New website launched!

Yesterday we launched a new website and brand. Head over to bristololdvic.org.uk to check it out!


Bristol Old Vic logo NEW 2018

There’s a brand new section there called Latest which will be home to our blog and latest news items. We’re sorry to leave, but we’ll soon be closing our WordPress blog here, so make sure to bookmark bristololdvic.org.uk/blog to keep abreast of all the exciting goings on at Bristol Old Vic in the future!

All the best,
Team Bristol Old Vic

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The Cherry Orchard – Week 4

With preparations for previews well under way, The Cherry Orchard’s Assistant Director Evan Lordan takes us through what we can expect from Acts 3 and 4 in Chekhov’s final masterpiece. 


©elliekurttz-CherryOrchardREH-217Act 3 gets wilder each time we look at it; after ‘nothing’ happening twice in Acts 1 and 2 (Seinfeld fans will be pleased!), Act 3 is a proper roller coaster. You can expect live music, waltzing, magic tricks, unexpected entrances, unanticipated disappearances, fights, reconciliations, cruelty, kindness and plot twists! All this despite the fact that, as per usual, Chekhov has decided to place the main dramatic action off-stage and so the rollercoaster that we witness is an emotional and psychological one. Chekhov is so good at creating the backdrop and circumstances that all at once he can mirror one character’s emotional and mental state and totally undercut another’s. “It wasn’t the time to invite musicians. It wasn’t the time for a ball…” says Ranyevskaya. Quite, but that is why it is just so perfect; he is always playful, he is always devastating.

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By the time we get to Act 4, it really should all be worked out, but that would be far too easy. While this Act gives the majority of characters a sort of closure (for better or worse), for one couple there is one of the most awkward and awful ‘proposal’ scenes in the history of theatre. You’ll not be able to look away, but you’ll want to. You might even laugh, but probably only to stop you from crying.

Today we’re going back for another sweep of Act 1, bringing with us everything we’ve learned from the other three Acts. Now these characters have got real meat on their bones. It’s amazing to see this cast hitting their stride; where interactions ‘worked’ during previous runs, now sparks fly! In some places that’s right and not so much in others, but the texture and complexity of the text is really coming to life in the rehearsal room.

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The actors are going through a process, but so too is Director Michael Boyd. The marks being hit during initial rehearsals that seemed satisfactory before are now nowhere near our new ambitions. His understanding of the play is being shaped by the actors’ and characters’ development each day. We have been blessed with a six-week rehearsal process, but we will need every minute of it… this show will continue to shift and change in that time, and throughout the run too. This is what will keep the show alive. Just when the actors think they have it all figured out, The Cherry Orchard will throw  something new at them. It will give them reason to reconsider everything that they thought they knew about it. These revelations will in turn shift the lines for their colleagues, creating a chain reaction. It’s set to be one hell of an evening’s live and alive entertainment.


The Cherry Orchard opens at Bristol Old Vic on 1 Mar and runs til 7 Apr. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

LGBT History Month – Sarah Siddons

Alongside our ongoing HLF heritage project, we have been investigating Bristol Old Vic’s dramas, both on and off stage, by seeking out archival evidence of individuals with diverse identities and bodies. LGBT History month felt like the ideal time to draw back the curtain and showcase some of our Theatre’s lesser known history…


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Figure 1. Engraving, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Sarah Siddons has long been heralded as an icon of 18th-century theatre: a regular player on the London stage, part of a theatrical dynasty, and a celebrated tragic actress. Renowned for her ability to depict complex emotions, she frequently performed Shakespearean roles; her famous depiction of Lady Macbeth was described as ‘perfection’ (Figure 2). er. However, her experimentation with gender and accolade as the first influential woman to play Hamlet is less well known.

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Figure 2. Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth. Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

In the 17th century the first professional actresses began appearing onstage, with breeches roles becoming a popular source of comedic entertainment. Some critics have argued that this cross-dressing enabled women to subvert gender roles, and to engage in the swaggering, rakish behaviour displayed by male performers. Yet others note that breeches roles actually increased the sexualisation of women, by allowing heterosexual male audiences a better view of actresses’ legs. Moreover, breeches roles involve an actress adopting male garments as part of the narrative, and their comedic value lies in the imperfect impersonation of a male part – for example, Viola in Twelfth Night. Misconceptions often occur: other female characters often mistake the gender of a breeches character and fall in love with them, but everyone returns to their original gender and is usually romantically involved with a partner of the opposite sex by the end of the play.

