Speculation about the future of Bristol Old Vic (pictured) has remained rife since last month’s surprise news that it would close on 1 August 2007 to undergo a previously unannounced 18-month, £7 million refurbishment (See News, 11 May 2007). The quick closure date resulted in the cancellation of the scheduled September run of Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings (a co-production between Headlong Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith) and the axing of other high-profile planned productions including Ivanov, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as well as the resignation of artistic director Simon Reade, who left last week, and substantial redundancies amongst the venue’s 70 staff.

Industry commentators expressed concern about the nature of the “panicked” move indicated the regional powerhouse was in serious trouble and may be closing for good, while rumours abounded that Arts Council England had exerted pressure to close due to dwindling box office receipts under the direction of Reade. Today, Bristol Old Vic has issued a new statement addressing these issues. The full text of that statement follows below.

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. Work on the new renovation was made possible thanks to a £1 million donation from the Linbury Trust. That - combined with £1 million from Bristol City Council, £2 million from Arts Council England and other bodies’ contributions – brings the total raised to date to over £5 million. A public appeal will now be launched to raise the remainder.

Essential structural work on the Grade I-listed building will include addressing electrical and plumbing issues to ensure the theatre complies with health and safety regulations. The refurbishment – due to be completed in December 2008 - will also comprise new seating, a new air cooling system, lifting of the stalls floor levels for improved stage visibility and installation of disabled lift access.

- by Terri Paddock


STATEMENT FROM BRISTOL OLD VIC

“The continuing survival of Bristol Old Vic was never going to be a simple process. Since the announcement was made on 10 May to close the theatre for an 18-month refurbishment, questions have been raised about the fabric of the building, the possible success of an appeal to refurbish, the artistic policy and our relationship with the Arts Council.

“The harsh truth is that Bristol Old Vic has been living on borrowed time for several years, largely due to the limitations of our beautiful but flawed Georgian auditorium and its 450 usable seats. Two main problems came to light over recent months: the building was in desperate need of refurbishment, especially the extremely uncomfortable seating, and although largely critically successful, the shows were not reaching box office targets.

“Our understanding of the state of the building became clearer in the week leading up to the announcement of closure and the Board were briefed on the 4 May on the presence of asbestos, poor electrical wiring and poor plumbing. While these issues presented no immediate concerns for the remainder of the season, this detailed information as to the actual state of a public space and the potential future dangers to Bristol Old Vic’s workforce, meant that we had now reached a point where to delay would have been irresponsible. On its own these problems could have been addressed - work could have been carried out to a basic level of repair and the autumn season could have continued. However, the decline of Bristol Old Vic’s box office, following overspends on some productions brought our finances to the brink of failure, where trustees could not be confident that the planned programme for autumn/winter 2007/2008 would be affordable or successful at generating necessary sales.

“The continued collapse in ticket sales for the spring/summer season, confirmed our fear that the work on stage needed to be reviewed. The trustees, working closely with the Arts Council, saw the need to review the work of Bristol Old Vic. At no point in this process did Arts Council England force the board to close Bristol Old Vic nor does it have the power to do so. We continue to have a close and supportive relationship with the Arts Council and long may it continue.

“A lot of comment has been made regarding our autumn season and the high calibre of productions due to take place at that time. The quality of that artistic programme was never in doubt. However, given the declining box office over the last season and its cumulative effect, the extremely high box office targets needed for the autumn season to work financially was too great a risk. It was therefore considered to be a more prudent business decision to close on 1 August, leaving the organisation in a financially viable position to plan for the future.

“On the question of the appeal, of course this is going to be tough in the current economic climate. Nevertheless, the fantastic news of the Linbury Trust’s contribution of £1 million towards the appeal, instantly doubling the contributions already raised from Trusts and the private sector, gives confidence that the target can be reached. Alongside a funding pledge of £2 million from the Arts Council and £1 million from Bristol City Council, this brings the total to £5 million at which point a significant amount of work can be committed to. However, we still have to raise an additional £2 million through the public sector to reach our £7 million target.

“Where to go from here? This decision now allows a full and wide-ranging strategy review to be produced in consultation with BOV supporters, Arts Council England and Bristol City Council, theatre practitioners and the Bristol community, to ensure a relevant, vibrant and successful theatre for the future – for Bristol and the nation at large. There is no doubt that Bristol Old Vic does have a future, that it has a place in the theatre community both locally and nationally and that this future will be all the brighter for having access to a premises worthy of its rich history and heritage.”