The History Behind Edinburgh's Theatres
12 October 2021
Edinburgh’s theatres have been entertaining us for years, from ground-breaking shows to the annual Christmas pantomime. We’ve been captivated by thought-provoking drama; laughed till our sides ached at comedy shows and been mesmerised by dance, song and poetry.
And Edinburgh’s theatres are no stranger to the stars of stage & screen, with some of the most well names in the business treading these famous boards.
Read on to discover more about the history of these grand buildings - one thing’s for sure – Edinburgh sure knows how to put on a show!
The King's Theatre
(Black & White image Credit: Capital Collection James Oliver and Colour image Credit:Keith Hunter)
Known locally as “The Grand Old Lady of Leven Street”, construction of the beautiful red sandstone King’s Theatre began in 1905, before opening to the public on 8 December 1906 – making her one of the oldest theatres in Scotland.
On 18 August 1906 a memorial stone was laid in the wall of the grand marble staircase by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Behind the stone are coins and copies of the local newspaper as a permanent time-capsule. The building also holds another secret – the Kings was built on the site of the previous Drumdryan Brewery and the river that used to service the brewery still runs underneath the theatre today.
The auditorium was originally built with 3 balconies overlooking the stalls and could accommodate a packed house of 2500 people. Built on a cantilever style, the levels had no pillars holding them up, providing an unrestrictive view of the stage. This was revamped in the 1950’s and reduced to just the stalls, grand and upper circles, thereby reducing audience capacity to a much more comfortable 1350 people. Once the current plans to revamp the theatre are completed, the capacity will be reduced to a roomy 1050.
The King’s opened in 1906 with a performance of Cinderella, marking the beginning of the annual pantomime tradition that has continued ever since. The King’s now hosts Scotland’s most successful pantomime, with record numbers of people flocking each year to enjoy a traditional family Christmas outing.
Many famous faces have graced the stage of the King’s over the years – Sir Laurence Olivier starred in Noël Coward's Private Lives when it had its world premiere here in 1930; legendary opera singer Maria Callas sang here in 1957; and more recently, it has played host to famous names such as Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Penelope Keith, James Corden and Robert Powell. Scotland’s own Sir Sean Connery even started his career here as a stagehand. He auditioned for a production of South Pacific, landed a small part, and the rest is history!
With its rich cultural heritage, the King’s has played an important role in Edinburgh over the years. With its eclectic programme, ranging from legendary opera and ballet to traditional pantomime and the annual Gang Show, it truly is a theatre for everyone - here’s to the next 100 years!
The Usher Hall
(Image Credit: Capital Collection)
The Usher Hall was named after Andrew Usher, a prominent Edinburgh whisky distiller and philanthropist who in 1896 gifted £100,000 to the city of Edinburgh specifically for the purpose of building a concert hall.
Sadly for Usher though he never lived to see his bequest become a reality as he died in 1898, 16 years before the hall was opened.
One of the hall’s crowning glories is its organ. Designed to be the focal point, both visually and musically, it was installed in 1913 and its magnificent sound is magnified by the dome-shaped ceiling of the auditorium.
The Usher Hall was first opened to the public on 6 March 1914 with a series of three concerts featuring the music of Handel, Bach, Beethoven and the Scottish composer, Hamish MacCunn. The concerts were a roaring success and the Usher Hall became the talk of the town.
However, just 4 months later, WWI began. At the top of the steps to the hall can be seen a memorial plaque to the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots, better known as McCrae's Battalion. They were named after Sir George McCrae who inspired hundreds of men to sign up in a packed assembly held at the Usher Hall, who became affectionally known as the Sporting Battalion or Footballers Battalion since it was largely comprised of professional and amateur sportsmen.
Political figures have taken to the stage of the Usher Hall in many notable moments of social history, including Prime Minister H. H. Asquith giving a speech here in 1914; Sir Oswald Mosely addressing a rally of 2800 people in 1934; and Sir Winston Churchill who received Freedom of the City in 1942.
Ever versatile, the building was adjusted during WWII to accommodate air raid shelters, the entrance to which can still be seen today, although there is no evidence that they were ever used.
Other notable events include The 1986 Commonwealth Games with the Hall providing the venue for the Boxing Tournament and hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 1972, the first time the show had been held in the UK outside London. The contest was won by Luxembourg with Apres Toi by Vicky Leandros. The UK’s entry, Beg, Steal or Borrow by the New Seekers came in at a very respectable second place!
In more recent times, the Usher Hall became a walk-through Covid-19 testing centre as part of a UK-wide drive to make coronavirus testing more accessible for local communities.
