The Citizens Theatre has a rich and varied history with many fascinating stories to reveal...
The Citizens Theatre has the most complete working Victorian theatre machinery in the UK and is the second oldest operational theatre in the UK, preceded only by Leeds Grand which opened 6 weeks earlier. The building, which is a Grade B listed building retains many of its Victorian architectural features; it is the only theatre in Scotland still to have its original machinery under the stage. The theatre also features an original Victorian paint frame and related fly system, which is still used today to paint backcloths. The remnants of an old bowling alley and a shooting range are closed up beneath the theatre.
The building which is now known as the Citizens Theatre was built in 1876 and opened in 1878 as His Majesty’s Theatre. It was one of four theatres in the area at that time – the now O2 Academy, the Coliseum (now demolished) and the Palace of Varieties (formerly adjacent to the Citizens Theatre).
The theatre went bankrupt and closed very shortly after opening. The troubled theatre was the venue for a fabled riot, which ensued after an elephant panicked on-stage during a show. It was re-opened in 1880 by Harcourt Beryl under a new name, the Royal Princesses Theatre. The Royal Princesses Theatre was designed by Campbell Douglas, a friend and contemporary of Alexander Greek Thompson. The building shared an exterior with the adjacent Palace, which featured columns taken from the Union Bank in Ingram Street and several large statues which were the work of Glasgow sculptor John Mossman.
His Majesty’s Theatre was operated by Director Manager, Rich Waldon until he died in 1922. The theatre was then inherited by Harry McKelvie, who had worked his way up from programme seller to manager. It was he who then leased the building to the Citizens Theatre Company in 1945, when it was renamed the Citizens Theatre.
The Close Theatre Club was created in 1965 by the Citizens Company as a studio theatre in an adjoining dance hall, mainly to get around the laws of censorship, which forbade showing of certain plays deemed to be unsuitable for general public viewing. The bar remained open after normal drinking hours and it was known as one of the fees places you could get a drink on a Sunday. The Club was founded with the financial assistance of Michael Goldberg, who was at that time Chairman of the Citizens Theatre. By creating a club, the Citizens could circumvent the censor and present plays which otherwise would not have been seen. It housed a 150 seat auditorium and its aims were to present already established work in a new form and also to encourage the writing and presentation of new and experimental plays. The Close was successful up until the early 1970s, although by that time theatre clubs were becoming obsolete as a subversive means of expression, as censorship laws were repealed in 1968. The Close Theatre destroyed by fire in 1973.
In 1977 the Palace, which was located where the current Citizens car park is, was subject to an order for demolition, with very little notice given. The then General Manager of the Citizens, Clare Blenkinsop, arranged a stay of execution in order to rescue the best Victorian fittings that were still a part of the Palace’s decor. Citizens Theatre staff worked overnight and saved some of the original features of the building – statues of the four muses, William Shakespeare and Robert Burns from the exterior as well as the nautch girls and elephants from the interior. All of these statues and features can be seen now in the Citizens Theatre foyer.
In addition the original box office, inlaid with jade, was saved and is on display in the People’s Palace, while a recreation of one of the Palace boxes was part of the collection at the Theatre Museum in London (now housed at the V&A, London).
The modern atrium foyer of the Citizens Theatre was built in 1989 as part of the development of Gorbals Street by Strathclyde Regional Council. This was followed in 1992 with the construction of the Stalls and Circle Studio venues. In 1997 the Company received National Lottery Funding for building development work and this allowed for the addition of lifts - backstage and front of house, wheelchair access ramps around the building, a new stage door and a large scale rehearsal room.
CITIZENS THEATRE COMPANY
The Citizens Theatre Company was formed in 1943 by James Bridie, who was at that time Scotland’s best known playwright and later founder of the RSAMD. The name of the new company was taken from the manifesto drawn up in 1909 for the Glasgow Repertory Theatre.
The Company was originally based at the Athenaeum Theatre in Buchanan St, but this building was too small and restrictive for the Company’s work. Due to post war building restrictions the Company were denied permission to build a purpose-built theatre and so instead began to investigate suitable buildings within the city which they could occupy.
By 1945 Harry McKelvie was suffering from ill health and so offered tenancy of the Royal Princesses Theatre to James Bridie for a nominal rent and the theatre was renamed the Citizens Theatre. The Citizens Theatre officially opened on September 11th 1945 with the company’s own production of JB Priestley’s Johnson Over Jordan.
The vision for the Citizens Theatre included accessible ticket pricing, the provision of free previews of every show and free programmes for every member of the audience (to this day, the free programme policy is still in place). It was conceived as a forum to showcase the work of the best of native playwriting.
James Bridie remained in post as Artistic Director until his death in 1951. From then until 1963, there was no overall artistic director and seasons were directed by a succession of Actor-Directors including James Gibson, Roddy McMillan and Madeleine Christie, as well as guest directors including Eric Capon, Peter Potter and John Casson. In the period between 1963-69 the were five artistic directors; Callum Mill, Iain Cuthbertson, David Williams, Michael Blackemore and Robert Cartland.
During the period from the 1969 to 2003, the Citizens was associated with innovative play selections and stagings by Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald. Under their directorship the Citizens Theatre became recognised as one of the leading theatres in Britain. In 2003 both Havergal and MacDonald stepped down from their posts as Directors of the Company, but Prowse continued his role as Artistic Collaborator until 2004. Robert David MacDonald sadly passed away in June 2004.
Jeremy Raison was appointed Artistic Director of the Citizens Theatre in November 2003 and was joined by Joint Artistic Director, Guy Hollands in 2006. In March 2011 Dominic Hill was appointed as new Artistic Director. He took up post in October 2011.
View Historical Timeline (a work-in-progress).
TAG was originally developed as the outreach arm of the Citizens Theatre in 1967, (Citizens Theatre for Youth), thanks to funding from the Scottish Arts Council which was made available to repertory theatres to explore opportunities for working with young people.
Initially the Theatre for Youth company worked primarily with Secondary schools within a twenty mile radius of Glasgow. This was because it would have been impossible to visit the vast number of Primary Schools on any regular basis. However in 1976, the company briefly lost its education grant and had to explore other funding avenues to sustain its work. The company successfully secured a grant from the Government, offered to help the creation of jobs during a time of economic recession. The Company’s remit was broadened to include work in the community and they performed out in the community and in Youth Clubs.
Soon its work became Scotland-wide and the company simply went by the name TAG. It became one of the key companies providing professional touring theatre and educational activities for children and young people in Scotland. Although TAG operated for some years from remote premises, in Spring 2006 the company returned to its roots and moved back into the Citizens Theatre.
All the work for children and young people previously produced under the name of TAG will now be produced under the name of Citizens Theatre.
You can read an in-depth study on the history of the Citizens Theatre and its architecture in "A Conservation Management Plan" by TheatreSearch - Historic Theatre Consultants.
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