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.
This ethos was a huge part of the original Festival Theatre build in 1962, a project that relied on public fundraising by much of the local community to make Leslie Evershed-Martin’s hopes for a regional theatre come true.
It’s a philosophy that Pass It On aims to live by too. We are working in partnership with West Sussex Record Office to sort and preserve a paper archive for Chichester Festival Theatre; with an expert Oral Historian to capture living memories of the Theatre; with local schools to develop a series of teaching resources and with our own Youth Theatre to develop short plays and tours that draw on the Theatre’s heritage in a variety of different ways.
This even filters through to our website. Many of the pages you can explore and browse through have been completed by volunteers. They have been briefed, or have come up with the idea themselves to research particular areas in the Theatre’s history. This way, the website is able to evolve in a very organic manner, with new pages being added by a whole host of volunteers.
Holly Stewart, a history student at the University of Chichester, has produced an extensive overview of the 50+ years history of the Theatre, working decade by decade. Her work can be seen on the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000 to the present pages.
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.
Clarissa and Grace are two of our wonderful volunteers currently working in the archive. They are history students from the University of Chichester and as part of their course they were given the chance to take part in a work placement. They decided it would be beneficial to experience history in the workplace and thought the Pass It On project held at the West Sussex Record Office (in partnership with the Festival Theatre) was the perfect opportunity as they wanted to know how an archive works, what is stored and why. Though they are both working on separate tasks, their involvement in the project “is exciting for the both of us. It has also helped us to get to know Chichester better, and although neither of us are from the city, we now feel like part of the community.”
Clarissa: I’ve been working on sorting through and listing the Christmas productions that were put on at Chichester Festival Theatre each year. This goes back to the early 1970s. I have found it interesting to see what shows were staged over the years and sorting through production files has opened my eyes to how much work goes into putting on a show!
Gillian is working with teams of volunteers in the West Sussex Record Office to sort through and list the 1,000 boxes of paper files which constitute 50 years’ worth of potential material for the Chichester Festival Theatre’s archive – the keystone of the Pass It On project. As the first team of volunteers finish their term, Gillian reflects on the initial three months of organising our archive:
It’s the end of a little era. The first two teams to sort and box documents and files belonging to the Chichester Festival Theatre have now completed their time. They have done sterling work and I shall miss them.
We have made excellent progress. We are attempting to separate all the paperwork relating to the history and development of the Theatre from that which is perhaps not so significant and needs only to be kept for a short time. The newly sorted documents will become the new Chichester Festival Theatre archive, to be stored at West Sussex Record Office and will eventually be available for viewing by the public.