Everything about Chester Performs is a success story. From sharing two shows in Grosvenor Park, with 5,500 people over the summer of 2010, it boasts a 2015 season of three shows: Romeo & Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor and a new adaptation of The Wind in the Willows by Glyn Maxwell. A projected 27,000 people will see performances in the park’s beautiful deep green amphitheatre, and a quarter of audience members say that it’s their one theatre trip of the year. It’s a big responsibility, but the rep company rises to it again and again. Earlier this year, Chester Performs revealed that the Open Air theatre’s director, Alex Clifton will be the first Artistic Director of Chester Performs, and for its new cultural centre, which will house a permanent 800-seat main house and a 150-seat black-box studio as well as an arthouse cinema and a library. This summer though, it’s Capulets, Montagues, Ratty, Badger, Toad and Moley: picking up fantastic reviews in the city and nationally, and drawing cheerfully picnicking crowds in rain and shine.
As I’m talking to him on the phone, I ask Clifton how the weather’s holding up in the north but the question draws him onto the whole nature of the beast. Five summers of talking about open-air theatre are readily apparent: “Yes, it’s sunny, it’s summer, it’s cheerful, everybody’s in good spirits. The weather helps, but it’s clearly not the centrepiece of the event, any more than it’s the centrepiece of a football match.”
The setting sun on the second half of Romeo and Juliet really did seem central to my own experience of it, a chill and desaturation marking the tragedy ahead after an especially warm and funny first half. “With any of the evening shows, that’s the special treat you get, that extraordinary lighting effect which you could spend – well, people do spend millions trying to build cycloramas that can deliver something like it in an indoor space. And we get it for free. It’s an extraordinary feature of the theatre and the evening, that intensifying of the quality of the focus for the audience and for the company as the energy shifts with the setting sun.”
That focus is increased even more this year as the big amphitheatre has been adapted to be fully in-the-round this year, with hampers and cushions and families on all sides. “It’s always been an intimate theatre. In increasing the capacity the aim has always been to create somewhere that sustains that intimacy. We have the epic contact with the gods that you get for free by playing outside, but we have the intimacy of a studio theatre. So by going into the round this year we increase capacity and that intimacy.
Standing in an abandoned car-park I mishear “intimate” as “infinite” theatre, and relay this to Clifton, a pretty thought for a circular auditorium. “Let’s pretend I did say that! Mishear that away, because it is, isn’t it. Whenever we talk about the theatre we talk about it being an open theatre in as many ways as possible. And there’s no space that’s more democratic than you get in the round, where the audience really are part of the action. It’s a great dynamic. It’s an actors’ space. It’s not a designer’s space. It’s not a director’s space, the director can’t control what the audience see, the designer can’t make a massive design intervention.”
It’s an actors’ company too. With 16 actors taking on roles of varying sizes across the three shows, gender parity in the ensemble, and several actors having returned to the project from earlier years, I wonder if a certain kind of actor suits the season. “It’s not so much about actors as about people. It requires people who have a generosity and a humility about their work, and yet at the same time have a real pride in it. People that are going to work very hard, and are committed to the craft in a pretty profound way. Fortunately there are lots of them around. Actors are by their nature quite a generous species, and do have that remarkable mix of humility and pride – pride in their work, but humility in ego. There’s that cultural fantasy we have that actors are egotists, and of course that’s total crap. You’d be a presenter, you’d be something where you got to be yourself, if actors were dreadful egotists. They’re just not.”
“And that’s always been where we’ve put our money. Whatever the space has been over the course of our history, we’ve put our money into our actors. We want to employ as many as we can possibly afford, on good wages. That’s where an audience feel their value, where they see lots of actors on stage, and it’s where I get my pleasure as a director, working with and learning from actors.”
After five years of working extensively in the open-air, I wonder if his directing style has changed, the way he works adapted to the specifics of Grosvenor Park. “I don’t know! With your own stuff, it’s difficult to get any perspective on it. I’ve learned a lot about working with large ensembles, and how much you can ask of an actor, and how much you can ask of an audience. I guess I’ve learned not to underestimate audiences or actors at all; how intelligent audiences are, and how little you can get away with, how much they will see everything and read every gesture. And I guess I’ve learned how much an actor will deliver if you give them licence and space, and don’t insert your own ego but let them flourish within the bigger storytelling objective.”
“I know that the space loves action, and it loves generous storytelling. I think there’s a danger that people misunderstand open-air theatre, and I know that there are theatre practitioners – who will remain nameless – have occasionally assumed that open-air theatre has a direct correlation with broad theatre. And it doesn’t. I hope Romeo and Juliet shows that, that you can achieve a real sophistication and detail of storytelling.”
Are there things that really don’t work? “I’m sure there are. Your set is the sky. Your lighting design is whatever the sun is doing. So I think we probably would struggle to do very indoorsy play. We’d struggle to do A Doll’s House. Well, would we? I don’t know, I think we probably could do something like that! It loves the epic. It loves storytelling that connects to nature, it’s loves storytelling that connects to the gods, that’s why Shakespeare’s so at home there, because his writing is elemental and spiritual.”
From 2010, Shakespeare and new writing have been programmed side by side. “I like working with writers, it’s also a very pragmatic thing, because once you’ve made a decision that you’re going to have gender equality in the company, finding plays with lead roles for women – there really aren’t that many, especially that would suit a large company. We’ve got sixteen actors and I want to stick sixteen actors on stage. You can do Medea, and do the Trojan Women – there are big Greeks, but really there are fuck all, it’s just dreadful, the industry is dreadful, in terms of gender equality in plays, so really the solution to that is if you want strong roles for women you have to commission them. So we’ve been picking stories, like The Secret Garden, that have lead roles for women, or we’ve been taking stories like The Wind in the Willows, which we could bugger about with and put women at the centre of.” One actor, Alix Ross, plays a female Moley in The Wind in the Willows and a female Peter in Romeo and Juliet – moving from the centre of one world to the edge of another, demonstrating that generosity which Clifton really values in his actors. It works the other way too, as star-crossed lovers Jessica Clark and Adam Harley take on supporting roles in The Wind in the Willows with commitment and glee)
“With Shakespeare it’s big casts again, but he’s commercial. Clearly Shakespeare is the most commercially viable playwright we’ve got. He also happens to be the best. So what a privilege for me to be able to programme and direct Romeo and Juliet, which is fucking extraordinary, it’s a fabulous play, and is both high art and deeply popular! Plus again, strong female parts. With the cross-casting thing, we’ve had female Pucks and Malcolms. But we are trying to make a theatre which achieves commercial viability. We’re not trying to make money out of it, but it should basically wash its own face, so we can migrate ACE and local authority funding into the new cultural centre – the community work that will really require it.”
The Grosvenor Park Open-Air Theatre will be back next summer, but the cultural centre is a massive change for Chester Performs and Clifton. “I’m ferociously excited about it. It’s a very big and very active building. We can set our social aspirations pretty high, as well as our artistic aspirations. Because clearly once you’ve got a cultural centre, and not just a theatre, we’ve got a remarkable storytelling facility – all of those spaces are storytelling spaces and community spaces.”
And what will the programming look like? “Well the truth is I don’t know at the moment, because we’re making that up. And I don’t want to give away any of my secrets.”
Romeo & Juliet and The Wind in the Willows, directed by Alex Clifton, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Rebecca Gatward, run in rep until the 23rd August.