By Anne Lovejoy, Bristol Old Vic project archivist
As we reported in March, Bristol Archives is part of a project to redevelop the Bristol Old Vic and share the history of this historic theatre, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Through the project, the theatre’s archives are being catalogued, conserved and digitised.
The Bristol Old Vic theatre company was founded in 1946, and its archive is held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection. The archive has a wealth of material documenting the company’s artistic output, as well as the challenges of running a theatre company during the second half of the twentieth century.
However, the building that the company works in – the Theatre Royal on King Street – has a much longer history; it is the oldest theatre in continuous use in the country.
The archives of the Theatre Royal are held at Bristol Archives. This summer, I am working to recatalogue and repackage these records as part of the HLF project.
The theatre was set up in 1764, when 48 prominent gentlemen of the city contributed £50 each towards the building. In return, they received shares in the theatre and a silver token granting them access to all performances.
The theatre was owned and run by this group, called the Proprietors or Trustees. They leased the building to a succession of theatre managers who engaged various acting troops and organised performances.
In 1924, the theatre was sold to its theatre manager, ending 160 years’ of ownership by the Trustees. By the early 1940s, in a sorry state of repair, the theatre was once again put up for sale.
Following a local and national appeal, another group of notable Bristolians purchased the Theatre Royal in January 1942. With help from the Arts Council, this second set of Trustees leased the theatre to the London Old Vic and eventually the Bristol Old Vic company was born.
From the 1950s onwards, the new Trustees began to deposit their records, and earlier records of the theatre, with Bristol Archives.
The Theatre Royal archive contains a remarkable range of documents. Accounts, committee minutes and correspondence dating from the theatre’s foundation to the early twentieth century. These record the many aspects of running a theatre: the proprietors were keen to make a profit and see the house full each night but they also had to keep the building in good repair and decorative order. In addition, they had to manage relations with their neighbours in a busy and densely-populated part of the city.
Hundreds of playbills (such as this blog’s featured image) show changing tastes and fashions in theatre-going over nearly 200 years. Documents such as seating plans, prompt books and lists of bar takings reveal the day-to-day running of the theatre, both on and off the stage.
Deeds, several of which date from the mid-seventeenth century, show the changing ownership of the site, which contained gardens and orchards before the theatre was built. Several small photographic collections provide glimpses of the auditorium’s changing decorations in the early twentieth century. They also show us the nineteenth century stage machinery that was eventually removed in 1970.
All of these documents are being united in one catalogue for the first time, with detailed descriptions to help users researching the Theatre Royal. The playbills, and selected other documents, are also being digitised and will eventually be available online.
However, the archive project extends beyond this. We are working closely with the team at Bristol Old Vic to help them with the interpretation displays and exhibitions that will be an important part of the new public spaces. Documents from the archives will also be used in a new programme of tours and activities exploring the history of the theatre. The project is a fantastic opportunity to allow these records to have their turn in the limelight.