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Explore Bristol, the South West’s thriving centre for performance

Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Jon Craig
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For a city with fewer than half a million residents, Bristol is home to a huge number of theatre venues, companies and organisations. With lower living costs than London, a thriving theatre school and two universities, and a supportive local authority (Bristol City Council spent £3.2 million on “culture and related services” in 2014/15), theatrical happenings are everywhere.

Spaces such as the Cube (a community-owned cinema) sometimes host theatre or spoken-word events, and the Arnolfini offers visual arts, performance, dance, film and music. Other spaces, such as the Hen and Chickens pub and Zion Community Space, occasionally have theatre events, while the Bierkeller Theatre has rock bands when it’s not presenting plays. Theatre Bristol, a collective of producers, does wonderful things to promote theatre, and there’s an encouraging community of artists making work in the city.

The Alma

The Alma
The Alma

Seats: 48
Turnover: £20,000
Subsidy: None

A tiny theatre above the Alma Tavern that champions new writing. It has been open since 1997, and presents work from the many university societies, South West-based amateur groups and touring productions.

“Bristol’s unique appeal for theatremakers is the sheer variety of performance available. It is such an exciting and vibrant city.” Holly Newton, theatre manager

David Hasselhoff appeared in pantomime  at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011
David Hasselhoff appeared in pantomime at the Bristol Hippodrome in 2011

Bristol Hippodrome

Seats: 1,955
Turnover: undisclosed
Subsidy: None

Owned by Ambassador Theatre Group,
the Hippodrome is the unashamedly populist side of Bristol’s theatre scene. Upcoming shows include jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia! and Let It Be, comedy from Bill Bailey and crowd-pleasers such as Peppa Pig. It is a receiving house only.

“We’re the West End theatre of the West Country, known for bringing the big shows, the big names. We’ve got the capacity and a huge stage to take those big shows. We’re a commercial venue; we’re not likely to take on brand new works, but we cover our bases in our programming – we have opera, bigger plays, ballet. Bristol has space for everything.” Neil Chandler, general manager

Circomedia

Circomedia
Circomedia

Seats: 100-180
Turnover: £1 million
Subsidy: £106,500 from ACE;  £36,700 from Bristol City Council.

A world-renowned circus training provider. Its main venue is St Paul’s, an old church, which presents work by Circomedia’s students, as well as dance, physical theatre and circus from around the world.

“There’s a lot of theatre in Bristol relative to its size. There are more people here who define themselves as circus professionals than anywhere in the UK apart from London. There’s a lot of mutual support – to some extent all the artists here are an audience for each other’s work. The audiences are quite remarkable, really, and sustain it all. We’ve got 97 full-time students, and we’re specifically interested in how circus intersects with physical theatre. We’re an interesting and quirky venue but we also have a sprung floor, and Bristol has a shortage of them!” Nicolas Young, director

In Between Time

Trajal Harrell Mimosa at In Between Time Festival 2015
Trajal Harrell Mimosa at In Between Time Festival 2015

Tickets: 4,000 (2015)
Turnover: £500,000
Subsidy: £201,000 from ACE; £28,400 from other grants; £2,000 from sponsorship

Every two years, this festival commissions new work, bringing international artists to Bristol. It has previously featured Tim Etchells, Sylvia Rimat, Kim Noble, Blast Theory, Jo Bannon, Forced Entertainment and Coney, and work from Norway, Austria, Finland, Germany, Japan, the US, France, Rwanda and Portugal.

“We work with the bravest artists and adventurous audiences to respond to the contemporary world. We work across Bristol’s cultural centres, public spaces, neighbourhoods and community gathering places. IBT seeks out artistic innovators across disciplines recognising that the most urgent ideas and compelling stories are often found in the people and the places others overlook.” Helen Cole, artistic director

Mayfest

The Folded Path at Mayfest. Photo: Paul Blakemore
The Folded Path at Mayfest. Photo: Paul Blakemore

Tickets: 5,000
Turnover: £310,000
Subsidy: £90,000 from ACE; £15,000 from Bristol City Council; £15,000 from corporate sponsorship, advertising and individual giving

Over 10 days in May, this festival of contemporary theatre takes over the city. This year’s programme included Tim Crouch, Greg Wohead and the UK premiere of Chekhov’s First Play. Programmed by joint artistic directors Kate Yedigaroff and Matthew Austin, it offers a huge breadth of work. Recent festivals have included Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients, Chris Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die, and work from Chris Goode, Action Hero, Hofesh Shechter, Scottee, Made in China, Belarus Free Theatre and Ontroerend Goed.

