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Chichester stages a comeback with 30% audience rise

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Chichester Festival Theatre’s plummeting audience levels have been reversed with a 30% rise for its summer season this year, representing an extra 36,000 people visiting the venue during the festival.

The turnaround marks the first season under new artistic director Jonathan Church, since he took over from Ruth Mackenzie, Martin Duncan and Steven Pimlott. Last year’s attendance for the festival had sunk to what is thought to be an all-time low of 106,000. However, this season CFT exceeded its target of 125,000, reporting audience levels of more than 142,000 people.

Speaking to The Stage, Church explained: “It has gone extremely well. It was a tricky year in terms of the number of years over which the audience had been falling. We set ourselves fairly ambitious targets and actually still set a deficit budget because we felt it was too much to turn around in one year. We also did more work and employed more actors than previously.”

Despite setting a budget to lose £350,000, Church said that he was now “pretty sure” that the organisation would break even “or better” over the full twelve months, with takings from the forthcoming winter season taken into account. He believes that the figures for the full year will mean that attendance levels will reach around 180,000 or even more, roughly equivalent to a venue such as Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

The results, according to Church, will mark a turnaround of around £750,000 from the previous season, which broke even but was helped by a £500,000 VAT refund. The venue has also lost some of its local funding since then.

Every production during the festival season reached or exceeded its budgeted audience figures, with the exception of Carousel. It was, in fact, the season’s best performer – attracting 40,000 – but had been set the most ambitious targets.

“This doesn’t make for instant stability,” Church warned. “The challenge is to maintain this. We also did benefit this season from some marvellous productions, which performed well, especially Nicholas Nickleby and Entertaining Angels. We need to do that and better, around 160 to 170,000, to be comfortable. We need to keep thinking creatively. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

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