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The Theatre Royal Dumfries is over 200 years old, making it the oldest theatre in Scotland. It was originally built as the New Theatre in 1792 as the result of a campaign by actor-manager George Stephen Sutherland.
The building itself was designed by prominent local architect Thomas Boyd whose other buildings include Ellisland farmhouse and the Buccleuch Street Bridge in Dumfries. Boyd’s theatre design was based on the Theatre Royal in Bristol and featured a pillared portico over the entrance and a three tiered auditorium.
The building was opened on the 29th of September 1792 with a celebratory performance before starting a regular programme. The New Theatre attracted many famous faces of the day, both on and off stage. Robert Burns was a regular patron, even writing pieces for performance such as The Rights of Woman for Ms Louisa Fontanelle.
This pattern continued throughout the 19th Century, attracting such names as Edmund Kean, Francis Eleanor Jarman, Samuel Phelps and Catherine Stephens, who later went on to become Countess of Essex. It is suspected that the theatre received a Royal Patent at this time, as the first reference to the building as the Theatre Royal occurs in 1811.
In 1876 the theatre was subject to an extensive renovation at the hands of celebrated theatre architect C. J. Phipps. This renovation expanded the theatre to provide new entrances to the different levels and more space for dressing rooms, as well as making improvements to the interior, some of which still survives as part of the balcony today.
Around the same time of this renovation, J. M. Barrie moved to town to study at Dumfries Academy. The headmaster of the Academy at that time encouraged his students to take in shows at the theatre whenever possible. Barrie heeded this advice and endeavoured at the end of the front row in order to dispel all stage illusion and appreciate all the work that went into a performance.
In the early 20th century the Theatre Royal found itself with a series of managers, some of which made significant changes to the building. The most radical of these changes was the transition from theatre to cinema in the late 1900s. Renamed the Electric Theatre it became one of Dumfries’ leading venues in the exhibition of early cinema. The Electric Theatre proved popular up until the early 1950s when the increased availability of home television sets saw a decline in the popularity of cinema.
After its closure in 1954, the theatre remained empty until it was purchased by the local amateur dramatics society, The Guild of Players. The Master of the Guild, Percy Hopkins, and local architect Colin Morton oversaw the renovation of the building transforming it into a working theatre once more. The Guild still run the theatre to this day and have just completed a further renovation that will see the Theatre Royal fit to serve Dumfries for another 200 Years