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CFT 1005 Festival Theatre Auditorium. Photo Philip Vile

Chichester Festival Theatre: a community collaboration

20 Mar 2024 | 5 minutes to read

There was no better way to celebrate the opening of our Chichester office back in 2022 than to create a partnership with the coveted Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT). Conceived as a 1,300-seat ‘pavilion in the park’, the Grade II listed building is a focal point within the city. But CFT’s significance goes much deeper than its brutalist façade: it’s the fabric of this unique institution that has made its mark on the local community and millions of theatre goers worldwide.

CFT is not your average local theatre – in fact, little of its 61-year history has been normal. Founded in 1962 by Chichester-based optician Leslie Evershed-Martin, CFT was born from a seismic crowdfunding drive by local people and businesses who wanted a cultural hub within the city. Fittingly, the Festival Theatre became Britain’s first modern ‘thrust stage’ theatre, which by design better connects the audience and its performers. The Theatre's first ever artistic director was Laurence Olivier, whose West Sussex company subsequently became the nucleus of his newly formed National Theatre troupe and cemented CFT’s reputation on the international stage.

Built by, and for, the local community

CFT prides itself on being built by the local community, for the local community, and this is no more evident than in the way in which it works with and supports the people within its reach. CFT not only gives back to the city to which it owes its conception, but it does so thoughtfully and with remarkable intent. The Theatre's Learning, Education and Participation (LEAP) department runs regular initiatives throughout the year, including apprenticeships, traineeships and the annual work experience programme through which several school or university-aged students have explored and eventually pursued a career in theatre.

On-going programmes range from The Chatter Project, a creative storytelling initiative for adults aged 65+, to the provision of specialised individual support and group creative therapy sessions for the Youth Theatre members. The Theatre became the first in the UK to appoint a dedicated, permanent creative therapist in 2023. A community within itself, the Theatre's 90 permanent staff (augmented by many freelance specialists for the Festival season) are supported by a group of volunteers from various backgrounds and locations – some have had links with the Theatre for 30 years.

The Chichester Festival Youth Theatre (CFYT) is one of the largest in the country, and with more than 900 members, is a proven hotbed for tomorrow’s thespians. With 31 active students, the Technical Youth Theatre nurtures and develops vital talent that is the backbone of on-stage productions. An invaluable stepping stone for hundreds of want-to-be actors, lighting technicians, producers and directors, the Youth Theatre and Tech Youth Theatre (which include specialist provision for young people with additional needs) have been life-changing resources for many children who might otherwise struggle to find their talent and their voice, whether or not they make a career in the arts. A significant proportion of the Youth Theatre receives bursaries from the Theatre, funded by its supporters.

"The Youth Theatre introduced me to puppetry. I would not be here without Chichester.

They were my training for my whole career."

Romina Hytten, Lead Puppeteer and Olivier Award-winner, Life of Pi

“The Theatre has a clear mission: to bring together people from all walks of life, by providing a space where experiences are created and shared, and where everyone can find their place.”

Kathy Bourne, Executive Director, Chichester Festival Theatre

A shared vision

Our Chichester team has long-standing connections with the Festival Theatre, which has touched many of the office’s people, clients and wider network. CFT was a natural partner for the local-market team, not only for its unstinting community focus but its unique outward vision and ambitions to sustain its global standing and acumen. Now in its second year, the collaboration so far has centred on a production sponsorship, but as with all corporate support, is an investment that feeds into the Theatre's vital work on and off stage, from reaching out to the community, to supplementing production costs so the Theatre and ticket prices are accessible for all. The partnership is central to our continued focus on supporting the creative industries at this crucial post-pandemic time, and makes a mark on a community that the business is invested in.

As part of the 2023 partnership, we sponsored a new production of Noel Coward’s play, The Vortex. Set in the 1920s, the play takes a witty but stinging look at the ‘Jazz Age’ and the untold story of the darkness that lay beneath its seemingly glittering surface. Viewed by 14,000 people at the Theatre, for the first time the central characters were played by a real life mother and son, Lia Williams and Joshua James, whose performances were acclaimed as ‘a scintillating double act’ (Guardian) and ‘nothing short of sensational’ (Telegraph). An accompanying exhibition in the Theatre foyer displayed archive items and costumes from CFT and the Noël Coward Archive Trust.

"In spite of its international reputation, it is CFT’s altruistic focus on the people around it that makes it so unique. CFT is truly embedded in Chichester’s community and that of the West Sussex surrounds. Our partnership with CFT allows us to support their work in building better futures for all, young and old, and we are humbled and proud by this association."

James Nield, Senior Investment Director, Close Brothers Asset Management

Breaking the mould

Creatively ambitious, community driven, inclusivity and sustainably minded, one size never fits all at CFT. Over the last six decades, the Theatre has entertained, provoked thought and pushed the occasional boundaries, all with the view that if its output is world-class, then it should be seen by the world – though always with local audiences at its heart. By adhering to a disciplined programme that is split into two seasons each year, the Theatre showcases some of the most celebrated creative as well as local and emerging talent of all ages. The Theatre's vibrant programme aims to ensure that “whoever is on stage is always centre stage”. The Festival season runs from April to October and includes a variety of productions from classics to contemporary writing and musicals, all originated in Chichester. The Theatre typically reaches an audience of around a quarter of a million people throughout this period, and many of the productions have transferred to London’s West End or toured nationally and internationally.

Winter provides a blend of touring productions and the eagerly awaited festive show. Unlike most theatres who programme commercial pantomimes, the Festival Theatre is devoted to the Youth Theatre’s annual Christmas production. The 2023 end-of-year production, The Jungle Book, featured a cast of 70 CFYT members aged between 10 and 20 years old, and an additional 30 vital supporters hailed from the Youth Technical Theatre.

"I was struck by the thoughtfulness in the way CFT gives back to the community around them. They take in children who are disengaged with formal education and run workshops designed specifically to help these children develop their creative skills. Then they guide them to support and improve in-school learning. It really stuck with me – the team is phenomenal."

A Close Brothers Asset Management client and visitor to the Theatre in 2023


To find out more about the Chichester Festival Theatre, visit

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