New venue: how vision and ambition have always been at the heart of Chichester Festival Theatre

Leslie Evershed-Martin - painting by Bernard Hailstone - from The Impossible TheatreLeslie Evershed-Martin - painting by Bernard Hailstone - from The Impossible Theatre
Leslie Evershed-Martin - painting by Bernard Hailstone - from The Impossible Theatre
There is vision behind Chichester Festival Theatre’s plans for a new third theatre. And there is ambition – the two great qualities on which the CFT was founded more than six decades ago.

It was a theatre that came from nowhere – but one which instinctively knew that it always had to keep moving forward, just as it is doing now, changing with the times, always ensuring that it stays in touch, making sure that it is always absolutely at the centre of our community.

You can’t help feeling that late Leslie Evershed-Martin, the theatre’s founder, would approve of The Nest, the CFT’s proposed new 120-seat studio theatre. With planning permission gained and with fund-raising under way, the intention is that it will be a “vibrant hub for talent development and innovative and community performances.”

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The key is the link to the community – the community which, through Evershed-Martin, created the CFT in the first place.

He was a truly remarkable man. You would expect an ophthalmic optician to be a man of vision. And he certainly was – a vision which gave us Chichester Festival Theatre against all the odds.

It shouldn’t have happened; it really shouldn’t have been manageable; and yet finding the right people and galvanising them every step of the way, Evershed-Martin succeeded somehow in turning vision into reality.

Not for nothing did he call his story The Impossible Theatre when he wrote an account of theatre’s very earliest days to mark the theatre’s tenth anniversary.

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In it, he recalled the day he conceived what was to become Chichester Festival Theatre - a story which has become the stuff of Chichester, and indeed theatrical, legend.

It’s an extraordinary tale of far-reaching ambition amid domestic concerns. It seems that he was simply was sitting at home, the family variously engaged, on the blustery night of January 4 1959.

“I was half-reading, half-viewing as Huw Wheldon appeared on the screen to present his programme Monitor, in which he reviewed the latest achievements in the arts […] The programme’s subject was the story of a theatre in Canada, the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Theatre, told by an interview with Dr (now Sir) Tyrone Guthrie, the renowned theatrical producer […]

“But what truly enthralled me was the history […] of the community effort behind the realisation of the Stratford venture.”

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Stratford was roughly the size of Chichester and yet the community had wrought a miracle – a fact which set Evershed-Martin’s mind racing.

He saw the huge potential of Stratford’s thrust stage, an arrangement which allowed the audience to sit on three sides of the action, rather than simply sitting staring face on at a raised, curtained stage.

Based on the character of Greek and Elizabethan theatres, it was an arrangement that allowed the audience a much closer involvement with the actors than would be the case with a traditional proscenium arch stage – a fact which opened up exciting opportunities.

Evershed-Martin wrote: “I could see the immense dramatic possibilities of the thrust stage, where the audience were no longer peering into a room at its occupants but were, in effect, in there with them.”

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Evershed-Martin saw too the importance of peopling that stage with world-renowned actors. He realised that it needed to be commercially viable (and not “dragged down by heavy debts and placed in need of subsidies from civic and state funds”).

And he wondered whether he could make it happen in Chichester – no small dream at a time when theatres nationally were coming down rather than going up.

Key to its success, as Evershed-Martin conceived it, was that Chichester’s should be a distinct theatre with a distinct season:

“Obviously a large theatre such as I was contemplating could not be sustained throughout the year; but it seemed good economics to run it as a festival during the summer, skim the cream during that time, and close down in the winter to save a good proportion of the overheads.”

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Times and views have changed since then, the theatre now operating year round. But back in 1959, Evershed-Martin’s point was that it had to leave people wanting more:

“The festival must be a special occasion which people look forward to, watching for the opening of the booking period and making their plans accordingly. When the theatre is always there it is easy to say ‘I must go there sometime,’ and procrastination produces ultimate inertia.”

Evershed-Martin spoke of his “dream of making theatre with the immediacy and passion of the Greeks – where the community would come to the theatre to debate important issues, to celebrate on holidays, to have serious fun.”

Again, it was an approach which underlined the importance of the concept of a Festival. And it was with these thoughts in mind that Evershed-Martin went to meet Guthrie in person. Evershed-Martin recalls that Guthrie was helpful but cautioned him against the enormous difficulties which lay ahead.

Nevertheless, it was all the encouragement Evershed-Martin needed…

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