Tom Morris on the Bristol Proms, coping with cuts, and why he didn’t apply for the National

Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris tells us about the forthcoming inaugural Bristol Proms (29 July-3 August), and how they’re taking the historic venue back to its roots

Tom Morris on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic
Tom Morris on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic

What inspired the Bristol Proms?

When we were working on the refurbishment of the auditorium in the run-up to 2011, I got more and more interested in how the theatre was designed and how it was used when it was first built (in 1766). What I discovered was very surprising. I knew that it had a fabled acoustic, and I knew that when it was first built it wasn’t allowed to host plays, so they had to essentially pretend that they were putting on concerts and then sneak plays on in the interval. But what I didn’t know was that right from the earliest days it also hosted concerts, and I didn’t know that in the late 18th century there wasn’t such a thing as a concert hall. Music was performed in the same buildings as drama; I discovered that Handel’s Messiah was performed here in its entirety in 1782.

I also didn’t know that throughout the first half of the 19th century the biggest selling events in this theatre were promenade concerts for which they cleared out the seats and rammed audiences in, maybe as many as 2,000 people in the auditorium. That was all very inspiring because of course it meant that classical music was popular, accessible, high quality entertainment, just as drama was at that time. So as we were looking at the programming of the modern-day theatre, which is primarily a theatre for putting on plays, it seemed sensible to really explore and reopen some of its other uses historically.

Are they linked to the London Proms?

When planning the Bristol Proms we were of course inspired by the enormous success of the Proms in London, though the events are not directly linked.

Would you like to restore a populist element to classical music?

Absolutely. I was very inspired by reading a book about Mahler by Blaukopf and Blaukopf [Mahler: His Life, Work and World], in which there’s an account of the premiere of his third symphony, which is a great piece of work. It says that at the end of the second movement – which is not a short movement – the applause from the auditorium was so immense that Herr Mahler at the podium invited the orchestra to play it again. And you think, ‘that’s amazing’, first of all that the audience felt that they could clap when they felt like it between movements, whereas nowadays you have this awful hush. But secondly, not only did the audience of that concert feel empowered to clap, but Mahler felt it was a sufficiently live and unique and informal an event that it would be ok to ask the orchestra to play it again. I thought, ‘we really are missing something, we’ve forgotten something crucial about the spontaneity and liveness of classical music performance’.

The Bristol Proms are making extensive use of digital technology

That’s largely thanks to Clare Reddington, who runs the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed arts centre in Bristol and will one day be made a saint, because she’s working with the art forms of the future. She’s convening and curating and facilitating a generation of digital artists who are working partly on the internet and partly with other accessible digital media. We got talking about music and we agreed to work together on the Bristol Proms so that alongside that informality and liveness of the event, we were also embedding digital technology, which if you like is the 21st century equivalent of ramming 2,000 people into an unsafe tiny theatre in 1820.

So how will it work in practice?

There is now technology that can take the audience to the heart of the event, and we’re using the Bristol Proms to experiment with that technology in different ways. For example, John Durrant is filming the brilliant pianist Jan Lisiecki from every angle so the audience can see him as if they are walking round the piano as he’s playing. Also there’ll be a second mix that’s relayed live into a cinema at the Watershed for audiences who choose to experience the concert in that form to see it absolutely live as well.

What’s the purpose of this digital integration?

The experiments that we’re doing are all about mixing live performance with digital elements, so we’re specifically combining digital technology with the fug and jostle of a crammed audience. We discovered when we were refurbishing the theatre the audiences in the 18th and 19th centuries would have stood up for these concerts, so the architect Andrzej Blonski made it possible to recover a standing pit at the front of the stalls. It won’t be an aseptic, detached experience, in the way that sometimes people assume a digitally mediated experience is. We’re very aware of the unique atmosphere that can be generated in a live performance. But I also think that there new are kinds of atmosphere that a digitally mediated piece of art create as well, which we’re only just learning about.

Are you in danger of isolating the purists?

I don’t think so, because this is driven by a passion for the pure musical experience, and everything we’re doing is trying to take the audience closer to the heart of that. There may very well be some people who would prefer to go to a conventional concert than come to see something in the Bristol Proms, but my instinct is that many of those people will be curious about what else they might get if they come to the Bristol Proms. But if they choose not to come that’s absolutely fine, just as there will always be some people who prefer to sit at home and listen to a beautiful recording than go out to a concert. Our hope is that we will refresh the ears of classical music lovers who are secretly yearning for a more intimate and interactive form for live classical performance. And also introduce new audiences to discover its joys.

How is Bristol Old Vic coping amid the cuts?

There is absolutely no doubt that, like any theatre anywhere in the country and certainly anywhere in the regions, we are operating within the margins of viability. What we’ve done quite deliberately with the agreement of the board is construct a business model which means that, if necessary, we can cancel shows if things don’t work in order to make us more able to survive in what is a very difficult and unpredictable climate. And, because the board have agreed to let us do that, it has meant that we’ve been able to continue taking risks and continue growing. So the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which we opened here in February played to 26,500 people, which is a massive audience. But if that hadn’t worked we’d have had to do something horrible to our programme, that’s the reality, in order to compensate for it.

Did you go for the National Theatre job?

I’ve been very close to the National for nearly ten years, and I think officially I’m still an associate director there although I’m spending most of my time in Bristol. It’s been hugely successful under Nick Starr and Nick Hytner, but I didn’t apply to take over from Nick because the project here, of making this theatre work and making it work with and for the people of Bristol, is not going to be finished by 2015. We’ve got a massive year in Bristol in 2016, which is the 250th anniversary of this theatre and the 800th anniversary of the city of Bristol and various other things. Our aim is to complete the second phase of our redevelopment [the Front of House refurbishment] by then, which will require my full focus. So I’ll be cheering whoever gets the job from Bristol, and hope to work with them soon.

The Bristol Proms, tickets for which are available from £5, run from 29 July to 3 August 2013

See also: Emma Stenning on reopening Bristol Old Vic