Tell us a bit about Chester Performs
Chester Performs is a leading arts producer based in Chester. We create, produce and stage innovative and exciting arts projects in and around the city. We aim to play an important role in the cultural life of our city, connecting and inspiring artists and the local community. We specialise in creating and presenting site specific work. Our current programme includes: the nationally acclaimed Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, which we think is the finest open air theatre outside London and the only full time professional one running out side of London; the Chester Literature Festival; Rogues' Galleries, an interactive programme of performance and digital art installed in empty shops which we staged last month across the city; and our next big event the brand new - MBNA Chester Music Festival. It opens on 1st June and runs for a fortnight.
Why do you think that events like this are important for the region?
We are the only producers of our kind in Chester - commissioning, producing and devising new work on a major scale. Any community needs cultural activity to help define and assert its identity, and celebrate the city's potential. Chester in particular needs a vibrant cultural scene to match its reputation as one of the North West's liveliest towns. It has a rich, celebrated heritage and history, which tourists flock to from all over the world.
If anyone is a newcomer to your work, how is it unique?
Nobody else in the North West is producing year round site-specific work outside the confines of a venue. With no theatre or arts venue in Chester, we are utilising the city's many outdoor spaces (such as Grosvenor Park), impressive buildings (Cathedral and Town Hall) and even empty shops - as in the case of our most recent project Rogues' Galleries - to create and house public art.
What are the Highlights?
The Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre opened as an experiment. We wanted to deliver first rate professional theatre in the city centre. In year one, we delivered two professional productions over a run of three and a half weeks. Three years on, we return to the park for with an extended run of nine weeks, producing three major plays with our sixteen professional actors as well as a fourth production by our company of young actors. The experiment has demonstrated the demand in the local community for great storytelling and theatre that is publicly owned, sitting as we do in the municipal park.
This summer through July and August we are performing A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Cyrano De Bergerac and Othello, as well as an as yet unwritten play commissioned for our youth theatre. We've a joyous, passionate summer season ahead.
What's your role?
I'm the Artistic Director of the theatre. I helped conceive and design the theatre with our producer Andrew Bentley. I direct work for the season and lead the creative and production teams.
As a company, one of the things we work hard to prioritise is relationships. It is important to us that our theatre is connected to its local community and that our audience feel a sense of ownership over the theatre (particularly as we are resident in their park). It is similarly important to us that the actors, technicians, the front of house and security staff, and everyone else who contributes to the success of our work, feels responsibility and pride in the theatre. Managing and leading this shared investment and pride in our work is a critical part of the role, given the ambition we have to be an open, welcoming, friendly theatre.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Leading and working alongside bright, energetic, passionate theatre makers is the key pleasure in my work. I get to work closely and intensely with some ferociously clever and talented people, together dealing with the particular challenges of telling some of the greatest stories ever written. I am also very lucky to have found an opportunity to make theatre for an audience I know and am very invested in: I was born and brought up in Chester, so returning here to run the open air theatre is rather special.
I've been part of a small team building a new theatre, working with people I trust and admire and particularly with Andrew, having the opportunity to create a theatre we want to visit. There's little not to enjoy.
With so much theatre to see in the region, why should audiences attend?
We have the best front of house team in the country. They host our audience, and create a warm, relaxed atmosphere amongst their guests, providing an easy, friendly night out. Each year, with the help of our casting director Kay Magson, we have managed to build ensembles of actors which have been among the finest you will see in British theatre - including the major national houses. Our creative teams are made up of leading international theatre practitioners, who are among the best and most respected theatre makers in the country.
We run a theatre which can honestly be described as unique in the country. There is not another theatre producing work with artists of such calibre, with the intimacy and immediacy of a studio theatre and the epic and elemental quality of open air theatre. We have a space that connects the gods and the elements - as the best open air theatre does - but on the intimate, human scale of a studio theatre.
I'm also really proud of our producers’ commitment to bringing new audiences to our theatre. We have a genuinely innovative price structure, which means if you book early - like booking for a flight - you can get very cheap tickets. Andrew has also just committed to making all tickets for under-12 year olds free, in an effort to bring younger audiences to see our work. And since we began, the atmosphere in the theatre has been relaxed and informal in a way that makes an evening in our theatre a very special, unique event. And matinees for kids are an ideal family day out and first time family theatre experience.
Alex Clifton was speaking to Glenn Meads
More information about Chester Performs is available here.