The irresistible rise of Jonathan Church

Fiona Mountford on the man who's transformed the fortunes of Chichester Festival Theatre

How many artistic directors in this country could, if circumstances demanded, rewire their own theatre? Precious few of the so-called "Oxbridge mafia" who tend to run these institutions. One person who would be up to the task, however, is Jonathan Church, an assistant electrician turned artistic director who has, in only six years, transformed Chichester Festival Theatre from a venue on the brink of closure to the major provider of quality hits to the West End. Current London box-office successes Sweeney Todd, Singin' in the Rain, South Downs/The Browning Version and Yes, Prime Minister all originated in West Sussex, the first three alone from Chichester's last summer season.

It was Church himself who directed the joyous toe-tapper Singin' in the Rain and he returns this year, for the one play he allows himself to direct each season, with Henry Goodman leading the cast in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Brecht's allegorical satire about Hitler's rise to power focuses on small-time crooks in Chicago; according to Church, "the charismatic villain is right at the heart of what we most love about theatre". Church, 45, relishes his annual break from the intensity of supervising a seven-month festival season programmed across Chichester's two houses, but "spending too much time in a rehearsal room means my ability to support the other directors ... gets diminished". That's something you don't often hear from others in his position.

So where did it all go so right? When Church took over at Chichester in 2006, the audience figures for this much-loved venue, built in the early 1960s and home of Olivier's fledgling National Theatre company, were so low that there was a very real chance that the second year of Arts Council funding he received would have to be used to wind up the company. Yet with a canny mix of programming, Church started to turn things round, and he has now almost doubled audiences. It's hard to think of another venue that could field Penelope Keith and Rupert Goold, Patricia Routledge and Mark Rylance, but it works.

"The mixture's always important," says Church. "I go back to Olivier. He said, 'You choose three for the audience and one for yourself.' That's not a bad recipe, is it? As artistic director you have to both deliver what the audience think they want but also show them what you think they should aspire to." This strategy led to Chichester producing the golden Gooldian trilogy of Macbeth, Six Characters in Search of an Author and that little show no one else would touch, Enron. "Jonathan has a very strategic brain," says fellow director Rupert Goold. "He casts very well and gets a great creative team around them, and lets all that brew like a stew on low heat." This year's stew includes choice ingredients such as Derek Jacobi in Shaw's Heartbreak House and Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens in Private Lives.

Church is characteristically bashful about his achievements. "We're proud of what we've achieved here", he says in a generous use of the first person plural. What becomes clear, the longer he talks, is the connection he feels to the places he has worked – at Salisbury, which he took over when it was closed down, and Birmingham, a struggling venue whose audiences he increased by 92 per cent. What is the appeal of ailing theatres? "I've always believed there is a way to solve most buildings," he says. "It's just about finding it. Also, nobody will blame you if you fail, because it's already knackered, and if it gets better people will think you're brilliant. It's what's known as win-win!"

But, seriously, what's the secret? "What I think is that I'm a theatre lover who comes from a practical background. I left school at 18, so perhaps my taste is closer to theatre-going audiences' tastes than some people. I grew up watching proper regional theatres engaging with their audiences. So maybe I was well-positioned to remember what it was that made them work."

Church learnt his trade in those same regional theatres, moving from backstage to assistant electrician to stage manager in the time-honoured tradition of "working your way up". He displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of regional theatre today, and acute analyses of the problems of the "hidden time-bomb" of the cuts they face, leading to a "more London-centric world". As Goold puts it, "The best thing for theatre in this country would be for Jonathan to become Head of Theatre at the Arts Council. But that would be a waste of his other skills."

So what's next? Church is about to launch a buzzy £22m building programme to "future-proof" Chichester, and intends to stay until that is completed with, crucially, audiences intact. Yet there's a school of thought gaining momentum among the critics that says Church, possibly in conjunction with Goold, would be a fine candidate for the top job at the National Theatre. "Isn't everybody supposed to say 'I don't want it'? Then that's probably what I should say … With my 'You only take over a theatre when you can do better'… Nick [Hytner] has done such an extraordinary job." He pauses. "I don't think anybody really applies, whatever it says. Aren't you approached, and encouraged to apply? I don't know, I'm a stage manager, I'm not part of the club!" It's a foolish club, then, I say, but Church's endearing habit of spreading the praise around is unlikely to whizz him to the top of the membership waiting list. "Theatre for me," he reflects, "is a combination of the highest aesthetic and academic values and 'How the hell do you get this show on by Friday?'" And what's the betting Nick Hytner couldn't rewire the National?

'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui' is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 28 July. The Festival season runs until 27 Oct (01243 781312; cft.org.uk)

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