Tag Archives: Theatre

A Century of Stories

Regular readers of our blog may remember that we have had archivist Gary Collins working with us  on the archive of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in preparation for their centenary celebrations. Now that the Rep has reopened after their refurbishment this work has transformed into a great exhibition in the Rep Foyer.

REP100 004Hidden in a series of intriguing cases are several drawers housing some of the treasures of the Rep archive including a miniature stage set, programmes and early costume designs. These tell the story of the company over the last 100 years.

You can also start an audio trail which will take you around the city whilst hearing founder Barry Jackson talk.


REP100 006My favourite exhibit is the amazing tree sculpture which you cannot miss. It has faces of many of the people who have been part of the success of the Rep  over its life so far. It is quite fun spotting some of the more familiar faces.

Now that we share a foyer it is easy to visit the exhibition and I would recommend popping along if you are visiting us. Or if the weather is making you feel like staying in you can see a lot of online here .

If you would like to know more about the Rep and it’s archive you can hear Collections Curator Sian Roberts talking at the Library next Tuesday 12.30 – 1.30. Places are free but we recommend you reserve a space through the Box Office.

REP100 007

Kathryn Hall Events & Marketing Assistant


Behind the Scenes

Part of the Rep archive before being catalogued and packed.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre archives before being catalogued and packed.

Archives often go on a journey before they get to their destination. This can involve a move to a new building or a change in personnel and the clearing out of an office. Not everything survives and reasons for this include deliberate destruction, an act of war or not knowing that something should be kept. Some of the archives of Birmingham Repertory Theatre have faced these issues on their travels and I thought it would be interesting to look out for any mention of archives in the archives.

They get noted in a report on the future of The Birmingham Repertory Theatre written in November 1960 when it was pointed out that the new Rep building being planned would require storage for material such as theatre archives, photographs, sets of scripts, music, accounts, and reference books.

After the death of its founder Sir Barry Jackson in 1961 The Rep accepted material that had been left by Jackson to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund and his Private Secretary. This included his entire library of theatrical books and drawings by his friend the artist Dame Laura Knight (such as backstage and rehearsal scenes and a portrait of Jackson).

The Repertory Theatre archive after cataloguing and packing, in its new home

By 1964 it was being suggested that the archive should be catalogued by the University of Birmingham’s English Department and in 1967 it was agreed that Jackson’s books be catalogued in the Shakespeare Institute (the material finally got there in 1971). In 1972 one of the Rep’s Directors hoped that the Jackson material currently held at his home could be put into the theatre archives.

The books were still at BirminghamUniversity in 1973 for cataloguing and temporary housing and by this time The Rep was holding photos, prompt books and Laura Knight paintings. The storage of this material at the theatre was discussed again, especially as an archives room had been included in the design of the new building but had subsequently been used for other things. One alternative was to offer material to the City Library or the TheatreMuseum in London.

Continue reading

The Woman With The Missing Face

Poster promoting the 1934 film ‘As You Like It’, depicting one of the stars Elizabeth Bergner.

Poster promoting the 1934 film ‘As You Like It’, starring Elizabeth Bergner.

Dealing with archives is often like being a detective or putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You have some information or records, but the picture is incomplete and you have to do some research. This was the case recently when one of the conservation team at Archives & Heritage asked that a large film poster that was loose in pieces be put together into some sort of order so it could be packed ready for the move to the new Library of Birmingham building.

View of the Rep posters on the floor of the searchroom from floor 7

View of the Rep posters on the floor of the searchroom from floor 7

This poster was first seen right at the start of the REP100 project which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Birmingham Repertory Theatre and putting together a website using images and information from The Rep’s archives held at Archives & Heritage. It was used to show the project team examples of The Rep archive material and was put on display in the Archives & Heritage searchroom on the 6th floor of the Central Library. We wondered why the poster was with The Rep material but it was put to one side as other records were catalogued, until the request came to sort it out. The first attempt at putting the poster together where it was housed on the 7th floor failed because there were more pieces than expected and it kept growing larger as it was placed on the floor and we ran out of room. Continue reading

All The World’s A (Smaller) Stage

Photograph of the company in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company production of 'Mary Barnes' by David Edgar, 1978. Ref: MS 2339.

Photograph of the company in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company production of ‘Mary Barnes’ by David Edgar, 1978. Ref: MS 2339.

As Birmingham Repertory Theatre moves back into its Broad Street home after its refurbishment it is looking forward to working on its own stage again.

When The Rep first moved into its then new building in 1971 it was able to make use of a much larger stage. But thoughts soon turned to smaller productions as The Rep wanted to continue its founder Sir Barry Jackson’s belief that it should produce experimental work or plays by new writers. This often required a smaller stage and theatre space so in October 1972 The Studio was opened.

Photograph of Judy Dench with James Larkin rehearsing 'Much Ado, 198. Ref: MS 2339.

Photograph of Judy Dench with James Larkin rehearsing ‘Much Ado’ about Nothing, 1988. Ref: MS 2339.