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Figure 3. Engraving, University of Bristol Theatre Collection

In contrast, cross-dressing roles are sustained throughout a performance and are the choice of the actor, not the character. Siddons’ decision to play Hamlet is a deliberate choice that enabled her to explore the constructed nature of gender onstage and off it. Celestine Woo’s work describes Siddons’ performances as Hamlet in detail. She notes that Siddons ‘performed the role of Hamlet nine times over thirty years’, meaning it was not an anomaly. Though Siddons never played Hamlet on a London stage, she depicted the role at major venues in the provinces including Dublin, Manchester and – of course – at the Bristol Old Vic, then the Theatre Royal, Bristol.

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Figure 4. Costume worn by Siddons as Hamlet, Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection. Original at the British Library

So how did Siddons expose the way gender is performed and constructed? Woo describes how Siddons’ costume choice helped destabilise traditional gender roles. Her argument is based on a fan’s watercolour drawing of Siddons’ Hamlet from her Dublin performances in 1802 and 1805 (see Figure 4).

By eschewing breeches, Siddons ignores the usual marker of onstage masculinity. Instead, the flash of leg from underneath the black toga which otherwise hides her female contours adds a risqué element to an otherwise androgynous outfit. Combining details socially-recognised as feminine – the white lace, feathered plume, floral brooch and soft fringe – with a phallic sword, Siddons simultaneously denies the fetishization normally endorsed by a breeches role and highlights the reliance on gendered props to help convey gender to an onlooker or audience.

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Figure 5. Playbill from the Theatre Royal, Manchester, advertising Siddons as Hamlet. Mander & Mitchenson Collection, University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

Though her performance received mixed reactions, Siddons cross-dressing in this way enabled a woman to play Hamlet seriously. Performing such an iconic role expanded the possibilities for female actors in the 18th century, and drew attention to the instability of gender by mixing male and female symbols through costume. Whilst Siddons is rightly remembered for her nuanced performances of women, her experimentation with gender paved the way for further female Hamlets and for women to depict male characters outside of comedy. That she played Hamlet on the Bristol Old Vic’s stage is a fact that should be shared just as much as her appearances in traditionally female roles.


Chipping at the Hard Stuff: Reflections on my Leverhulme Scholarship

TanujaAmarasuriya_headshot2

Back in mid-November, I was on a totally lush Hawkwood College Artist Residency as part of my Leverhulme Scholarship with Ferment at Bristol Old Vic (BOV). I was asked to write a few words for Team Ferment about it, but never got round to it due to a) various busy and b) an itch at the back of my mind that I’d like to do some deeper reflection on the scholarship so far and where it’s taken me – because it’s been utterly transformative for how I understand my perspective and skills as a theatre director (thumbs up!) but the journey has been waaaaay different to what I’d planned or anticipated (thumbs up!).

I came into the Leverhulme scholarship at a point of deep professional frustration.

The scholarship has been brilliant for letting me let it out, and then helping me work out what I can do about it and how I can do that on my own terms. The time – and the money to spend the time – has been crucial to that, as has the stamp of affirmation that comes from being awarded the scholarship. But really, the MOST important thing has been the regular, thoughtful interrogation I’m getting from the brilliant Emma Bettridge (BOV Ferment Producer). I’m lucky to be working a lot, but it means I don’t prioritise time to deal with the hard stuff that will open up new opportunities for me as a director. Right at the start of the process I asked Emma to keep pushing me out of my comfort zone, and she’s been brilliant at reminding me to keep chipping away at the hard stuff. She’s been genius at helping me start building that chipping away into my ongoing practice as a director.

Here’s a bit from my February 2017 application:

“By producing work through Sleepdogs, I’ve had the freedom to hone an artistic vision and approach that is deeply influenced by my cultural curiosity and my identity as a third culture woman of colour. But I think this unconventional approach makes it hard for commissioners and producers to assess my practice and imagine how I might be able to work with them. I’m at a point now where my lack of technical training, and the (false) perception of my work as devised rather than script-based, are making it impossible for me to develop as an individual artist and move towards a sustainable career as a director.”

Or more succinctly: I’d to use this opportunity to make myself more employable as a director please. It’s strange looking back at this application now, many months into the scholarship, because it reveals how unconfident I was about my skills and ability; how insignificant I felt my experience was; and how much I thought it was all about me needing to change, rather than the industry. It reeks of me seeking validation from the establishment.

In October, 6 months into the scholarship, Emma asked if I could send an informal update on where I was at. Here’s an extract from the update I emailed her:

“I was nervous that existing work commitments were going to make me feel like I wasn’t getting stuck into the scholarship, but actually it’s proved brilliant for me to use this time to honestly reflect on my current situation and to think in a very practical way about how and where I need to focus in order for me to push my directing practice in a way that meets my artistic ambitions (rather than seeking to ape what a ‘proper’ directing career looks like.)

