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A love letter to the 'impossible theatre'
9:56am Tuesday 10th April 2012 in Interview
For the past few months, bestselling author Kate Mosse has been penning a “love letter” to the theatre that has become the backdrop to her life. She has taken time out from writing her soon-to-be-published novel Citadel, the third in the Languedoc trilogy that comprises Labyrinth and Sepulchre, to compile a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of Chichester Festival Theatre.
The result, Chichester Festival Theatre At Fifty, is a decade-by-decade celebration in words and pictures. The book is the brainchild of the theatre’s managers, but an opportunity Mosse grabbed with both hands because of the affection she feels for the venue.
It’s a striking, modern, concrete- and-glass building on the outskirts of the pretty town.
When it opened in 1961, it was described as an “impossible theatre”. Mosse sees it as being “like a spaceship”, with a vast, thrust stage sticking out into the auditorium. It was built against the odds from an idea by local ophthalmic surgeon Leslie Evershed-Martin, a former mayor of Chichester, who saw a television documentary about a theatre built by the community for the community in Canada and challenged himself to do the same.
Shortly after Mosse’s family moved to the town, at the beginning of the first season in 1962, they became involved with the theatre. Her father offered to help Mr Evershed-Martin, who lived opposite, and the young Mosse subsequently performed on the stage there in school concerts. It was where she had her first job, as a frontof- house usherette selling ice creams and programmes, and her last staff job, as administrative director until 2001.
“This book was too good an opportunity to miss,” reflects Mosse. “I already had a number of other projects on, but I would have hated for anyone else to have done it because I have been so closely involved with the theatre and I am a Chichester person through and through.
“Truthfully, I knew the story of the theatre already and the aim of the book was an overview, not a history.
The hardest thing was not the writing but choosing what to put in and what to leave out.”
There was an enormous archive of photographs and literature to sift through, a task carried out by photographic researcher Diane Goodman, and journalist and author Tim Bouquet, who conducted interviews with the many people connected with the theatre over the five decades.
As Mosse writes in the book, “My affection for CFT, the way it’s always been there as a backdrop to my life, is not unusual – audience members and actors, directors and designers, production staff, board members, critics, autograph hunters, local businessmen and women, parents and grandparents, most everybody remembers the first time they came to CFT and what they saw.
“On every page, this warmth for the theatre, the sense of it being special, different, unique, comes up time and again. It’s partly to do with the fairytale nature of the founding and building of the theatre, a glorious dream made reality in concrete and glass. But mostly, I’d say, the enduring affection Cicestrians (by birth or adoption) feel for their ‘impossible theatre’ is down to the fact that it was, and remains, a theatre built by the community, for the community.”
As the current artistic director Jonathan Church says, “The ownership spreads out from the stage and into the auditorium. And it was done on a shoestring, the art of the possible, a theatre constructed brick by brick from the bottom up as and when the money came in.”
The National Theatre company was founded at Chichester Festival Theatre while it was waiting for its new home on London’s South Bank to be ready, and there were a few surprises buried within the archive material.
“The behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating,” says Mosse. “So many big names have been here, it’s like a Who’s Who of theatre. Sir Laurence Olivier was its first director, and there was Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall, Dame Diana Rigg, Sir Ian McKellen, Kathleen Turner...
but it started many people’s careers too. Looking through the archives, you find that the First Murderer in the cast list of a 1960s production of Macbeth was Ben Kingsley.
And there’s a letter by a young man called Sam Mendes asking to work at the theatre, any work, even if it was just sweeping the floors.
“The wonderful thing about the theatre is that it still starts people’s careers and we are watching the stars of the future. But we will not know which ones for another 20 or 30 years.”
In addition to a glittering literary career, Mosse is the cofounder of the Orange Prize For Fiction, set up in 1996 to celebrate women’s writing from across the world.
She is a judge for awards including the Asham, Aventis and Orange Futures, a popular broadcaster, and co-director (along with her husband, the poet and educator, Greg Mosse) of the Chichester Writing Festival, which takes place at West Dean in Sussex. In January 2011, she joined the Board of the Royal National Theatre in London.
Mosse and her family divide their time between their home in Chichester and their home in Carcassonne, in southwest France, where her bestselling novels are set.
But Chichester Festival Theatre At Fifty is not her first non-fiction book.
She has written two others previously, the first about motherhood, the second a companion book to a television series on the Royal Opera House.
“They were back at the beginning of my writing career, so I’ve almost come full-circle,” says Mosse.
“Writing non-fiction is very different – this book has been like an enormous piece of journalism compared with my novels, which are very long and take years of research and writing.
“But I returned to my novel refreshed.
As they say, a change is as good as a rest.
It’s been like putting on a pair of comfy slippers.”
* Chichester Festival Theatre At Fifty by Kate Mosse is published on May 1. Pre-order online at www.cft.org.uk or call 01243 781312 * Citadel by Kate Mosse is due for release in September.
For more information, visit www.katemosse.com