|AdminHistory||The Theatre Royal on King Street, Bristol (which opened in 1766) closed in 1942 following a brief period of neglect and decline The building was put sold at auction for the sum of £10,500 to Mr C.H.W. Davey of the Metal Agencies Company on 28 January 1942, who had agreed to purchase the theatre anonymously to secure it until a consortium of organisations and/or private individuals could raise the money to buy it back. The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (later Arts Council) was approached by local campaigning groups to help them support a venture to buy the building back for the city. C.E.M.A. agreed to step in and take out a 21-year lease on the building commencing 11 November 1942, determinable on six months’ notice after the end of the war, at a rent of £300 per annum, plus interest on the overdraft. Profits made by the theatre were to be set aside for renovation works and other repayments, as well as supplementing a reserve fund for future theatrical productions.|
Charles Landstone (then Assistant Drama Director at C.E.M.A.) was appointed General Manager of the theatre on 1 November. A formal declaration of trust was made later that year and a new body of trustees chaired by Alfred Leighton appointed, known as the Trustees of the Theatre Royal. Repairs and modification work continued throughout 1942 and the first half of 1943. A new Resident Manager to the Proprietors, Mr. T.C.P. ('Tom') Hickson was appointed in early 1943.
The theatre officially reopened on 11 May 1943 with the Old Vic Company of London performing 'She Stoops to Conquer', with a programme of touring companies established of which the Old Vic Company from London were regular fixtures. On 11 December 1945 Landstone announced the Old Vic would be setting up a resident repertory company (the Bristol Old Vic) based at the theatre under the artistic direction of Hugh Hunt. General administrative and artistic direction was to be provided by the Old Vic, with financial affairs managed jointly with the Arts Council. The theatre building was to be managed solely by the Arts Council as leaseholders, who became financial guarantors for the Company during its formative years. A new Management Committee was then appointed to oversee the day-to-day affairs of Company in Bristol, chaired by Sir Philip Morris, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol, with a membership drawn from these two bodies as well as other high-level individuals at the theatre including the Artistic Director. The Trustees of the Theatre Royal continued to have an interest in the building as overall owners and proprietors.
Bristol Old Vic Company’s first production at theatre was George Farquhar’s ‘The Beaux’ Stratagem’, opening 19 February 1946. A supporter’s organisation known as the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Club was founded in July 1946. A Theatre School was established in adjacent premises for purposes of training subsequent generations of actors, producers and technicians, officially opened by the actor Laurence Olivier on 21 October 1946. Hunt left the Bristol Old Vic during Spring 1949 Season to be replaced briefly by Allan Davis (1949-1950), who had been Assistant Director to Hunt since 1947. The theatre closed for six months from June 1949, when compulsory fire safety improvements that began that summer went over-budget, the Arts Council agreeing to pay off the remainder of the bill amidst fears the theatre might close for good. During the hiatus, the Management Committee had approached Bristol Corporation (City Council) for financial assistance, and it was eventually agreed the City Council should contribute an annual grant for in exchange for having two representatives sit on the Management Committee from early 1950.
Throughout 1950s the Company was led by Artistic Director Denis Carey (1950-1954) and his successor John Moody (1954-1959), during which period Bristol Old Vic enjoyed increasing success in both artistic and commercial terms, playing high profile visiting engagements on the London stage and overseas. In March 1952 the Arts Council got permission from the Trustees of the Theatre Royal to sublet the theatre building to the Old Vic Trust in London. From April that year the Old Vic would assume the financial responsibility for running both Company and theatre, although as an associated company of the Council the Bristol Old Vic would continue to receive a yearly grant according to their needs. As a significant fundholder the Arts Council would continue to be represented on the Management Committee and, as lessee, would remain solely responsible for the upkeep of the eighteenth-century building. It was further agreed that during any financially successful year, Bristol Old Vic should give two-thirds of its profits to a fund devoted to the maintenance of the historic building. By that point the Trustees of the Theatre Royal had also negotiated a new scheme with the Charity Commissioners whereby the remaining members would be augmented by representatives of local and national bodies with an interest in the preservation of the historic theatre building, including the National Trust and the Council for the Preservation of Ancient Bristol, as well as the City Council and the University of Bristol. Two new sub-committees were appointed by the Management Committee to oversee the Theatre School (appointed in 1954) and the theatre’s buildings and maintenance issues (appointed in 1955). Assisted by profits made from the transfer of their hit musical ‘Salad Days’ to the West End stage, Bristol Old Vic were able to buy and refurbish two villas at 1 and 2, Downside Road in Clifton, which would become the new home of the expanding Theatre School, officially opened in 1956.
Moody left in 1959 and was briefly replaced with John Hale (1959-1961), then Val May (1961-1975). May expanded the Company’s international reputation, notably securing the Bristol company’s independence from its parent company in London. Following various talks between the Arts Council (who did want to renew the lease) and the Trustees of the Theatre Royal as to the future leasing arrangements between Trustees (as owners of the building) and the Company (as potential lessees). A proposal was put forward by the City Entertainments Committee that the Corporation should lease the theatre from the Trustees from 1 April 1963, at an annual rent of £800 per annum. For the year 1963/4 the Corporation proposed a further grant of £2500, £1000 of which (together with trading profits) would be put into a Building Fund. The theatre would then be sub-let to a new non-profit-distributing company, Bristol Old Vic Trust Limited. The high-level running of the affairs and finances of the Company and Theatre School fell to Bristol Old Vic Trust Limited and its Board of Governors (to whom the existing Management Committee’s remit and functions transferred), responsible for the financial and administrative management of Company and Theatre School, with financial security guaranteed by Bristol Council.