For over a century, a galaxy of stars have dazzled Usher Hall audiences, from The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney & Wings to Elton John, Jools Holland and Ed Sheeran. A key venue for visiting national and international orchestras and the main venue for the Edinburgh International Festival since 1947, the Usher Hall’s legacy of a centre of excellence looks set to continue for a long time.
The Traverse Theatre
To the left of the Usher Hall can be found the Traverse Theatre, an Edinburgh icon which specialises in presenting and producing brand new work from Scottish and Scottish-based playwrights, both here and on tour worldwide. Providing audiences with a vibrant programme of year-round shows and performances, the Traverse also holds a special place as the theatrical heart of Edinburgh’s world famous Festival Fringe.
Today’s theatre is actually the Traverse’s third home since it was founded on 2 January 1963. Its first was a former brothel in the Lawnmarket, with seating reclaimed from the Old Palace Cinema, now the Foot of the Walk pub. At the end of the decade it moved to a larger space in the Grassmarket.
In 1992, the Traverse moved to its current location at Cambridge Street, a purpose-built two theatre space with bar café. The two spaces are known as Trav 1, which can accommodate up to 300 people, and Trav 2, which can seat up to 120.
Many well known names have appeared on stage at the Traverse over the years, from Alan Cumming and Robbie Coltrane to Tilda Swinton and James McAvoy. Many theatre creatives have also started their careers here and gone onto huge things around the world – as have many of the plays first staged or produced here, such as David Harrower's Knives In Hens and Rona Munro's The Last Witch.
One of the most legendary on-stage events happened early on in the Traverse’s life – on 3 January 1963 actress Colette O’Neil was accidentally stabbed with a real knife after it got caught in the folds of her costume. Ironically, she was about to deliver her final line in the Jean Paul Sartre's play about three people in Hell, Huis Clos. Ever the pro, Colette delivered her final poignant line: ''You can't kill me, I'm already dead,'' before collapsing on the stage in a pool of blood. Thankfully she survived and the event didn’t put her off having a successful acting career. She returned to the Traverse stage in 2000 to appear in another play – this time without any knives!
Today, the Traverse is a creative centre for excellence, with new writing and new works at its core. The theatre also does a wide-ranging amount of work in the local community, including their flagship educational project, Class Act, which has been working with secondary school students for the last 30 years to grow and nurture future playwrights.
And with regular workshops for artists, open sessions for writers and community projects, the next great play could appear on the Traverse’s stage.
The Royal Lyceum Theatre
A beautiful Victorian building, The Royal Lyceum Theatre is home to the Lyceum Youth Theatre and The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, one of the largest producing companies in the UK.
The theatre opened on 10 September 1883 with a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, starring two of the most renowned Shakespearean actors of the time, Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry – Ellen is also considered to be The Blue Lady, a ghostly female presence who haunts the theatre.
The Lyceum was the first theatre in Scotland to use an iron safety curtain, the solid wall which descends during the interval of a performance, as well as the first to use electric lighting.
With its sumptuously decorated auditorium filled with blue & gold plasterwork and sparkling chandelier, this beautiful theatre originally accommodated an audience of 2000. Today’s Lyceum can accommodate a much roomier 658 people.
Committed to developing Scotland’s homegrown talents while presenting the best of international drama, the Lyceum is home to an array of both classical and contemporary work, with recent stars who have taken to the stage including David Tennant, Alan Cumming and Emily Mortimer. This grand Victorian building is also regularly used as one of the principal stages of the Edinburgh International Festival, bringing a wide range of genres to both Edinburgh residents and visitors.
The Edinburgh Playhouse
Seating over 3,000, the Edinburgh Playhouse is the UK's largest all seated theatre. Hosting large scale touring productions, it has played host to some of the biggest names in live music, comedy and musical theatre.
Built in 1929, the Playhouse began life as a “super” cinema and was modelled on similar buildings in the USA. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was transformed into the theatre we know and love today, after demolition plans were thwarted by the 'Save the Playhouse' campaign and listed building status was granted.
Within its grand auditorium, hundreds of blockbuster musicals, concerts, comedy and dance performances have taken place including Mary Poppins, The Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, Riverdance and concerts by Bryan Adams, Phil Collins and Iron Maiden.
The theatre is even thought to have its own resident ghost, aka Albert. Thought to be a former stagehand, he is said to wander the theatre’s vast space…...
(Image Credit: Capital Collection, Andrew J L Ansell)
A former church dating from the 1840’s, Bedlam Theatre is today owned by the University of Edinburgh and run by entirely by students (The Edinburgh University Theatre Company) who are passionate about the performing arts.
