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Bristol Old Vic: The show must go on

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Bristol Old Vic is in the throes of a major facelift – and with the main auditorium out of commission, the BOV team has been forced to improvise to keep performances going. Eleanor Turney finds out how.

The Bristol Old Vic is finally getting a much-needed £19.28m refurbishment and refit. With the main auditorium out of action, the team at BOV had to come up with ingenious ways of keeping the theatre alive during the works – the summer production of Treasure Island was performed in a specially constructed space outside the theatre, and its Christmas show, Coram Boy, took place in local concert venue Colston Hall.

I spoke to BOV’s director of production and operations, Jason Barnes, about the challenges of working in these two new spaces. Talking about building the summer’s Treasure Island space entirely from scratch, he explained: “We did it all with scaffolding. The budget was about £20,000 and scaffolding was the lion’s share of that, and then freelance staff.

“There were eight to ten in the crew (a mix of in-house staff, three to four casuals and some professional freelance chippies, carpenters, etc) who spent a week putting it all together, plus four scaffolders doing their bit. Everything else came from us – all the sound kit and lighting kit, the rigging, the hoarding were all us.”

There are, of course, no guarantees of good weather during a Bristolian summer, so the set had to survive an eight-week run. Barnes was fairly sanguine about the weather: “As long as the technical kit was safe and we weren’t worried about electrocution, then the show must go on.”

The weather-proofing process was slightly slapdash, due to budget constraints. “We just about got away with not using marine plywood. We used normal ply for the stage and painted it lots. Had we gone on for any longer, we would have had to redo the floor. All the scaffolding and planks were protected with an additive that they put on boats – we added that to the glaze we put on the stage,” Barnes says.

“We put a board over the lights to protect them from direct rain. We didn’t have any moving lights due to the budget, so it was all lit by PAR cans which are pretty resilient. There was lots of careful rigging and crossed fingers. Fortunately, it was only on the last night during the get-out that it really rained and rained.”

The rain contingency plan was similarly low-tech – lots of mops. However, for health and safety reasons there were three levels of risk that the cast observed, depending on the weather. The first stage was to bring the musicians and instruments inside, stage two meant no one up high or doing anything dangerous, and stage three (which wasn’t used during the run) was to perform a standing concert for as long as the audience was game to carry on.

With any technically demanding show, particularly an outdoor production, there are going to be conflicts between what the director ideally wants and what is physically possible.

With Treasure Island, the director had aspirations for a zip line from the back of the auditorium and entrances from the roadside, but there had to be compromises. “It all came down to health and safety – dealing with a road that was still open to essential traffic meant no actors’ entrances,” Barnes says.

Zip lines were never going to be achievable due to structural concerns. The team also realised early on that it couldn’t operate the sound with the DSM inside, so extra platforms had to be built at the sides of the seating bank for sound and DSM, which could then be used as entrances for cast.

Long-throw speakers from the theatre were brought outside, and waterproofed with plastic sheet. Barnes is matter-of-fact: “We used equipment we’d usually use indoors and just made it work outdoors.” It was hard to get the sound dispersion right because King Street is narrow and built up on both sides. However, the tunnel- like nature of the street and the rake of the seating bank with hoardings behind meant that the acoustics ended up working.

Sound was also the biggest problem for Coram Boy at Colston Hall. Colston, Barnes says, is great for music and stand-up, but it is hard to get full sound coverage for theatre. “We were mostly concerned with sound; everything else could fall into place but sound was crucial. For the dry tech run, we put in a full sound system, but we didn’t have an orchestra or a full choir to test with, so it was a bit ‘this should work, so fingers crossed’.” Fortunately for Barnes and the cast, it all fell into place.

Not being in a theatre space raised other problems, too, especially a lack of dressing rooms and show relay monitors. “We had to run lots of cables, and the choir had show relay feeds running out to where they were dressing. We basically took Colston Hall apart to fit all our stuff in and had to put it all back at the end,” says Barnes, laughing.

The lack of rehearsal space was also an issue. The company ended up taking over a disused JJB Sports unit across the city. “We rehearsed there, so we had to take all our own sound kit, blacks, heating, build a green room area, etc. We turned an industrial unit into a bone fide rehearsal space and turned a concert venue into a theatre.”

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