The Rep collections at Birmingham Archives & Heritage help to explain the story of The Studio. It was originally designed and used as a rehearsal room but was sound-proofed so that productions could be held there at the same time as performances on the main stage. It was also equipped with sound, lighting, and seating. The work was completed in the summer of 1972 and the first performance was ‘Grab’, directed by newly appointed Studio Director Christopher Honer and based on improvisations.

The Studio (or Brum Studio as it was sometimes called) also hosted workshops, late night folk evenings and poetry readings. The target audience at first was youngsters and The Rep had already put together two initiatives for younger audiences with its Theatre 67 and Theatre 71 clubs. Continue reading

The Detail’s In The Design – Birmingham Repertory Theatre archives

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre logo designed by Paul Shelving, MS 978

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre logo designed by Paul Shelving, MS 978.

Birmingham Repertory Theatre celebrated its 100th birthday last month and with Heritage Lottery Fund support has produced a website and other activities to commemorate this event. The REP100 project is overseeing this work and one of the tasks is looking at The Rep collections held by Birmingham Archives & Heritage (MS 978 and MS 2339). This is why I have been selecting items for digitisation and also cataloguing unlisted material to reveal in more depth what records exist so they can tell the story of The Rep.

Paul Shelving’s costume design used as the programme cover for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1936), MS 978.

Paul Shelving’s costume design used as the programme cover for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1936), MS 978.

Some of this material is on display at the current exhibition and back stage tour at The Rep’s former building in Station Street (the ‘Old Rep’), and ranges from programmes, photographs and correspondence, to posters, leaflets, scripts, newspaper articles and designs. The set and costume designs are looked at more closely in one of the project themes ‘The Detail’s In The Design’. The Rep’s founder Sir Barry Jackson studied as an architect and also had a talent for design, producing many for early Rep productions. He also managed to attract skilled designers to work for The Rep and one of these was Paul Shelving.

Design for modern dress production of ‘Cymbeline’ (1923), MS 978

Design for modern dress production of ‘Cymbeline’ (1923), MS 978

Shelving started work for The Rep in 1919 and was there until 1961. He was involved in over 200 Rep productions and also worked on over 100 productions at The Malvern Festival, Stratford and London. His designs were integral to many of the Rep’s successes, including modern dress performances of Shakespeare plays such as ‘Cymbeline’ in 1923 and ‘Hamlet’ in 1925. As well as costume and set designs for The Rep, Shelving also designed The Rep’s logo that was used from the late 1920s until the 1970s, the logo for The Malvern Festival, and even a china tea set produced by Royal Worcester in 1934. Continue reading

Celebrating Diversity: Vesta Tilley

MS 310/1467. Miss Vesta Tilley.

MS 310/1467 Miss Vesta Tilley

Vesta Tilley was born in Worcester in 1864 as Matilda “Tilley” Powles. She made her first stage appearance at the age of 4 and her first appearance as a male impersonator in 1870 in Birmingham at Day’s Concert Hall. Vesta Tilley had a strong lesbian fan base and she challenged contemporary notions of gender roles in Victorian society.

This image comes from the Manning Collection (ref MS 310) which is a collection of photographs and other materials relating to music hall, mostly in Birmingham and the Black Country but also including other areas of the country.

You can find out more about Vesta Tilley online here:

Worcestershire County Record Offices Archive Collection relating to Vesta Tilley


BBC Radio Four Womans Hour on Vesta Tilley:


Victoria and AlbertMuseum sources on Music Hall generally and Vesta Tilley in particular:


There are various publications relating to Vesta Tilley (references are to Birmingham Archives and Heritage collections, available from September 2013)

“Recollections of Vesta Tilley” – Lady de Frece (1934) ref L78.1 TIL

“Vesta Tilley” – Sara Maitland (1986) ref: L78.1 TIL

“The Great Little Tilley” – Gwyneth Sudworth (1984) ref: L78.TIL

There are also more sources relating to BirminghamMusic Hall in Birmingham Archives and Heritage including the Manning Theatre Archive (MS 310), the Manning Theatre Index and a large collection theatre programmes for Birmingham theatres.

Easter at the Theatre

The Bower of Spring title page

The Bower of Spring, from a manuscript book of Pantomimes & Comic Scenes, Birmingham Theatre Royal collection, 1803 (Ref: MS 2899/1/1/1/DibC/1)

‘Behind you!’
Pantomimes have been popular for hundreds of years, but their nature has changed through the centuries. In the early nineteenth century they were often described as harlequinades, as a harlequin character played the main role. Christmas was a popular time for pantomimes, but theatres also put them on at other times of year. ‘The Bower of Spring and Harlequin Labor’ is an example of an Easter pantomime. It was one of many pantomimes and spectacles written by Charles Dibdin, in 1803, one of the new owners of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Sadler’s Wells was licensed to open as a summer theatre on April 11, Easter Monday. Easter was an important date in the calendar, and Easter Monday performances were very popular. Continue reading