Daniel Evans - how his Chichester Festival Theatre leadership inspired hope in the darkest times
In that respect, Daniel Evans’s time as Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director will be remembered as one of towering achievement.
When he steps down next year, he will have steered a theatre – which in the 1990s and the 2000s was twice on the brink of bankruptcy – back from its darkest moment, the darkness of the pandemic.
Just consider. Things were starting to ease up towards the end of 2020. Daniel judged that a spring season was possible. He put it together, it was released to us on embargo and the details were ready and waiting on a page of this newspaper in time for his early-January announcement. But tier three put paid to that. Lockdown tightened and Daniel found himself lumbered with the worst possible distinction: he became the only Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director ever to have to cancel a season before he had even announced it.
I expect I had a mini-harrumph as I undid the pages I had already done in that first edition of 2021 – a process I grew to hate more and more as the pandemic progressed. But that was nothing compared to the frustration Daniel and the team at the CFT must have felt as weeks of planning vanished into nothingness with one government announcement. Of course we’d seen that announcement coming, to an extent. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that Daniel had proceeded on the basis of hope. Packing his bags and going home was never an option. For Daniel it was all about hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.
And when the worst happened, as it did with his spring 2021 season, Daniel responded in the way he navigated the entire pandemic – with the unwavering resilience with which he met every single setback as lockdown followed lockdown followed lockdown. Daniel used to joke about his hope-ometer. Whatever the pandemic threw at him, it never dropped. At least, not by too much.
“The show must go on,” is the old adage. To it Daniel added “even when it can’t.”
His point was that without hope, we had precious little during the pandemic, and it was a measure of Daniel’s unshakeable positivity that he made us share it.
I have always believed that in this life, runners are the very best people. Or it is the other way round? That the very best people tend to be runners. Either way, Daniel and I chatted marathons the first time we met; we chatted 10k times during the pandemic. His golden virtue, it always seemed to me, was that he was just so wonderfully approachable, open and honest about everything that was happening.
When the lockdown first locked us down, there were plenty of venues that fell into stony, unbreakable silence, particularly those that were run by councils. Daniel at the CFT, on the other hand, instinctively realised that the very best way to keep the CFT in people’s minds was to share his musings. In interview after interview after interview, I asked him to talk through the implications of the CFT’s temporary closure, what it meant locally, what the situation meant nationally, how the CFT might survive, how theatre might survive.
Every time we spoke, you could feel just how acutely he felt the pain of the countless freelancers who were completely cut off – and for CFT staff living through times of troubling uncertainty and for some of them, furlough.
There was nothing I couldn’t ask him about what was going on – and I valued that hugely, especially at a time when so many arts bosses in the area were quite simply uncontactable and therefore totally silent.
Daniel knew it was key to keep the theatre – even when shut – at the heart of Chichester and the wider area. The community work the theatre initiated was phenomenal, from laptops for young carers to messages of hope to people in care homes. Who can forget the spine-tingling a capella Stand By Me that Chichester Festival Youth Theatre recorded. It was vital to so many – me included. My father died on the day before the first national lockdown back in March 2020. The bereavement was tough when every practical consideration was made tougher still by unanswered phones in virtually empty offices.
And that’s why the optimism, the determination, the sheer ‘we’ll meet again’ness that the theatre exuded in those times were a comfort to so many.
And how lovely it has been that so much of Daniel’s lost 2020 summer season has now been revived for happier times. When theatre was able to come back meaningfully last year, it was South Pacific, a massive-scale musical, that Daniel put on. For months, those in the know had been muttering that theatre would creep back gently and very small scale.
That’s not how Daniel saw it. For Daniel, South Pacific was a statement. Theatre was back, undaunted and undiminished. Wonderful too that The Unfriend – another victim of 2020 – saw the light of day this year. Comfortably the funniest thing I have ever seen at the festival theatre.
He made us all see the power of hope at the bleakest of times. And that’s why his tenure at the CFT will be remembered as a very important one.