Bristol Old Vic launches major new Heritage experience, bringing its unique 252-year history vividly to life

24 Oct 2018
  • Aardman creates exclusive film to bring the theatre’s history to life
  • Visitors will be able to step back in time with immersive augmented reality experience
  • Tricks of the trade revealed as visitors walk through interactive sound corridor 
  • Bespoke artwork in partnership with Upfest and local artists revealed
  • Detailed timelines and historic posters showcase the theatre through the ages

The final piece of Bristol Old Vic’s radical reinvention falls into place this November with the launch of its brand new interactive heritage experience. The fascinating history of Bristol Old Vic, the oldest continuously working theatre in the English-speaking world, will be brought to life in a collaboration with Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, as the theatre unveils a host of experiences and attractions, supported by the National Lottery.

Over the weekend of 9—11 November, Bristol Old Vic will introduce its new interactive experiences, exhibition spaces, tours and workshops that tell the story of this iconic theatre over the last 252 years. After a launch event on the evening of 9 Nov, general public will able to access all heritage has to offer from 8am, Saturday 10 Nov every day of the week, during the theatre’s opening hours. Booking is only required for Guided Tours which will take place twice weekly. With stunning video projections, an immersive augmented reality experience and fully redesigned public areas within the theatre, it will become one of Bristol’s key visitor destinations with something for everyone.

Liam Wiseman, Heritage Engagement Manager said: “For the first time we’re bringing to life our unique archives and showcasing the history of the longest continuously running theatre. True to the purpose of the organisation, our heritage experiences are theatrical and dynamic, and we can’t wait for everyone to see what we’ve been up to!”

The Bristol Old Vic team has worked hard to deliver varied and interesting forms of experience to engage the public with its history. Partnering with different artists and designers to create each experience, the story of the theatre has been carefully crafted to stimulate the senses as visitors wander through the building.

An extra special addition, for the opening weekend only, to celebrate the heritage launch, we’re bringing back to life some of the famous faces who’ve trodden our boards over the last 252 years. Created by the theatre’s Made in Bristol company, Limelight is a ticketed tour leading audiences around the theatre where they will encounter a host of characters from the past, telling tales of the theatre’s rich history. Limelight tours will take place every 30 minutes on Sat 10 Nov (9.30am—12.30pm) and Sun 11 Nov (9am —6pm).

The transformation of the theatre into a heritage attraction is part of a ten-year £26 million programme, including £2.4m from the National Lottery, to completely overhaul and safeguard the future of this historical and cultural gem. Becoming a destination as well as a theatre, people will be able to enjoy the venue any time of day, with a new bar, café and public spaces that are perfect for having lunch with friends or dining before catching a matinee or enjoying evening performances.

Emma Stenning, Chief Executive for Bristol Old Vic said: “Achieving a transformative grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund back in 2016 was quite the best 250th birthday present that we could receive.  Since then, we’ve been working in thrilling partnership with Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection to make our extraordinary theatre’s history come alive within the walls of Bristol Old Vic. The opportunity to commission local artists and makers to respond to the stories of the theatre’s past has been so exciting. Their resulting work presents a unique heritage experience, which I hope our visitors will enjoy for many years to come”.

This project has been made possible by National Lottery players through a £2.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players this project is achieving fantastic things for Bristol and our nation’s theatrical heritage. As well as opening historical and characterful spaces for visitors from far and wide to enjoy, this investment is bringing to life the fascinating archives of the UK’s oldest theatre – this is a wonderful chance to see them in action!”


November marks the opening of the heritage experiences. Included in your visit to Bristol Old Vic, there are some fantastic and fascinating attractions in store…

A Window to the Past: An augmented reality app which is found in the brand new foyer space. Visitors will be able to watch the world transform around them using the augmented reality app created by Limbic Cinema and Zubr VR. Simply pick up one of the in-house tablets, or download the app (available on compatible Apple devices), to step back in time into one of four time periods: the 1760s, 1860s, 1910s and the 1970s and view in full 360 degrees how the theatre foyer looked in those time periods. There are items around the foyer to give more context and atmosphere, and if you’re lucky, you might even talk to a ghost…

Noises Off - 250 Years of Sound Technology in the Theatre: Visitors interested in the secrets of sound design in theatre will be in for a treat! A gallery corridor in the theatre has been transformed to tell the story of sound at Bristol Old Vic, designed by Joe Ravenhill’s company 2 Feet Below, to explore the way theatre has made sound historically. Through a series of interactive activities, visitors will learn all the tricks of the theatrical trade; from how to project your voice to how sound designers create mood during performances. You can even get a sneak peek at the original 18th-century Thunder Run, an ancient contraption that simulates the sound of thunder above the auditorium and listen to one of the theatre’s most famous voices bring it to life.

