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Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

School Overview

    • Founded:
    • 1946
    • Size:
    • Small (<5000 students)
    • Type:
    • Private non-profit
    • Category:
    • Universities, colleges
      Art institutes
    • Specialization:
    • Theatre/Drama School 1
    • Climate:
    • Temperate
    • Location:
    • 1-2 Downside Road, Clifton, Bristol, England, United Kingdom
    • Phone:
    • +441179733535
    • Setting:
    • Suburban, town

The History of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

The School began life in October 1946, only eight months after the founding of its parent Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, in a room above a fruit merchant's warehouse in the Rackhay near the stage door of the Theatre Royal. (The yard of the derelict St Nicholas School adjacent to the warehouse was still used by the Company for rehearsals of crowd scenes and stage fights as late as the early 1960s, notably for John Hale's productions of Romeo and Juliet starring the Canadian actor Paul Massie and Annette Crosbie, an alumnus of the School, and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac with Peter Wyngarde. Students from the Theatre School frequently played in these crowd scenes and fights.)

The School continued in these premises for eight years because of the Old Vic's lack of funds in the post-war decade until 1954 when the Company produced a small-scale end-of-season topical musical for the entertainment of regular patrons and to allow the actors to 'let their hair down' after a season of mainly serious productions.

This musical, Salad Days by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, proved very popular with Bristol audiences and was subsequently transferred to London's West End where it was an instant hit and played for more than four years, making it the longest-running production in West End history at the time. £7,000 from the Salad Days profits – a large sum in those days— was given to the School towards the purchase and conversion of two large adjoining Victorian villas at 1 and 2 Downside Road in Clifton. In 1995 the enduring benefit to students of that donation was formally recognized when a new custom-built dance and movement studio in the School's back garden was named the Slade/Reynolds Studio.

Many distinguished members of the theatrical profession have taught at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Perhaps the best known was the legendary Rudi Shelly, who joined the teaching staff only two weeks after the School opened in 1946 and was still working into his nineties. Alumni from around the world gathered in Bristol for his funeral at which the eulogy was delivered by alumnus Stephanie Cole. Apart from students of the School, over the years many established actors from around the world sought out Rudi Shelly's masterclasses when visiting or working in England.

At the time of the School's move to its current premises in Downside Road, Clifton, in 1956, the Principal was Duncan (Bill) Ross, who had succeeded the first Principal, Edward Stanley in 1954. After guiding the School through seven difficult years that are nonetheless still regarded by his former students as a golden age, Ross left in late 1961 to take up a teaching post in the USA. Soon after the departure of this much-loved principal, other key staff members resigned, including Daphne Heard and Maggie Collins, and Paula Gwyn-Davies, the School Secretary.

After a short interregnum under the actor Richard Ainley, in 1963 the post of Principal was taken by Nat Brenner, a distinguished actor and theatre technician and, at that time, general manager of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. Brenner's stewardship was regarded by students of the time as another golden age. He remained in the post until 1980 when he was succeeded by Christopher Denys, who retired in the summer of 2007 to be replaced by Paul Rummer as Principal and Sue Wilson in the new post of Artistic Director. Until the 1990s the Theatre School was part of the Bristol Old Vic Company, but it is now a financially independent organization.

Academic Highlights

The theatre school only accepts 14 people out of some 2500 applications a year for the three-year BA acting course, making it one of the most selective drama schools in the world. Applicants are purely judged on talent alone in two rounds of intensive auditions. It has its own premises in Clifton, bought with proceeds from the London success of Salad Days. It previously had working links with the Drama Department of the University of Bristol, which still holds many papers of the Theatre School in its Theatre Collection. For many years it presented regular student productions in the Department's experimental Drama Studio converted from an indoor tennis court off a corridor in the Wills Memorial Building behind the University's Bell Tower at the top of Bristol's fashionable Park Street. Students from the School and the Drama Department shared many of each other's formal lectures and a number of the Department's graduates went on to continue their studies as full-time students at the School.

Life in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

School Ranking


Notable Alumni

Notable acting alumni include: Helen Baxendale, Samantha Bond, Stephanie Cole, Olivia Colman, Annette Crosbie, Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, Naomie Harris, Jeremy Irons, Theo James, Alex Jennings, Pearl Mackie, Faye Marsay, Cyril Nri, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pete Postlethwaite, Amanda Redman, Miranda Richardson, Dame Patricia Routledge, Adrian Scarborough, Malcolm Sinclair, Sir Patrick Stewart, Mark Strong, Sophie Thompson and Gene Wilder.

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