The award has been a really useful “pressure” on me to be honest about my artistic desires, jealousies and ambitions and to be more clear and forthright about why and how I make theatre. As a result I am already more confident and forthright about my individual perspective as a female artist of colour, and as a theatre director who is interested in making productions that feel like they come from the modern world rather than some arcane notion of theatre tied to traditional conventions. In the past, I’ve been quite timid about expressing either of these aspects because I’ve feared they would marginalise me, and limit my opportunities to work in mainstream contexts. What I’ve realised is that I’m marginalised already by these things (!!) and it’s more powerful for me to own these positions and push for the value they can bring to mainstream theatre contexts.”

I’m struck by how much more confident I’ve become in my own artistry and the need to value it better and draw power from it. There are 3 key things that cleared the fog for me on this:

  • In May, I wrote and published this article, as a way of working through some deep-seated, inhibiting frustrations I had about being too “diverse” to be mainstream, yet not authentic enough to bring a “diverse perspective” in the eyes of producers.
  • In July, I heard a brilliant talk by Dr Sarah Atkinson about how women have been written out of history, which included a plea for more women to go for opportunities even when they don’t feel fully qualified (in a way that men have less of a problem with).
  • And in August I had a brief session with super-successful (and also not formally trained) War Horse etc director, Tom Morris, looking at AREAS OF BASIC THEATRECRAFTZ (AOBTz), which a) reminded me that professional experience trumps formal training and b) surprised me by revealing that I already understand and regularly employ AOBTz in my theatre directing – I just also tend to stretch it beyond its conventional purpose, and mix it up with techniques from other forms.

This quiet revelation about AOBTz has been crucial for me. Not only did that session give me confidence in my basic foundations, but it was also great to realise that I regularly apply technical craft from other forms (e.g. live art, dance, film) that are either not considered part of a director’s toolkit or dismissed as ‘uncrafted’ by the theatre mainstream.

In my first few weeks of Music GCSE, my teacher marked down one of my compositions for its reliance on perfect fourths and fifths.

“But it sounds good,” I insisted.

“Yes it does,” said my teacher, “but it’s not good composition.”

So I quit Music GCSE. I kept playing music and composing, but I was a bolshy teenager and I was in no way going to formally buy into the notion that the theory of music was more important than the experience of music. I guess it’s the same for me with theatre – though more mature me is more conscious of wanting to understand the craft in order to manipulate it more powerfully. There are always going to be people who judge me as doing the theatre craft badly, when actually I’m consciously trying to give the audience a more surprising – and hopefully more remarkable – way into the story and the experience. Ultimately, it all comes down to desire, and taste.

Having said all that, I end that October email with this:

  since august I have been feeling very frustrated and alienated by the theatre industry. I’m so ranty at the moment, but I hope I can channel that frustration into really strong meaningful creative work. I’m feeling pretty low about my opportunities as a director within the structures of our current industry and how people make connections and make assumptions […] I feel like I’m constantly fighting so hard for people to even acknowledge me as a director, never mind consider working with me. I need to be visible as a director before I even get to worry about whether people take me seriously or not.”

So since October, I’ve been focused on how I might address that invisibility. If you’ll allow me to talk frankly here, the fact is that the UK theatre industry is deeply conservative in how it functions, very concerned with peer judgement, and has black hole levels of London-centricity. I mean, I get it. We work with an ephemeral art-form. You can’t just pick up a DVD of someone’s production and get up to speed with their work – we need other anchor points to help us get to know who’s out there. The problem is that these anchor points – certainly in the field of script-led theatre – are skewed enormously towards traditional training routes, LONDON, those who work for theatres rather than self-produce, and LONDON. You might see all the new work in your local town, but you probably also go to London. You don’t necessarily also go to Manchester, or Newcastle, or Bristol as a matter of course. Especially if you’re a theatre critic. All of this is compounded by the feedback loop of current theatre criticism.

In the grand game of theatre industry top trumps, I have rubbish scores in all those areas. I’ve got an impressive CV of experience to point to, but no-one’s looking, because I’ve got crap scores in those boxes. I don’t have those privileges so I’m going to have to find other ways to get people to see me.

There’s stuff I need to practise, actual practical work I need to do, in order to improve my visibility as a director and that’s what I’ve been getting my head down to over the last few months. I’ve got to get better at articulating my practice and why people should be interested. I’ve got to get better at pitching my approach to plays. I’ve got to get out and meet more people who live in venues (artistic directors, literary producers etc). I probably need to get an agent. I’ve got to come to terms with being on repeat about the fact that despite not living in London, I’m up for working on plays in your theatre.

One of the great things about Bristol – and one of the main reasons why I choose to live here – is the clever, confident and ambitious artist community I get to play and think things through with. I’m not the only Bristol-based director experiencing this frustration and I’m working with allies to challenge our local producing theatres not to overlook Bristol-based directors for their productions. I love that this scholarship is helping me work with my peers to change opportunities for more than just me.