Aardman exclusive film: The House Is Open! Developed alongside Limbic Cinema, Aardman has crafted an educational and fun-filled short film that highlights the architectural transformations of the building, which will be projection-mapped onto the original 1766 wall of the theatre. The animated video will be played before the start of every evening show to let the audience know that “The House Is Open!” Film to premiere in early NOV 2018.

Trials and Triumphs: 250 years of Bristol Old Vic: A timeline illustrated by sign-painter and illustrator Hana Sunny Whaler showcases 250 years of Bristol Old Vic history. It stretches across the entire horseshoe wall of the pit level outside the auditorium, and beautifully showcases the history of this building using archival imagery and material from the Theatre’s past.

King Street: From Marsh to Metropolis: A timeline of King Street in a street art style by local artist Bex Glover, and chosen in conjunction with Upfest graffiti festival that tells the story of King Street as place of depravity to a place of celebration.

An Audience With the Past: Emily Ketteringham was chosen to deliver the biggest artistic installation in the entire building. What started out as one wall of artistically arranged playbills and posters now stretches across the dress circle, upper circle and gallery levels of the auditorium wall with characters from a wide selection of Bristol Old Vic posters popping in to say hello.

Guided Tours: To celebrate the new building and heritage offer, Bristol Old Vic’s tour experience has been revamped to show more, teach more and entertain more. The new tour programme runs every Thursday and Saturday morning, and are available to book now. Public, private, school and corporate tours are available and can be personalised for each group. Book in advance (£12)

A Touch of History: As part of this Heritage Lottery Funded project, the University of Bristol Theatre Collection have digitised over 10,000 archival images, documents and posters, and now thanks to our digital archive interface - the “touch table” - visitors can view these within the theatre itself.

Temporary Exhibitions: When you go down to the pit level today, you’re in for a big surprise! Working with the University of Bristol Theatre Collection and Bristol Archives, we are bringing archival materials on display in the theatre for the very first time! These temporary exhibitions will focus on a variety of themes and topics, and will change every six months to keep you coming back for more! Our first exhibition will focus on the role of the audience in the theatre. Launching early 2019.


In support of this Capital Project, we would like to thank National Lottery players and Arts Council England -the development agency for arts and culture, Bristol City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund in helping us to realise our vision for Bristol Old Vic. In addition, we thank the many trusts, foundations, individuals and businesses including The Linbury Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, John James Bristol Foundation, Foyle Foundation, and The Wolfson Foundation for supporting the creation of a space where people from all over the city can experience amazing art and culture that makes Bristol the place that it is.

In addition, thanks to our Project partners, Bristol Archives and University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

With thanks to Interpretation Project Manager, Interactive Places.


Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLottery

The Theatre Collection is one of the world’s largest archives of British theatre history and Live Art and is an accredited museum and international research facility open to all.  Founded in 1951 to serve the first UK university drama department, its collections range from 1572 to the twenty-first century and its visitors include everyone from international scholars to family historians. We enable the Collection to be used for education, research, innovation, enjoyment and inspiration by all those who wish to do so.

Bristol Archives was established in 1924 and is home to 800 years of Bristol History. It was the first borough record office in the country and at the time there was only one other local record office in existence. The archives collects and preserves records relating to the city of Bristol and the surrounding area for current and future generations to consult including records created by Bristol City Council and predecessor bodies. 

Bristol Old Vic is the longest continuously running theatre in the UK, and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2016. The historic playhouse aims to inspire audiences with its own original productions, both at home and on tour, whilst nurturing the next generation of artists, whether that be through their 350-strong Young Company, their many outreach and education projects or their trailblazing artist development programme, Bristol Ferment.

They use their funding to support experiment and innovation, to allow access to their programme for people who would not otherwise encounter it, or be able to afford it, and to keep their extraordinary heritage alive and animated.

On 24 Sep 2018, Bristol Old Vic completed its 2-year multi-million pound redevelopment project, which transformed its front of house space into a warm and welcoming public building for all of Bristol to enjoy, created a new studio theatre and opened up its unique theatrical heritage to the public for the first time.

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