Part of my job involves a fair amount of detective work (sadly no deerstalker and pipe needed – although working in a theatre means props are never far away if dressing up is called for, which of course it always is). I was recently asked to track down some press cuttings regarding a production of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads performed in the Minerva in 1991. This production saw the playwright himself reading through his own monologues and pieces of prose alongside CFT stalwart, Patricia Routledge. All our press cuttings from 1970 onwards are currently organised by years (albeit non-chronological) into File Express boxes which are kept at a secure warehouse where we can recall them if we need to take a look at what’s inside.
I managed to find the cuttings relatively quickly which revealed a great critical reverence to the playwright and his brave decision to perform his own work. Not only do press cuttings allow for an understanding of critical reception, but also show the breadth of press past CFT productions have attracted. Tracking which publications have reviewed shows is very interesting, particularly in terms of the reach of a regional theatre over London venues, as is looking at the social history whereby writing styles and presentation vary year to year. As lovely as these press cuttings were (and at which point I could have hung up my metaphorical deerstalker) something else in the box caught my eye. The press cuttings are generally all gathered into plastic wallets; amongst these was a rather tatty looking ring-binder folder labelled ‘PRESS CUTTINGS: 1980’. Now it’s inevitable that with the sort of work that we do, certain productions stick out for certain reasons and a play called Terra Nova is one such production – mainly because it sticks out for lots of other people. Continue reading “Surprise finds from the archive”→
In January 2015, we were contacted by the National Theatre who were in the process of putting together an exhibition all about the architecture of the NT building on London’s South Bank. Some of our archive digitisation work had caught their eye and enquiries were made about using some of this work in their exhibition.
The exhibition Concrete Realityopened in May 2015 in the Wolfson Gallery at the National, taking into account the initial idea, beginning stages and follow-through of the building project that is now home to the biggest theatrical producing house in the UK. Sir Laurence Olivier, Chichester Festival Theatre’s first Artistic Director was also appointed Artistic Director of the National Theatre in the same year CFT opened in 1962; as well as this direct connection, CFT, amongst other regional theatres at the time, was used as a reference point throughout the design process. Continue reading “Concrete Reality – sharing stories with the National Theatre”→
In 1986 Chichester Festival Theatre celebrated its 25th Festival season. To mark this anniversary and celebrate the city of Chichester, a production was put together telling some of the famous and infamous stories of the city. The play took its audience on a physical journey through the streets of Chichester lead by its narrator James Spershott, a joiner and diarist who lived his whole life in the area during the 18th century.
The Spershott Version was written to mark the 25th anniversary season by a handful of local authors and personalities including Joan Aiken, Rosemary Sutcliffe and former CFT artistic director Patrick Garland. The promenade piece featured stories on John Keates and William Blake and their appearances in Chichester, as well as a scene on Mary Bedell a Cicistarian wrongly accused of stealing linen from her mistress and punished with transportation.
Staples, paperclips, string, plastic document wallets and cardboard folders.
All those tiny decisions CFT staff have been making over the years as to how to hold together their documents have now become part of the archive conservation process – one that is taking on the qualities of a medical triage process.Metal staples eventually corrode through the paper they are in contact with. But while a few hundred could be removed without too much trouble, the thousands of staples found in a collection as large as CFT’s archive is a different matter. For now we have decided to keep those that are not corroding and only remove those eating through the corner of the documents. It is time consuming and difficult work.
As our project has progressed over the years, we have had more and more interest from researchers and the general public about our growing archive. I have received many an interesting email or phone call from a variety of people wanting answers to a question we may or may not be able to help with. It is such a joy to explore these requests; there’s a serious amount of detective work involved which brings great satisfaction. Even if an answer remains elusive, interesting things are always discovered along the way.
Requests come in all shapes and sizes. Some people simply want to know “Can you remember who played so-and-so in this production from 1968?” whilst others want specific archive content to assist with dissertations and research projects.
Pass It On has a spectacular team of volunteers who work on a myriad of different tasks, whether they are individuals working independently from home or groups working at the theatre. One of our volunteers, Charlotte Murgatroyd, tells us about her experiences as part of the Pass It On team.
It’s Monday morning. I am off to the theatre. No, not to see a play but to take part in an archiving project. The Festival Theatre (CFT), has many scrapbooks, filled with press cuttings relating to CFT as it was in the sixties and seventies. There are two teams of volunteers from Lavant Valley DFAS (Decorative and Fine Arts Society), one works in the morning and the other one in the afternoon.
We work in pairs putting data from the cutting in to an EXCEL Spreadsheet. Typical entries include the date and title of the publication from which the cutting comes, the particular production and the people concerned, followed by a précis of the whole cutting. Cuttings range from a few sentences to articles covering a page and more.
As I was working my way through press cuttings released by the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1985, an odd request appeared. The producers of Cavalcade were looking for authenticity on stage. In going the extra mile so to speak, an Edwardian street scene required not only the actors of the human nature but also a monkey. Preferably alive and able to sit on top of a barrel organ in front of a live audience. I was a little taken aback by that revelation as I was unsure how many monkeys still performed this kind of work in 1980’s Britain, let alone if one was available to perform on a daily basis. However, the theatre was determined to find one. If indeed they did, I’d love to know.
It is this kind of weird and wonderful information that can be found within the CFT archive held at West Sussex Record Office, which I have been cataloguing since the beginning of October. The material is held in many boxes, through which I am now spending time going through in detail.
A variety of material has been found in the theatre collection including programmes, posters, newspaper articles, prompt scripts and photographs. All tell the vibrant story of productions and those who performed within them. Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Alistair Sim, Joan Plowright,Christopher Timothy, Peter Egan, Richard Briers Patricia Hodge, Patricia Routledge and so many others.
