While the amazing great white, tent-like temporary ‘Theatre in the Park’ draws the eye to the centre of Oaklands Park, Chichester’s Festival Theatre sits behind hoardings undergoing its ’50 years’ renewal.   The Theatre has organised some ‘behind the scenes’ tours  to allow the curious of Chichester to have an idea of what is going on and what we can look forward to in April 2014. I went along not knowing quite what to expect from a building site.  However, this was no ordinary building site, it was the familiar building in which I have sat on so many occasions, stripped back to its bare bones and showing all its fascinating infrastructure.  The tour highlighted the incredible ambition and achievement of the original team of Lesley Evershed-Martin whose dream-child the  Festival Theatre was, and the architects Powell and Moya.

The Origins:
In July 1962, T.S. Ferguson wrote in the Sunday Telegraph:  ‘Chichester’s new Festival Theatre will open ….largely because Mr Evershed-Martin did not know that the whole thing was quite impossible…..He had no first-hand experience of the theatre himself….but he was watching Monitor on television one evening when Huw Wheldon dealt with Sir Tyrone Gurthrie’s Festival Theatre at Ontario and the spark was struck.  He rushed up to London to see Mr Wheldon about it…… (Mr Wheldon) put him in touch with Sir Tyrone and the project was away.
He did an amazing job of raising the money by public subscription – £100,000 was raised, the equivalent to £4million today. The idea behind the ‘thrust’ stage was to draw the audience in, Elizabethan-style, closer to the theatre in the round than the two-dimensional effect of the proscenium arch stage.  Sir Tyrone’s thinking was also to draw audiences out of their homes where television was beginning to draw people in, and give them an experience nearer to that of television where the backs of heads are as on show as faces might be.Who would build such a theatre?
Evershed-Martin turned to Philip Powell, the son of a Chichester cathedral canon, who , with his partner Hidalgo Moya, had devised the prize-winning symbol for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Skylon.  A cigar-shaped object suspended by wires so that it appeared to float vertically without any support.   Powell and Moya were overloaded with work at the time, mainly working with hospitals and claimed that the only theatres they knew anything about, were operating theatres! However, the challenge was too tempting and they took it on. The innovative plans they came up with created a space beneath what was to be the first completely suspended roof in the world! Slung on three sets of four cables, stretching across a hexagonal structure, the roof’s weight would bear down on the cables and keep them taut, pulling in the skin of the shell of the building. The building was originally meant to be where the temporary Theatre in the Park now stands, but this was deemed too far from the recently constructed Northgate car park and one of the drawbacks would be that ladies might catch their high heels in the grass of the park!
It is seen as an example of ‘brutalist’ architecture (from the French, ‘beton brut’ or raw concrete) in which form follows function.  The whole amphitheatre stands on stilts so the actors and public can move freely beneath it.  The concrete structure may not ‘blend in’ with the park , but its shape allowed it to be surrounded by a horseshoe of elm trees and the full length glass panels at ground level created the feeling of a continuation from outside.  As you walked upstairs to the auditorium, the slatted white wooden panels drew you from ‘park light’ into half-light, half dark, and then into the auditorium with no natural light. And for 50 years, from 1962, our Chichester Festival Theatre has been the home for hundreds of plays and entertainments for so many theatre go-ers from Chichester and way beyond, build on a budget and now in need of an upgrade.

The Renew Project:

The ‘hard hat’ tour of the theatre revealed so much of interest of the original building and an exciting insight into what we have to look forward to at CFT.  I should probably say that this is very much a ‘lay-person’s’ account of what we saw. There in its ‘bare-bones’ state, is the bush-hammered concrete, treated thus so that its aggregate is exposed.   The challenge for the restorers is to repair any areas without the repair ultimately being identifiable.  Visible too, are the three cantilever columns and those sets of four all-important cables spanning the roof and holding up the entire structure!

Looking up from the now-cleared public areas beneath the auditorium, we were shown how the ‘stepped’ base of the seating area is left open to view (‘form following function’) as part of the ceiling of the former bar area.  That base/ceiling is now punctured by several holes through which the new eco-friendly heating and cooling system will be brought into the auditorium. We had walked in through the area  where the ticket office and the ladies toilets were located…..and YES!, the ladies’ toilet facilities are being improved and expanded!
The whole public area is being de-cluttered so that there will be an even greater sense of the park being drawn into the inner space.  The white wooden slats on the stairs up into the auditorium are still there to maintain the effect of going through diminishing stages of light. Inside the auditorium, the sense of space is overwhelming, despite the extraordinary web of scaffolding.  Apparently many actors have spoken of the intimidating nature of the space and it is expected that the new ventilation system will adjust the rake of the seating in such a way as to draw audience and actors together. The Canadian maple stage has been removed, revealing the vast space beneath.  When the stage is rebuilt it will be in a more modular fashion in order to create greater flexibility.
A huge amount of the work which has been done up to now, is up in the roof and hardly visible to the person standing amongst the scaffolding. The roof has been re-lined with acoustically effective insulation.  Will we miss the sound of heavy rain competing with the actors?! Outside the auditorium,  the project offices have replaced the rabbit warren of offices and storage and these will obviously go once the project is finished.  Instead, on the park side of the building, there is an extension allowing for offices on the ground floor, and much improved dressing rooms ‘with park-view’, on the first floor. In addition, on this first floor, will be a massive scene-dock.
No doubt, once the theatre is in full flow again, it will not feel so massive but be full of those terrific scenes and props we have come to expect at Chichester.  Dividing the exit from the scene- dock is one of the substantial structurally important concrete columns and perhaps there will be some disappointed stage managers when they discover that it was deemed unwise to try and remove or move this during the renovation. There might have been no structure left at all!
Finally, there would be no new building or restoration without there being some elements for potential controversy, would there! Sitting by the project offices is a sample of the cladding to go on to the outside of the building.  Designed to ‘weather’ and thus to blend in with the park, the cladding is of Cor-ten steel, also known as ‘weathering’ steel.  It forms a protective layer on its surface under the influence of the weather.  In other words, the steel is allowed to rust in order to form the ‘protective’ coating. It remains to be seen how people react to a ‘rusting exterior’!
It was a pleasure to have had the opportunity of an inside view into building progress, and all the knowledge gained will certainly enhance the theatre experience once we have our theatre back for the season of 2014!  I would wish the whole team involved the very best of luck for continued good progress toward the completion of the RENEW project!