On Thursday we attended the re-opening event for Chichester Festival Theatre after its extensive renovation. As a theatre whose content we always thought far outstripped the venue itself we were excited to see what might have changed.
First impressions are always the most important and after seeing the old girl wrapped in scaffold and fencing it’s such a pleasure to see what has been altered. Immediately the eye is drawn to the amount of glass the architects have used. The whole place feels open, airy a genuinely a pleasant atmosphere in which to just sit (to accentuate the point we got there very early for Amadeus the next night and sat out on the veranda with a glass of wine soaking up the atmosphere). The staff we speak to on their way in seem genuinely proud of the improvements that have taken place and happy to be volunteering their time here.
After a glass of fruit juice to cool down we’re ushered into the auditorium, immediately I’m impressed as the space feels both larger and more intimate in a way that is difficult to explain. The reupholstered seats are very comfy, the sight-lines seem to have been improved and this generally feels much nicer, much classier. In short it befits the quality of work performed here.
We’re introduced to the three men who are the driving forces behind the changes that have taken place. Alan Finch (Executive Director and joint Chief Executive) talks to us about Legacy. He and his colleagues have looked at the 50 years the theatre has existed and asked themselves what needed to be done to make it fit for another 50. He mentions the improved space, better audience facilities including twice the amount of toilets and improved café/bar spaces and much improved back stage areas.
Jonathan Church (Artistic Director and joint Chief Executive) mentions that his prime concern was keeping the atmosphere that he remembers from his visits to Chichester over the years, but is proud that they’ve added an extra “zing” with improved seating (they have actually added 100 seats, bringing capacity up to 1300) and a new colour scheme with hints of red. He says that in 1962 when the theatre first opened it saw 80,000 people visit in 8 weeks, in 2012 over ten months 300,000 people visited the Festival Theatre!
Next up is Steve Tomkins (Director at architects Haworth Tomkins) who describes the Festival Theatre as a “milestone auditorium that harks back to Elizabethan theatre”. He speaks with passion about how the theatre was conceived and funded by the people of Chichester and Sussex and that he saw his team’s job as restoring the clarity of the original vision whilst making the theatre fit for purpose. To that end all post 1962 additions were stripped away before work began on the hexagonal building. He also proudly states their vision of restoring the parkland setting and feel for visitors which ties in to their new, more eco-friendly, heating and cooling systems that use ground source heating from Oaklands Park itself.
“Olivier said that when programing for Chichester you should do three for the audience and one for yourself” says Jonathan. He doesn’t divulge which of this year’s shows he does for himself (though we have a hunch it might be Gypsy) but seems fascinated by Sir Laurence’s vision. He talks of the new found flexibility on the site, mentioning they are no longer slaves to the hexagonal shape and pointed stage, though they have kept its shape marked out on the floor. He mentions that with the additional seating they can now play to 180° audiences which has been a new experience for the cast.
Later we’re given a tour of the site by Lucy Picardo, the lead architect on the project who shows us all the new changes we’ve heard about and more besides. I won’t go into details as you can watch a video on the site and see for yourself all the new bells and whistles on the site.
We also had the chance to sit down and chat at length with Alan Finch, we’ll post that interview in full over the next few days.
For now, we’d urge you to go see all these changes for yourself… head to cft.org.uk and grab tickets for one of their productions so you can savour the atmosphere for yourself.e and his colleagues