The UK's only working Thunder Run

Ever wondered how 18th century sound technicians conjured thunder above the heads of our very first audiences? Find out all about it here...

Photograph of the Thunder Run showing the slats which hold the balls (2016) by Jon CraigBristol Old Vic

What is a thunder run?

It’s a piece of 18th century sound technology and it’s the way people used to make the sound of thunder during a show in the 1700s. It’s made up of two 40 metre channels constructed from pitch pine. 

Photograph of Auditorium taken from the Stage (1941) by UnknownBristol Old Vic

And why is it so special that Bristol Old Vic has one?

We think we have the only working one in the country! There are only 3 left at all in the UK: ours, one at Her Majesty’s and one at Playhouse. Ours was installed in the early 19th century and historians have told us it's at least 120 years older than the two in London.

Photograph of the view from the start of the Thunder Run including wooden balls for rolling (2018) by Mike HumeBristol Old Vic

How does it work?

Can you see the vertical wooden slats? You take out the slats and the balls roll down, hitting the sides of the chute and shaking the auditorium below.

Photograph of the Mid Attic from house right looking to house left (2018) by Mike HumeBristol Old Vic

In the roof space you can hear everything happening below. This is important as before radios existed, an actor would break character, walk to the fore stage and shout THUNDER!  There’d be two stagehands up in the roof, who’d hear them. One to roll the balls, the other to catch them at the end!

Photograph of Stage from the Dress Circle (2012) by Philip VileBristol Old Vic

The thunder run sits above the auditorium, not above the stage, so it works like a 4D cinema: the audience can hear and feel the thunder as if it’s directly above them. 

Has it always been used?

Until 2012, the last recorded use of our thunder run was 1942. This meant we were reaching a point when no one in living memory had heard it used. The myth and folklore around it said that if you tried to run the thunder run it would shake the roof so violently that it would collapse, so it hadn't been used for decades and decades.

Older photos like these show the thunder run after years of disuse.

Photograph of the Thunder Run, National Monuments Record Photographic Survey, 1968, From the collection of: Bristol Old Vic
Photograph of the Thunder Ru, National Monuments Record Photographic Survey, 1968, From the collection of: Bristol Old Vic
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Photograph of Auditorium from backStage (2012) by Philip VileBristol Old Vic

How did we bring the thunder run back to life?

We restored the thunder run as part of our 250th birthday celebration. We employed theatre historian David Wilmore to carry out test runs, sympathetically restore and conserve it. 

Photograph of the wooden balls used in the Thunder Run (2016) by Jon CraigBristol Old Vic

It took Bristol Old Vic's technical team 3 days of experimentation to work out how to use the thunder run.  

The team experimented with different sizes and numbers of balls to work out how to produce an accurate thunder sound. It’s basically like tuning a giant musical instrument. 

Photograph of Timothy West as King Lear (2016) by Simon AnnandBristol Old Vic

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!"

It’s last official use was in 2016 when Timothy West played King Lear. 

Listen carefully, can you hear the sound of thunder?

Photograph of the Attic and Flues (2012) by Philip VileBristol Old Vic

We offer tours of our roof space so you can see the thunder run for yourself. And for the real fanatics we offer a 'Thunder Run Experience' where you can see and hear the thunder run in action. 

Credits: Story

With thanks to Bristol Archives and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
All our heritage work is made possible thanks to National Lottery players. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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