Alex Clifton is the artistic director for Storyhouse, Chester’s long awaited new theatre and arts centre. Born in Chester, he developed a passion for theatre during his time with the Gateway youth theatre. He studied English at Oxford and has worked in a range of jobs within the industry including assistant director at the National Theatre and resident director at English National Opera. Since 2009 he has worked as artistic director of the open air theatre in the park. Mr Clifton took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about his vision for Storyhouse.
He says that working with the Gateway youth theatre was a “huge privilege” and “really formative…. Ben Ayrton ran it when I first joined. I joined it because I wanted to meet girls like most idiot 12 year old boys! I was walking home from Christleton High school with my friend Mike, and Mike said “you should join the youth theatre, there’s loads of girls!” But it was a really transformative experience for me, really being able to explore different versions of myself, and be much more honest than I had ever been able to be at school” He recalls the production of “Christmas Cat and the Pudding pirates” as an “absolute blast. we were largely involved in throwing sweets at children in the audience. I had a fantastic Christmas that year!”
The youth theatre set the bar, and the creative standard for Alex’s future career. He says that it was “industry leading, and it had a massive influence on my desire to be involved in the creative industries, and ultimately to do this job.”
Alex says that even as a 12 year old he developed the ambition to one day run a theatre. He has various role models amongst the actors and directors he worked with and particularly remembers his involvement in the community co production of “Taking Liberties” . This included Chester’s first gay kiss on stage: “I think that kiss made it onto the front page of the Chronicle!”
The Gateway closed in 2007. I asked Alex if the lack of a professional theatre has led to a “lost generation” of theatre goers. He disagrees with this , saying that :
“I think a lost generation is too extreme because there has been so much cultural activity in the city .. you could never claim that the work that Matt Baker and theatre in the quarter, or that Tip Top do…. these are massive positive cultural acts. From our own organisation, the open air theatre, the literature festival, the music festival … Wayword… There has been lots of stuff going on, what there hasn’t been is a flagship, and I guess that’s what this represents. A sort of national and international flagship, an opportunity to represent the work that is going on here, and for us to support that work, and extend and promote the offer.”
Will Storyhouse be the missing piece in Chester’s culture ?
“Maybe. I want to be a bit more cautious than that.’ I’d like to think of it as an evolutionary rather than revolutionary step. I think it will make a massive difference. it will have a transformational impact, but it does feel like the next natural step. We already have a nearly 600 seat theatre operating for a couple of months in the summer in the park. Which is selling out. at 96% capacity last summer. We already have a set of successful youth theatres running in the city , Minerva, Theatre in the quarter. We’ve already got successful theatre makers in the city.. .Its a significant step , its a magnificent statement of intent from the local authority, that’s the real win for me. Having a local authority , both sides of the fence, that’s Tory and Labour, standing up and saying, we think this is worth the nearly 33 million they have invested in it. That’s a huge statement of intent, in how they value the arts, and the thing that culture does, which asks those big social questions about what sort of community we want to build for the future.”
Alex says that he is aware of the expectation about the opening. Does he feel any pressure?
“I do and I don’t. There’s clearly that pressure and there are a lot of questions about it. I’m not trying to dodge that pressure when I say its a community, and a community act. The investment comes from you, me, my mum, my brother… the idea in itself is not from any single individual. When I joined in this project, getting involved in the open air theatre in 2009, this project was already in the air, the local authority had been working towards it for a very long time. When I was a kid this was talked about. Different sides of the political fence had driven it, different artists and different producers have made it happen. Obviously I’m conscious there is pressure, but my God its a privilege! Its the work I have always wanted to be doing. Its a pressure I want, I welcome and I enjoy.”
The new build on the site formerly occupied by commerce house will be the theatre space in Storyhouse, with the cinema and library housed in the Odeon building. The theatre will have 800 seats, but can be adapted into a 500 seatteh er for more intimate productions. Many have questioned what touring productions we can expect to see in Chester.
“The scale of production on an 800 seat stage.. that allows us to bring in some very big productions, the kind of stuff you see at The Lowry. That sort of programme of work, in terms of dance, opera, theatre, drama , comedy, music. If you look across the country at other 800 seat venues, the work we’ll be bringing in will be comparable to these venues..
“In the 500 seat mode, with a thrust stage, when we’re producing our own work, Again. you can look at other 500 seat theatres, the most obvious one is our open air theatre. Mold would be a reference point. I would expect our work to be compared to that standard…” Productions will be staged in blocks of time because of how long it takes to shift the stage into the alternate format. “It involves a lot of labour, which is good, because that’s employment! I am leaving a lot of time for first year because there’s a lot to learn. We are talking about doing seasons of work on the 800, and seasons on the 500.”
When will the programme be revealed ?
“Good man ! I’m glad that’s the big question! In truth, as soon as I know it, and can announce it. I’m confident that we are putting together a really exciting programme..”
Alex said that the admissions /pricing policy will be inclusive:
“We have a couple of policies, our under 12’s go free policy will continue, and we have a discounted rate for teenagers. If you’re a child in care or foster care you go free. We have a partnership with the Bridge Foyer, who are one of a few resident support homes for young people at risk of homelessness, or who are homeless. We work with Passion for learning, who work with vulnerable in key stages 1 and 2, primary school kids.
