York Theatre Royal

York Theatre Royal – Living History 

Written by Suzanne Ahmet

There are many ways to experience the past. We each know when it’s got a hold of us; we feel it in our bones and under our skin. 

Cycling around the city of York since September, I have been continually moved by the fusing of past and present and how one plays host to the other, almost everywhere you look.

York Theatre Royal is no exception! The presence of history is soulfully weaved into the very fabric of the building. 

The team here is passionate about respecting the bones of the theatres past while democratizing the entire space: they hope a 2018 theatre-curious public feels it is a space for them to enjoy and connect with – no matter what their personal background, circumstance or age.
(One of the main incentives to rake the auditorium during the 2016 renovations, was to enable children in the audience a great view of the stage, wherever their seat).

Julian Ollive, Education Associate at YTR, very kindly spent a rainy Friday morning giving me a taste of the theatre’s Living History. 

We began in the 1967 Foyer, previously the garden of the theatre, built by an architect called Patrick Gwynne. It is a listed building and deemed architecturally and historically more important than the original 1744 Theatre. This is because it’s the first example of poured concrete being used as an architectural feature, rather than just as a practical building material. The cascading mushroom-like columns extend to the upstairs bar area. They are even more impressive when Julian points out very similar shapes adorning the ceiling of The Keregan Room – the best remaining part of St Leonards Hospital dating back to 12th Century Britain!

Poured concrete York

(The room is a tribute to Thomas Keregan who founded the original Minster Yard playing space in 1734. After his death, his wife was left to develop The Georgian Theatre in his memory and built on the remains of the 12th Century hospitium, in 1744).

Standing in this room, Julian takes us back in time, describing how wealthy 12th century community members could pay a kind of private medical insurance to the hospital, to ensure care in their older years. He also ponders how nuns would have walked these rooms centuries before us and Keregan, caring for over 500 cremments (patients). The hospital extended all the way over to St Mary’s Abbey (now York Museum Gardens) and would also have doubled as a resting place for pilgrims. 

I get goose bumps from a moving and somewhat frightening tale of the Theatre Ghost: click the sound bite below if you’d like to hear about The Grey Lady: 


York Theatre Royal is ultimately hoping to turn The Keregan Room into a heritage space, which would exhibit the theatre’s history. Julian points out the ‘markings’ or ‘signatures’ of the different stone masons who had a hand in building the foundations of the Hospitium. He also shows me the cross marks on the ceiling which are mirrored on the floor by the current 21st century box office and rib arch vaults (archway openings) which can be seen Front Of House as you walk into the 1967 Foyer.

Keregan Room ceiling and rib arch vaulting Stone Masons

Into The Auditorium:

Click below for a potted history of how The Auditorium has evolved since Thomas Keregan’s time and the recent 2016 renovations…

Thinking about the waves made by Keregan, his family and their successors (Actor/Manger Tate Wilkinson 1766 and our very own Damian Cruden), reminds me of the irrepressible need and want for live performance.

Before Keregan’s Minster Yard (a converted tennis court, no less), theatre had been eradicated by order of Oliver Cromwell and his Government.  Playhouses were torn down and theatrical entertainment deemed sinful. It wasn’t until Charles II returned from liberated France that stages re-opened and women made their debut on the boards. Even then, however, actors performing outside of Royally approved (Patented) theatres or The King’s Residence, for “hire, gain or reward”, could be heavily fined and imprisoned.  Being reduced to the status of rogues and vagabonds still didn’t suppress them! Theatre managers found loopholes in the law which allowed them to stay in business, one of which was to not charge audiences to see a show but instead to charge exorbitant prices for refreshments sold during intervals!

There is a vibrant sense of community specific to theatre, which extends across the boards, into the spectators and jets right back on to stage and behind the scenes. We feel, want and absorb each other – and there’s no law or condemnation that can break that bond – no matter the century, no matter the government.

Julian was a bottomless well of knowledge, joy and historic fervor.

There is so much more I could tell you: stories of Tate Wilkinson’s sweet tooth, hiding little treats back stage, his Red House which literally led from the theatre dock to his front door, the remains of the Roman well under the stage and the Medieval road found underneath the foundations of the building. York Theatre Royal lives and breathes history.

Here are a few more pics – the last one is my favourite: A Georgian Folly Wall backstage covered with actors names, scratched into the brickwork. One of the oldest dates back to 1935 and the youngest is from summer 2018.

York Theatre Royal

Family. History. Community.

A huge thank you to York Theatre Royal for welcoming us into the family and to wonderful Julian for his delicious storytelling.   

And many thanks to all of you for reading!!! Until next time…