Theatre History

Early Years

In the 1780s, actor-manager George Stephen Sutherland took it upon himself to campaign for the construction of a theatre in the town of Dumfries.  This was met with great enthusiasm by the townsfolk as they were keen to provide entertainment for visitors such as the Caledonian Hunt.

Designed by local architect Thomas Boyd, the theatre began construction in 1790 and was inspired by the Theatres Royal in Bristol and Edinburgh.  Completed at a cost of £800, it opened its doors on the 29th September 1792.  At that time, the auditorium could hold up to 600 people, many of whom would have owned a subscriber’s token.  This token granted the bearer entry to any performance as a thank you for helping fund the theatre’s construction.

Robert Burns

Scotland’s national poet was very heavily involved in the construction of a theatre while he lived in Dumfries.  While he could not contribute financially, his talents and connections certainly proved invaluable.

Burns wrote several pieces for performance on the stage, including A Scots Prologue which was performed at a fundraiser for the new theatre.  He also wrote The Rights of Women for Louise Fontanelle when she performed in Dumfries’ newly opened theatre in 1792.  He also managed to contribute to the theatre through his friendships with other artists.  The original stock scenery for the New Theatre was painted by Alexander Nasmyth after Burns recommended him.

Victorian Era

The 1800s was a very exciting time for the theatre in Dumfries, attracting many famous faces of the era and seeing lots of changes to the building.

The first of these changes occurred in the early 1830s when the theatre received a change of name.  It is presumed that the theatre received a letter of patent as the theatre soon became known as the Theatre Royal Dumfries.  At the time, only theatre’s carrying a special licence (or patent) could perform serious, or ‘legitimate’, drama.  Otherwise, the theatre was restricted to comedy, melodrama and other less serious shows.  With the royal patent came not only a change in name but a change in the variety and quality of shows that could be performed.

Throughout the 19th Century, the theatre also saw several famous faces tread its boards.   Edmund Kean, whose turbulent personal life made him every bit as famous as his radical acting style, was easily one of the most recognisable figures to perform during this period.  The theatre also played host to William Henry West Betty, a child prodigy from Ireland who appeared on our stage aged only 12.  The theatre also saw a performance from Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, widely regarded as Kean’s equal and so well received that Dumfries named a street after him next to the theatre.

Another historic figure to visit the theatre was J. M. Barrie, playwright and author famous for creating Peter Pan.  While studying at Dumfries Academy, Barrie and his friends regularly visited the local theatre to take in the shows.  Barrie was enamoured with theatre and always tried to sit in the front row as far to the side as he could.  This let him peek off-stage and watch all the backstage magic as well.

1876 Renovation

Celebrated theatre architect Charles J. Phipps was tasked with renovating the Theatre Royal Dumfries in 1876.  This was a challenge he was more than capable of as his other credits included the Theatre Royals in Bath and Brighton, as well as the Gaiety Theatres in London and Dublin to name but a few.

The largest change Phipps made to the Theatre Royal Dumfries was the expansion of its interior.  Phipps lowered the stalls and stage into the basement, installing boxes in a horseshoe shape at street level with a balcony above them.  This increased the theatre’s capacity to a maximum of 1000 people.

Phipps also modified the exterior walls, covering up the portico pillars and building a new façade several feet in front of them.  This exterior façade is still the one that can be seen from the street outside the theatre today.

Early 20th Century

The Theatre Royal Dumfries saw multiple changes of ownership during the first half the of 20th Century.  The numerous owners all brought different acts to the theatre, reflecting the changing tastes of the audience in Dumfries.

One such change was brought in by the Stobie brothers who purchased the theatre in 1909.  They renovated the theatre, installing a Maplewood floor at street level, in a bid to capitalise on the fad for roller skating.  This fad was short-lived, however, so they quickly reinstalled seating and reverted to a theatre.

Cinema quickly grew in popularity across the globe but proved particularly popular throughout Scotland.  Dumfries was no exception to this trend and by the 1920s the Theatre Royal had been leased out as a cinema rather than a theatre.  Eventually, the theatre changed its name to The Electric Theatre to better reflect its new purpose.  The Electric Theatre remained in operation until 1954 when it closed its doors for good.

Purchase by the Guild

In 1959 the Guild of Players began looking for a new permanent venue out of which to operate.  They purchased the old Theatre Royal and immediately began refurbishing the building.  They retained as much of the historic character as they could but installed many new features over the latter half of the 20th Century.  This included the construction of new dressing room facilities and a new bar in the 1980s.

New Millennium

The need to make major repairs to the building was first identified after the Bicentenary of the theatre in 1992.  The Guild quickly began looking at their options and soon began planning a major refurbishment project.

After much campaigning and fundraising, the theatre was set to be completely renovated in the early 2000s.  The plans would see the interior of the theatre completely rebuilt from the ground up, installing several new spaces and entire extra storey on top.  After funding was withdrawn in 2003, however, the project stalled.

After regrouping, the Guild managed to secure support from new sources and instead of planning on building new facilities upwards, they looked towards expanding outwards.  Adjacent buildings were purchased and renovation work began in 2014, completed by the end of 2015.  The newly refurbished building includes several new spaces while maintaining many of the historic features, ushering Scotland’s oldest theatre into the 21st Century.