Later in 1963 the Company took over the artistic direction of the Little Theatre, after the Bristol-based Rapier Players had given their notice to terminate their tenancy from the City Entertainment Committee. Notable events during the 1960s included Bristol Old Vic's Shakespeare Quartercentenary Season during Spring 1964 and the theatre’s bicentenary celebrations in 1966, whilst the Company toured extensively in Britain and overseas throughout the decade.
On 19 November 1969 Bristol Old Vic Trust appointed a new Appeal Committee and a new Theatre Royal Development Appeal was launched to raise money towards a comprehensive new redevelopment scheme envisaged for the theatre building. The new theatre centre was to be designed by Peter Moro and Partners, encompassing significant works on the existing Theatre Royal auditorium, a new brick foyer frontage replacing the existing Skinner-designed entrance on King Street, the purchase and redevelopment of the adjacent Coopers’ Hall site, and the construction of a new Studio Theatre (known as the New Vic). The Theatre Royal building closed its doors on 2 May 1970, building works continuing throughout the second half of 1970 and the duration of 1971. Bristol Old Vic continued to use the Little Theatre, as well performing a short run at the Theatre Royal in Bath, alongside other touring activity. Projected building costs of £500,000 were higher than anticipated, finally totalling just under £800,000 just after the theatre officially reopened on 12 January 1972. The new Studio Theatre opening later in May, the Company now running full seasons in three venues. May was succeeded by Richard Cottrell (1975-1980), then John David (1980-1986). Bristol Old Vic ended their tenancy at the Little Theatre in early 1980. Financial pressures and a growing deficit continued to make an impact by the time of David’s departure, despite various initiatives to stave off the impact of increasingly stringent cutbacks to local and national government funding of the arts, for example by canvassing businesses to sponsor seasons or productions, approaching other fundholding bodies beyond the theatre's core sources, and engaging in other income-generation and internally-driven fundraising initiatives.
Two new Artistic Directors were appointed in quick succession from 1986, Leon Rubin (1986-1987), then Paul Unwin (1987-1991). Mark Everett was appointed to a new senior management position of Executive Director in 1989. That same year a management restructure was implemented in 1989 and various staff were made redundant, including General Manager Rodney West. There were notable attempts to streamline and professionalise the theatre’s education offer at this time, for example the creation of the popular multi-ethnic offshoot, Company 3 in 1987, the establishment of a new Education Department in 1988, and the launch of a Youth Theatre branch in 1991.
In 1989 the Theatre School secured administrative and financial independence from the Company, with a new Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Trust set up to purchase the school premises, with the financial support of Avon Council other bodies. The Studio Theatre closed briefly between 1989 and 1991 during the continuing financial difficulties. From the mid-1990s the theatre gradually settled into a period of stability and growth under new Artistic Director Andy Hay (1991-2003), with a corresponding increase in audience numbers under his leadership. Hay, like his predecessor Unwin, was keen to put the theatre at the centre of the local community. He commissioned a major community play, A.C.H. Smith's ‘Up the Feeder, Down the ‘Mouth’ (1997), which was restaged outdoors on Bristol docks in 2001. Hay was succeeded by a duo comprising Joint Artistic Directors, David Farr and Simon Reade, with a new Arts Council funding package announced that year. The two briefly rebranded the theatre as the ‘New Bristol Old Vic’. Farr left in 2005, leaving Reade as sole creative director until his departure in 2007 at the end of the Spring/Summer Season. In July that year the season ended the Board took the decision to close the theatre for refurbishment, redundancies were implemented, and there were fears the theatre would close for good. Another public campaign to save the theatre was launched and, following various public meetings, a newly constituted Bristol Old Vic Board of Trustees was appointed, with Dick Penny appointed Executive Chairman.
The theatre opened its doors again during late autumn 2008, staging productions from visiting companies, the Theatre School and Young Vic whilst the Board set about re-establishing the Bristol Old Vic organisation and appointing a new creative and executive leadership team. In February 2009 a new executive team comprising Tom Morris as Artistic Director and Emma Stenning (who had previously worked with Tom at Battersea Arts Centre) as Executive Director, with a new programme launched. In October 2010 a major restructure of the theatre’s governing bodies came with the merger of the existing Bristol Old Vic Trust and the Theatre Royal Bristol Trust into a combined body. The new Bristol Old Vic and Theatre Royal Bristol Trust was and (as of 2019) remains chaired by Laura Marshall, Managing Director of Icon Films.
The theatre planned its most ambitious phase of redevelopment works since 1972, with a fundraising campaign was launched in 2010 to raise money for the proposed £19 million refurbishment, £5.3 million of which was provided by Arts Council England. The first phase of the works encompassed the historic main auditorium, with the side stage areas redeveloped to increase seating, and the main auditorium gaining an optional thrust stage, with the development of additional potential performance areas, including the Paint Shop and rehearsal room. During the closure Bristol Old Vic company continued to use the Studio, Basement and other locations around Bristol. The auditorium reopened in September 2012 with a production of ‘Wild Oats’. The second phase of works took place between June 2016 and September 2018, with the 1970s Moro-designed frontage replaced with a new foyer with bars and box office, designed to make visible and make a feature of the previously hidden theatre walls. Coopers' Hall was adapted in configuration with its pre-1972 layout, becoming the home of a new studio theatre (the Weston Studio Theatre) located in the barrel vaults of the basement.
The new theatre complex finally opened in September 2018, with performances commencing in the Studio from October. New heritage spaces were also developed, telling the story of the theatre of the theatre and its locale from the mid-eighteenth century to the present.