SUMMER THEATRE: Oxford’s beacon

The Oxford Playhouse will reopen in August with a new look and its own new play. AI talks to the theatre’s chief executive, Louise Chantal



It feels a bit odd, says Louise Chantal, settling into her swivel seat in the chief executive’s office at the very top of the building. “Twenty-four years ago I was on the other side of that door, knocking very nervously, because this was where the photocopier was” she says. “It’s still very weird”.

She was then an Oxford undergraduate, the university drama officer and a volunteer, helping to fundraise for the Oxford Playhouse which was threatened with permanent closure, and for the incorporated Burton Taylor Studio, the Oxford University Drama Society’s tiny theatre, to be made suitable for public shows.

Chantal is now the boss, and not only guiding the Oxford Playhouse through another refurbishment but back to being both a middle-scale producing house and a community theatre.

In August the OP will have completed its three-year works programme ready to present its latest creation, Peter Pan in Scarlet.

The Oxford Playhouse is one of the country’s most famous regional theatres, but it’s not one of those venerable old palaces of the arts worshipped by conservationists. Its distinction lies in those who trod its boards, from Sybil Thorndike, John Gielgud, Rachel Kempson and Dirk Bogarde to Ronnie Barker, Shirley Williams and Nigel Lawson – it used to belong to the university. Its most famous production was probably the OUDS production of Dr Faustus in which the guest artists were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the income from which paid for the creation of the Burton Taylor Studio for students.

The OP was built as a rep theatre almost 80 years ago and designed to meld into the respectable Georgian terrace of Beaumont Street so that it has become, as one architectural his- torian put it, almost self-effacing de- spite its Grade II* status. The Oxford Playhouse Trust was set up in 1989 as a trust independent from the university.

But while the OP is famous it has had a precarious financial history. It was actually closed to the public for seven years, covering the whole of Chantal’s undergraduate time in Ox- ford, because it failed to meet health and safety regulations and hadn’t the money to upgrade. Tish Francis and Hedda Beeby were ap- pointed as joint directors who raised the funds to get the place reopened in 1991, but were warned by Oxonian die-hards that their proposed adventurous programming would quickly close it again. It didn’t, and five years after an initial repair job they oversaw a major remodelling which added a bar, air-conditioning and perfect sight-lines. After Beeby left in 2001 for the West End Francis continued alone until
2007, but with production opportunities receding in hard times. She is now co-director of Oxford’s Story Museum and still a good friend of Chantal’s. She was succeeded by Michelle Dickson, now the Arts Council’s director of touring, at a time when production risks were even less of an option, and she handed over to Chantal in 2014.

Born on a Bradford housing estate, Louise Chantal worked on lighting and design for her grammar school’s production, and when she arrived at Oxford she discovered theatre producing, immersing herself in the work of the OUDS. When Cameron Mackintosh was considering endowing a professorial chair in contemporary theatre he wanted to be assured that the plan would work for students, and it was Chantal and her friend Richard Long (now the producer of television’s Gogglebox) who negotiated with Mackin- tosh over a weekend at his Berkshire home. As a result she became, with Long, Oxford’s first university drama officer. “When people ask me what I did at Oxford” she admits ” I don’t say ‘English’, I say ‘six plays a term’”.

After Oxford she went straight into the theatre, in marketing and producing at the Edinburgh Festival – she won no fewer than nine Fringe First awards - the Soho Theatre and the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.

She returned to Oxford and the Playhouse two years ago to take on an £800,000 building programme that was already underway. It has been done in three phases of six week summer closures, this being the last: front of house was improved, the basics of air conditioning, sound and lighting systems replaced, along with most of the stage equipment, and in the third the auditorium is receiving new seating, a wall and ceiling covering and lighting that will beam on to the multi-coloured seats. “A capital budget is very exciting, we need to do it” Chantal says, “but the really important thing is that we know the lifeblood is the theatre, so we need to start producing our own theatre again”.

The OP receives funding from the Arts Council, Oxford University and the city council, but it maintains a £4.5m turnover with only 13% subsidy. Most of the rest comes from earned income and the philanthropy of Oxford residents. Self productions are a particular risk for regional theatres. They have become used to receiving plays that are with them for a week before moving on, and box office is safe with no overheads to be funded. To make their own, development has to be paid for, a set must be created, and a longer run needs to be carved out of the season which can be costly if the play is not a success, so the least perilous way is to co-produce and share the costs.

Chantal began last autumn with a co-production with Northern Stage of The Tempest, directed by Phelim McDermott and starring Tyrone Higgins on a two week run, which was successful. The refurbished theatre will be unveiled with the next, Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Almost as she arrived at the OP Chantal found a brown paper parcel on her desk, enclosing a book: the official sequel to J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, commissioned from the award- winning children’s novelist and local resident Geraldine McCaughrean by the owner of the copyright, Great Ormond Street Hospital. In her narrative, the grown-up Wendy and Lost Boys return to Neverland to rescue Peter. Chantal contacted her old Oxford friend Theresa Heskins, now artistic director of the New Vic Theatre at Newcastle-under-Lyme. They agreed on a co-production, and Heskins has adapted the novel and is directing.

The next home-grown piece will be a play offered to Chantal by the producer Oliver Mackwood, a script that could have been written for the Oxford Playhouse: Sand in the Sandwiches by Hugh Whitemore and starring Edward Fox, a witty saunter through the colourful early life of Sir John Betjeman. “It will open here in October and after a short tour we hope it will go into London, and if we’ve got it right it will make us some money” Chantal says.

Meanwhile the OP will continue to produce its annual Christmas panto, but now written and directed by Soho Theatre’s talented artistic director Steve Marmion who created last winter’s Aladdin. It attracted an audience of 36,000, a 5% increase – and hate mail from some offended, among other things, by the mixed race cast - “One objected to the leading actress’s ‘fake’ Scottish accent – she was born in Glasgow to a family from a Pakistani background” Chantal says. This year Marmion is tackling Cinderella.

And as well as a busy schools pro- gramme that includes one in which under-11s are invited to write ten minute plays which are produced with professional casts, the OP has begun a Playhouse Playmakers scheme in which putative writers are invited to submit scripts for development. When it was announced a year ago Chantal expected half a dozen applicants; there were 82, aged from 22 to 74, from which seven were selected. They came to the theatre from all parts of the country every Saturday to work on their plays, supervised by the playwright and director John Re- tallack, some of which might see full production. “In the end, we have sev- en good plays, properly processed, that are ours” Chantal says.

But when the curtain goes up on Peter Pan in Scarlet on April 12, it will be opening a new chapter for the Oxford Playhouse. In the near future is a new development Chantal and her trust chairman Danby Bloch plan to embark on in the new year which will add a rehearsal studio, improve the Burton Taylor facilities and provide proper staff facilities, and possibly a restaurant.

“Oxford deserves it, and we owe it to Oxford that the Playhouse should become a world leader in what we do, a beacon theatre” she says.

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