In the 1780s, actor-manager George Stephen Sutherland took it upon himself to campaign for the construction of a theatre in the town of Dumfries. This was met with great enthusiasm by the townsfolk as they were keen to provide entertainment for visitors such as the Caledonian Hunt.
Designed by local architect Thomas Boyd, the theatre began construction in 1790 and was inspired by the Theatres Royal in Bristol and Edinburgh. Completed at a cost of £800, it opened its doors on the 29th September 1792. At that time, the auditorium could hold up to 600 people, many of whom would have owned a subscriber’s token. This token granted the bearer entry to any performance as a thank you for helping fund the theatre’s construction.
Scotland’s national poet was very heavily involved in the construction of a theatre while he lived in Dumfries. While he could not contribute financially, his talents and connections certainly proved invaluable.
Burns wrote several pieces for performance on the stage, including A Scots Prologue which was performed at a fundraiser for the new theatre. He also wrote The Rights of Women for Louise Fontanelle when she performed in Dumfries’ newly opened theatre in 1792. He also managed to contribute to the theatre through his friendships with other artists. The original stock scenery for the New Theatre was painted by Alexander Nasmyth after Burns recommended him.
After much campaigning and fundraising, the theatre was set to be completely renovated in the early 2000s. The plans would see the interior of the theatre completely rebuilt from the ground up, installing several new spaces and entire extra storey on top. After funding was withdrawn in 2003, however, the project stalled.
After regrouping, the Guild managed to secure support from new sources and instead of planning on building new facilities upwards, they looked towards expanding outwards. Adjacent buildings were purchased and renovation work began in 2014, completed by the end of 2015. The newly refurbished building includes several new spaces while maintaining many of the historic features, ushering Scotland’s oldest theatre into the 21st Century.