Happy Birthday Emma Cons

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Today we celebrate the birthday of Emma Cons, a renowned social reformer who ran The Old Vic between 1880 and 1912 as a variety and concert hall. Her determination to transform the empty building was both a crucial moment in saving the theatre from being pulled down, and artistically a time in our history that we are still inspired by today. She was succeeded by her niece Lilian Baylis, who from 1912-1937 established The Old Vic as an opera house and London’s principal Shakespeare theatre.

The two women both retained the spirit of the theatre through difficult times and transformed it, making brave and risky decisions to save the theatre from demise. Emma Cons kept the theatre going as a music hall that served no alcohol on the premises, and kept the doors open with other activities such as science lectures that cost one penny to attend. This expanded into tutorials and eventually the founding of Morley College. Under her ownership, no plays were put on at The Old Vic, but she once again made it a lively place of art, music and performance.

When Lilian Baylis became manager, the two of them determinedly kept the theatre going, despite there never being quite enough money, and together created a welcoming and ever-changing artistic environment that still exists today.

This creative spirit is one still very much embodied today.

In 2019, while the building work for our OV Tomorrow project goes on around the building – to improve access for audience members and double the number of ladies’ loos – we channel Emma Cons, who looked to the future of the theatre, knew that brave transformation was essential, and never let a little hard work get in the way of making The Old Vic a place for everyone to enjoy.