York, England, is a great travel destination and theater town. Judi Dench is from here. York’s Theatre Royal has been around since 1744 and is the oldest producing theater in Great Britain outside London. A Saturday morning, 75 minute tour of it cost £12 and included tea, scones, and chats with personnel. Ruth and I decided to take it and were glad we did. One of the 9 Brits on the tour was a woman who was performing in a current production called “Teechers”. She was a first-timer and eager to learn the history of this revered theater where so many famous players have performed.
Our tour guide John knew a lot about both theater and the history of this site. He began by telling us that this 275 year old theater was once where St. Leonard’s Hospital stood. It was Augustinian, had lots of traffic in the age of pilgrimages, and was the largest European hospital in the 13th century. When they remodeled the theater, a lot of the hospital’s original brickwork was exposed. Much of it can still be seen. John showed us some in an arched doorway in the lobby where many costumes were on display. This hospital was demolished during the reign of Henry VIII, who came to York often because a royal mint making gold coins was here. According to John, Henry liked to play tennis. Imagine that!
John didn’t have anything good to say about Oliver Cromwell. He called him “miserable” because he banned theater and Christmas for 100 years during his years in control. At this time actors were fined if caught acting and sentenced to hard labor. “Actors were the lowest of the low,” John concluded. It was after Cromwell ruled that York became a big theater city when, due to unusual circumstances, a woman named Keregan ran the Royal. She’s the entrepreneur who picked the hospital site for the Royal and set the course for her theater to become the biggest one in Britain in the 18th century. It once had 1,300 seats, but the number has been reduced to 744 over time.
John took us back stage and on stage where the set for that evening’s performance of “The Turn of the Screw” would unfold. At one point he spoke of the many nautical terms like “rigging” that have been incorporated into theater terminology. In addition to dramas, Theatre Royal also presents musicals, family shows, and just about every form of entertainment.
The stage seemed far larger and was clearly tilted toward the audience when we were actually standing on it. This tour took us everywhere so that we were able to understand both this theater’s historical importance and see parts of it that one normally wouldn’t have access to. Theatre Royal is only about one block from York’s most famous attraction, York Minster.