Daniel Evans: “I don’t draw the distinctions between musicals and plays, I think they both have equal value. I’m not going to rip up that rule book.”
To kick things off, just as Jonathan Church and Alan Finch shared leadership of Chichester Festival Theatre, Evans, 43, is sharing leadership of the Theatre alongside Rachel Tackley who has also just started as Executive Director.
Born in South Wales he trained as an actor, has two Olivier Awards and a Tony nomination. Previously he was Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres where his programming included acclaimed seasons of plays by David Hare, Brian Friel, Michael Frayn and Sarah Kane.
We are talking in his office in Chichester. In post for just three months, Evans naturally and energetically fits into this environment, where he barely has time to draw breath between meetings. “Great! I’ve been bowled over, I have to say, by how friendly and welcoming people have been.” He tells me cheerfully. “Not just staff, but also, people who live and work in the region. The audiences here are incredibly passionate about this place and their theatre and it’s a privilege to be here.”
Sheffield Theatres dominated the 2016 UK Theatre Awards recently, winning five awards. Productions of Flowers For Mrs Harris and Show Boat, both directed by Evans, shared the award for best musical production. “I’m really proud of the outcome.” He nods. “The ceremony was on the same day we were all celebrating Jonathan and Alan’s tenure at CFT, so I couldn’t be at the ceremony. Part of me was sad to not be with my now ex-colleagues, but at the same time it felt right to be here to say goodbye to two gents who have done an amazing job. If we can have half the fun and success they’ve had then I’m sure our time here will be good.”
Certainly, Evans is busy cooking up his first season to be announced in February 2017. I ask for a clue about his inaugural season. “No.” He says. “Lots of people are asking for details now, but I can’t tell you or them. You want to make an impact when you do announce, but also, I get superstitious.” He pauses. “I am like that as an actor too. I never quite believe things are going to happen until you are actually there doing it.”
But, will we be fortunate enough to see him grace the stage in West Sussex? “I do miss performing – I haven’t stopped being an actor – I hope it’s something I’ll do here.” He smiles. “I only managed to do it twice in 7.5 years in Sheffield. Let’s see!”
In the case of Jonathan Church at Chichester’s helm saw hugely successful West End transfers and tours, including the recent Chichester Festival Theatre production of Half a Sixpence which opens in the West End later this month. During his time at Sheffield, Evans mixed plays and musicals with similar success. Presumably he will stick to that tried and tested formula? “I think musicals have become a strong spine of CFT seasons. It’s an opportunity for the theatre to appeal to a very broad range of people and that’s to be celebrated.”
He elaborates. “I don’t draw the distinctions between musicals and plays, I think they both have equal value. I’m not going to rip up that rule book.”
Evans recently wrote an article for The Stage in which he stressed the importance of taking a chance on people to give them a leg-up in this industry. “Lots of people responded to that article, which suggests there is a ceiling for people.” He says. “The Arts Council, our main funder is, rightly I think, making sure the Arts are democratic and accessible which is something that really chimes with me. If you believe in equality and democracy – even if democracy can be complicated at times (- note: the referendum result) – then you have to care about those tenets. It’s something I believe in strongly. So, as one of the major arts organisations in this region, we also have a responsibility to offer our audiences as wide a range of work as possible. Work from seasoned artists as well as young artists. So what I’ve been doing is meeting people from this area and getting out and exploring this place. It was wonderful to see Paines Plough in the Show Room recently, for example.”
We talk about mental health. He says that, “I think openness generally is a good thing. If something is ubiquitous like mental health why wouldn’t we talk about it? When you think one in four of us will be affected by mental health and the greatest killer for men under 45 is suicide, then it has to be a really important issue. Particularly working in the arts, we are looking at what it is to be a human being – e.g. the complexity of having a mind and body – those existential questions are something that theatre can explore better than any other art form because you are in the room collectively as it is happening. There has been a reluctance in the past to acknowledge these important issues.”
What was the last show he went to see? “Last night, I saw Adam Penford’s production of The Boys in The Band at the Park Theatre. I liked it very much. I’ve seen the play twice before: it feels to me like a seminal piece of writing about gay men. It was interesting to be in an audience of predominantly older gay men; some of those people who lived through legalisation of homosexuality, the Wolfenden report, NY Riots, Stonewall then AIDS and- gay marriage. It was a very moving play and production. I came away thinking it was sad that some of the issues in the play are still with us. While I was glad that time has passed and things have moved on, it still felt very resonant.”
We talk about the recent imposing of a standardised system for measuring artistic quality by Arts Council England on National Portfolio Organisations. Nevertheless, despite a muted sector response and warnings that it will require a “quantum change” in organisational attitudes to data.
He shrugs when I suggest that the scenario is not exactly ideal, so I ask how he would respond using only emojis? He laughs. “I’d use the forward facing emoji and those two big eye emojis, because at the moment we are all still finding out what the scheme requires, what they mean and how they will be used. In principle, there’s a good idea in there which is about wanting to make sure the qualities of people’s experience is top notch… Maybe they’ll ask us to respond in emojis?”
It’s clear that Daniel Evans has a lot to offer and I leave thinking that he is completely brilliant. A man of many talents that Chichester is very lucky to have. Evans is in the right place.