“There’s an intangible, atmospheric thing about this city, a vibe of creativity and collaboration. There’s a gentleness, and a permissiveness, that means the city feels very well suited to living as an artist. There’s space to breathe. Organisations and venues talk to each other rather well. There’s an amazing music scene; there’s a kind of ferocity about independence here. People and buildings are, on the whole, not territorial. Mayfest was born of this city and I hope it fits into the wider ecology as both a landing strip and a launchpad.”  Kate Yedigaroff, co-artistic director

Redgrave Theatre

Redgrave theatre brsitol
The Redgrave Theatre

Seats: 319
Turnover: £120,000
Subsidy: None, but any losses are covered by Clifton College, which owns the building

Now entering its 50th year, the first purpose-built school theatre in the country (above) was renamed after Michael Redgrave, a former student of the college, in 1985. It hosts productions from schools, local amateur groups and professional touring companies.

“Bristol is a fantastic city full of theatremakers,  prop makers, choirs and more. The local council, along with excellent companies like Theatre Bristol, has helped develop this feeling that ‘things are always going on’. The Redgrave is probably a bit of an anomaly as it tries to soak up all those brilliant performers who don’t quite fit in elsewhere.”  Sam Hollis-Pack, theatre manager

Tobacco Factory Theatres

Tobacco Factory Theatres
Tobacco Factory Theatres

Seats: 224-305
Turnover: £2.2 million
Subsidy: £60,000 from ACE; £40,000 from Bristol City Council; £450,000 from individual giving, major donors, corporate sponsorship, trusts and foundations

Tobacco Factory Theatres comprises a main house, studios that are hired out for classes, and a cafe/bar that is buzzing all day. It programmes a huge range of work, from children’s theatre to comedy to Shakespeare, and is the place to catch exciting theatre on tour, as well producing in-house shows. The theatre is also home to Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, which has its own artistic team and produces two shows a year.
Director Ali Robertson is shortly moving to Kneehigh, and Mike Tweddle and Lauren Scholey are taking over in July.

“Bristol is a special place in terms of independent ideas and independent art. There’s so much creativity and ambition in the city. When I started working in Birmingham, we were all looking over to Bristol for inspiration as to how to link up and create a shared conversation between everyone interested in theatre in a city. By doing that, you can make some stuff happen that wouldn’t have happened without those cross-collaborations.” Mike Tweddle, artistic director designate

Trinity Centre

Trinity Cenre. Photo: Lawrence Hill
Trinity Cenre. Photo: Lawrence Hill

Seats: 100-150
Turnover: £761,000
Subsidy: £20,000 from Bristol City Council, and other grants on a project basis with support from Garfield Weston, Foyle Foundation and Cory Environmental Trust Britain

A deconsecrated Georgian church used as a community arts centre and independent music venue. It offers more than 3,000 hours of free or subsidised space every year.

“Trinity’s evolution from a community centre and independent music venue to a multi-use arts centre underpins our unique position and approach within Bristol’s arts ecology. We will provide a flagship model of inclusivity for the sector, working with our communities.” Rhiannon Jones, programme manager

Wardrobe Theatre

Beyond the Ridiculous at the Wardrobe Theatre. Photo: Paul Blakemore
Beyond the Ridiculous at the Wardrobe Theatre. Photo: Paul Blakemore

Seats: Seats: 91-110
Turnover: N/A (opened December 2015)
Subsidy: None

Founded in 2011 by young theatremakers, the Wardrobe moved from its tiny space above the White Bear pub to a more permanent home in December last year. Its alternative pantos are a Christmas tradition: previous delights include Lock, Stock and Three Smoking Bears, Muppets Die Hard and – a personal favourite – Oedipus in Boots. It hosts contemporary and experimental touring work.

“My favourite thing about Bristol is its amazing spirit. We’re all proactive about getting stuff done. You can put on an event and know that people will come – artists watch each other’s stuff. There’s a real do-it-yourself attitude, without waiting for permission or funding. There’s sometimes a feeling in London that if someone else is doing really well, it means you’re doing badly. Here, it feels more like: you’re making a great show and that’ll help me to make one. People are up for helping each other out and sharing skills. It’s not cliquey, either. If people show a little willingness, people will jump in with them and help them out.”  Matthew Whittle, co-artistic director

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