Chichester Festival Theatre’s new directors launch first full season

Chichester Festival Theatre's new management team: executive director Rachel Tackley and artistic di

Chichester Festival Theatre's new management team: executive director Rachel Tackley and artistic director Daniel Evans - Credit: Archant

Chichester Festival Theatre’s new directors have launched their first full season. Duncan Hall finds out more

The explosion of colour on the front of the new Chichester Festival Theatre season brochure is not an accident. It’s a statement of intent and welcome from the theatre’s two new bosses, artistic director Daniel Evans and executive director Rachel Tackley.

“We wanted to give that festival feel,” says Rachel as the pair snatch a break from preparations for the season opener, Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On which launched on Friday 21 April. “We talked a lot about what a festival feel is about. The clue is in the title: It is a festival, so come and have a good time.”

And that good time runs throughout the Chichester Festival Theatre programme – the first to be created from scratch by Rachel, previously chief executive of English Touring Theatre for eight years, and actor/director Daniel, who came to Chichester after seven years running Sheffield Theatres. They began, as Rachel says: “With a blank table and Post-It notes. We spent a lot of our early days here meeting people from the local community and listening to what they said. There is a real appetite for new work here. We have a sophisticated theatre-going audience which wants to be challenged.”

And for their first season, which is already the longest in the theatre’s history, there is a great mix of almost guaranteed audience hits such as Alan Ayckbourn’s ingenious three-parter The Norman Conquests and Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear, combined with exciting new work such as an adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s controversial coming-of-age novel The Country Girls and Quiz, a play by James Graham based on the story of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’s coughing major Charles Ingram.

The names returning to perform at the Festival Theatre and its intimate sister venue the Minerva include directors Richard Eyre, at the helm of Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother, and Jeremy Herrin of Headlong directing new play The House They Grew Up In by Deborah Bruce. Alongside acting debuts by Academy and Tony Award-winning actor Marcia Gay Harden in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, comic Omid Djalili as Tevye in summer musical Fiddler On The Roof, Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change and Richard Wilson in Forty Years On, will be new directors Lisa Blair (The Country Girls), Michael Longhurst (Caroline, Or Change) and Blanche McIntyre (The Norman Conquests). Daniel will be directing three productions himself – Forty Years On, Fiddler On The Roof and Quiz – although he is not planning to tread the boards himself this season: “I haven’t given up acting, but it’s got to be the right part.” It’s a shame, as Daniel has an impressive acting CV behind him, having received Olivier Awards as Best Actor in a Musical for his roles in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse in 2001 and Sunday in the Park with George at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2006. On the other side of the curtain Sheffield Theatres won Regional Theatre of the Year in 2013 and 2014 under his tenure, and he also directed Damian Lewis, John Goodman and Tom Sturridge in the West End version of David Mamet’s American Buffalo in 2015.

“I have never directed or acted here,” says Daniel, who did work with a thrust stage like Chichester’s at the Sheffield Crucible. “For our first production I’ve got to know the space quite quickly. It is a larger auditorium. This theatre is quite rural compared to Sheffield which is in the middle of a big post-industrial community. It’s no hardship living by the sea!”

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The 43-year-old has now moved to Ichenor and is enjoying exploring the area around Chichester Harbour – including taking Rachel on walks to Bracklesham Bay to visit Billy’s On The Beach for a coffee or “massive” breakfast. He had already worked with Rachel on two UK Theatre Award-winning English Touring Theatre productions: Brian Friel’s Translations and Twelfth Night. “When Rachel got in touch and said she was thinking about applying for the job I was absolutely delighted,” he says. “Because of our history I knew we would share values and that is so important.”

“To be honest we were running before we hit the ground,” says Rachel, who keeps a flat in Chichester five days a week, as her family is still based in London. “We were both in London, Daniel was in rehearsals for Flowers For Mrs Harris [his last production at Sheffield Crucible], so we would have breakfast and lunch meetings.” The pair are working in Chichester as one unit, sharing everything. “We are both very driven,” says Rachel. “We want to be involved in everything. Daniel has skills that I don’t have and I have skills he doesn’t have, but we both know what direction we’re travelling in. We are both setting up everything in this theatre together, from staffing and fundraising to audience and participation.”

