Some of the UK’s leading actors - including Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson – are amongst more than 120 signatories of a letter published today in The Times calling for immediate action to be taken to save Bristol Old Vic, which shuts its doors on Wednesday (1 August 2007) to undergo an 18-month, £7 million refurbishment, with fears that it may never reopen as a producing theatre (See News, 11 May 2007).

The surprise closure announcement two months ago 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 Kenneth Branagh, as well as the resignation of artistic director Simon Reade, who left last month, and substantial redundancies amongst the venue’s 70 staff.

Despite issuing a lengthy clarification statement (See News, 4 Jun 2007), launching a high-profile fundraising campaign for an outstanding £2 million needed to complete building work, and holding a public forum, entitled “Where do we go from here?”, in Bristol to gather townspeople’s views on the theatre’s future (See The Goss, 18 Jul 2007), industry commentators have continued to express concern.

According to today’s letter: “What is clear is that the Bristol Old Vic Company is in danger of being allowed to fade away. The refurbishment of the Theatre Royal is, of course, welcome. Audiences and actors know that it is sorely needed, but what is most important is the work that is produced on stage. At the moment, all decisions appear to be in the hands of Arts Council officials and board members, few of whom seem ever to have worked on stage.”

The Equity members who signed the letter continued: “We call for the immediate appointment of an artistic team, in particular an artistic director, so a programme of work can be planned for the period of closure. We further call on the Bristol Old Vic board, having consulted fully with audiences and performers, to make a public statement that the Bristol Old Vic remains a producing company.”

The signatories include several Bristol Old Vic patrons: Samantha Bond, Patrick Stewart, Selina Cadell, Stephanie cole, Judi Dench, Edward Fox, Patrick Malahide, Ian Mckellen, director Adrian Noble, Tim Piggot-Smith, Joan Plowright, Amanda Redman, Alan Rickman, Greta Scacchi, Jenny Seagrove and Patrick Stewart. Others on the list are actors Eileen Atkins, Frances Barber, David Calder, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sorcha Cusack, Lisa Dillon, Deborah Findlay, Richard Griffiths, Douglas Hodge, Lloyd Hutchinson, Alex Jennings, Belinda Lang, Jane Lapotaire, Julia McKenzie, Bill Paterson, Sian Phillips, Miranda Richardson, Martin Shaw, Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton; playwright Peter Nichols; and directors John Caird, Simon Curtis, Gregory Doran, Phyllida Law and Matthew Warchus.

A Bristol Old Vic spokesperson told Whatsonstage.com today that focus group research to decide the theatre’s future was ongoing, after which a “head of organisation” – rather than an artistic director - would be appointed in the new year to formalise and implement the appropriate strategy. “The focus groups are the key to everything that comes after,” she said. She also stressed that, as with many other regional venues, Bristol could not rely purely on subsidy and box office receipts. “We have to find other ways to supplement our income so we can continue to exist,” she said. This includes renting out the 650-seat auditorium for corporate conferences and weddings, as it has already been doing for several years.

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. The Bristol spokeswoman said the public appeal for the final £2 million is going “very well” and that over 100 people attended the forum held on 21 July to steer the theatre’s future.

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