Tjarnarbíó is just over a century old, built in 1913. The auditorium was originally an “ice house”, at the time, ship owners built it as a fish factory and used ice from the pond to keep the fish fresh for export. The backstage area of Tjarnarbíó was Reykjavík’s fire station. During WWII the University of Iceland took over the house and turned it into a cinema, hence the name Tjarnarbíó (“Pond Cinema”). For decades to come the house would be used as a cinema, as a lecture hall for the University and a theatre.
When the University of Iceland stopped running the cinema shortly before 1960 the city of Reykjavík decided to use the building for children and youth art and culture related activities. Then the youth council took over operation of the building and ran it for three years.
At that time all manner of theatre groups were established, although they didn’t all blossom. One of the most famous ones is probably a group called Gríma (“The Mask”). From the beginning, Gríma had high ambitions and made their mark on the Icelandic grassroots theatre at that time. Among the members were young people, seasoned actors, playwrights, directors and other theatre enthusiasts, many of whom had a strong opinion about the drama scene. These people disagreed with many of the major theatres’ methods, they felt they weren’t bold enough, too old-fashioned, and too stiff. Gríma wanted to break free and experiment and they actually did succeeded considering the circumstances.
The Reykjavík Theater Company flourished in the seventies. The choice of plays showed ambition and boldness, and new Icelandic writers finally had their voices heard. The theatre stepped out of the shadow of the National Theater and gave it a run for its money. Iðnó had been the theatres home but was getting pretty cramped as their activity was expanding.
In 1964 The Reykjavík Theatre moved part of their organization over to Tjarnarbær for the next few years. The building was mainly used for children’s theater and the company’s theater school. The school graduated a total of forty students, many of whom would perform with the company for years to come.
After 1970, theater work in the building slowed down. The University of Iceland used it for teaching, and for a while there where even speculations about tearing it down to build a new City Hall. Fortunately that didn’t happen. The building would end up being used for all kinds of organizations and groups such as Fjalakötturinn theatre group, The High School Film Club, the art groups Svart og Sykurlaust (“black, not sugar”) and Oxsmá, The Student Theater, Herranótt the theater group in Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, the amateur group Hugleikur and the travelling group Light Nights, which held exhibitions in English for foreign visitors.
After this period of uncertainty, the house was in poor condition. Around 2005 things would change. Discussions between the city of Reykjavík and the Independent Theaters began. Focusing on making Tjarnarbíó the home of the independent performance arts. In the end they decided to launch a total renovation of the building. Construction began in 2008 and ended in October 2010.