Theatre excels at transforming interior spaces into imaginative landscapes. Pop-up companies are breathing new life into derelict or abandoned buildings, staging Shakespeare in basements and blurring the line between film and live performance with secret cinema screenings. But walk past these places and you might never know what was going on. Creativity often hits a very literal brick wall when cement separates artistic endeavour from the outside world. It is this divide that Chichester Theatre Festival is challenging as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, with its innovative new project Theatre on the Fly.
From now until August, a temporary tent-like structure on the park next to the Festival Theatre will host three plays – including the world premiere of Fred’s Diner, by award-winning playwright Penelope Skinner – and a rich variety of one-off comedy, cabaret and music nights. It is the brainchild of Tim Hoare, Anna Ledwich and Michael Oakley, three young associate directors at Chichester tasked by artistic director Jonathan Church with devising something to mark the theatre’s half-century.
Speaking to me a fortnight before the space opens with Blue Remembered Hills – an adaptation of Dennis Potter’s dark TV play about childhood – Hoare explains that “Theatre on the Fly” is both a statement of intent and a pun, riffing on the fly system of pin rails, pulleys and counterweights used by stage crews to rapidly change curtains, lights and scenery. “We show the wonderful bits of a theatre that you never usually see. You’ll feel as though you’re privy to the workings of a beautiful clock or a giant mechanism.”
The fly’s constant change chimed with Hoare’s idea for Chichester’s new “temporary architecture,” inspired by his experience of a pop-up cinema in London designed by Assemble, a collective of young artists and architects. “All four walls came up as the credits rolled. Suddenly, all the traffic and the pedestrians walking past were ambushed by this huge bank of people looking out at them. My heart just skipped a beat.”
Assemble’s work on the Cineroleum brought home to Hoare the creative potential of a temporary structure, “something that can play fast and loose with the rules of what a building is and what it does.” Impressed by the magic they had achieved with cheap resources and creative budgeting, he commissioned Assemble to design and build Theatre on the Fly.
Keen to “re-examine the usual parameters of theatre,” Hoare and the others let Assemble’s architectural vision determine the upcoming season. “We told them to give us a design and we’d see what it threw up.” The resulting programme makes full use of the structure’s fluid dimensions. The cast of Blue Remembered Hills will clamber all over the frame, superimposed against the park glimpsed through a detachable back wall; Playhouse Creatures will celebrate the era of the gallery playhouse fly-tower; and Hoare hopes that the hum of the nearby A-road will make Fred’s Diner, which he is directing, “incredibly site-specific and atmospheric.”
Theatre on the Fly’s guiding ethos is about embracing rather than denying the world outside. From the light bleeding through the semi-porous membrane of the tent to the noise of traffic, it scuffs the line between inside and out, between performance space and the ‘real’ world. There are no limits as the structure becomes a giant prop. “There is something about its improvised nature that gives it energy,” Hoare says. “You know it’s not going to be there forever. You know that if there’s wind or rain, it’s going to be felt. It makes you feel lucky to be there.”
Hoare greatly respects Chichester’s loyal existing audience. But he is aware that Theatre on the Fly allows for “slightly more audacious work” than would sit comfortably with some of its older patrons. “We’re 50 years old and many of our audience have been coming for most of that time,” he reflects. “We absolutely want them to share in this new experience but we also want to strike out a little in terms of our own agenda.”
In this, Hoare is looking back as well as forwards. “In the 1980s, Chichester had a tent theatre that was kind of a precursor to the Minerva,” he explains. “It was a place where new talent could do more experimental work in an off-the-cuff manner. When this became the Minerva proper, Chichester lost that dimension.”
Responsible for this “petrie dish” of creativity was a young associate director called Sam Mendes. The parallel is not lost on Hoare. “Theatre on the Fly has been a training ground for the three of us in artistic directorship,” he says. “There are few opportunities for young directors to learn as much as we have, and as quickly – from planning permission and detailed budgeting on bar sales to front-of-house staffing and security.” He laughs. “The best way to learn how to run a theatre is to have to build one.”
For Hoare, projects like Theatre on the Fly are his generation’s chance to flex their artistic muscles. The scope and scale afforded by the relative cheapness of the materials involved in its construction “captures our imagination in a vibrant way”, says Hoare; making a virtue of necessity. Like a cheeky teenager, Theatre on the Fly will squat in the backyard of its more serious elders, freed of the history weighted into their bricks.
It is also an opportunity to bring new audiences to Chichester’s theatrical life. The construction of the Festival Theatre in 1962 depended on local people buying a postcard worth ten shillings of cement. “Little things like that got this small community to build this monumental theatre that was the inspiration for the National,” marvels Hoare. Accordingly, he invited a stream of volunteers to turn up and help construct Theatre on the Fly. Much of the tent’s superstructure has been built by a local scaffolding company.
“We want people to feel a sense of ownership, to have a literal stake in the building,” Hoare insists. “We are staging work that you wouldn’t necessarily see programmed in the main house or the Minerva and we want to introduce a new audience as well as the next generation of artists and architects. We’ve got to think about the next 50 years, too.”
Chichester Festival has had a stellar couple of years, with smash-hit transfers of shows like Sweeney Todd and South Downs/The Browning Version proving (if more proof were needed) that there is life outside the West End. And if, as Hoare hopes, Theatre on the Fly succeeds, regional boundaries could matter even less.
“It’s actually quite a simple operation once you work out what you’re doing. In many ways, this is a pilot for a programme that is eminently repeatable. All you need to find is a little bit of room for it and, bang, three weeks later up comes a theatre. It really is a pop-up in that sense. It could tour all over the country.”
Theatre on the Fly will be open from 26th June – 2nd September 2012. The first production in the season is Anna Ledwich’s production of Blue Remembered Hills. For tickets and further information visit the Chichester Festival Theatre website.
First published by Exeunt Magazine