It is perhaps the architect’s greatest gift to be able to visualise the physical representations of marks originally made on pieces of paper. While many of us strain to imagine extensions and finishes and materials, it is almost without exception that once in a new building, no one really had an idea how big it would be, how open, how the pieces would fit together. And so, now in the Festival Theatre, with members of the public having the first tours of 2014, it really is remarkable how big it is, how open, how one corridor leads to one important room, and then another, ordered intuitively, as one would hope it would be, though could not necessarily imagine.
Having been a building site for 15 months, the Festival Theatre has reached a point where there is an expectation of it returning to its original purpose. By mid-summer an audience will walk across the freshly landscaped piazza, enter through the new (double glazed) doors, and find their seats. The old Festival Theatre was lopsided – men’s toilets one side, Box Office at one end, disabled lift tucked away around a corner – which made the foyer jam up with bottlenecks. Now the experience on each side of the Theatre will be the same – a new café/bar at each end, male, female and disabled toilets and new disabled lifts round each side, Box Office and main bar in the centre. More space, more seating, less hassle and queues. Edging around the setting screed (a levelled layer of material (e.g. cement) applied to a floor or other surface), the foyer really does have an open aspect, where before the work were fire doors, fitted benches and stalls on wheels, now everything will be in its perfectly designed place.
The auditorium will appear at first glance as it did before. However, the seating is being refurbished and reconfigured. Insider’s tip: the best seats in the house may well be the new central section in the rear stalls – elevated higher than before, and looking directly at the stage down the central aisle. Grab rails run up these new rear sections, which with improved sight lines make for easier access, and steps that much easier to negotiate when the house lights dim.
Creatively the watchword is flexibility. Access to the new technical rig in the ceiling has been vastly improved, and will no longer need a harness and a fearless heart. Now technicians will walk up a flight of stairs from the right balcony which will then be lifted up out of sight into the roof, making lighting changes and alterations that much easier. The new orchestra shelf above the stage is two-thirds demountable which will allow scenery, for the first time, to be the entire height of the auditorium (think Neville’s Island-style trees). Similarly the stage is entirely flexible, scenery can come in and out, sections can rise and fall and the whole thing could be removed entirely for whatever an enterprising director could wish – to be filled with sharks if they so wish for example! Or more realistically, an orchestra. The new enormous scene dock is big enough to store one production, while allowing a second to stand on stage, with enough room to allow a quick turnaround. While a third production could even be stored in the new basement. Flexibility and opportunity.
Quick house notices. The landscaping at the front of the Theatre means that there is no access for the time being by car. The hoardings have been removed to enable the ground to be levelled, before services are installed.
From Chichester, eyes are fixed on theatre’s around the world: King Lear is currently running in New York, to much trumpeting. The Pajama Game is booking in the West End, while David Suchet in The Last Confession is beginning its world tour – Australia is the first place to welcome this wonderful production.
In March eyes will turn inward again, as the CFT cycle will start all over again. The pouring over the brochure, the booking, the waiting, the show, the ice creams, finding change for programmes, conflicting reviews on the drive home, the transfers, the personal discoveries and sure-fire hits. But this year is something even more remarkable than usual, even more so than last year when the circus came to town – the Festival Theatre feels like a new building, but has lost none of the charm of the old. What some of the best creative minds in the country can come up with when given this extraordinary new space, is really something to get excited about.