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Theatre Collection Biography of Richard Southern


Summary: Richard Southern and Bristol
1939 – Richard Southern discovers part of the original stage machinery (1764) from the Theatre Royal, Bristol. This prompts his study of the development of scenery in the British Theatre, later published as Changeable Scenery
1951 – Richard Southern designs the University of Bristol’s Drama Studio
1956 – The University of Bristol awards Richard Southern an honorary DLitt
1959 – Richard Southern appointed as Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Drama, University of Bristol
1961-1969 – Special Lecturer in Theatre Architecture, (part-time), Department of Drama, University of Bristol

Richard Southern was born in 1903, educated at St Dunstan’s College and later at Goldsmith’s Art School and the Royal Academy of Art, where he trained as a designer.

From 1928, he worked in various capacities on the stage, acting and stage-managing in London and abroad, specializing in the study of stage technique and theatre architecture. He designed scenery for over fifty shows, including productions at the Everyman Theatre, Cambridge Festival Theatre, where he was art director, and various London theatres.

Richard Southern was appointed as Technical Lecturer at Goldsmith’s College in 1932 and of the London Theatre Studio in 1937. In about 1935, Richard Southern began a twenty-year study of theatrical techniques of earlier times. During this time he made a collection of about 8,000 pictures illustrating scenery and the architecture and machinery of theatres from all over the world. His first book, Stage Setting, was published in 1937 and his second, Proscenium and Sight-Lines followed in 1939. In the same year, while examining the loft of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, Richard Southern found a portion of the original stage-machinery of 1764. It was this discovery that led to his study of the development of scenery in the British Theatre, which was eventually published as Changeable Scenery in 1952.

In 1947, Richard Southern was appointed Theatre Planning Adviser to the Arts Council and became involved in the investigation and reconstruction of period theatres and stages, including the Georgian Theatre, Richmond. He later published, (jointly with Ivor Brown), The Georgian Theatre, Richmond, Yorkshire : the story of the theatre. Richard Southern was also responsible for the restoration of the first American theatre in Willamsburg, Virginia.

In 1951, Richard Southern was asked by the University of Bristol to design its Drama Studio. The innovative nature of the design is recorded in Theatre in Education: How they were staged- 21: Bristol University Studio Theatre, Hamlet and the Dark Tower. This article reports that as the audience entered, they saw a proscenium theatre with the curtain down, "suddenly the curtain, legs, and proscenium were all flown, and the stage flank walls removed, leaving only the apron and stage gallery as for an Elizabethan theatre. Chairs were put in for the audience to occupy seats on three sides, and the Old Vic students suggested the use that could be made of this stage with a brief extract from Hamlet. The transformation continued, and the stage was stripped completely; all equipment, except lighting, was removed, leaving a bare classroom for the presentation of the main production — Mr Louis MacNeice’s The Dark Tower".

Richard Southern was appointed as the Department of Drama’s Rockerfeller Lecturer, and delivered a series of talks that was subsequently published under that title of The Open Stage. In 1956, the University of Bristol awarded Richard Southern an Honorary DLitt. In 1959 he was appointed as a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Drama and from 1961-1969 he was employed part-time as Special Lecturer in Theatre Architecture.

On joining the Department of Drama, Richard Southern brought his research collection with him. This archive included the Print Collection, and other material such as his models. It was compiled over several decades, both as the basis for his research and publications (books published from 1930’s onwards) and as a record of it. When Richard Southern retired from the Bristol in 1969, the University made funds available to purchase the Print Collection, acknowledging its importance as a research resource for scholars within the university and further afield.

In 1964, Richard Southern was appointed as a director of the Nuffield Theatre, University of Southampton, which he had designed in consultation with Sir Basil Spence, the University’s campus architect. In the course of his career, Richard Southern planned several other modern theatres and stages including the Royal College of Art (1952), Reading University (1957), Nottingham (1961) and University College London (1967).

Following his retirement, Richard Southern was involved with the building of the Globe Theatre in London from 1970-1971 and his model of the Swan playhouse was used in the early stages to obtain an idea of what the Globe would look like.

Richard Southern died in 1989. His Obituary appeared in The Independent, 10 August 1989.