CFT summer season could start in July

We’ve now got a roadmap out of lockdown and in theory a route back to normality, but it certainly hasn’t brought much clarity as far as Chichester Festival Theatre is concerned.

Chichester Festival Theatre's Kathy Bourne (Executive Director) and Daniel Evans (Artistic Director) Photo Seamus Ryan
Chichester Festival Theatre's Kathy Bourne (Executive Director) and Daniel Evans (Artistic Director) Photo Seamus Ryan

The situation, the permutations and the possibilities remain incredibly complicated still as CFT artistic director Daniel Evans and the team try to bring their summer season together: “The PM has said that by a certain date we can be fully back, but they have caveated it up to the eyeballs. We won’t really know whether we can fully open until way beyond the date that we would have to open the box office.”

Which obviously has big implications for the numbers of tickets they can sell in advance: “We just don’t have that clarity. But I know that they are going to be announcing some proper test events. They are usually in the world of sport, but that will help the world of theatre, and then once we have the data, which may be towards the end of April, then we will have that clarity that we need.

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“We will know the direction of travel, to an extent, by the time we enter to stage two (April 12). The five weeks after children going back to school will give data as well.”

But the fear then becomes one of slippage: if there is slippage going into stage three (not before May 17), then there is likely to be slippage going into stage four which is the point at which the government hopes to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact (not before June 21).

The CFT’s plan therefore is to open the main-house for the summer season at the start of July – and to offer some open-air work in late May, along the lines of the open-air events the CFT did late last summer: “We are thinking about doing some family work during the day and some concerts during the evening, just as a way of starting to bring the community together.”

Stage three (not before May 17) in theory allows for the reopening of theatres. The main-house at the CFT won’t be amongst them.

“We feel like we want to get our audiences back through a phased return. We feel more confident about the later dates of June 21, rather than May 17. That’s why we are going outdoors first. We usually have a good and very warm May and June, and the feedback is good.

“The PM might be adamant that we can open fully on June 21, but will our audiences be confident to come back fully or will they want to sit in social distancing? Those are some of the thousands of questions whirring around our heads.”

With this doubt in mind, the CFT is therefore giving itself what Daniel calls a “grace period” after June 21: “We are looking towards opening (the main-house) at the beginning of July.”

Which that means South Pacific already announced for July 5-August 28, is looking highly likely to be the season opener – ironically, exactly the plan for July last year too when the initial hopes were that the pandemic would be over within four months and South Pacific would be the delayed 2020 season opener.

“There is just a possibility that we might do something in the Minerva before that. But yes, it is likely that South Pacific will be our return this summer.”

And it’s a return which will make a big statement – a big musical, a big cast (27 plus 15 in the band). The West End is likely to be behind Chichester in opening; the hope is to pull some London audiences south.

“We do feel it is important to make this statement, to say that this is what we do. We know that our musicals are very popular and that they bring in a diverse audience. It is not just a statement locally. It is a statement nationally saying that we are putting ourselves out there. We have the confidence and the resources to do this.

“And hopefully it is a show that will give people comfort. The score is ravishing. It has themes of racial prejudice and the need to be together. And all the cast want to return. They are all desperate to get back into rehearsals and to get back on the stage. Many of them have not had any support from the government. Some have not been able to work at all.”

The hope is to start rehearsing on May 24 – by which time the CFT is hoping to have had good news on its application under the latest round of the government’s cultural recovery fund. Earlier this year, the CFT put in a bid for just over half a million pounds; they hope to have news by the end of March: “We don’t know whether we will get all of it or some of it or nothing, but it is so important to us. It will give us the confidence. It will give us a bit of a cushion in terms of the risks we can take with South Pacific, a big show...”