Chichester Festival Theatre, 1959-1962
Sixty years ago, in 1962, Chichester’s brand new Festival Theatre opened. Looking rather like a mid-century spaceship, the theatre had come into existence so quickly it may have indeed appeared out of thin air. It was the brainchild of optician Leslie Evershed-Martin, who, in just two years, had planned, funded, built, and promoted this astonishing community landmark. The Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) archive, held here at West Sussex Record Office, documents the history of the theatre. This blog will look at the two years before the theatre opened.
Chichester Festival Theatre on Film
Snippet from the films Chichester Festival Theatre – Construction and Opening Galas and Chichester Festival Theatre – Early Years and Royal visits by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.
Chichester Festival Theatre in the archives
1959-1960: The conception of the Festival Theatre
The Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) was opened to fanfare in 1962. The CFT housed Britain’s first thrust stage (a stage which extends into the audience) in over 350 years, and since its opening has established a reputation for innovative and international productions.
The man behind its inception, Leslie Evershed-Martin, was deeply involved with the Chichester amateur dramatic scene. In 1933 he founded the Chichester Players.
Outside of the theatre, Evershed-Martin ran a local business as an optician and practiced from 51 South Street.
Evershed-Martin conceived the idea for a community theatre on a blustery January evening in 1959, whilst watching theatre producer Tyrone Guthrie talk about his new theatre in Stratford, Ontario, on television. In just two years he had garnered enough support and funding to realise this hastily-conceived dream.
Within a few months, he had secured the Duke of Norfolk as patron, and promises from Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir Alex Guinness, and Dame Peggy Ashcroft to appear in plays.
However, the £70,000 required to build the CFT was not financed from one pocket. It was funded largely by the local community who had, by May 1960, raised an impressive £40,000. It was, to all intents and purposes, an early crowd-funded project. Evershed-Martin, having twice been mayor of Chichester, clearly understood and believed in the cultural potential of the city.
In May 1960 preparations for building work began. Evershed-Martin had secured a lease for 99 years of land between the Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Chichester and his newly-established CFT Trust Ltd. We hold a copy of this lease in the CFT archive.
Local and national newspapers were alive with excitement and the latest reports about the development of the CFT. The publicity it garnered attracted attention from the acting stars of the time; in May 1961, Mason Nurseries in Pulborough hosted a bring-and-buy sale attended by the likes of Norman Wisdom, Kenneth More, and Vivien Leigh, all in aid of the theatre fund.
“Many stars of the entertainment world supported a bring-and-buy sale at the Mason Nurseries, Codmore Hill, Pulborough, in aid of the Chichester Festival theatre on Sunday. Wearing a floral coat, Vivien Leigh sold articles from one of the loaded stalls. Kenneth More made an opening speech.”
Worthing Gazette, 3 May 1961
Leslie Evershed-Martin’s quick thinking, relentless enthusiasm, and creativity meant that the project moved faster than anyone could have anticipated and by May 1961 building of the Main Theatre was well underway. The speed at which it was going up attracted a lot of attention from locals and tourists. In September 1961, the Chichester Observer reported that it had become somewhat of a pilgrimage site, to see how much it had changed from the previous week.
“The arena theatre with its auditorium on three sides of the stage and cantilevered over the foyer will be the first permanent one of its kind to be built for the new style three-dimensional presentation in the United Kingdom.”
Chichester Observer, 5 February 1960
The renowned architects Philip Powell and John Hidalgo Moya were behind the theatre’s unique shape. Together, they had previously worked on projects such as Churchill Gardens in Pimlico and on the iconic 1951 Festival of Britain Skylon structure on London’s South Bank. Evershed-Martin provided a simple brief, only requesting that the building must hold 1400 people, incorporate a thrust stage, and be as cheap as possible to build. As the theatre was only intended to be used during the summer months, the building’s facilities were kept to a minimum to save on costs.
The hexagonal shape of the CFT was inspired by the Elizabethan playhouses of London, and there are indeed similarities between the CFT and the Globe Theatre. However, the primary source of inspiration came from across the Atlantic in Ontario, Canada. The look of the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, was devised by Tyrone Guthrie (who was involved with the CFT in its early stages) and theatre designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch who wanted it to resemble a mixture of Greek amphitheatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, creating a modernised version of the two concepts.
