A view of the new frontage of the Bristol Old Vic on King St, Bristol.
Philippe Vile

Curtain up on 250 years of theatrical history

Thunderous goings on with 18th century sound effects

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Amy Spreadbury

Amy Spreadbury is the Heritage Engagement Manager at Bristol Old Vic and lives in Fishponds in Bristol. Opening in 1776, Bristol Old Vic is the longest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world.

April 16th, 2019

What does an Exhibitions Officer do in a theatre?

It’s my job to share our theatre’s long history with the public. Most importantly, it’s my job to show that everyone has a place and has always had a place at the Bristol Old Vic. I want to tell the stories of those who have been left out of the history books and whose stories have been ignored.

We’ve knocked down the front wall that hid our theatre from King Street for 250 years so that we can welcome everybody into the space, day and night. 

We’ve developed artwork and installations that tell of the theatre’s highs and lows, using our amazing collection of show material, designs, production photographs, playbills and objects.  I’m working to bring those items back to the place they came from: this theatre. 

By looking at our past, we can plan for our future and make this theatre open to all, as a place to create, to be entertained and inspired.

Fred Howarth
The new foyer of the Bristol Old Vic

Do visitors get a look behind the scenes?  Will they experience the Thunder Run in action?

Absolutely! We run two tours every week which offers visitors a chance to explore the theatre with a guide who’ll tell you stories about everything that has made this theatre tick for 250 years - including the ghosts!

But you’re also welcome to come and explore by yourself - we have exhibitions and interactive displays, as well as an augmented reality app. Come and play, and see what you can discover for yourself.

And if you want to explore in more depth, visit the Bristol Archives or the University of Bristol Theatre Collection where you get hands on (literally) with theatre’s history. 

We’ve recently installed a new door to the Thunder Run which means you can sneak a peek at one of the three remaining 18th century sound systems in the world. Sadly, we can’t run the Thunder Run unless it’s a special occasion – she’s more than two centuries old so we have to take good care of her.

The theatre must be full of stories and it’s said that the theatre is haunted.  What do you think?

I think anywhere that’s had as many people pass through it as Bristol Old Vic must have some kind of ghostly energy. A lot of people have had paranormal experiences here, and most think it’s Sarah Macready, who was the theatre manager here from 1834 to 1854. I like to think that she’s still here watching over us and making sure things run smoothly. She was an incredible woman - an actor, mother, and entrepreneur. She broke lots of gender norms and proved that women can do anything, even in a society that told her she couldn’t, so if I can channel her spirit I will!

Finally, everybody loves a bit of showbiz glamour, tell us a few of the famous names who have trodden the boards here.

So many famous names spring to mind! Ira Aldridge, one of the first African-American actors to play Shakespearean roles performed here in 1846. Charlotte Cushman who played Romeo opposite her girlfriend Matilda Hayes in 1848. And of course people like Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, Nicolo Paganini, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Stephanie Cole, and Brian Blessed. Walking across the stage you know you’re walking in the footsteps of so many talented people, it’s truly magical.

Three words to describe Bristol to someone who’s never been here?

Quirky, creative and inspiring.

What’s Bristol best kept secret?

How wonderful its people are. Bristolians are the best people in the world.

If you want to find out more about the Bristol Old Vic’s heritage and details of backstage tours click here.

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