early 2019, a series of temporary exhibitions using archival materials from the Theatre Collection and Bristol Archives will be on display on the Pit level of the theatre. Many of the items that will be show will be displayed to the public for the very first time.

Jo Elsworth, Director of University of Bristol Theatre Collection, added: ‘’This has been an exciting opportunity for the University to work together with Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Archives to celebrate and share the history of this remarkable theatre.  It has been very rewarding to see how the archives have revealed the stories of the theatre and how they’ve been brought to life in so many ways.

“None of this could have happened without the cataloguing, conservation and digitisation of 252 years’ worth of archival material, all of which has been generously funded by HLF. As cataloguing continues we look forward to sharing more stories from these fascinating collections.”

Allie Dillon, City Archivist,said: “Through this project, we’ve seen significant new work exploring how the archives document the foundation of the Theatre Royal and the development of the modern Bristol Old Vic.

“By collaborating with the Bristol Old Vic and the Theatre Collection, together we’ve opened up and protected the collections to make them much more accessible for research and creative inspiration. Thanks to the HLF, we’re really delighted to see the new artwork and digital interpretation that presents the Bristol Old Vic’s history for today’s audiences.”

Liam Wiseman, Heritage Engagement Manager for Bristol Old Vic, said: “For the first time we’re bringing to life our unique archives and showcasing the history of the longest continuously running theatre. True to the purpose of the organisation, our heritage experiences are theatrical and dynamic, and we can’t wait for everyone to see what we’ve been up to!”

As an extra special addition, for the opening weekend only, to celebrate the heritage launch, the theatre is bringing back to life some of the famous faces who’ve trodden its boards over the last 252 years.

Created by the theatre’s Made in Bristol company, ‘Limelight’ is a ticketed tour, leading audiences around the theatre where they will encounter a host of characters from the past, telling tales of the theatre’s rich history. The tours will take place every 30 minutes on Saturday 10 November (9.30am – 12.30pm) and Sunday 11 November (9am-6pm).

Emma Stenning, Chief Executive for Bristol Old Vic, said: “Achieving a transformative grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund back in 2016 was quite the best 250th birthday present that we could receive. Since then, we’ve been working in thrilling partnership with Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection to make our extraordinary theatre’s history come alive within the walls of Bristol Old Vic. 

“The opportunity to commission local artists and makers to respond to the stories of the theatre’s past has been so exciting.  Their resulting work presents a unique heritage experience, which I hope our visitors will enjoy for many years to come.”

This project has been made possible by National Lottery players through a £2.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players this project is achieving fantastic things for Bristol and our nation’s theatrical heritage.

“As well as opening historical and characterful spaces for visitors from far and wide to enjoy, this investment is bringing to life the fascinating archives of the UK’s oldest theatre – this is a wonderful chance to see them in action!”

Other highlights include:

  • Noises Off - 250 Years of Sound Technology in the Theatre: Visitors interested in the secrets of sound design in theatre will be in for a treat! A gallery corridor in the theatre has been transformed to tell the story of sound at the Bristol Old Vic, designed by Joe Ravenhill’s company 2 Feet Below, to explore the way theatre has made sound historically. Through a series of interactive activities, visitors will learn all the tricks of the theatrical trade; from how to project your voice to how sound designers create mood during performances. You can even get a sneak peek at the original 18th century Thunder Run, a historic device that simulates the sound of thunder above the auditorium and listen to one of the theatre’s most famous voices bring it to life.
  • Aardman Animations exclusive film: The House Is Open! Developed alongside Limbic Cinema, Aardman Animations has crafted an educational and fun-filled short film that highlights the architectural transformations of the building, which will be projection-mapped onto the original 1766 wall of the theatre. The animated video will be played throughout the day and before the start of every show to let the audience know that “The House Is Open!” The film will premiere in early November.
  • King Street: From Marsh to Metropolis: A timeline telling the story of King Street in a street art style by local artist Bex Glover, chosen in conjunction with Upfest graffiti festival.
  • An Audience with the Past: Emily Ketteringham was chosen to deliver the biggest artistic installation in the entire building. What started out as one wall of artistically arranged playbills and posters now stretches across the dress circle, upper circle and gallery levels of the auditorium wall featuring characters from a wide selection of Bristol Old Vic posters.
  • Guided Tours: To celebrate the new building and heritage experience, Bristol Old Vic’s tours have been revamped to show more, teach more and entertain more. The new tour programme runs every Thursday and Saturday morning, and are available to book now. Public, private, school and corporate tours are available and can be personalised for each group. Book in advance (£12)

Further information

In support of this Capital Project, Bristol Old Vic would like to thank National Lottery players and Arts Council England -the development agency for arts and culture, Bristol City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund in helping them to realise their vision for Bristol Old Vic. In addition, they thank the many trusts, foundations, individuals and businesses including The Linbury Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, Foyle Foundation, and The Wolfson Foundation for supporting the creation of a space where people from all over the city can experience amazing art and culture that makes Bristol the place that it is.

Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife -  Follow HLF on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram - #NationalLottery.

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.

Bristol Archives

Bristol Archives was established in 1924 as only the second local record office in the country. Home to ten centuries of Bristol’s history, the archives collect and preserve records relating to the city and surrounding area for current and future generations to use. These include the records of Bristol City Council and many local organisations and people, with material from medieval documents to modern audio-visual collections.

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