“The omission of heating and ventilating services and restaurant accommodation account for the low overall cost of the theatre. These items are not required as the theatre season will be from June until August.”
The Builder, 12 February 1960
To honour the public benefactors, whose financial support meant that Evershed-Martin’s project could come to fruition, each seat in the Main Theatre was dedicated to a subscriber. The planning of these dedications was complex. The naming of each seat can be seen in the drawings above, which details each name and seat number in a remarkably tidy plan.
Sir Lawrence Olivier, Artistic Director
Having been an early – but uninvolved – supporter of the CFT, famed actor Sir Lawrence Olivier eventually became the official Artistic Director in March 1961, a position he held until 1965. Olivier had been given this opportunity by Leslie Evershed-Martin, who desired only the very best of the theatre-world to be entrusted with establishing the Festival Theatre’s reputation in just a few years.
Joan Plowright, wife of Olivier and respected actress in her own right, recalled their introduction to Evershed-Martin in an interview in 2012 –
“On March 17 1961 I was married to Lawrence Olivier… [we were] both acting in plays on Broadway… when the letter arrived. It came from an optician in Chichester who said he was about to build a theatre and would Sir Lawrence consider becoming its first Artistic Director…. On our first visit to Chichester we were met by Leslie Evershed-Martin, the author of the letter, who took us to Oaklands Park where we gazed at a big muddy hole in the ground… as the building took shape, Larry threw himself tirelessly into the details of planning.”
Joan Plowright, Baroness Olivier
Though Evershed-Martin had already drummed up an astonishing level of support by early 1961, the addition of Olivier to the roster elevated the profile of the theatre even further. The presence of Olivier, who was (and still is) considered acting royalty, lent prestige and quality to the CFT’s early reputation. It was through his vision that the theatre would produce several shows to run in repertoire sharing the same ensemble cast.
1962: The grand opening and first season
“Chichester’s new Festival Theatre will open on Tuesday largely because Mr Leslie Evershed-Martin did not know that the whole thing was quite impossible… Olivier is now in charge… and with a cast list that reads like an extract from a theatrical Who’s Who.”
T. S. Ferguson in the Sunday Telegraph, 1 July 1962
By Summer of 1962, the ‘impossible theatre’ was complete and ready to open for its first season. To christen the new stage, Olivier chose three classics: a rarely performed Jacobean play called The Chances by John Fletcher, originally written in the early 17th century; The Broken Heart by John Ford, originally written in 1633; and Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov, a comparatively modern play originally written in 1898. Evershed-Martin had originally intended the theatre’s main theatrical output would focus on productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Whilst the opening season didn’t feature anything by the Bard the CFT has, over the years, staged numerous productions of his plays – many to great acclaim.
The First Night performance was held on 3 July 1962. Yet, despite all the planning and promotion, reviews and ticket sales of The Broken Heart and The Chances were not quite as favourable as hoped for. However, Uncle Vanya proved to be an absolute hit, and cemented the CFT’s place in British theatre.
The CFT’s first season, which culminated with Uncle Vanya and starred Sir Olivier, Sir Michael Redgrave and Joan Plowright, was given the royal seal of approval on 21 July 1962 when Queen Elizabeth II visited.
Of course, local newspapers were keen to report on such a visit, and the theatre’s scrapbook of press cuttings features many such articles. But, what didn’t make it to the newspapers, was that the Queen was made to wait to use the theatre’s facilities..! The (two) toilets had been locked and there was a brief wait for keys to arrive. That was surely an awkward moment, but a great anecdote.
Southern Weekly News, Brighton, 3 August 1962
For more on the history of the CFT:
Pass It On: History of the CFT – https://passiton.cft.org.uk/about-cft/
Pass It On: Digital Archive – https://passiton.cft.org.uk/archive/
Chichester Festival Theatre: Our Story – https://www.cft.org.uk/about-us/our-story