End of an era at Chichester Festival Theatre as Jonathan Church and Alan Finch step down

Alan and Jonathan

Alan and Jonathan

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One of the most exciting and successful eras in the history of Chichester Festival Theatre closes this week as Jonathan Church and Alan Finch take their bow. In the first of a two-part interview, Phil Hewitt talks to them both about their time in the city as that time comes to an end.

The Church-Finch era is the era that saved the theatre – and ushered in levels of success which hadn’t been seen for decades.

Coming in at the end of 2005, Jonathan as artistic director and Alan as executive director had a pressing task: to set about reversing years of declining audiences.

After 11 seasons in charge, far longer than anyone else in the annals of the CFT, they now hand over control to new artistic director Daniel Evans.

They leave him a theatre in remarkably-good health – and, just as importantly, a theatre fully renewed and refurbished in a multi-million pound revamp.

They announced their intention to depart early last year and officially step down on September 30.

“The decision to move on was hard because actually the whole time at Chichester has been pure joy,” says Alan. “Little did we know in 2005 that we would have the opportunity to experience so much great work which has gone international. But it was time to move on. You ask yourself: could it ever get better? It was the right decision to go when things were at their absolute height after ten or 11 years.”

Jonathan agrees: “It’s really sad because this is certainly for me the longest engagement in any one organisation that I have had. It has felt like home both personally and professionally, and there has been so much incredible work. It feels like we have been here forever, but that in itself is dangerous. These funded organisations thrive on change. Audiences will want different tastes and new challenges, different artists. To stay on forever would not be healthy.”

Had the refurbishment not intervened, they could well have stayed for just seven or eight years, but it was crucial to see it through.

Inevitably they look back on the rebuilding programme as a key period – and just a little nerve-racking: “The building was stripped right back to the concrete,” Alan recalls, “and the whole thing was ‘Let’s not be the management that fails to put it all back together again!’ It feels like a new building, but it was actually more complicated than that. It would have been easier to knock it all down and start again.”

But clearly that was never possible; nor was it ever the intention with the grade II star building: “For me, what we have got now is a familiar friend,” Alan says. “We have got a great environment and a great building, but it is also familiar. It is still shiny and sparkly, but it is still the Festival Theatre.”

Looking back to their early days, Jonathan recalls: “The theatre had been in decline for a period of years before we were there, and it is important to make it clear that it was a long-term decline that was to do with an organisation that had not had Arts Council subsidy and that relied just on audiences and local fund-raising. When Laurence Olivier and John Clements and Keith Michell, these absolute artists, were there running the theatre, the balance somehow worked, but slowly as the industry changed these iconic stars perhaps left the theatre or were not as interested in running theatres, and so it got harder and harder, and it ended up with a couple of managements leaving the theatre in audience terms in quite a difficult position. Audiences had halved over a number of years.

“But the gift of Steven Pimlott, Ruth Mackenzie and Martin Duncan (Jonathan and Alan’s predecessors) was that they had been able to bring Arts Council and local authority funding to the table to try to save the theatre. In their tenure, they had not been able to shift audiences upwards but they produced some great work.

“We had an organisation in peril, but they had showed it was possible to produce great things.”

And so Alan and Jonathan arrived: “We bridged the gap. We felt that the big theatre had to be populist and not reject what had always made the big theatre work which was leading, big-name, well-known actors. We were very lucky in our opening season that we had the combination of (the new play) Entertaining Angels and Penelope Keith, and then we finished the season with (the two-part) Nicholas Nickleby.”

Alan recalls: “At that point, the theatre had really reached the stage where it needed a last-ditch attempt to confirm that the audience wanted the theatre there. We didn’t really pause for thought. We put our heads down and developed the shows. We had to believe in what we were doing. We didn’t really have any choice. We had to make it work.

“Generally when the sun comes out, people don’t go to the theatre, but the first lesson that we had in 2006 was that when the sun comes out, everybody does go to the theatre. We had a phenomenal summer, and the gift that summer was Nicholas Nickleby, which Jonathan directed and which just completely captivated people. It was great.”

Entertaining Angels, their very first Chichester show, was significant too: “Entertaining Angels was important because people always thought they could get tickets whenever because we never sold out.”

The show’s success quickly changed that perception. If you wanted tickets, you had to hurry up and get them. There were plenty of letters of complaint when people woke up to the fact that Penelope Keith had been and gone – and they had missed her.

“I like to fantasise that we created the house-full signs,” Jonathan reminisces. “Alan is more honest and says that we simply dusted it off!” Rather than running everything in repertoire, the show ran straight through – and people were aggrieved to miss it: “It was an important change”

10 Years On! Any Questions with Jonathan Church and Alan Finch is on Saturday 8 October at 11am in the Festival Theatre. It’s free to attend but booking is essential via the usual website, cft.org.uk or box office 01243 781312.

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