British Theater Showcases Special Effects From The 18th Century The Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, England, is celebrating its 250th anniversary. And the festivities involve bringing back some old theatrical tricks — including one number called the "Thunder Run."
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British Theater Showcases Special Effects From The 18th Century

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British Theater Showcases Special Effects From The 18th Century

British Theater Showcases Special Effects From The 18th Century

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We are staying with the arts for this next story, but we are crossing an ocean and a couple of centuries. The Bristol Old Vic in Bristol, England, is marking its 250th anniversary this year and its status as one of the oldest continuously-operated theaters in the world. And to celebrate, its directors have decided to take a step back into time by reviving some of the antique sound effects. Artistic director Tom Morris shows us around.

TOM MORRIS: OK, so we're standing now on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic. And with us is some 18th century machinery. There's a wind machine, which basically - it's like a wooden wheel and a handle on the side of it. And if you turn it, it sounds like - it sounds like this.


MORRIS: It's cutting edge 18th-century sound technology. There's another thing, which is a rain machine - actually, just make it work and then I'll describe it.


MORRIS: And that - bizarrely, that looks like a sort of enormous ancient upside-down airplane wheel made entirely of wood. And you revolve the wheel and it makes that noise.

MARTIN: Now, those are pretty cool. But the show-stopper is way up in the rafters.

MORRIS: So if we walk up these steps...

MARTIN: It's a wooden gutter system that runs back and forth some 25 yards across the building. It's something they call the Thunder Run.

MORRIS: So we've now just walked into this ancient attic space above the theater. And if you didn't know, you wouldn't dream you were above a theater. It looks like an ancient barn that you'd store wheat or something. We're now really close to this piece of machinery itself. It's 1776 pitch pine. It sounds like this if you hit it.


MORRIS: It's obviously built to be quite resonant.

MARTIN: The man who gives the Thunder Run its rumble is James Molineux. He's the head of stage at the Bristol Old Vic.

JAMES MOLINEUX: So this is a wooden ball. It's made out of beech. It's about 6 inches in diameter. And we have a medium-sized one, which is probably about 3 inch in diameter that we stagger. So we're staggering the release of these balls down the wooden chute.

MORRIS: And he can vary the shape of the sound by letting them all go at once or letting a few little ones go first, then some medium, then some big in order to create a different style of thunder.


MARTIN: But to get the real feel for how this might have sounded to an 18th-century audience, we have to go back downstairs, back to the stage. And there we meet Phil Dunster, an actor at the Bristol Old Vic. He discovered an unexpected benefit to having actual people above him operating the Thunder Run.

PHIL DUNSTER: Well, one of the things we were talking about before is personifying the elements. I can talk to the person that's up there in the attic dropping the thunder balls. And it just - it creates this incredible relationship with the elements and with the machines that are doing it. And yeah, it is - it's - that is really special. That was a real treat, yeah.

MARTIN: And now to hear how they all work together, again, Tom Morris.

MORRIS: OK, good, so let's start with a little bit of wind...


MORRIS: ...Then add in some rain.


MORRIS: At some point, the thunder will go...


MORRIS: ...And then Phil.

DUNSTER: (As King Lear) Blow winds and crack your cheeks, rage, blow.

MARTIN: OK, so have we sold you on the idea of a trip to England to see all this in person? The Bristol Old Vic will mount its production of "King Lear," complete with a Thunder Run, this summer.

DUNSTER: (As King Lear) Crack nature's molds, all germens spill at once that makes ingrateful man.


MARTIN: Our thanks to Rich Preston for recording all this.


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