National Theatre associate director Tom Morris has been appointed as the next artistic director of the troubled Bristol Old Vic as it gears up to full reopening over the next year.

In the post, which has been vacant since May 2007 when Simon Reade resigned prior to the regional playhouse’s shock closure that August (See News, 4 Jun 2007), Morris will be reunited with his former colleague Emma Stenning (pictured with Morris), who has been appointed as Bristol’s executive director. Morris and Stenning last worked together as artistic and executive directors of London’s Battersea Arts Centre where, amongst other successes, they provided a launching pad for Jerry Springer – The Opera.

The pair will start work in Bristol in September, after fulfilling current commitments. Though he’ll remain involved as an associate, Morris will resign his salaried position at the National Theatre, where he has co-directed Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and the multi award-winning War Horse, which transfers to the West End next month. Stenning is currently head of producing at Manchester International Festival, where she’s presenting several world premieres, including Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera Prima Donna.

In a statement, Morris and Stenning said today: “We are delighted to join the Bristol Old Vic at this unique moment in its history. Bristol has the most exquisite 18th-century playhouse in the country in an extraordinary, flexible and under-used building. Now, through the initiative of Dick Penny and board, the Old Vic feels ready to re-engage with the city as it did in the brightest moments in its past. The opportunity to rediscover the potential of this globally celebrated theatre in partnership with the people of Bristol is thrilling.”

Morris and Stenning will present their vision for the theatre at a public meeting to be held in Bristol on 16 April 2009.

Built in 1776, Bristol Old Vic is one of the country’s oldest working theatres. Its last refurbishment was in 1969, when it shut for three years. In August 2007, amidst rumours of financial woe, it closed prematurely for what was meant to be an 18-month, £7 million renovation – leading to Reade’s resignation and the cancellation of a programme of work and later prompting a high-profile campaign to “save Bristol Old Vic”. In January 2008, when the Old Vic’s annual subsidy was under threat as part of wider Arts Council funding cutbacks, it looked as if its closure could become permanent.

Since then, the theatre has been slowly rebuilding its team and its reputation. This month sees the first major production mounted at BOV since the 2007 closure, the premiere of Mamma Mia! author Catherine Johnson’s Suspension, commissioned by the theatre’s new executive chairman Dick Penny and set against the backdrop of Bristol's famous bridge.

Suspension runs from 27 February to 28 March 2009, after which the theatre will essentially be dark again until Morris and Stenning begin programming. A spokeswoman told Whatsonstage.com that BOV is “learning how to be a theatre again, and Tom and Emma are very much a part of that”. The hope is that, with them on board, Bristol can launch a full season within 12 to 14 months but, in the mean time, “it’s a case of building up to full working capacity”.

Cllr Simon Cook, chair of the selection panel, said that interest in the posts of artistic and executive directors “has been huge” and that they were delighted to “have attracted such high-calibre people”. Catherine Johnson, who is also a member of the theatre’s board, added: “These appointments firmly announce that BOV is back in business - it is terrific news for Bristol, for practitioners and audiences alike."

And Chris Humphrey, executive director for Arts Council England South West said: “The appointments mark a significant stage in the redevelopment of the theatre. Both Tom and Emma have exceptionally strong track records and bring with them the skills and expertise to innovate. We look forward to working with them in the future.!

- by Terri Paddock