When you think of going to the theatre, what springs to mind? Plush red seats, tiered seating with balconies and many years of age and tradition?
In 1962, a new theatre opened that was nothing like that. In fact it was so innovative many called it the ‘impossible theatre.’
A strikingly modern building, Chichester Festival Theatre had the first thrust stage in the country and the first artistic director was one of the country’s most iconic actors – Sir Laurence Olivier.
Well away from the theatre hub of London’s West End, CFT was ground-breaking.
Fifty years on and the theatre is celebrating the anniversary with a special summer season, a new temporary stage and a book, Chichester Festival Theatre at Fifty.
Written by Chichester resident and author of the best-selling novel Labyrinth, Kate Mosse, it charts the theatre’s colourful history.
From Ben Kingsley appearing as a murderer in Macbeth to celebrated director Sam Mendes writing a letter begging for any kind of work at the theatre, many famous names began their careers in Chichester.
Kate started her working life selling ice creams at the theatre and says: ‘I have a long association with the theatre. My father was company secretary from 1965 to 1998 and I grew up in the happy shadow of CFT.
‘I had my first paid job there and was involved in the theatre up until 2001. When I was doing the research for the book I found out just how many people are tied so closely to the theatre.’
Kate was asked to write the book by the theatre’s artistic directors, Jonathan Church and Alan Finch, as a way of celebrating its first 50 successful years.
She says: ‘They wanted to have a book to mark the first 50 years before embarking on the next 50 years.
‘It’s one of the most successful theatres in the country and it seems a good moment to celebrate everything that has been achieved. I said I would do it but as a gift, so all the money raised from it would go to the Renew campaign fund.’
Kate adds: ‘I wouldn’t want anyone else to write the book.’
Last year the theatre was named by The Stage as the Regional Theatre of the Year, and it has gone from strength to strength ever since it first opened. Kate believes this is down to a number of things.
She says: ‘The first thing is that as a theatre it was built by the community for the community. To our knowledge, no other theatre of this type exists in the country.
‘Most are funded by county councils or art funds and organisations but this was normal Chichester people putting their hands in their pockets because they wanted a theatre. It’s different than almost anywhere else.’
The theatre was a new concept and offered the chance for new pieces of work to be performed.
Kate explains: ‘This theatre was built on innovation and excitement.
‘It’s very modern-looking and everybody goes in through different doors, but sits together.
‘It’s a theatre for everybody because everybody is sitting in the same shared space. There’s also no curtain so the actors and the audience are part of the same thing. They aren’t up there behind a screen.’
Since its beginning the theatre has supported new plays, and this season is no different with world premieres of Hugh Whitemore’s A Marvellous Year For Plums and Michael Wynne’s Canvas.
But it also features classic productions, such as Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Kate says: ‘The current artistic director Jonathan said something about how quality risk-taking is in the theatre’s DNA.’
Over the years the theatre has played host to a number of renowned actors and actresses, including Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Diana Rigg, Lauren Bacall, Sir Ian McKellen, Imelda Staunton and Kathleen Turner.
Sex And The City actress Kim Cattrall will appear with Michael Pennington in Anthony and Cleopatra this September.
Kate explains: ‘When we were doing the research it was quite striking how many actors, directors and choregraphers have started their careers at Chichester. They felt close to the theatre and came back to be part of it again.
‘It was very much a theme that kept coming up, that people had been involved with the theatre as children and teenagers and sometimes as professionals and so, in a way, my story is the same story as many other people.’
She adds: ‘There are many people who have history with the theatre, such as the actor Toby Stephens. His first job was as a stage shifter at Chichester.’
Kate believes the theatre helped her become the author she is today.
She explains: ‘I grew up at CFT and I think it did help me become a writer. I was understanding there was old and new writing from a young age.
‘It’s great that we have this theatre, one so welcoming to everyone and which reflects well on the stage managers and the producers. Everybody is playing a part.’
· Kate Mosse’s Chichester Festival Theatre At Fifty is available for £28 through CFT on (01243) 781312 or go to cft.org.uk
BUILT ON A BUDGET
Chichester Festival Theatre was built on a budget. As a result, after 50 years of regular use, it now needs a major update.
Redevelopment plans for the theatre, costing around £22m, include an 18-month building project.
The theatre has applied to the Arts Council England for funding while West Sussex County Council and Chichester District Council have jointly pledged £2m for the project.
For more information, contact Sarah Mansell at Chichester Festival Theatre on (01243) 812902 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.