I am looking for meaningful and sustainable programmes of work, and pricing policies that support people who genuinely need to be given access to culture, and are genuinely marginalised and excluded. Equally its worth saying that we have to be a viable and sustainable business, so I’m not going to be shy about prices that set the right value on the work we’re generating and asking the people that can pay, to pay. Where we see that people can’t pay I’m not going to exclude them because of an economic barrier, a social barrier, a racial barrier, a cultural barrier, I’m going to provide clear pathways to provide them with access. But I’m not going to scream and shout about the support we’re giving to homeless children, because I don’t want to put them on a pedestal for their homelessness, I want to support them.”
Will Storyhouse employ local creatives ?
“The creative centre of gravity is Chester, and wherever we can, we will. The “can” is defined by our standards of excellence, inclusion, sustainability and innovation. Wherever we have the opportunity to make work with people from Chester, I’ll be working with them 100%. I have no bias toward any other agenda , apart from an international agenda, I’d like us to be international in our programming and employment.” Recent press reports have stated that over 300 jobs will be created , and Alex says even this is a conservative figure. “They won’t all be in the building, the benefit comes from our free lance employment as well, there will be a rota of stewards, electricians, support staff, artists and creatives.
Will there be an opportunity for local artists to display their work inside the building?
“The challenge is security, but the answer is yes. The commission we have received from the local authority and the arts council, is to be centre for digital arts and live arts, not for visual arts. The commission isn’t explicitly there, but I’m passionate about all all creative arts. We will try and find opportunities to display work wherever possible . The children’s library will display community artwork by local children. What I can’t do is deliver the level of control and liability which a true art gallery needs to do. We will display art but not if its worth £4-500 quid unless the artist is comfortable taking that risk, in which case, abso-bloody-lutely I will!
Will there be further site visits for the public ?
I’d have thought so. Cllr Gittins and myself led a series of tours and I expect we’ll repeat that. I think it will go quite a little now because of the stage the building is in. In the autumn, I’d very much expect us to community tours. We put the big advert out, and of course its all the same faces, which is great, I want them to come and see it! The usual faces are very welcome, I don’t mean that in any derogatory way… One of the usual faces is my mum! But its also about reaching out to people and groups that aren’t engaged get them in the building now so they have some ownership and are part of the buildings life.
Will there be a famous patron ?
“We will probably have a patron scheme, its not at the top of my to do list at the moment, but clearly we want to engage the right level of support for our work, and establish this building nationally and internationally in people’s minds as a centre of real significance”
What creative event are you most looking forward to seeing onstage ?
“There are three things. One is the WOW (women of the world) festival . I’m cautiously announcing a bit of programme here! It’s a festival exploring celebrating, talking about the challenges that women face, in the world today. We’re an organisation with a strong feminist agenda, and this is something the festival tackles, the obvious inequality that still exists in society. That’s a time for us to bring together extraordinary groups of women to tell extraordinary stories.
I’m excited about our young company, and bringing the opportunities that I had , to explore self expression and find myself as a human being.. I’m looking forward to sharing these opportunities with young people in Chester and Cheshire.
I’m looking forward to seeing Tip Top on stage, Chester operatic on stage…
There are some titles, I can’t really talk about them, but I cannot frickin wait to direct them on that stage! I can’t wait to get an ensemble of actors together and get them on stage.I’d like to name names, but I’d just be talking about contracts I haven’t had signed yet. But for me its not about famous people, its about extraordinary people.. Its not about saying “ooh look we have this person off the telly!” That may or may not happen , but I want extra ordinary people on our stage. The primary school children who are struggling to read, who are working in our library, that’s the stuff that moves me and drives me, those engagement opportunities, as well as amazing storytellers, actors, singers, performers on the stage. There’s no point having an inclusion model if you don’t have an excellence and sustainability model . We’ve got to create a business that is viable, and fills houses!
I love populism. I am proud of the fact that in our history we have broken down the binary between excellence and populist. Our greatest ever playwright was also one of our richest. Thomas Middleton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, these guys died rich because they broke down the boundary. That’s a professional requirement for us.
What would you like Storyhouse to be famous for ?
“I think the integration of the library service into the cultural offer. I think it is the thing we are doing which will deliver the most impact to culture in this country. It’s a real opportunity for us to make a profound impact on our community , day to day . We’ll do the big showy stuff on the stage, the library will give us the life of the building. The theatre at the other end will deliver these high end transformative things that people may remember forever. The library will provide somewhere safe for people to come and work, to develop their career, to work on their CV, to start a new business. We are already getting attention , the DCMS (department for culture media and sport) the British council, we’ve had visits from Holland and India.
Alex concludes by saying that he is very excited about the opening of Storyhouse:”Time of my life ! Its a real privilege , its the city I love, the city I was born and brought up in . Its a community I feel connected to and part of. This is the biggest cultural capital project outside of London. Its a once in a generation opportunity for any theatre maker!” Regarding the opening date which is currently “the end of the year” Alex says that he is “reasonably relaxed… I want to get it open and right..”