The CFC: Chichester Football Club, the building between the Squash Club and the Theatre. It’s a space the Pass It On team has been working in during the restoration of the Festival Theatre. It’s also where I’ve recently been part of a group opening large parcels wrapped in layers of bubble-wrap and sticky tape, containing framed advertising posters and production photographs of many of the actors who have appeared in plays put on at Chichester Festival Theatre.
The task involved carefully opening the ‘parcels’, each of which had been labelled with various identification numbers and recording information about the contents of each ‘parcel’. We were given a chart to complete for every step of the way, so that nothing was missed. This included details of the label, the condition of the piece, its size and whether it was in colour or black and white. This forms part of the archiving process that is taking place throughout the project. We then had to try and identify the subject/s in the photograph and the production from which it came. Not an easy job. Hardly any of the boards, on which the work was mounted, had any information as to what it referred. They were like lost souls waiting to be remembered.
On Wednesday 25 June, 60 eager people gathered at the Library in Chichester to hear from Simon Barker, Head of English and Creative Writing at Chichester University. An English Professor and Theatre historian, Simon had been the first professional researcher to be granted access to the Theatre’s emerging archive and we were all looking forward to finding out what he had selected to share with us.
“Very few of us had done any archiving before and I had always thought of it as a rather dry and tedious activity. How wrong can one be?” – Liz Juniper, Heritage Volunteer Representative for the Lavant Valley Decorative and Fine Arts Society
For the last three months, our NADFAS volunteers have been working their way through piles and piles of press cuttings, listing them onto a database in detail so we can gain a clear overview of what press cuttings our archive holds – what productions are reviewed, what news is covered, who was visiting, when and why. This is particularly important for future researchers interested in the Theatre’s history, who will be able to search the database by year, by production and using key names.
Every Wednesday, Marilyn and Sue (some of our scanning volunteers) arrive at the Record Office in Chichester and set up for a session of digitisation (this is where we create digital versions of archival documents and items through computer scanning and Photoshop editing). Using a detailed record list which our archive volunteers fastidiously create every Monday with Gillian Edom, our archive training officer, they identify what’s most interesting, culturally significant or even what has been requested by researchers. They pull out specific boxes from the archive and begin to scan the hidden treasures inside…
Sue and I started our scanning experience for Chichester Festival Theatre in 2013 and we have to say, felt very privileged to be able to scan some of Leslie Evershed-Martin’s scrapbooks at what was his Chichester home. We did the scanning in the dining room; above the mantelpiece was a very impressive portrait of Sir Laurence Olivier (known as Larry to Leslie Evershed-Martin and friends). We felt he was keeping a watchful eye on what we were doing with the scrapbooks. The books were very enlightening and included a very valued account of fundraising, first productions, and the casts, programmes, after Theatre party invitations and press cuttings from the 1960s – 1990s. Sue and I have now been dispatched to the Records Office for our current scanning adventures, which so far have been very interesting and varied. One of our more recent scanning sessions included an annotated script, production photos and press cuttings of The Seagull produced in 1973, which we believe maybe used for inspiration by the Theatre’s Young Playwrights scheme. All in all, I can’t wait for what’s next to come for us.
The Pass It On project is a real voyage of discovery, not just in terms of the history of the Festival Theatre, but also the opportunities it presents to bring the worlds of heritage and theatre together. Now in the second of our three years, we are being experimental and exploring how the objects we uncover in our archive can be used to inspire new creative work.
We are embarking on an exciting project called Out Of the Archive, which draws on several areas of the Festival Theatre’s activity. A group of early-career play writes, alumni of the New Writing South and Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young Playwrights scheme, are currently developing a short series of 20 minute plays inspired by our archive.
Introduction: A few weeks ago Youth Theatre Intern, Kate Hunter, wrote about the process of creating Youth Theatre performances inspired by items from the Theatre Archives. Last week we had the privilege of watching the 36 Youth Theatre groups performing what they had come up with over this past term. The varied interpretations and responses to the heritage material were fantastic and the creativity of all the groups was really impressive. As part of this project the Youth Theatre members conducted research into the item they were inspired by, below is the research and explanation for one of these performances, written by Alice Banfield from one of the year 11 Youth Theatre groups.
Rachel Bingham, Heritage Activities Trainee:
For our stimulus our group were given a series of newspaper cuttings from 1965 relating to Laurence Olivier and announcing the splitting of both Chichester Festival Theatre and the National Theatre Companies. This happened when John Clements took over the position of Artistic Director at Chichester, ending the direct association of Chichester with the National Theatre and forming an independent company. Prior to this Olivier was Artistic Director to both Chichester Festival Theatre and The National Theatre. It was at Chichester that he formed the company that would unite with the Old Vic to create the National Theatre Company. Continue reading “Our Archive Inspired Performance”→
As a Youth Theatre Leader at Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, my challenge this term is to encourage a group of 14 and 15 year olds to create some interesting pieces of theatre using historical stimuli – not as easy as it sounds, but certainly a lot of fun!
I run sessions for two Year 10 groups and have chosen two stimuli from the archives: correspondence regarding a charity cricket match between Chichester Festival Theatre and the RSC in 1986 and letters containing information for young people participating in a professional production of Jane Eyre in the same year.
I began by thinking of exercises that would allow Youth Theatre members to create performances based on this particular material. Cricket is an especially difficult topic with which to inspire teenage girls (and some boys). Introductory sessions included creating freeze frames to represent different stages of a cricket match, flowing between each one and moving to the sounds of Soul Limbo – a classic cricket theme. Following this, the freeze frames were combined to create whole group images of a cricket match thinking predominantly about clear body positioning and facial expressions.