Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall Nottingham

Summary of activity

The Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall are two of the UK’s most vibrant touring venues. Based in Nottingham the venues host performances including orchestras, contemporary dance, opera and touring drama alongside West End musicals, family shows, stand-up comedy and rock and pop gigs.

They also offer very popular Backstage Tours, which provide visitors with a glimpse behind the scenes and an insight into the history of the venues. Covid-19 led to a significant break in these tours, but it also provided an opportunity to reassess, update and bring a new dimension to them.

With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall partnered with Nottingham Trent University Costume Design students to produce a unique costume for the leader of the backstage tours. The costumes were inspired by the heritage of the theatre and items from the online archive collections.

Image of actors in costume standing in front of the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall auditorium

Image credit: Lamar Francois

Challenges and opportunities

The Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall aim to entertain, inspire and create unforgettable experiences for everyone. The venues place accessibility at the heart of everything they do and run a wide range of community workshops and education projects. They also have a rich history; the Theatre Royal is a city centre landmark and one of the most beautiful Victorian theatres in Britain. Built in 1865 and later transformed in 1897 by renowned architect Frank Matcham, the theatre remains a vital and much-cherished part of the community.

In 2017 the venues started working in partnership with the University of Nottingham to document their history and explore stories and memories about past productions. In 2018 an online digital archive, Our Theatre Royal Nottingham was launched. The archive has over 1,000 items accessible for viewing and it provided an excellent resource for the costume design project.

When Covid-19 restrictions came into place in 2020 the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall had to postpone or cancel all performances, backstage tours and community events. These restrictions, while devastating, also provided an opportunity for the venues to review the backstage tours.

The project was undertaken by two costume design students, Maddy Clark, a second year student, and Emily Connell, who was in her final year. They were commissioned to produce a unique new costume for tour leader Ezekial Bone. The students were inspired by materials found in the venues’ extensive archive. They firstly looked at the online archive where they explored Victorian postcards, wallpaper samples and architectural designs. They then developed costume designs in consultation with the actor who would be wearing them for the backstage tours, aligning their designs with the character who led the theatrical tour.

‘The design of the waistcoat is based on wallpaper patterns from the original plans for the building, and I also used original designs for the pillars, stone and marblework. The design for the scarves is taken from a huge variety of postcards featuring actors and lots of interesting characters and faces from the archive.  It was really fun to consider all the theatrical needs of the costume.’

Maddy Clark, NTU student

Outcome for service users

Ahead of the reopening of the backstage tours, a practice run took place with the tour leader wearing the new costume. Photos from this event were released to the press. The story was picked up by local press and shared on social media. This coverage raised the profile of the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall and promoted the reopening of the tours in April 2022.

Previous surveys undertaken by the venues highlighted that people really enjoyed the theatrical backstage tour and all events scheduled in early 2022 rapidly sold out.

The project has engaged staff and volunteers across both venues. As a result, there is greater awareness of the archive and the rich history of the theatre. In addition to the new costume for the tour leader, scarves inspired by the archives have been designed and printed for volunteers.

“It’s a joy doing the Limelight Backstage Tour, but I haven’t done it for a couple of years so being here again, in the costume, is really bringing it back to me.  Before, the costume I wore was some bits and bobs I had of my own to conjure up the character, but now I have the definitive costume it’s going to really help breathe life into the whole thing again.”

Ade Andrews, Lead Storyteller, Ezekial Bone, in the Limelight Backstage Tour

What was learned from the process

Through this project the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall archive staff recognised that it was best to allow students free rein over collections. They presented the archive as a source of inspiration and creativity. They did not put any limits on what the students could explore. The wide range of material available in the online archive not only opened up the collection to wider audiences, but also proved invaluable in allowing the students to explore the collections virtually when Covid-19 restrictions resulted in limited on-site access.

“The best part of this project has been the freedom to have fun and look into the archive. The waistcoat fabric matches the venue perfectly.  It’s really cool to see our work up on stage.”

Emily Connell, final year student studying BA (Hons) Costume Design and Construction at NTU

Taking a broad approach to exploring the archive resulted in more creativity from the students. The team have since worked with theatrical composers who have used the archive to inform their work. Ultimately, the team want to share the archive and encourage artists to use it as a source of inspiration and in taking an open, non-prescriptive approach to creative projects.

Within this project there was a very clear alignment of roles and responsibilities. The NTU students, Emily and Maddy showed great professionalism, creativity, and subject knowledge in designing the costume and they were integral to the project’s success. The archive team found it exciting to be part of the creative process.

Key advice

If someone was thinking of taking on a similar project the one piece of advice the team at the Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall would give is to be open to listening and adapting to creative ideas. There were a number of practicalities they had to work out for the costume project; NTU and the venues had different needs and expected outcomes. Discussing these upfront and regularly communicating throughout the project ensured that the participating students gained the experience they were hoping for and that a costume was produced which could be used by the actor leading the tours.

The students and actor worked very well together. The concepts of the designs were discussed in advance and the students worked closely with the actor throughout the development of the costume to ensure it was fit for purpose. Timelines were quite flexible, and more time was allowed for the project when the tours were postponed for a little longer.

Additional advice that the team would share is that creative projects can happen with limited budgets and staff time. The team found that this project wasn’t very time consuming, and it didn’t have a large budget. Most of the practical work was undertaken by NTU whom they already had a good working relationship with.

How will this work be developed in the future?

The Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall are considering a number of ways to develop this project and the relationship with NTU and hope to collaborate in the future on other projects.

There are plans to engage artists and heritage in other ways, including commissioning artists to develop a timeline in the foyer of the Theatre Royal.

With funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund the venue has been able to appoint a Heritage Officer to help develop new projects engaging children and young people in the local area with the heritage of the theatre, as well as supporting the archiving of the Royal Concert Hall collections as the 40th anniversary approaches in 2022.

Find out more about the case study by contacting Georgina Donohue, Heritage Officer or David Longford, Creative Learning Manager