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Starting off as a ‘musick house’ in 1683, crowds were curious about the newly discovered wells by owner Dick Sadler for their supposed healing waters. Hence, circus acts and freak shows dominated its 18th-century playbills, particularly during summertime.
Later used for pantomimes and comic opera, it played up to its unique water tank feature in the early 19th century, putting on water-themed shows. Once drama censorship was lifted in 1843 and Sadler’s Wells officially became a theatre, the venue was home to productions of Shakespearean plays.
With management switches and frequent reinvention, Sadler's Wells has been home to a skating rink, wrestling arena and a cinema. This identity crisis meant the worn-out theatre closed in 1915. Thanks to Lilian Baylis, then owner of the flourishing Old Vic, Sadler’s Wells was recovered in 1925 and adopted as a venue for the growing popularity of opera and dance, especially ballet with the setting up of Sadler’s Wells Ballet School.
This tradition followed it into the second half of the 20th century, particularly as a career launchpad for up-and-coming performers and an eccentric production home in its hidden off-West-End location. The sixth theatre to stand on the site opened in 1998, with a bigger stage, increased seating capacity, and a variety of performance companies working in-house.