At a public meeting held on Tuesday 11th May, and following the recent announcement of a £6.1m grant from Arts Council England, Bristol Old Vic revealed details of the next stage of its multi-million pound redevelopment. The King Street complex is to undergo £19.3m of refurbishment work which will see the Theatre Royal and surrounding buildings transformed into a flexible complex with up to ten performance spaces.
The project has been split into four stages, the first of which, involving clearing out asbestos and making the site safe for use, has already taken place. Stages two and three will make up the bulk of the work to the auditorium, stage and backstage areas and will commence in late January of next year, with a view to being completed by early 2012. This will involve improving seating and sight-lines in the main auditorium, which will see the stage extended into the audience and the central aisle removed from all levels of seating. Capacity will be increased from 517 to around 600. Backstage and office facilities will also be improved and the side-stage area to the stage left will be adapted so it can be used as a second auditorium, with flexible seating for up to 250.
The modifications will mean the theatre will be able to function in a similar way to the Curve Theatre in Leicester, which has a shared central stage with an auditorium on either side. Other areas of the building, such as the paint frame and rehearsal room, will also be redeveloped so that they can be used for performance and a second rehearsal space will also be created.
Much of the planned redevelopment has been informed by research into the history of the building, which claims to be the UK’s oldest continually operating theatre. Since Morris and executive director Emma Stenning arrived at the theatre last year, they have been conducting a series of experiments to discover what configurations “would suit the space best”. This has been informed by research into how the theatre has been used since it first opened in 1766, conducted by historian Jane Root.
However, Morris stressed that the designs by Andrzej Blonski Architects were not attempting an “authentic restoration”. Key aspects of the research have led to plans to raise the level of the floor in the audience pit and extend the stage forward, thrust into the audience, although the changes will be reversible so they can be adapted, if needed, on a production by production basis.
The ACE grant brings the total raised towards redevelopment to about £10.5m, including £1 million from Bristol City Council and £3.4 million from trusts, foundations and private donations. The remaining £8.8m is to be secured through fundraising. Executive director Emma Stenning said: "The reason this ACE grant is so important is that it enables us to move forward confidently with the redevelopment of the actual fabric of the building in order to maintain its vitality and splendour 243 years after it was built."