The Pass It On project is reaching a really exciting stage. Several of our different project strands, such as the Archiving and Oral History are slowly coming together, providing us with a range of different material that when combined, create a bigger picture, revealing the hidden histories of Chichester Festival Theatre (perfectly timed for Festival 2014’s ‘Hidden Histories’ Season). Each archive document, each recorded interview, each photograph and written account are like individual jigsaw pieces of a puzzle that has no definitive final image. The rest of this blog post outlines the ways in which some of these pieces are coming together, with snippets from an exclusive interview with current Stevie cast member, Chris Larkin.
We recently took our trained Memory Collectors to a Youth Theatre reunion (featured in the Chichester Observer). Many of the alumni’s stories surrounded the temporary studio space known as The Tent. When I first started working on the project, I had never heard of The Tent – it seemed a mythical creation that only a select few really knew about. Tracking down any information about it proved difficult, and even harder was just trying to find a picture of it.
The wonderful thing about my job is that I get to see all these individual jigsaw pieces the project creates, and start to build them as a whole. I’m pleased to say that for me, The Tent is no longer a mysterious black hole in the history of Chichester Festival Theatre – far from it. Our ever-growing archive (listed by dedicated volunteers) has provided a resource that can be used extensively by other members of the community. Through this, one of our volunteers, Amelia Mlynowska, has been able to undertake a research project for our website, using the archive to draw up individual summaries of the history of The Tent and its gradual transition into the Minerva.
Rob Hall, another volunteer, is working on a series of blog posts to share his memories of performing in The Tent and the Minerva as part of the Youth Theatre. This has really bought Amelia’s research to life through Rob’s atmospheric descriptions of the performance spaces (In Loving Memory and Minerva Memories).
Last week, I had the pleasure of supervising (and sometimes joining in with) two of our Memory Collectors as they interviewed Chris Larkin. Chris has a longstanding relationship to Chichester Festival Theatre. He grew up in Petworth (a self-confessed ‘Sussex boy’), visiting shows from a young age. In 1985, aged 18, he wrote to the Theatre asking for a job; they obliged, offering him backstage work in the infamous Tent. He carried on working backstage, both at the Festival Theatre and the West End, and studied Stage Management at drama school. In 1996, he returned to Chichester Festival Theatre as a performer, playing Gerald Forbes in When We Are Married, a moment he is particularly proud of.
It was Chris’ time spent at The Tent, though, that he speaks most fondly of. Mostly it was just really “cool” – it provided him with the opportunity to live away from home, be with a creative team, and learn from first-hand experience about set construction and lighting desks (the latter of which was a “nightmare” – listen to clip). Actors working in the Festival Theatre had the chance to perform larger parts in more experimental pieces in The Tent, and even backstage crew and front of house were given the chance to perform, either as actors or musicians in late night cabarets.
As such, I’ve finally been able to track down more and more images of The Tent, both inside and out. Even this collection of images has had a journey of its own; the first picture I found was The Tent from a distance, the second was much closer but in black and white, and last week I finally found a colour photograph with an intrigued group of passers-by poking their heads through the flap. Not only could I see the unique yellow and white striped pattern, but I could visualise Rob performing onstage and Chris just around the back “humping sets around”. The jigsaw puzzle is finally coming together.