Each year, over 40 shows are shown in the 90-seat theatre, with students taking care of all aspects of the performance, from the lighting & stage design through to directing & performing. The theatre also plays host to the renowned Fringe Festival each year.
The theatre takes it name as a reference to the city’s first mental health hospital that once stood nearby. The church gave up the building in the 1930’s, before it became ownership of the university, who used it for various purposes including a furniture store and a chaplaincy building. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the building took on a new purpose as Bedlam Theatre.
Many alumni of EUTC, or Bedlamites as they are commonly known, have gone on to have successful careers, including playwright Ella Hickson and comedian Miles Jupp.
Church Hill Theatre
(Image Credit: Capital Collection, Kevin MacLean)
A popular venue for the Edinburgh International Festival, Church Hill Theatre, in the picturesque area of Morningside, is today home to many of Edinburgh’s amateur theatrical companies and throughout the year plays host to a variety of theatre & dance performances, concerts, talks and small conferences.
Originally built as Morningside High Church in 1892, it was converted into a theatre in the 1960s, opening on 25 September 1965 with a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Since then it has gained a reputation as one of Scotland’s leading non-professional theatres.
A theatre with huge historical significance, Leith Theatre was a gift to the people of Leith following the amalgamation of the borough into Edinburgh in 1920.
Construction began in 1929, with the theatre opening in 1932. However, in 1941, at the height of WWII, a bomb which was intended for the docks damaged the main auditorium, effectively making the theatre redundant for the next 20 years.
The theatre re-opened in 1961 and over the years hosted a wide variety of artists and bands, including Thin Lizzy and AC/DC, as well as being used by the Edinburgh International Festival. It even served as the venue for the weightlifting tournament in the 1970 Commonwealth Games.
Sadly, the theatre closed in 1988. A move to sell the site for residential development was stopped by locals, who in 2004 formed the Leith Theatre Trust, whose aim is to safeguard the theatre for the future.
In 2017 the theatre was used for the first time in almost 30 years as a venue for the Hidden Door Festival, an event that proved so popular that it paved the way for other events. Since then the venue has been used for a variety of pop up events and welcomed, amongst others, Edinburgh International Festival, Pianodrome and the EH6 Festival.
Hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, the doors were forced to close in 2020. However, the theatre has continued to play an important part in the local community, by serving as an NHS blood donation venue, a food bank donation venue and as the home of Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts, a food poverty charity.
Leith Theatre Trust continues to fundraise to enable this historic building to open on a permanent basis and in April 2021 it launched LIVE IN LEITH, a series of live music broadcasts featuring emerging Scottish talent.
(Image Credit: Greg Macvean)
The Festival Theatre sits on Edinburgh’s longest continuous theatre site - there has been an entertainment venue here in one form or another since 1830.
The site – on 19 Nicolson Street – has seen a fair share of tragedy though. The first venues created here were a series of circus & music halls, including Dunedin Hall, the Royal Amphitheatre, Alhambra Music Hall, Southminster Theatre (gutted by fire in 1875), the Queen’s Theatre (burned down in 1877) and Newsome’s Circus (destroyed by fire in 1879).
Undeterred, The Empire Palace Theatre opened on 7 November 1892. Designed by the eminent theatre architect, Frank Matcham, it was a beautiful and ornate building, which sat an astronomical 3000 people, which is over 1000 more than today’s capacity. In 1896 Scotland’s first moving picture was shown here. Indeed, the theatre is still used as a cinema today, showing live theatrical broadcasts from theatres & opera houses from around the world.
However, the Empire Palace was not immune to the site’s bad luck and 9 May 1911 tragedy struck again when illusionist The Great Lafayette and ten of his company perished in a fire that burnt the theatre to the ground.
In true theatre fashion though, the show must go on and the theatre was rebuilt – remaining intact for 17 years – before being replaced in 1928 with the Empire Theatre, which included the spectacular auditorium that we know today.
Well known entertainers like Harry Lauder, the singing cowboy Roy Rogers & his horse, Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe & Wise, Margot Fonteyn and Judy Garland all pulled in large crowds; and between 1947 and 1963 the Empire became a principal venue of the Edinburgh International Festival.
From 1963 to 1991, the Empire took on a new lease, becoming a bingo hall during the day and a concert venue by night – T Rex and David Bowie were just two of the names who took to the stage.
In 1994 the theatre underwent another transformation – when the impressive glass fronted structure was created as the new entrance and it was renamed Festival Theatre. The stage was expanded and at the time, it was the largest stage in Europe.
Opera, comedy, dance, musicals – whatever your tastes – when it comes to choosing a theatre experience in Edinburgh, you’re spoiled for choice!
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