Chichester Festival Theatre poised to announce autumn season

Chichester Festival Theatre is moving towards announcing an autumn season on the back of a successful test event.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:00 am
Kathy Bourne, Executive Director, Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo Seamus Ryan
Kathy Bourne, Executive Director, Chichester Festival Theatre - Photo Seamus Ryan

And in further good news for the venue, they are expecting all staff – currently around 40 per cent furloughed – to be back to work by the end of October, with no redundancies.

At a time when regional theatres are – as CFT executive director Kathy Bourne says – “making redundancies left, right and centre”, it is a huge achievement.

“For the test event, we asked supporters back in with 420 seats, and Daniel (Evans, CFT artistic director) and I went on stage and talked through how things have been for us over the last six months. We shared a couple of videos and then we did a Q&A, and it was wonderful to see everybody back in the auditorium. And from the stage, looking out, it didn’t feel like a poorly attended show! The warmth of the audience was extraordinary.

“We gave them a questionnaire, and 95 per cent of the people that attended said that the way we had set things out they would be happy to come back into the theatre. What the exercise told us is what might be possible – and that we have a very loyal audience that are desperate to return and that we have an incredible team of staff that know what they are doing and take it very seriously.”

Since then, further advice has suggested that the CFT might be able to have closer to 600 people in attendance. The figures are crucial. They will dictate the kind of work which will happen on the stage.

“Working with Daniel we have been looking at every show, what the risks are, all the minutiae detail, and we are getting there. It has created an opportunity to think about different types of programming for us. We are going to get the chance this year to do a little bit of experimentation perhaps – without pulling away from what is important to Daniel and to me in terms of our programming and our diversity.”

Crucial too has been to factor in the audience’s need to feel safe as well as be safe: “And I think 600 would feel comfortable.”

Kathy has a hesitation about committing to taking in touring shows which might not happen: “We are focusing on producing our own stuff and that will certainly be the case until next March. We will be producing work in the spring.

“Daniel and I have been working so closely side by side, and he is a joy to work with, and we have worked through it all with the support of our extraordinary team. Our aim from the beginning was to put something on our stage before March 2021 and to do everything we could to make sure that we didn’t lose any staff. Those were the two big goals for us, and we have kept them at the forefront of our minds all the way through.

“We have been putting people on furlough and we have been impressing to the staff that to be on furlough is really useful for the organisation. Whether people have been on furlough or working, we have treated them on the same financial terms. And we have had some rotation of furlough. We would put some people on furlough and bring some people back. I wanted to make sure that everybody felt they had a place at the table, and the staff have been incredibly supportive.”

Three key factors have helped the theatre considerably.

First, from the financial low point of 2005, the Jonathan Church years at the CFT allowed the venue to build up its reserves.

Second, the theatre is helped by the fact that it has a year of two halves: “We have a summer season and a winter season, and we scale up massively for the summer season. We had to step down the entire seasonal team, but what it does mean is that we have a relatively lean permanent team.”

Third: “The support of the community has been just extraordinary. People are so supportive of everything we do, and we have had some amazing donations in terms of tickets bought for this year.”

In that context, Kathy is anticipating all the staff will be off furlough, with no job losses, by the end of October. It does mean that some jobs might change, with some staff redeployed within the organisation.

“Other regional theatres are making redundancies left, right and centre. They know that they are lucky to have a job, and long may that continue!”