Exploring our Heritage | 250 Years of Triumph & Tribulation

22 Feb 2019

In celebration of our Theatre's exciting Heritage offer, we spoke with the artists responsible for creating the various interpretations you can uncover around our building. Here we find out more about 'Trials and Triumphs: 250 Years of Bristol Old Vic', created by Bristol-based Hana Sunny Whaler.

Introduce yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Hana Sunny Whaler. I am a Sign Painter by trade, with a grounding in Illustration, so my work often branches out from signage and into design, branding, logo and illustration work. I spent 3 years living and working in Bristol building up my business, and recently made the leap to London.

What piece of interpretation did you design, and what were the ideas behind it?
I designed and painted the 14 meter timeline mural located in down in the pit level corridor, 'Trials and Triumphs: 250 Years of Bristol Old Vic'.

Why did you want to get involved with the Bristol Old Vic Heritage project?
I was made aware of this project by previous contacts at the Bristol Old Vic, as I had previously spent a fortnight working backstage in The Linbury Paint Shop and Design Studio on The Grinning Man, scenic painting and doing a bit of signage. During my short time there, I fell in love with the place - the building itself, it’s history, and the fascinating exchange between the two worlds either side of the curtain. I’m also a theatre-goer, and spent a few years acting onstage as a teenager, so this mural was an opportunity to explore these interests further, and share the magic of all sides of the theatre by creating something permanent in this amazing institution.

How was the experience of working a team consisting of project managers, archivists and Bristol Old Vic staff?
Working with so many teams of people was quite a change for me, as a sole trader I’m often working alone and in change of most aspects of the job. My projects don’t normally involve so much research and factual precision, so that aspect I found quite hard - getting my head around 250 years worth of history was a huge undertaking. Luckily, from day one I had the expert knowledge (and patience!) of the many teams of people behind the scenes to guide me, from the archive and heritage departments, to the directors and Bristol Old Vic staff who know the place inside out. Their passion totally fed the whole project, and their input was invaluable.

What were the challenges of working on your piece of interpretation, and how did you overcome them?
To start with, I realised immediately the design of the mural would be a challenge - it's an unusual space to work in, as the wall is on a big curve, so you can’t see the whole piece as one. I was also being asked to create a chronological ‘beginning-to-end’ timeline when the main doorway into to the piece lies at the centre of the mural, meaning I really had to think outside the box with my design. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of energy had to be put into the collating, refining and translation of all the factual information for the timeline, making it into something which could be interesting and informative for everyone who could set foot in the building. In order to do the best possible job communicating this to people, I obviously had to understand it all myself, which was a huge job and extremely interesting. I’m not half the Bristol Old Vic boffin I could be, but I’m certainly getting there!

It was tough balancing all this alongside my many other jobs and projects, as a freelancer I’m often working on multiple things at once and travelling with work (one week I was staying in a caravan painting at a circus with no internet!) but we somehow always managed to keep things on track.

As far as the physical painting of the piece was concerned, my main worry was the timing and pacing of the painting, with 15 days to complete the piece single-handed, combined with the fact the theatre was open and running the whole time I was painting there. Every day there were rehearsals happening next door on stage, so hilariously the lights in my corridor would randomly dim and blackout as they did in the auditorium. Every night, the audiences entered the Auditorium through my corridor, so I always had to be packed up and gone before they arrived - there were a few surprise matinee performances which nearly caught me out! The theatre is a constantly running machine made up of many cogs, and has been for 252 years, so really that was all part of the fun! 

Are you happy with how the final product turned out?
Absolutely! Initially, after such a long and thorough design process, I felt some anticipation regarding the outcome and timing of the installation of the artwork. But as always, one I was there with brush in hand, seeing our creation come to life as it moved from page/screen to wall was so exciting. It was lovely to share this with the Bristol Old Vic family who had been alongside me during the whole design process, it was important to me that they were happy with it too. Creating the piece was a wonderful and challenging experience, working alongside the other artists, architects and builders who were part of the refurbishment was great, all working together to ensure Bristol Old Vic’s future as well as restoring and revealing it’s past. Now the beautiful new foyer and other heritage projects are in place for everyone to enjoy, the mural really seems at home in the building, I’m so pleased with the final outcome. My intention has always been for this mural to feel like a ‘discovery’, a bit of magic tucked away in the pit level - rather like Bristol Old Vic itself, Bristol’s own piece of buried treasure nestled behind King Street.

To find out more about our Heritage offer and our Theatre's rich 252 year-history, click here.