“Have you noticed this new, surging life in the theatre world?”
So begins Richard Findlater’s article (see image to the right), published in the Evening Standard on Monday 14th November, 1960. This particular article captures the excitement and indeed, need, for a new kind of theatre in Britain. As the television set found its way into more and more homes, something needed to change within the world of the theatre to entice the public through auditorium doors. This change is aptly described by Findlater, who writes,
“Into the British theatre of the 1960’s – prematurely looped with crepe by ever-ready mourners – come new bewitching sounds…The sound of unfurling blueprints for new buildings. The sound of men talking about new buildings. And even the sound of buildings being built…TV is supposed to be killing off the live theatre. Yet suddenly there is the stir of new life – not only in plays and players but in bricks and mortar, too.”
Chichester Festival Theatre truly was an exceptional feat of building work, not least because the money raised for the build came from private donations and the local community, who obviously felt the same as Findlater: “We need more theatres and we need new ones.”
“Brakes screech, air hisses, lights flash, smoke billows: the train arrives, and with it Lauren Bacall. Auburn hair, dark glasses, ghostly face: the Chichester audience are as bewitched by the entrance of a screen icon as the citizens of Guellen are by the arrival of a multi-millionairess.”
Known for her feisty femme-fatale roles during Hollywood’s Golden Age of Film Noir (think Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) in which she starred alongside her would-be husband, Humphrey Bogart), the casting of Bacall in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit as a wealthy heiress who comes to seek revenge on the man who destroyed her reputation, was deemed by some to be perfect. The play was performed as the first in the 1995 Summer season and Bacall herself thought “it’s a wonderful part…although she’s diabolical, one can use various facets of her personality.”
Bacall was always interested in theatre – she worked as a theatre usher in America in 1941 and stated in an interview held on the first day of rehearsals for The Visit that “my original ambition was to go on stage – not into movies – and I keep going back to it…I would never be given the opportunity to do this in films.”, Bacall had been in talks with Duncan Weldon about the production for 3 years before it came to fruition, waiting for the right space to hold the large cast of 36. When Weldon was appointed Artistic Director in 1995, they decided the Festival Theatre would be the perfect place to try it.
A lot of the work I’ve been doing lately for Pass It On has concentrated on the early years of the Theatre. Founded in the sixties as a theatre for the community, by the community, I like to think that nothing has changed regarding this statement. There is something, for sure, about being a local Cicesterian and feeling tied to the Theatre. This was something that was important to founder, Leslie Evershed-Martin, from the start:
“What else made Chichester the right place for this idea? Naturally, I favoured Chichester because I live there. Few could live in such a city for long without loving its unique atmosphere, and I had always wondered how we could preserve its importance.” The Impossible Theatre (1971, page 9)*.
This year as part of the annual Chichester Festival Theatre Heritage Open Day, members of the public had the opportunity to go on hard hat tours of the current renovation works on the Theatre. This was a rare chance for people to see inside the incredible architecture of the Festival Theatre. Additionally it was also a chance to see the work being done to enhance the Theatres iconic and prominent hexagon shape, around which my art workshop, also part of this year’s Heritage Open Day, was based.
Being a fine art graduate from Chichester University and having run workshops within social care, this opportunity was perfect for me, combining two areas of interest and work.