Best-ever winter bodes well for brilliant summer at Chichester Festival Theatre

After the best winter season ever in its history in terms of money and audience numbers, Chichester Festival Theatre is now relishing a great response so far to the summer shows ahead.
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Bookings for the summer festival, which opens with The Other Boleyn Girl on April 19, are 20 per cent up on last year and on the year before – and catching up with 2019, the last season before the pandemic shut everything down.

It’s the first season under the new CFT artistic director Justin Audibert. Chichester Festival Theatre executive director Kathy Bourne is delighted with the way the new era is dawning.

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“There is a different feeling. We all knew and loved Daniel (Evans, previous artistic director). The staff loved him and the audience loved him as such an endearing individual and we had such a great time working together and enjoyed it so much. That was consolidated mostly through working through the pandemic but coming out of that we were beginning to think about the future of the theatre and finding our way through that. We were still watching audience behaviour and trying to ascertain how we were doing when the RSC job came up which was a great opportunity for Daniel (and which Daniel took). At that point we both agreed that the artistic vision moving forward should wait until the new person came in and joined me. I was very clear that I wanted to stay and work with the next artistic director. I came back to the organisation in 2019 and soon after that we went into the lockdown. This is my sixth season as executive director and for me this is a great opportunity to grow and thrive and reinvent the Festival Theatre. I was very much part of the appointment of Justin. The board were very clear that the dynamic between us really did have to work.

Chichester Festival Theatre Executive Director Kathy Bourne. Pic by Peter FludeChichester Festival Theatre Executive Director Kathy Bourne. Pic by Peter Flude
Chichester Festival Theatre Executive Director Kathy Bourne. Pic by Peter Flude

“And then when Justin came in, that allowed us to really start thinking about our vision for the future of the whole organisation. We did the rebranding last year and we did a lot of community consultation to really think about what people want from the theatre. Justin came in and was able to look at the organisation and challenge the way we work. My view was that the moment I started saying ‘We've tried that before and it doesn't work’ would be my time to go. We wanted to put all the cards on the table and really think through everything.”

Fortunately a key conclusion was that there is a “lovely group of supporters that desperately want to come to this theatre. We are 20 per up on (bookings for) this season compared to last year and the year before – even though we have two fewer shows. Justin was clear that he wanted all the big bankers in the Festival Theatre (main house), to go big and bold and epic And so we are pushing the money into the four shows that we have got there. In the Minerva we can be a little bit more risk-taking.

“We were also aware that the Festival Theatre over the past five years has been growing, growing, growing and so we looked into the number of shows that people are booking for in the priority booking period. We wanted to know whether it was two or three or four or five. The fact is that people are choosing fewer shows.”

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A reflection of the cost of living crisis, Kathy believes: “Before the pandemic people were booking maybe three or four shows but now it's two or three and so the idea is to consolidate the shows and maybe to give people slightly less choice but to fill our house much better with those plays.

“We have also had the best winter season the Festival Theatre has ever had in its history in terms of money and audience numbers. We have spent much more time looking at the rounded picture of the theatre that we have in Chichester. With Jonathan (Church) and Alan (Finch, artistic and executive directors respectively before Daniel), the idea was very much about the produced festival season.”

With a change of emphasis, Kathy and Justin wanted to reaffirm the huge importance of the winter season (which consists of touring shows, rather than home-produced) “acknowledging that if you don't pay attention to the winter then you lose audiences. We have had conversations about how the winter really can complement what you do in the summer and bring in different people who then perhaps see something in the winter and then think ‘OK, I will come back in the summer.’ There was a time when for Jonathan and Alan there was such a focus on the summer season and making sure that we were bringing our summer audience back that perhaps the winter work was a little bit of an afterthought. We decided we wanted to look at what was on the circuit and put in shows that really reflect the broader organisation and what we are about. What we have done since 2019 is make sure that everything we deliver in the winter has been real quality.

“Last winter I was very clear that I wanted to bring Life of Pi to Chichester. We knew it was quality and we knew it would work well and it felt like something that we wouldn't necessarily deliver ourselves. And it went down a storm. We’ve also introduced the idea of a few more week-long musical runs in the winter, like Six and Girl from the North Country. Jonathan and Alan felt that you had to be careful not to damage the summer musical but we feel that provided it's really different to what you're offering in the summer then it will be fine.

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“The second thing that we recognised is that in the absence of a civic centre in Chichester, the Festival Theatre can provide a space for people to come during the day and have different experiences. Our foyer has never been busier. We have walking groups coming in and we have toddler groups coming in. It is part of our audience development to look to bring in the community to do different things here and obviously the hope is that a percentage of them will think ‘This looks interesting’ and then they will come back. We put in Santa's Grotto on the site last Christmas and it completely sold out and we were surprised how many people went to Santa’s Grotto and then decided to come and see Billy Goats Gruff.”

And that's the kind of thinking that now informs the Festival Theatre under its clearly identified four core values – as inclusivity champions, as being sustainably managed, as being artistically ambitious and as being community driven: “We identified those values before Daniel left and now we are implementing them.”

• The Chichester Festival Theatre season begins on April 19. Tickets from £10;; box office 01243 781312.

• In the Festival Theatre:

 The Other Boleyn Girl by Mike Poulton, based on Philippa Gregory’s novel of Tudor intrigue, directed by Lucy Bailey

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 Coram Boy, an enthralling 18th century adventure, adapted by Helen Edmundson, directed by Anna Ledwich

 A brand new production of Lionel Bart’s iconic musical Oliver!, directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, in a new revision by Cameron Mackintosh

 Redlands, a new play by Charlotte Jones, inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Chichester trial, directed by Justin Audibert

 A spellbinding new retelling of Cinderella by Philip Wilson, with music by Jason Carr,