The Tobacco Factory was built between the late 19th and early 20th century. It was the headquarters, and chief manufacturing base of Wills, and later Imperial Tobacco. It was an enormous complex of buildings, around 1 million sq ft, dominating the South Bristol landscape. In the mid 70’s Imperial began to close the factory down, completing the process by 1985 and leaving a once thriving building boarded up and once busy streets empty. The building was stripped and pretty soon became derelict. With the employment and pastoral hub torn out of the area it went into a tailspin – all signifiers of decline (unemployment, which peaked at 80%, educational attainment, retail occupation and so forth) were apparent and by the mid-90’s BS3, the local postcode, was one of the top ten poorest postcodes in the country. The building was extensively vandalised and the council was forced to knock a large part of it down. George Ferguson, then head of RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects) and now mayor of the city, bought the remainder of the building in the late 90’s, determined that it could be the driver of cultural regeneration in the area. To run the heart of the building, starting in this beaten up part of it, he formed a small charitable trust that stripped out the rubble, put in basic facilities and started to present theatre year round. It was fair to say that the prevailing wisdom was that this venture, to present ambitious, challenging and intelligent work in this beaten up building in a terribly depressed and deprived area, didn’t stand a chance but the prevailing wisdom was wrong.
Tobacco Factory Theatres has forged an inspirational path to becoming one of the country’s most respected venues in just 10 years. The diversity of the programme, which includes theatre, puppetry, classical Shakespeare, new writing and devised plays, dance and comedy, combined with the astonishing average attendance capacity of 84%, make it one of the most well-attended, loved and popular theatres in the country.
The first ever theatre production in the Tobacco Factory building was Show of Strength’s A Journey to Bristol in 1998. Not put off by the lack of running water, electricity, heating or seating, for over five years, Show of Strength put on work and helped to develop the venue. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory put on the first Shakespeare production, King Lear, with a single mobile phone acting as the box office in 2000, and the theatre put on its first ever season work in 2002.
The Tobacco Factory Arts Trust was incorporated as an independent organisation in 2002 and became a registered charity in 2005. In 2009 a second theatre space opened; the Brewery Theatre.
In 2013 the organisation’s name changed name to Tobacco Factory Theatres to reflect its growing role as a producer of plays and to reflect the expansion to two venues.
You can download a more detailed history of the building and the theatres on this page.
“ The city is moving south. It started with Tobacco Factory Theatres and now we're all following. ”Urban Splash, Developers
6 December 2007 - 20 January 2008: A Travelling Light / Tobacco Factory Theatres co-production Spring is sprung, and Mother Duck is delighted when her eggs begin to hatch. But the last… read more >>
13 December 2007 - 20 January 2008: If you look in the corners of the mirrors, if you look very hard and quickly…there are people, often very small, so tiny that you… read more >>
28 May - 12 July 2008: Tobacco Factory Theatres and Imagineer Productions in association with the Tricycle Theatre A powerful new satire on how the media manipulates images of war He… read more >>
19 July - 21 September 2008: Performed and underscored on a piano, this one-man tour-de-force is a unique and entertaining vision of what happens to a nation that forgets its heritage.… read more >>
11 December 2008 – 18 January 2009: Bah! Humbug! Christmas is a fraud! Scrooge has lost his way in life. Once upon a time he was an honest, hard-working man; now… read more >>
09 December 2009 - 17 January 2010: Once there lived two brothers. For the good-hearted Ali Baba, a poverty stricken wood-cutter, life is all toil and hardship. But for the proud Kasim,… read more >>
08 December 2010 - 16 January 2011: Geppetto, the brilliant Italian carpenter, carves a block of wood into a puppet who will be the son he has always wanted and a loving… read more >>
7 December 2011 - 15 January 2012: Joining forces once again with the brilliant Travelling Light, we brought you Cinderella, our most successful show to date. The creative team behind Ali Baba… read more >>
18 - 20 May 2012: Following the critically acclaimed Love and War and Sea of Bones, the Mark Bruce Company present its new, savagely beautiful dance theatre production Made in… read more >>
23 - 27 October 2012: Christina is dying. Adam knew she was dying when he met her at a faith healing where they were paired together to pray for each… read more >>