Where we came from – and where we’re going…

Show Of Strength has produced new work in non-theatre spaces for over thirty years, and created three informal, intimate and accessible new venues in Bristol, including the Hen & Chicken (1989) and Tobacco Factory (1998) – both still flourishing.

Creative Producer Sheila Hannon co-founded the company in Bedminster, Bristol in 1986 and at the Hen & Chicken we developed a national reputation for accessible, innovative, high quality work. South Bristol was a cultural desert in 1989 and, ‘You’re very brave,‘ they said, ‘but you know no-one will come, don’t you?’ Within a few years our huge and loyal audiences averaged (yes, averaged) 90%. Mark Ravenhill directed HERE IS MONSTER and London Weekend Television gave us a Plays On Stage award for the world premiere of Fanny Burney’s lost comedy A Busy Day. Our pioneering work was a significant factor in the area’s regeneration.

In 1994 we moved to Quakers Friars, in the city centre, and in 1995 produced the world premiere of Peter Nichols’s Blue Murder — later a major national tour. 1996 saw our first co-production, with Theatre Royal Plymouth, and in 1997 we got another major award from Guinness/Royal National Theatre for the European premiere of Nick Enright’s Good Works, a contemporary Australian play.

Then we heard about an old Tobacco Factory in Bedminster. Unused for years, with no water or electricity, it was a breathtaking space and owner George Ferguson wanted to develop it as a theatre. We opened the Tobacco Factory in 1998 with A Journey to Bristol — a lost 18th century comedy set in the city. It was a promenade performance, with people following the action around the building—mainly because there were seats—nor any heating for the first few years. Guardian critic Michael Billington reviewed us in a linen suit sitting next to a regular huddled under her duvet.

In our five years at the Tobacco Factory we created and developed a much-needed venue for South Bristol. New work included LAGS by Ron Hutchinson, for which Sheila Hannon received a SOLT/West End Theatre producers’ award. Writers included Michele Celeste, Moira Buffini and Bristol’s own Peter Nichols’, whose SO LONG LIFE starred Stephanie Cole and later had a major national tour. Alan Dossor directed THE WILLS’S GIRLS by Amanda Whittington – the story of women working in a Bedminster tobacco factory, performed in a Bedminster tobacco factory. Three week runs, in 2002 and 2003, sold out before they opened.

Since then we’ve worked across the South West with range of partners including Theatre Royal Plymouth, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton, Northcott Theatre Exeter, Bristol Old Vic, Asian Arts Agency, Travelling Light, Bristol Festival of Ideas, Closer Each Day – and many more. Venues include even less formal spaces:
  • Railway stations – BRUNEL’S PLATFORM THEATRE (2006) stations across the South West
  • City Centres – TRADE IT? (2008) Bristol’s links with the slave trade outdoors in the city
  • Ships – THE STEAMPUNK MISTRESS AND THE TIME MACHINE (2019) on the SS Great Britain
  • High Street Shops – TRADING LOCAL puts live performances in high street shops – Bedminster, Westbury-on-Trym, Knowle, Exeter, Burnham-on-Sea, Crewkerne, Staple Hill and more

In 2016, to mark the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley writing the world’s first science fiction novel, we created FRANKENSTEIN IN BATH, a walking tour telling the forgotten story of how most of the book was written in Bath. In 2017 this won Best Live Performance at the Creative Bath Awards and its success led to the creation of 4 new THEATRE WALKS: BLOOD AND BUTCHERY IN BEDMINSTER; TREASURE ISLAND STORY WALK; BLOOD, BLACKBEARD AND BUCCANEERS and CRIME AND CRINOLINES IN CLIFTON.

In 2018 we created and produced SARAH GUPPY: THE BRIDGE, THE BED, THE TRUTH – the story of Bristol’s forgotten 18th century engineer and the first woman in the world to register a patent for a bridge. Sarah and our THEATRE WALKS earned us Best of Bristol 24/7: Theatre.

Our outdoor THEATRE WALKS continued in 2020, only ending on 30 December. They’re back in 2021 with at least two new shows coming to new parts of Bristoldetails on the website soon.

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The SOS Mission

Founded in Bristol in 1986, Show Of Strength is a professional theatre company. SOS has three key strategic aims:

  1. To commission and produce new theatre that engages and involves the diverse communities of Bristol and South West England
  2. To identify, encourage and showcase new and emerging playwrights from Bristol and the South West of England
  3. To use spaces and venues that are not normally used for theatre to encourage diverse and engaged audiences.

These core aims are underpinned by the following objectives:

  • Working with individuals and communities to develop new writing by new writers.
  • Working with professional writers to encourage and develop the work of less experienced writers.
  • Creating work opportunities for South West theatre professionals, particularly actors and writers, through our programmes of work.
  • Developing theatre for people that is performed in non-theatre settings (shops, community venues and high streets) and free to access.
  • Developing theatre by and for people that encourages interaction and pride of place for the community (through outdoor theatre and theatre in retail units and high streets).
  • Working with cultural providers, the business sector, and other regional partners to maximise the reach and impact of the Show of Strength experience.
  • Strengthening the Show of Strength brand and developing innovative partnerships through association with major Bristol, regional and, where appropriate, national and international activities.
  • Taking our work and developing new work in other cities and towns in the south west.
  • Providing value through low core costs so funding investment is used for high quality production rather than office and core staff costs.

Through these aims and objectives we serve our mission goals:

  • Engage with the ‘genus loci’ of the areas we work in, our writers create local stories about local people for local people – and performed by locally based theatre professionals.
  • Develop, find and promote intimate, unusual and accessible performance spaces and areas for theatre that’s “close enough to touch”.
  • Engage with the public, producing cutting edge theatre that audiences return to again and again.
  • Provide workshops and performances that are free for participants and audiences with completely open access.
  • Develop and produce highly accessible material, much of it by non-professionals and first time writers.
  • Combine work by established writers with national and international profiles alongside work by non professional and first time writers developed in our free workshops.
  • Respond to invitations to work with other professional arts providers.