Changing of the Guard: Chichester FestivalDate: 21 April 2003
We continue our series about theatreland's newly arrived artistic directors by speaking to Steven Pimlott, part of the triumvirate that's taken over Chichester Festival Theatre, which launches its ambitious 2003 summer season this weekend.
Appointed in July 2002, the new Chichester triumvirate - comprising Steven Pimlott, Martin Duncan and Ruth Mackenzie - took over the running of the West Sussex theatre in November 2002 (See News, 24 Jul 2002). Now, fresh from securing the theatre a whopping 85% increase in Arts Council funding over the next three years (See News, 26 Mar 2003), they are preparing to launch their first summer festival season, an annual event for which Chichester is famous.
Pimlott, Duncan and Mackenzie are old friends and colleagues who last year formed their own independent theatre production company and then submitted a joint application to Chichester for the two advertised posts of artistic director and chief executive. Mackenzie and Duncan previously led Nottingham Playhouse together (the former as executive director from 1990 to 1996, the latter as artistic director from 1994 to 1999), while Pimlott and Duncan were both formerly associate directors of Sheffield Crucible.
Just prior to Chichester, Steven Pimlott was also an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where, as part of his extensive directorial career, he gained critical and popular acclaim for his imaginative Shakespeare productions, including his direction of Samuel West in Hamlet and Richard II, and Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour in Antony and Cleopatra.
Pimlott's reputation has been long established internationally through the production of more than 30 operas in Germany, Austria, Australia, Japan, Israel and the UK where recent work with the ENO has included The Coronation of Poppea and La Bohème. In continued collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Pimlott has directed Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (West End and North America) and the current West End production of Bombay Dreams.
Running from 26 April to 4 October and taking a Venetian theme, the 2003 Chichester Festival features nine productions, seven of which are premieres, three of them world premieres (See News, 17 Feb 2003). In addition to the programming and casting (with a line-up that includes Philip Quast and Niamh Cusack), this year's event is notable for its return to a resident ensemble performing in repertory at Chichester for the first time in 20 years; a reduction in ticket prices, including a season pass that brings the price-per-production down to £7; and the appointment of a broad advisory team of artists.
What made you want to be a theatre director
I don't know if I've ever consciously asked that question. I mean, theatre has been part of my life as long as I can remember - first going to see it and then as an actor, through school and university. I used to act more than I directed and I still enjoy acting. I think probably I just got into it like you do. When I left university and went round for jobs, the first one I could get was as a staff producer at the English National Opera on the directing side. That was where I learnt - if you can learn such a thing - how to be a director. I'm good at talking, too. I have the gift of the gab and that's a good thing as a director.
Prior to your Chichester appointment, what do you view as your
I did a lot of work at the RSC. I would single out one very early piece there, Murder in the Cathedral, and another in the middle, Camino Real, and in end, Richard II and Hamlet. I also have a very special place in my heart for The York Mysteries, and I've always enjoyed all the musicals I've done. Most recently, Bombay Dreams was a wonderful journey, and there was an arena performance of Carmen that was very exciting. The work I did at Sheffield with Martin Duncan and the designer Tom Cairns was also memorable, particularly Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale. Oh, and a production of Carousel at the Royal Exchange definitely.
What was the first production you ever saw at Chichester?
I think it was an Anouilh play called The Director of the Opera with John Clements. It was very extravagant, a French boulevard play, but beautifully costumed and designed and very funny. I remember the stage seemed enormous. That was when I was at university so it would have been more than 30 years ago. I haven't been that frequently over the years since. I do remember very much enjoying Nicholas Hytner's production of The Scarlet Pimpernel with Donald Sinden. It had this wonderful opening with a guillotine coming forward. Again, I remember the spectacle of it. They are always happy memories with Chichester because they are associated with summer and days out and jaunts and that lovely feeling. Not like with pantomimes when it's dark and wet and cold, but with summer and spring and exuberance.
Why did you want the job of artistic director?
In the past, I've been very happy to be associated with plays, but I've always avoided the full responsibility that a directorship brings with it. Taking on this job really came out of the comradeship of Martin Duncan, Ruth Mackenzie and myself. We decided as a threesome to set up our own production company, called Time/Room, because we're sufficiently like-minded and sufficiently similar in our interests in European theatre and opera and things of that kind. And then the Chichester job came up and Ruth suggested, what about us being building based? It took a little bit of time to get one's head around one's fears of the responsibility, but I felt personally that I'm with two very good colleagues and friends and I won't be carrying the burden myself.
I went down quietly to look at the spaces, and I was a little bit daunted by the size of the Festival theatre. On the other hand, I like this kind of theatre where actor and audience can share the same space. I believe in the argument of the play, what's being said on one side and what's being said on the other, what's the dialectic - I like that. The space excited me from that point of view. I don't think it's suitable for what we would call 'room plays' - you know, plays that have walls that need French windows - although those plays have been done there very successfully in the past. But that would not be the attraction of the stage for me. It's more an opportunity to do epic plays. We're lucky enough to have an intimate space too, but there's a great excitement when you have the energy of a 1,000 people gathered together.
