LOOKING BACK it seems easy - deceptively so. You find a pleasant park on the edge of a fine old cathedral city 60 miles from London and you build a theatre. You break away from tradition by making it hexagonal with an open 'thrust' stage. You draw on a limitless choice of plays, ancient and modern. Actors of note beat a path to your stage door. With a unanimous shout of 'Wonderful]' the public fills the 1,374 seats for every performance. Your initiative becomes an immediate triumph.
In fact, few things could have been more hazardous than the building of the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1960 by Leslie Evershed- Martin. Evershed-Martin called his brainchild the Impossible Theatre and the Miracle Theatre (in two books that he wrote with these titles). Somewhat to the alarm of the burghers of Chichester the impossible took concrete shape in Oaklands Park. If anything a swimming pool or sports track would have been preferred by the people of West Sussex.
The theatre was the creation of a man whose background hardly promised anything so adventurous. Evershed-Martin was born in Clapham, south London, the son of a bank manager, and an ophthalmic optician by trade. He was 55 when the idea came to him. A former Mayor of Chichester, he saw a television programme about a new theatre in Stratford, Ontario, and set about to create something better on home ground.
His previous interest in the theatre had been little more than that of an amateur actor in the Thirties. In Chichester he was better known for charitable work and innumerable Rotarian activities. Although Evershed-Martin encountered apathy and resistance from some quarters, he raised pounds 126,000 for his experimentally designed building. His project got off to a flying start with Laurence Olivier (preparing for his embryonic National Theatre), bringing starry casts to Oaklands Park.
A series of distinguished artistic directors - John Clements, Keith Michell, John Gale and Patrick Garland among them - continued the momentum. Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Olivier, Gielgud, Guinness and Rex Harrison provided irresistible attractions.
Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964), Holt's Vivat] Vivat Regina] (1970) and Anouilh's Dear Antoine (1971) were among the more dazzling productions of the first two decades. These in their turn have given way to more recent memories: Alan Bennett's Forty Years On (1984) and such elaborate productions (involving local actors in small parts) as Coward's Cavalcade (1985), and Victory] (1989), an adaptation of Hardy's The Dynasts. Each season had a way of providing something adventurous. Over these programmes and the theatre's fortunes the founder remained a continuing influence. As Chairman of the Theatre Trust and Board of Management, Evershed-Martin provided unflagging support; his attention from nearby Fishbourne was constant. 'I think all of us were in awe of him,' a senior member of his staff said. 'He was liked, feared, revered and respected. He had a martinet's eye for detail and was a very wise old man.'
Lord Cudlipp, Vice-President of the Theatre Trust, is forthright, but admiringly so, when he describes Evershed-Martin as 'inflexible, obstinate, resolute, dictatorial, self-determined, mulish'; perhaps only different words for zealous. Evershed-Martin himself set out his overall philosophy: he wanted people to enjoy themselves and be sure of ENTERTAINMENT (he put it in capitals). Every usherette, telephonist, box-office assistant and restaurant waitress was constantly adjured to give audiences a friendly welcome.
He boasted that his theatre had managed to keepits independence, free from annual grants from national or local authorities; subsidies from businesses in the neighbourhood were a different matter. Personal discipline extended to insisting that he always paid for his own seats. Numbers 33 and 34 in Row E were occupied by him and his wife - on every first night except one. That was for John Osborne's A Patriot For Me in 1983.
Although Evershed-Martin voiced his opinion about the selection of plays, he recognised that ultimate decisions must rest with his artistic directors. His own preference was for 'popular' plays and musicals such as Pickwick; Shakespeare and heavier plays were less to his taste. But Osborne was his sticking-point. Deploring the homosexual theme of A Patriot For Me, he conspicuously failed to appear for its first night. He then ignored the play throughout its highly successful run and its transfer to the West End.
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