“One of the attractions of the job for me was being a co-chief executive,” adds Daniel. “It’s good to have someone to work alongside and bounce ideas off. Leadership can be quite lonely. The nature of leadership is changing. Theatre is a collaborative art – it’s about getting groups of people together to make other groups of people happy.”

The pair’s first offering to their audience is Alan Bennett’s debut West End play Forty Years On, with Richard Wilson leading the cast as Headmaster, a role originally taken by Sir John Gielgud in 1968. A big part of Forty Years On’s appeal was the chance to open the casting up to the community, with 50 Chichester youngsters taking on roles alongside the professional cast. “We auditioned 105 actors,” says Daniel. “About 60 per cent are from the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, 40 per cent are new to us.” In total this season has five plays with roles taken by children. “There’s going to be a national shortage of chaperones as they will all be in Chichester,” laughs Rachel. The links with young residents don’t end there though. The pair have taken the existing Prologue scheme, offering cheap tickets to 16 to 25-year-olds, and reduced the price from £8.50 to £5, as well as adding a buy three, get fourth show free offer. “We want to make sure the theatre feels welcoming to everyone,” says Daniel. “I used to go to see local amateur dramatics with my grandmother in South Wales. If she hadn’t taken me I’m not sure I would have ended up in the theatre. We both felt like we wanted to give something back and give other people opportunities. Where I was growing up we didn’t have a producing theatre – I would have to travel to Cardiff for that.”

“I would have loved my children to have grown up in Chichester,” adds Rachel. “Undoubtedly we have the biggest youth theatre in the county – we have more than 800 young people meeting every week in nine different satellite projects around the county which is extraordinary. I’m not sure we talk enough about what we offer young people, dementia sufferers [the Mind, Body, Sing! programme which runs in September], mental health groups and our connections with old peoples’ homes. This stuff makes us who we are.

“Chichester Festival Theatre is probably the first example of crowd-funding, it was built by local people making small donations. It’s why people want to perform here – they know the audiences are invested and are coming to have a good time. There is nothing better than a full house.”

Festival Highlights

• The Country Girls - Minerva Theatre, 9 June to 8 July - “I gave director Lisa Blair her first professional job in the Sheffield Studio,” says Daniel, who also worked with her on American Buffalo. “Pairing her with The Country Girls, about young women in rural Ireland was a great marriage. Lisa read the play and wept.”

• Fiddler On The Roof - Festival Theatre, 10 July to 26 August - Omid Djalili and Tracy-Ann Oberman star in the evergreen musical about a man determined to marry off his five daughters in imperial Russia. There is a relaxed performance on Wednesday 26 July at 2.30pm.

• The House They Grew Up In - Minerva Theatre, 14 July to 5 August - Deborah Bruce’s new play focuses on two siblings living in a South East London house stuffed with everything they have ever owned. “It’s one of the most exciting and challenging plays in the festival,” says Daniel.

• Philip Pullman’s Grimm’s Tales - Cass Sculpture Foundation, 4 to 19 August - How to follow up Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s Running Wild, which transferred to London and is now on tour? How about the greatest fairy tales ever told, reimagined by one of the country’s best-loved writers.

• The Norman Conquests - Festival Theatre, 18 September to 28 October - Blanche McIntyre directs Alan Ayckbourn’s tale of a summer family gathering told in three standalone but interlocking plays set in two rooms of the house and the garden.

• King Lear - Minerva Theatre, 22 September to 28 October - When asked on Twitter why Chichester was returning to King Lear again Rachel’s reply was: “When a knight of the realm asks you if they can have another go at Lear in an intimate setting – who are we to say no?”

• Quiz - Minerva Theatre, 3 November to 2 December - James Graham’s new play is based on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? scandal. “There will be some audience participation and questions throughout the play which I am excited about,” says Daniel.

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