by Allie Dillon, City Archivist at Bristol Archives
The story of Bristol Old Vic – the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world – is documented in rich archival collections. As part of a major Heritage Lottery Fund project, a range of new heritage attractions and experiences developed from the archives have been unveiled at the theatre.
At Bristol Archives, we hold the archive of the original Theatre Royal, from its foundation in the 1760s up to the 1940s. These records include the first minute book, which documents the meeting of Alexander Edgar, Roger Watts and Thomas Symons in October 1764, as they begin to plan the theatre which would open two years later. The collection also contains royal licences, account books, seating plans, photographs and around 1,000 playbills.
More recent material, covering the Bristol Old Vic Company from its foundation in 1946, is held by the university’s Theatre Collection. This substantial archive, including production records such as prompt books, programmes, photographs, posters, show files and press cuttings, spans the entire remit of the company’s work.
As part of this HLF project, these collections have been catalogued, conserved and digitised. Through this, new research has drawn out the stories of the building and its people, performances and audiences to celebrate the history of this remarkable theatre.
Visitors to Bristol Old Vic will be able to explore new interactive exhibition spaces, tours and artworks inspired by both archives.
Large-scale artworks by local artists tell the story of Bristol Old Vic. ‘Trials and Triumphs’ is a timeline by Hana Sunny Whaler, with beautiful illustrations inspired by the theatre’s history and collections. For ‘An Audience with the Past’, Emily Ketteringham produced the largest installation in the building, featuring playbills, posters and performers. ‘King Street: From Marsh to Metropolis’ adds local historical context in a street art timeline by Bex Glover.
Historic documents, plans and photos have been used to develop a new augmented reality app to enable visitors to experience what the theatre foyer was like in the 1760s, 1860s, 1910s and 1970s. Through a digital ‘Touch Table’, visitors can browse a selection of images and playbills from the archives.
Other attractions include ‘Noises Off’, a display telling the story of 250 years of sound technology in the theatre, with a peek at the original 18th century Thunder Run. ‘The House Is Open!’, a short animation by Aardman and Limbic Cinema, highlighting the architectural transformation of the building, is projection-mapped onto the original 1766 wall of the theatre.
The new heritage experiences are open to visitors any time the theatre is open. It’s exciting to see how this unique collaboration between Bristol Old Vic, the Theatre Collection and Bristol Archives has shared the theatre’s past with today’s audiences.
- Artist’s impression of the projection mapping project (Bristol Old Vic)
- Artist Hana Sunny Whaler at work (Bristol Old Vic)
- Façade of the Theatre Royal, built 1904 (Bristol Archives, TR/Sm/1/4/1)
- Featured image: Performance of The Maids, with Delia Lindsay, Miranda Richardson and Caroline Holdaway, 1983 (Theatre Collection, BOV/NVP/97/13)