The Festival Theatre is Born
Chichester Festival Theatre was founded by a local ophthalmic optician and former city mayor, Leslie Evershed-Martin, following an idea he had whilst watching a television programme in 1959 about the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre Festival in Stratford Ontario, Canada.
Stratford Ontario was a town with the same sized population as Chichester, which inspired Evershed-Martin to build a Theatre for his own community. His vision was for a seasonal festival of theatre held over the summer months, held in a space inspired by the revolutionary design of the Canadian theatre. Working tirelessly with Chichester City Council to get its support and to find a suitable site, he motivated local individuals and businesses to raise the £105,000 needed to make his idea become a reality and the Theatre finally opened its doors in 1962.
Evershed-Martin was told that the perfect Artist Director for his new theatre would be Sir Laurence Olivier but that this would be impossible to achieve. Not to be dissuaded, Evershed-Martin wrote to Olivier whilst he was working in America and Olivier became the Festival Theatre’s inaugural Artistic Director.
Following the Stratford model, the architects, Powell and Moya, developed a theatre that arranged the auditorium around a stage that thrust itself into the centre of the audience, combining ancient Greek and Roman precedents with elements of Elizabethan theatre.
When Chichester Festival Theatre opened, it was Britain’s first modern thrust stage theatre. Powell and Moya’s bold design combined the functional requirements of a modern theatre within strict financial constraints.
It was Olivier’s vision that the theatre would produce several shows to run in repertoire sharing the same ensemble cast. And so it was that the theatre opened in 1962 with a ‘festival’ of three shows which were to run for three weeks – hence Festival Theatre and Festival Season. Between ’62 and ’65 Olivier established a company of actors and other theatre practitioners at Chichester which provided the nucleus of his National Theatre Company
The Tent transforms into The Minerva Theatre
As the Festival Theatre became more established, some of the actors wanting to do more daring and challenging work effectively started their own fringe festival in the form of the New Ventures project at the Dolphin and Anchor Hotel. These impromptu performances grew in scale and moved into a large marquee, known as The Tent, opposite the Festival Theatre. It was the work of these actors which prompted the creation of the Minerva Theatre which stands today on The Tent’s old site and keeps alive its tradition of exploring new and exciting work. The Minerva Theatre itself opened in April 1989 under the direction of Sam Mendes, after a successful fundraising campaign including a donation of £500,000 from a local businessman.
50 years on
In 2012 Chichester Festival Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary. The theatre building, constructed on such a limited budget has been operating on a scale way beyond what was envisaged when it opened in 1962, and so urgently needs a 21st Century upgrade. To make the theatre fit for another 50 years plus the Theatre is now undertaking a £22 million restoration project called RENEW to sustain and improve the unique Grade 2* Festival Theatre. This is perfect time to reflect on the incredible 50 year history of the theatre and Pass It On, funded by the heritage lottery fund, aims to do just this.