10 Years of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre!

It all started with a stage built around a tree, a spot of Shakespeare and a touch of Hercules

And suddenly, in the blink of an eye and the dancing of a star, Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is celebrating its 10th summer season.

As Iago said – pleasure and action make the hours seem short. But although the past decade might have flown by, there has been much ado inside the theatre’s circular walls since we staged our first pair of productions in 2010.

And 24 shows and almost 180,000 tickets sold later, we like to think that Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre has earned its position as a cherished part of Chester’s cultural calendar.

The theatre was born in the wake of the financial crisis that engulfed the world in 2008 and which led, closer
to home, to the stalling of plans for the development of Chester city centre – complete with what would
eventually become Storyhouse.

The idea was simple; rather than waiting, we wanted to bring live theatre back to the city there and then by creating an amphitheatre in the park where we could stage what we were keen would be ‘a bit of Shakespeare and something for the kids.’ Six thousand hardy souls came to see us that first year, sitting on specially constructed curved steel seating that hugged a raked wooden stage, while behind the scenes similarly hardy actors sheltered under trees or ran to and from dressing rooms hastily set up in an old office block on the outskirts of the park.

While the open-air theatre might have grown into an open-air village over the years, the overall setting has in fact become less theatrical, and more in keeping with our original ethos of – in chief executive Andrew Bentley’s words – “some bark and a piece of grass and a sandwich”.We’ve resisted the lure of technology and amplification, and of complicated and cumbersome scenery, and have instead spent our money on big repertory companies of brilliant performers, speaking the words of talented contemporary writers like Glyn Maxwell and Bryony Lavery – who write for our actors’ own voices – along of course with staging timeless masterpieces from the greatest playwright in the world.

The raised stage quickly disappeared, to be replaced by a floor-level arena of chipped wood completely encircled by terracing. As a result, all the energy flows into the centre of the theatre as the physical boundaries between watchers
and the watched melt away.

There’s a wonderful cultural democracy, and a little bit of anarchy too, about theatre in the round – and a visceral relationship between our actors and you our audience as a result. It’s truly a shared experience.And we love that our audience has wholeheartedly embraced that experience, from the now traditional pre-performance checking of lotion and handing out of hats to those exposed to the sun’s rays, to the full waterproofs that make an appearance on more inclement summer days.

We introduced velarium covers for the back of the terrace in 2014, but much of the theatre space remains thrillingly open to the elements, just as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day.And it’s testament to a shared sense of hearty outdoors-ism that over the past decade only two performances have been cancelled – and on both occasions the weather was a tempestuous Biblical storm of thunder and lightning. But more often than not, the sun seems to shine on the park, and a joyous communal party atmosphere prevails among the picnics and performances. Al fresco feasting is all part of the experience, even if there was a moment a few years ago when we worried the dining – complete with cloths and candelabras and at least one whole baked salmon – might turn a little competitive.

Seasons past bring with them a myriad of memories; from the year Andy Murray won Wimbledon and our actors paused the start while the audience gave three spontaneous cheers, to the hen party in full regalia who sat spellbound through Othello, from the Three Witches catching enthusiastically-popped corks in mid-flight to the evening one actor had sight problems and it turned out that the head of the Countess of Chester’s eye clinic was in the crowd.

We’re yet to stage Richard III, but two years ago we had our own horse moments at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017) when actor Adam Keast (playing Bottom) would regularly ask someone on the front row to take care of his imaginary animal. While most audience members dutifully clutched the invisible rein that was handed to them, on one particular evening Puck had just delivered his final speech when the woman in charge of said steed piped up with immaculate timing to ask: “Well what am I supposed to do with this effing horse?”It was a beautiful moment.

Meanwhile a happy by product of the annual open-air festival is that Grosvenor Park has been reclaimed for the whole community. When we staged our first season, the park was threatening to become a night-time haunt for drinkers and drug users. Now the needles you’re most likely to spot belong to hedgehogs. One memorable year we enlisted the help of the Hells Angels as our security detail. There must have been a few people who got a fright when they spotted a burly biker sitting in a hedge wearing night vision goggles.

The park is a completely family-friendly environment, and that’s a perfect setting for our family-friendly season, and our kids-go-free with an adult philosophy which we’re delighted has been embraced by so many of you.It means not only do youngsters flock to our children’s shows, like this year’s fresh adaptation of The Borrowers, but they also come in large numbers to see our Shakespearean productions too.

So, what next for Grosvenor Park? We have three fantastic productions for you in this 10th anniversary year (plus, for foodies, the addition of a wood-fired pizza oven) but we’re always looking at ways to both sustain and improve the open-air experience. And surprise you too.

We’re committed to maintaining Grovenor Park as a precious piece of Chester’s cultural ecosystem, and the joy of it is that it remains the kind of theatre that would only work outside. After all, as someone once wrote, all the world’s a stage. And on that stage, the play’s the thing.