Last week, me and my fellow scholars gave a little talk about our experiences so far on the scholarship. We’ve all done different things, but we all talked about the incredible value in being able to genuinely learn as we went, rather than having to deliver prescribed outcomes. I’ve been able to rewire the machinery of my practice and map career routes I never thought I’d be able to take, without having to deny my artistic curiosity and background. There is NO WAY I’d have achieved this if I knew I was going to have to show some work-in-progress or pass an exam at the end of it – I’d have been way too focused on what I had to do, rather than actual learning. At the talk, Emma mentioned how hard it was to protect the non-outcome-focused nature of these scholarships. I’ll talk to anyone who’ll hear me about why that needs protecting.

I’m into the last few months of my scholarship now. There’s a lot of practical and intellectual graft, emotional steel and a shed-load of train journeys that’ll need to go into pushing my visibility as a director. But as I said back in May, right at the start of my scholarship: I need to get over it and make my story more visible. Because I’ve got a voice and a career in this business – and I want more different people to influence our culture not just at the margins, but all the way through.

Thank you BOV Ferment for awarding me time, space, money and support to push towards this. I can’t think of anything else like these scholarships. Here’s to the next cohort. Hope you guys run with it.


Tanuja Amarasuriya is a director, dramaturg and sound designer, whose work has been developed and presented nationally and internationally including at the National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, Seattle International Film Festival, Manchester Royal Exchange, Battersea Arts Centre and BIOS (Athens). She has worked with playwrights and theatremakers including Dipika Guha, Selina Thompson, Sam Halmarack, Eno Mfon, Raucous and Timothy X Atack, with whom she co-founded Sleepdogs. http://www.sleepdogs.org

The Cherry Orchard – Week 3

With just under a month to go until The Cherry Orchard‘s debut, Assistant Director Evan Lordan took a quick five minutes out of the rehearsal room to fill us in on all the latest updates from Week 3. 


8. Jude Owusu, Kirsty Bushell, Simon Coateselliekurttz-CherryOrchardREH-031Director Michael Boyd and Writer/Translator Rory Mullarkey have both made reference to the fact that The Cherry Orchard is often read as a naturalistic play, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. They have both mentioned similarities between The Cherry Orchard and Samuel Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot, especially in the first two acts where nothing happens (twice!). Just like Beckett’s work, this play is rife with gallows humour; watching a run of Act 2 earlier this week put a great big smile across my face while simultaneously making my skin crawl. All the complicated, contradictory, lovable and laughable characters in the play seem to live in this uncomfortable state of inconsistency all the time.

Chekhov is often credited with the storytelling maxim “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep”. Well, Act 2 introduces two guns from the very beginning. Make of that what you will…

7. Togo Igawa, Michael Boyd elliekurttz-CherryOrchardREH055

Are you talking to me?” Michael Boyd has also spoken about the fact that the text suggests that at least one character is trying to make direct conversation with the audience. This is the first time that Michael has directed a Chekhov piece and he wants to stay true to the playwright’s intentions. But this is hardly turning the production into an immersive theatre event; this is an attempt to stay true to a 114-year-old text. What is beautiful is that it naturally still feels contemporary.

10. Jude Owusu, Kirsty Bushell elliekurttz-CherryOrchardREH-227

As Assistant Director, I am trying to make the most of working with such a talented bunch of individuals. I was a fan of The Cherry Orchard before I started on this project, but I am an even bigger fan now. So many of my preconceptions of this play have been utterly turned on their head due to everybody’s incredibly thoughtful and emotional insights into the script. Every decision made in this rehearsal room has had real purpose and every question we meet that hasn’t yet been answered galvanizes the group – more intriguing puzzles left by Chekhov for us to unravel together. It’s difficult to give any examples without creating spoilers and so, unfortunately, I will remain vague, but I will say that now that we’ve spent three weeks getting under the skin of this thing, the major decisions that are being made just feel right. It’s very hard for me to imagine another more compelling way of interpreting this show.

5. Kirsty Bushell elliekurttz-CherryOrchardREH-112

You can’t pigeonhole a single character; each of them as such a story to tell. One of my favourite things about Chekhov is how he uses characters to present different points of view surrounding the themes he chooses, and how they give texture to the complexity of any given subject. He sees things with complete objectivity and is able to simply present truth without making judgement. We, the audience are the ones who must decide what is right or wrong, good or bad. A situation is presented to you and you are asked to question for yourself, rather than being preached at or told what to think. That is not an easy thing for an artist to achieve, especially when you hold strong beliefs on the subject yourself. Life is never black and white; Chekhov knows this and we are a lucky audience to have him.


The Cherry Orchard opens at Bristol Old Vic on 1 Mar and runs til 7 Apr. For more information and to book tickets, click here.