As the Bristol Old Vic - the oldest theatre in the English speaking world - prepares to celebrate its 250th birthday, we take a look at some intriguing tales from its past we bet you didn’t know… 

Image - Bristol Old Vic at 250 cake by Out Of This World Cakes, Bristol Old Vic

The theatre was illegal when it first opened in 1766:

When the theatre first opened it was technically illegal as it didn’t have the necessary Royal Patent, so productions were curiously referred to as “concerts with a specimen of rhetoric”. Because of this, the building was deliberately hidden away with no direct access to the street. To gain admission people would knock on the door of a house, belonging to one Mr Foote, then wander through his backyard to get in. A bit like gaining access to one of Bristol’s speakeasy bars then!

Image - Bristol Old Vic in the 19th century, photograph courtesy of University of Bristol Theatre Collection

It used to pack in over three times as many theatre-goers as it does today:

The theatre in its current form seats a total of 540 people. However, back in 1800 it could seat as many as 1,620. Sounds a little too intimate…

Image - Bristol Old Vic at night by Jon Craig

Bristolians were into graffiti well before Banksy:

During a recent refurbishment, archaeologists discovered all sorts of ancient treasures, from pig feet and clay pipes... to some 18th-century graffiti! 

The theatre almost had a very fruity fate:

Following a period of decline in the 1940s, The Bristol Old Vic – then the Theatre Royal - was sold off and only just escaped being turned into a banana ripening warehouse. Thankfully, the good people of Bristol came to the rescue.

Image - Kneehigh's performance of Dead Dog in a Suitcase at Bristol Old Vic by ShotAway

Certain seats in the house were favoured by a profession of ill-repute:

Some of the original seats you can still see at the sides of the upper circle boxes were once frequented by ladies of the night, who found this vaulted position a convenient way of soliciting custom from the men below.

The historic Georgian building may well be haunted:

According to legend, the ghosts of Welsh-born actress Sarah Siddons and Sarah M’Cready, the theatre’s devoted manager from 1834, haunt the theatre. The latter was spotted by architect Andrzej Blonski, during refurbishment. According to a BBC Bristol article at the time, he said she was wearing a long, white crinoline dress, had black hair and a pretty face. He also noted a whiff of lavender perfume – something others have reported in the theatre too.

Image - Bristol Old Vic’s 18th century theatre after its 2012 refurbishment by Philip Vile

Bristol Old Vic 250th birthday events, 28-30 May

Head over to the much-loved Old Vic this weekend for a jam-packed programme of special events for its 250th birthday. The festivities will throw a spotlight on the past, present and future of the playhouse and celebrate Bristol’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Highlights include:

• A chance to find out how theatre works behind the scenes with family friendly workshops, tours and events – including advice for budding thespians

• A free performance of Kneehigh’s The Flying Lovers ahead of its official opening night

• A star-studded gala performance on 29 May illuminating the Old Vic’s role in nurturing some of UK theatre's biggest names, featuring Caroline Quentin, Sir Tony Robinson, Dame Siân Phillips, Samantha Bond, Michael Morpurgo and many more…

• On Bank Holiday Monday, Bristol Old Vic’s birthday, King Street will experience a theatre takeover with the city’s renowned creative talent taking to the cobbled streets to perform. Including Firebird Theatre, a company of disabled performers, Bristol’s famous Circomedia and a finale music set including the city’s Gurt Lush Choir and RSVP Bhangra

• The party will culminate in a state-of-the-art animation that will be projected onto the theatre frontage showing the changing face of the theatre and an exclusive reveal of how it will look after the next redevelopment project, set to begin in June 2016

For full details of the 250th birthday weekend programme, visit: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/birthday.html.

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