Space where magic is made

Here’s the latest article from Bristol Evening Post‘s series on the redevelopment of the theatre. This month’s piece, written by Natalie Hale, focuses on the backstage rehearsal spaces. Photos by Farrows Creative.

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Backstage in the rehearsal rooms of the Bristol Old Vic, acting royalty from Peter O’Toole and Dame Judi Dench, to Daniel Day Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite and Leonard Rossiter, have painstakingly learned lines, gesticulated, argued and shed blood, sweat and tears to create productions fit to perform before an eager Bristol audience. A rehearsal space is much more than just somewhere to run through lines or walk through the staging of a play. They are effectively like the “womb” of a piece of theatre – the place where ideas get turned into reality; where a play gestates and grows.

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The old wardrobe laundry and dyeing room. Therefore it’s vitally important that rehearsal spaces are comfortable and fit for purpose. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the high-profile actors who have tread the boards and the acclaimed productions that have appeared on its stage, the Old Vic’s rehearsal space has been pretty inadequate – little more than a concrete box in fact. This is why the area is undergoing a major revamp as part of the theatre’s massive redevelopment project. Executive director Emma Stenning explains:

Our main rehearsal space, which is the same size as the theatre, was basically a box with terrible acoustics and a hard floor which made it very difficult to rehearse movement or dance. It was also very cold.

The rehearsal space is important to actors. If the acoustics and the floor aren’t anywhere near what it’s actually like to perform on the stage, then it’s almost impossible for artists to get a sense of what the show will be like.

I guess it’s like any working environment – you want it to be as comfortable and conducive to being productive as possible, otherwise the end product will more than likely not be the best it could be.

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Rehearsal room. Work is currently under way to make dramatic improvements to the rehearsal area to ensure it is fit for purpose.

Our plans are to completely rebuild the old rehearsal space and also convert our old wardrobe area into a new rehearsal space.

By converting the old wardrobe area, we’re effectively doubling our rehearsal space provision. We’ll be installing dance floors, raising the height of the ceiling and installing new skylights. There will be improved heating and technical facilities in these spaces too.

Basically, we’ll have spaces fit for the 21st century.

To make room for the increased rehearsal space, the wardrobe has now moved into a purpose-built workshop on Albion Docks. This dockside area also houses the theatre’s production department consisting of carpentry, metalwork, props, scenic painting, lighting and sound. In addition to being more spacious and comfortable, the new rehearsal area will also be better used. The King Street theatre will be able to welcome more artists to work at the Old Vic, so as well as rehearsing its own productions, it can also house the multitude of artists developing work through Bristol Ferment, alongside the theatre’s resident company Firebird. It is also possible that performances could be staged in the rehearsal spaces.

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Dressing room. The contractors have been working on this backstage area for a couple of weeks now, and Emma tells me that it’s proving to be a huge undertaking.

The walls have been knocked through and the roof has been removed, leaving just planks of wood for a ceiling.

There’s more demolition work to do to that part of the building before we install a new ceiling and skylights but then quite soon it’ll all begin to take shape. At the moment, it’s essentially a shell.

As one would expect from such an historic building, it’s not simply a process of demolition and renovation. As work continues throughout the theatre, fascinating discoveries continue to be made. The most recent is an area called the ‘Royal Loo’, where the actors used to wait before going on stage and which intriguingly features graffiti from 1859. Emma explains:

This is a tiny part of the backstage area just off the main stage where actors used to wait before they were called on stage.

We’ve found an extraordinarily detailed line drawing of ship which we like to think someone probably drew over a period of weeks as well as people’s names etched into the wood.

We’ve also discovered a door from the 18th century at the back of one of the boxes. This is where rich patrons would pass through at the end of the show into the backstage area to meet the actresses.

We don’t know exactly what happened when they did meet, but we do know that the definition between actress and prostitute was somewhat blurred in those days!

Another revealing discovery that further brings the theatre to life, is a mark where generations of actors have lent their hand on the pillar before going on stage.

Yes, there’s a pillar on the side of the stage where the actors would stand before they went on stage, and there’s a big greasy mark where their hands would rest as they leant on it watching from the wings.

It gives a great sense of the history of the theatre, thinking that generations of actors have stood in the same place, waiting for their call, watching the action of countless plays unfolding beyond the curtains.

We’re so used to hearing the glitzy stories of actors and shows and the public face of the theatre, so it’s lovely to be uncovering these private little moments of waiting before stepping out into the spotlight.

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