News of the tough West End financial climate in which most shows are struggling hasn’t reached three that are bucking the trend: the double bill of plays by David Hare and the late Terence Rattigan, “South Downs/The Browning Version”; and tuners “Sweeney Todd” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” All three are transfers from one regional producing powerhouse: Chichester Festival Theater.
To say Chichester and a.d. Jonathan Church are riding high is an understatement. In addition to that remarkable West End presence, the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary with 11 productions across its annual six-month season in its two home venues — a 1,200-seat main stage and the 283-seat Minerva Studio — situated in parkland on the edge of a quiet town on the south coast of England, a two-hour train ride from London.
The tenure of Church and his executive director, Alan Finch, who have run the theater since 2005, has been marked by a savvy use of subsidy coin and a dedication to diverse income streams.
The subsidy originally secured by Church’s predecessors now runs at £2 million ($3.2 million) anually — £1.6 million from Arts Council England, the government body that distributes grants to arts orgs, with the remainder from regional government bodies. This covers approximately 36% of Chichester’s expenditure, a far healthier figure than at many regional houses.
“Initially, subsidy stabilized the main house,” Church says. “As our audience has grown, it has meant that subsidy can now be (applied directly to) the work rather than to the running of the organization.”
Almost every other U.K. regional theater uses subsidy coin for building and staffing costs. Freed of worrying about overhead, Chichester is able to concentrate on strikingly ambitious work, including the 2009 world premiere of Lucy Prebble’s “Enron.” The play notoriously flopped on Broadway, but was a massive U.K. hit with SRO runs at Chichester, the Royal Court and an eight-month West End run.
Although Church directs some shows, his reputation rests on producing skills that have made him into something of a turnaround king. He previously ran regional theaters Salisbury Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theater, leaving both in considerably healthier positions than when he arrived.
But it’s his Chichester tenure that has seen him truly expand the breadth of a regional’s revenue streams. Co-production deals with independent producers including Playful Prods. (“Yes, Prime Minister,” “Sweeney Todd”) and David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers (runaway hit “Calendar Girls”) bolster finances and, in each instance, provided income with hit transfers.
Church is insistent, however, that he doesn’t plan seasons around transfers. Indeed, Chichester had only regional rights to “Sweeney Todd” when it opened. The org was granted West End rights only when the musical’s creator, Stephen Sondheim, saw the show toward the end of its run. The West End, Church argues, is too mercurial for planned transfers. Unlike Gotham, London theaters rarely hold themselves in readiness for an upcoming play.
Chichester’s current season appears to have a few productions poised for future life — Kim Cattrall will star in a revival of Janet Suzman’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra”; and this year’s tuner is a new production of “Kiss Me, Kate” helmed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Stephen Mear (“Mary Poppins”) — but others are riskier propositions. The main house hosts the world premiere of “A Marvellous Year for Plums,” Hugh Whitemore’s drama about the Suez crisis, the 1950s diplomatic scandal that brought Britain to the brink of war. In the Minerva, there are world premieres of new comedies “Canvas” by Michael Wynne and “Surprises” by Alan Ayckbourn.
Church says the success of Chichester is uniquely tied to its festival infrastructure. It operates six months a year, from May through October, runs as a receiving house for about three months and is dark for the rest. During the coldest, wettest part of the year — the least audience-friendly period — the theater is closed; conversely, the countryside location means it can turn the summer months, traditionally a challenge for regional houses, into a calling card. Moreover, having only 30 to 35 year-round staff (similar-sized U.K. regional theaters employ up to three times that number) massively reduces overhead.
Church acknowledges that unlike theaters in large cities, he has a captive audience of local attendees who haven’t got as much competition for their time. That’s sure to come in handy as arts funding continues to get squeezed in the current economic downturn.