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Bright and Beautiful: GDS Improvises on a Theme at Chichester Festival Theatre

Bright and Beautiful: GDS Improvises on a Theme at Chichester Festival Theatre
Bright and Beautiful: GDS Improvises on a Theme at Chichester Festival Theatre

UK - The inaugural artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex was Sir Laurence Olivier, who occupied the role for three years following its opening in 1962. If that alone does not offer sufficient evidence of its status as one of Britain's most important theatres, then scrolling forwards to June 2014 most certainly does. Following extensive rebuilding and refurbishment, the venue re-opened on a gala evening in the presence of a host of the biggest hitters in British theatre. Sirs Tom Stoppard, Cameron Mackintosh and Peter Shaffer joined a congregation of other stellar names to celebrate the eagerly anticipated occasion. The re-development was concerned with modernising the theatre to ensure a sustainable future as well as enabling it to meet the demands of more adventurous contemporary productions. In the opinion of the Telegraph theatre critic Charles Spencer who witnessed a recent production of Guys and Dolls, the work has been successful. He left the Festival Theatre, "walking on air and with a grin of pure happiness..."

GDS, alongside project partners Haworth Tompkins Architects, Charcoalblue, White Light and Skelly and Couch, were closely involved in the refurbishment of what is plainly a highly-cherished venue. Intrinsically the brief was not so much to dramatically alter the interior but rather to improve every aspect of its function without changing its appearance. The Festival Theatre's unique nature had not only made it a hit with audiences for a generation but had provided fertile ground for the development of many shows that would find their way to the West End and beyond. In refurbishing Chichester, it was essential to preserve the magic and warmth that had cast a spell over audiences for years, whilst at the same time replacing outdated and unsustainable technology. GDS was to address all aspects of auditorium and backstage lighting. The catenary lighting above the thrust stage at Chichester Festival Theatre lies at its very heart and soul and its upgrading, without any loss of original character, was crucial to the entire project.

GDS's award-winning LED ArcSystem was installed for all aspects of house lighting, including emergency lights (around 200 fixtures in total). In this case fully wired and dimming seamlessly from 100% to zero, this award winning product offers a typical energy saving of 70-90% as well as requiring no maintenance. GDS BluesSystem working lights completed the backstage picture in a fully wired installation. The challenges presented by the theatre's catenary lighting were the subject of much discussion from the outset. In replacing the existing fittings with LEDs, it appeared that there would have to be a compromise between the brightness required for functional activity such as set-construction and cleaning and the desired colour temperature essential for creating the right atmosphere on performance nights. The choice appeared to be straightforward. Either sacrifice the required brightness by going with a 2700K MR16 lamp (equivalent to the existing tungsten lamps) or lose the desired warmth by opting for 3000K lamps. Discussions followed and when Stephen White of Skelly and Couch floated the idea of employing gold reflectors, Richard Cuthbert, Technical director at GDS, set about adapting the ArcSystem fittings to make the idea a reality. By 'metallizing' the reflectors of 3000K MR16's with a gold finish, the GDS team was able to obtain the desired warmth, whilst allowing for maximum brightness when required. By thus working a little magic and creating a bespoke version of the ArcSystem Decor MR16 unit, GDS helped enable the Chichester Festival Theatre to retain its magic without compromise.

Alex Wardle of Charcoalblue commented: "GDS is the only firm we know of who could have pulled off this challenging task so successfully. Responding positively to feedback from the client, architect and consultants, GDS came up with a bespoke solution which is both beautiful and practical. In addition to the venue now having a low-energy house-light system with no need to change lamps, the need for a separate working light system around the auditorium was avoided. This not only saved money but meant that there would be no unnecessary additional clutter in the auditorium ceiling."

Stephen White of Skelly and Couch added: "A number of challenges presented themselves at Chichester. The client essentially wanted things to remain as close to the pre-existing look of the theatre, whilst significantly reducing energy consumption. This meant paying extremely careful attention to getting the colour temperatures right and being able to adjust the catenary lighting to provide a consistent and even spread. GDS's response was proactive. Always helpful and accommodating, GDS demonstrated samples, ran tests on a number of colour temperature options and subsequently customised aspects of what appears to be an excellent product to ensure that the client was satisfied."

The views of the protagonists and stakeholders in a project such as this are doubtlessly of great value but it is worth remembering always that the real measure perhaps lies somewhere in the eyes of the audience. Just as he offered an enthusiastic take on proceedings onstage, Charles Spencer of the Telegraph wrote tellingly: "The great thing about the superbly renovated Chichester Festival Theatre is that it simply seems like a better version of its former self. There are improved views over the rolling park land, more spacious foyers, twice as many ladies loos and 100 more seats in the thrilling thrust-stage auditorium. But the essence of the place - that rare thing, a brutally modernist building that really works - is much the same as it was, though backstage the technical facilities have been greatly enhanced."

28th January 2015

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