This book is a love letter.
My affair with Chichester Festival Theatre – CFT as it’s affectionately known – has lasted my whole life. I was born a few months after the foundation stone was laid in 1961 and moved to Chichester, with my parents, a couple of weeks after the first season in 1962. My father crossed the road from his solicitors’ office in West Street, offered his services to the Founder of the Theatre, Leslie Evershed-Martin, who lived opposite, and in 1966 became Company Secretary to the Board. From that moment, the theatre was part of our day-to-day lives.
CFT was where I saw my first live play, with real moving and breathing actors on a stage. It was where I first performed on stage – recorder, choir, violin, local school concerts. It was my first ‘proper’, paid job – as an usherette front of house selling ice creams and programmes during A level - and, as chance would have it, my last proper job too, as Administrative Director to Andrew Welch from 1998- 2001.
My affection for CFT, the way I feel it has always been there as a backdrop to my life, a familiar place is not uncommon. The same fondness is shared by all those interviewed for the book – actors, directors, production staff, board members, autograph hunters – as well as those who’ve supported the book and whose names are printed here too. On every page, this warmth for CFT, the sense of it being special, different, comes up time and again. It’s partly to do with the fairytale nature of the founding and building of the theatre in the first instance: the dream of a local ophthalmic surgeon and former mayor of Chichester, Leslie Evershed-Martin who, having watched a television documentary about the building of a theatre in Stratford, Ontario, decided to attempt the same in his home town and invited Laurence Olivier to be the first artistic director. But, mostly, I think the enduring affection Cicestrians feel for their ‘impossible theatre’ is down to the fact that it was – and remains - a theatre built by the community, for the community. And built on a shoestring, the art of the possible, the theatre coming to life from the bottom up, brick by brick. The ambition of it; the dazzling and brave architectural design – a modern concrete folly sitting in parkland to the north of a pretty but modest market town in West Sussex; the glory of the lighting rig above the audience’s head, ‘the night sky’; the open plan auditorium where each face is visible to the actors and to the rest of the audience; and the magnificent thrust stage, protruding like sides of a fifty pence piece, into the purple and green; and the wonderful production photographs that decorate the foyer.
In the old days, the main house foyer was black and white tiles, clean and smart but noisy. Now there’s carpet but the atmosphere, the smell of it, the hushed hubbub of the open and welcoming space, to me, hasn’t changed so very much. I remember standing there as a six year old, in red velvet party dress and black patent shoes, being taken to see The Italian Straw Hat. That sense of excitement, that sense of being on the verge of entering into a different world, has never gone away. And when one looks at the audience, any night of the week, one can catch that same glint of reminiscence on people’s faces, they too remembering the first time they came and sat, hushed, in the auditorium waiting for the house lights to go down.
So, fifty years of CFT to celebrate. The story begins here ….
September 12th 2011