The Festival itself makes the job doubly appealing, in my opinion. One, because festivals are parties and celebrations and they're fun to go to. And also because it's not quite the same as having to produce a year-round programme, which has its own problems. The notion of saying: no, we have to do this in a limited space of time and we'll get a group of actors together and make a choice of plays that reflect on each other. I think that's quite exciting, and we don't have that much of that in this country, apart from Edinburgh obviously.
How would you rate your predecessor Andrew Welch's tenure?
I really wouldn't have a view because, in all fairness, I don't think I'd been to Chichester in the previous ten years. To me, it was very much arriving and seeing what we could do from now, not really based on what had gone before. The great advantage of Chichester is that people have special memories of seeing wonderful work there. It is part of English theatre mythology. In this profession, there are certain things people want to do, at least once in their life. They think: I'd like to do a season with the RSC, I'd like to appear at the National, I'd like to be in a West End musical, I'd like to appear at Glyndebourne and so on. Chichester is on that list of the dozen or so things any practitioner working in the theatre aspires to. That's important and useful.
What do you consider your most immediate challenge?
To do a lot of good theatre, of course, is the main challenge. We're blessed at Chichester in that we have a wonderful core audience who are very passionate, who are very articulate and who have obviously been going to the festival for a long time. Do you know that more people go to Chichester than any other theatre outside London, apart from Stratford? That means something in a town of only 25,000. We would probably still like to broaden the audience base, though, attract new audiences from farther afield, like Brighton, Portsmouth, Bognor. A festival is a party and at a really good party you want everybody to come. So for people to realise that they can come, that it is their theatre, and that is not expensive - you can actually buy a seat for six or seven quid - getting those messages through is important.
What are your plans beyond summer 2003?
Between the end of the festival through Christmas, there will be events which are an opportunity for the community to use the theatre - a youth theatre production, the usual traditional Christmas concerts etc. After Christmas, the theatre will be dark, so that we have the three-month period from January to March to prepare for the next festival. I think it's very important not be on that programming juggernaut that never stops so one never has the time to gain perspective on what one has done or prepare for what one is going to do. Our little motto - 'Back to the Future' - is based on the fact that Chichester is a seasonal theatre, it's a summer theatre. We don't want to worry about filling the winter months with visiting productions, not when we're trying to establish the identity of the festival, that's where we want to put all of our energy.
We have ideas of themes for future festivals, of course, but I have no intention of telling you what they are! Until we see how this will go, until we see that it does work and people enjoy it, it would be daft. I think one has to be very light on one's feet. What we want is to attract the best artists, so all the time we're in dialogue with directors and actors. We might be thinking we're having a festival theme about insects next year, and then some marvellous director says I want to direct Oedipus Rex and you think, ooh fantastic, let's have one around Greece instead. Theatre is a very mixed bag. There's the eternal big unchanging passions of thousands of years and the fashionable, the now. You have to do both and not get too stuck in some kind of rut.
What is your overriding vision for the theatre?
It's absolutely rooted in the concept of ensemble. I think the best theatre comes when people work together on a regular basis and feel themselves part of a family. That means, hopefully, an ongoing relationship between director, designer and actor. That's why this year we absolutely wanted an ensemble of actors and musicians in repertoire, 60 to 70 people down in Chichester for the summer. Similarly, creating a group of associate artists - that means designers, music directors, lighting designers - who each do more than one production so that everyone feels nurtured and supported.
As somebody who has done an awful lot of freelance work in his life, I know how it is that much harder when you arrive at a place you do your bit and then you go away again. You can achieve so much more with trust and mutual knowledge. There's not that much opportunity for ensemble in this country anymore. Both the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company were conceived in that way but, for whatever reason, while it's still part of their philosophy, it isn't their raison d'être anymore. Building an ensemble is difficult but I think it's really crucial, and I hope it's a tradition that will carry on at Chichester. I would hope also to grow Chichester to international standing.
How will you measure success at the end of
I hope that the audience come to trust us, that eventually they will come and see anything we're doing just because they've had a good time before. Whether they approve or disapprove, whether they like or don't like an event, they'll trust us to be stimulated. And that there's a real rapport between the community in which the theatre operates and the audience that are coming and the actors that are there.
What would you say to entice first-time visitors to Chichester?
The first thing I'd say is, if you live locally, buy one of the seasonal subscriptions because it gets you tickets to the lot and it's dirt cheap, the same as going to the cinema. You might be surprised and really enjoy something that you might not ordinarily pick. We have a massive variety at the festival this year. There's about 400 hundred years' worth of drama here. We have English, Italian, German, lots of new stuff. It's a really eclectic season. So sample it all and find out what you like. It's too difficult to know what to suggest otherwise because, even if you know the person, you don't know what they're going to enjoy or not enjoy. If you're not local, I'd say ideally come down in August because then we'll have an all-singing, all-dancing festival, with all the shows are up and running. There will be fireworks in August, too.
This year's Chichester Festival runs from 26 April to 4 October 2003, with all productions fashioned around the Venetion theme. These include: in the Festival theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies and Chekhov's The Seagull; and in the Minerva studio, Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise, Robert Holman's Holes in the Skin, Carlo Goldoni's The Coffee House and the Brothers Marquez with I Caught My Death in Venice. The children's production of Pinocchio will be mounted in Oaklands Park.