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Chichester Festival Theatre

by Lorna Still

By Lorna Still, Volunteer at the Novium Museum

Leslie Evershed-Martin was a local optician and twice Mayor of Chichester. In January 1959 he watched a TV programme about Tyrone Guthrie's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, and thought it would be a good idea to have something like it in Chichester.

Evershed-Martin had discussions with Tyrone Guthrie and asked architect Phillip Powell, son of a Cathedral canon, to produce plans for a theatre. Powell, along with partner Hidalgo Moya had designed the Skylon for the Festival of Britain. Evershed-Martin specified that the theatre should have a thrust stage (a platform or open stage), inspired by Greek, Roman and Elizabethan theatres. There were no other permanent thrust stages in the UK at the time, so Chichester would be providing something novel. The auditorium needed to be large, so ticket sales would enable the theatre to get the best actors and directors, which would in turn attract large audiences.

The plans were presented that November and a Trust was formed as a non-profit-making charity. Donations were generous, the City Council gave a peppercorn lease for 99 years on land in Oaklands Park and building began in May 1961, with the specification that the large foyer should be designed to make the most of the parkland view. Princess Alexandra laid the foundation stone on May 12th

Tyrone Guthrie suggested that Laurence Olivier should be asked to be Director and he accepted, saying, 'I found it immensely touching that perfectly private people could want a thing so badly as the people of Chichester wanted this theatre'. He stayed on as Director for four years.

The theatre, a Brutalist hexagonal structure with a tent-inspired roof, opened on 5th July 1962. One of the productions in that first nine-week season was Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya', which began with Olivier standing on the unusual point at the front of the thrust stage.

The building aroused international interest as 'one of the few avant-garde theatres to attain architectural distinction in its own right' (Simon Tidworth).The Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother all visited the theatre.

Extensions were added in later years as the season lengthened and audiences grew. The smaller Minerva Theatre (also hexagonal) opened in 1989 to stage experimental productions. It was named after a Roman stone discovered in Lion Street in 1723. It was the dedication stone for a Temple to Neptune and Minerva and it can now be seen on the wall of the Council House. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, so an appropriate choice.

The theatre had its ups and downs in the years that followed and by the time Jonathan Church took over as Artistic Director in 2006, its future was in doubt. However, the new Director turned things around and to celebrate the theatre's 50th birthday in 2012, a £22,000,000 renovation of the Grade II* listed building began. Improved audience facilities were provided, along with state-of-the-art backstage and technical facilities. All later additions were removed, to restore Evershed-Martin's original vision, and new extensions complemented the design of the original building. Olivier's point at the front of the stage was retained.

The theatre opened in 1962 'largely because Evershed-Martin did not know the whole thing was impossible'(Sunday Telegraph). It has developed from having a nine-week summer season to being open all year round, with many of its own productions transferring to the West End and abroad. A new era is now beginning under Artistic Director Daniel Evans and Executive Director Rachel Tackley.