Theatre in the Park construction to begin

An artist's impression of what the theatre will look like
An artist's impression of what the theatre will look like

OAKLANDS Park’s skyline is changing this week as a 1,400-seat temporary theatre starts to rise up from the ground.

Known as Theatre in the Park, it will be home to Chichester Festival Theatre’s two ‘main-house’ productions in the absence of the theatre’s more usual main house this summer.

Barnum opens in the new structure on July 15 and will be followed by Neville’s Island in September.

Meanwhile, work continues on the multi-million pound rebuild on the CFT proper.

CFT project director Dan Watkins is the man with the daunting task of seeing the £800,000 tent spring to life – the culmination of long months of planning.

“It was always the intention not to shut for the whole season during the refurbishment, but to find an alternative venue to provide productions for our audiences,” he said.

“The Arts Council were very supportive of that intention right from the outset.

They were aware of how much work had been done in the past seven years in trying to build back audiences, especially audiences for our musical.

“We started looking at just keeping the Minerva open throughout the whole period, but we realised it didn’t offer us enough seats to get enough people in.

“We also felt that we wanted a big event, and we were keen to have that big event connected to the Oaklands Park site.

“We also started looking at the very first summer seasons which were eight weeks long. It was about trying to get a maximum number of people in over a shorter period. And so we started looking at a 1,400-seat venue.”

Matt Churchill, the design and construction director, was selected for the task on past experience, including work in Kensington Gardens and also providing a temporary home for the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury during its own renew project.

As Dan says, it became very clear very early on that temporary theatres aren’t something you can just rent off the shelf, especially given the degree of luxury the CFT was envisaging, including large areas of decking and picket fencing.

The fact Barnum was evolving as the likely show to open it also influenced choices.

Given the amount of flying, the CFT needed a tent capable of taking a production load of 24 tons from the roof.

Also important was to have a clear span, in other words clear sightlines with no big poles in the middle interrupting the view.

And so the CFT opted for a tent made specifically for them, with a canopy coming from France, steelworks from Italy and seats from China.

“It has cost £800,000 for the tent and the seating which is the asset for us going forward,” said Dan.

“It’s something that the Arts Council were very keen on, us owning the asset and having something to show for it.”

The idea was that it would also provide a contingency plan should anything go wrong in 2014 when the redeveloped theatre is due to reopen: “And then once we no longer need it, the idea is that we sell the tent.”

The king poles arrived on Wednesday this week. These will support the arches which will support the canopy.

“The structure will take seven to ten days to put up, and then the rigging and the seating and the stage will take a further ten days, and then we fit it out.”

Safe standing and a walkway down to the main theatre buildings a football pitch away will be created by 4,000 square metres of decking.

“There are several reasons we have not put the tent right down at the bottom of the hill,” said Dan. “One is that the building site noise would be an issue, and also there would be waterlogging issues there. We had to go up to the top.

“But there will be a decking pathway and six-seat golf buggies to transport people.”

The theatre itself will be fully carpeted inside with fully-upholstered seats.

“We are trying to create something that suits our audience and the quality our audience expects.”

And the signs are good. “I think we have seen a normal pattern for bookings.

“We have got more seats to sell over a slightly-longer period. And with the shows, it all feels beautifully matched.”