Monday, August 6, 2012

The Georgian Theatre Royal ~ by Cheryl Leigh

A visit to the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, is a delightful, wondrous experience and akin to stepping back in time. Theatres often burned down during the eighteenth century, but this Georgian gem of a playhouse survived with most of its original features intact.  
Stage from pit (c) Cloud 9 Allen Tod
In the eighteenth century, Richmond was an important market town with a thriving provincial social scene, consisting of balls, race meetings and Assemblies. But the town lacked a theatre as royal patents were given to only a few provincial theatres. An Act was passed in 1788, allowing licences for classical plays to be performed for sixty days at any one time, which enabled Samuel Butler to open the Theatre in Friars Wynd in September that year. Butler had married a twice-widowed, forty-six-year-old Richmond actress when he was twenty-three in 1773 and took over the running of her troupe of travelling players. The Butler Company continued to stage regular productions until the lease expired in 1830. The Theatre closed in 1848 and became an auction house, wine store, and later, a corn chandler. Extensive restorations over the years have ensured the Theatre retains its authenticity, so audiences today enjoy the same intimate atmosphere as in past times. 

The new front attached to original building (c) Cloud 9
In those days, patrons entered through the only entrance, the double doors in Friars Wynd, and handed their coins to Mrs. Butler in the pay box. The cheapest seats were in the gallery. For a shilling, the young and dissolute climbed the narrow, wooden stairs and sat on the benches. People in the front row would kick the board at the base of the panels to indicate their disapproval of an actor's performance. The original pay box and staircase are still there - the tight squeeze on the steep stairs would have made exiting difficult and dangerous if a fire had occurred.
The pit cost two shillings and benches ran from wall to wall. Today there are removable bench ends that extend over the aisles, and detachable cushions and backs make the theatre experience more comfortable. At three shillings per person, the boxes were the best seats. Or were they? While the crowd in the pit could be hit by flying oranges and such, my guide informed me people sat for four hours or more and had nowhere to relieve themselves, so the rich patrons in the boxes sometimes ended up with wet wigs or clothing from urine dripping through the floorboards overhead! 
view from stage (c) Cloud 9
The eleven boxes are named after playwrights. Only the inscription on the centre one, Shakespeare, spelled the old-fashioned way, is original. The two boxes on the edge of the stage allowed for intimate involvement between the audience and actors. Juliet boxes, used for balcony scenes, are on either side of the stage above the proscenium doors. The Royal Box is, of course, the best seat as it has a direct line to the actors on stage. I can confirm this is true after sitting on the same chair used by Prince Charles and other royals. That's the closest I'll ever get to royalty! As I drank in the atmosphere and admired the blue-green Georgian colour scheme, it was easy to imagine the laughter from the pit, the actors raising their voices over the unruly crowd in the gallery, the rustle of my silk gown as I turn to greet a friend in the next box...oops, back to the present. 

As there were no tickets in those days, wealthier patrons would send their servants to pay earlier in the evening and mind a seat for them. A peephole in the door to the boxes slid open so they could see where their servants were sitting. Mrs. Butler also used this to keep an eye on the performance and the audience's behaviour. The ceiling has been painted with a blue sky and white clouds,   imitating the open courtyard where plays were watched before theatres were built. The Theatre seats 214, but Samuel Butler could cram in 400 people.   
Playbill courtesy of The Georgian Theatre Royal
The floor of the stage was raised at the back to give audiences a better view. Candles on dishes, floating in a trough of water, lit the foot of the stage. On chilly evenings, the fireplace at the back of the stage was used to warm the actors. Both dressing rooms also have a fireplace. Actors often slept on the floor of the dressing rooms when accommodation was unavailable during the busy Season. The machine room under the stage contained the mechanism to winch the trough of footlights to the stage, and a counter-weighted platform to shoot an actor through a trapdoor, which often resulted in injury. Once there were three trapdoors, now there is one. The museum at the back of the Theatre houses many original objects, as well as the Woodland Scene, believed to be the oldest known scenery, painted between 1818 and 1836.

This video shows a detailed tour inside the Theatre.

Here is the link to the Georgian Theatre Royal. Museum Week, held every summer, gives visitors an even greater insight into the Theatre's early beginnings.

* Many thanks to Sarah at The Georgian Theatre Royal for the photos of the Theatre.


Curtis, Vaughn, and Waugh, Doug, eds. The Georgian Theatre Royal.
Richmond: Castle Print



Maggi Andersen said...

Great article, Cheryl. I've been to the Richmond Theatre a couple of times, once to see Simon Cowell, but that one's opposite the park in Kew Road. I've never been to this one.

Allison Butler said...

Hi Cheryl,

Thanks for the fabulous post. What a gorgeous theatre. It's wonderful that it still has most of its original features. Great video tour:)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Maggi,

If you get the chance, go! You would LOVE it. :)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Isn't it wonderful, Allison? I loved it.

What would we do without YouTube! You can travel the world without leaving home. :)

Suzi said...

Loved reading about and seeing the theatre. So great that it's been preserved for people to see what it was like back then.
Suzi Love

Cheryl Leigh said...

Suzi, it was so fortunate many of the original features survived, and they have done such a terrific restoration job. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Christina Phillips said...

This was fascinating, Cheryl. I'd love to tour the theatre though of course I did laugh at the thought of the rich patrons getting their wigs wet *snort*!

Cheryl Leigh said...

Obviously *that* wasn't included in the price, LOL. Glad you enjoyed the post, Christina. I hope you get to visit the Theatre one day. It's such a special place.

Anonymous said...

This is just another GOOD reason to visit UK again.... to see the things there's never time to see at once. Thank you Cheryl for sharing this piece of interesting history. :)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Maryde, there's so much to see, isn't there? And never enough time!

Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Cassandra Samuels said...

Absolutely fascinating. Thank you.