Oxford University drama owes a lot to Louise Chantal. As a student at Lincoln in the late ‘80s, she helped create the Professorship of Contemporary Theatre at St Catz, and was influential in the conversion of the Burton Rooms, a rehearsal space on Gloucester Street, into the BT Studio of today. Having been president of OUDS, she became its first Drama Officer in 1990 and established the annual tour to Japan, before leaving to forge a career in professional theatre.
In September, Chantal was appointed Chief Executive of the Oxford Playhouse. I meet her in the theatre’s circle bar to ask about her triumphant return. She has a smile on her face as I ask her how it feels to be back in Oxford, over two decades after she graduated.
“It’s fantastic to be involved with Oxford’s cultural scene again,” she tells me. “I’ve always joked that Oxford would be a lovely place to return to, as long as everyone I knew had either died or left. Funnily enough, that’s almost exactly how it’s turned out.”
In 1987, financial difficulties forced the Playhouse’s doors to close. It was eventually reopened in 1991, but only after Chantal had flown the nest. I ask how this impacted on her experience of drama at Oxford.
“We were very aware that we didn’t have a big space to use for shows. We did a wonderful production of Thunderbirds at the Catholic Chapel on St Aldate’s because we had to do those big productions somewhere else.”
“Of course, that means I understand how important the Playhouse is from a student point of view, because it provides that opportunity to work in a large, professional space.”
The playhouse offers the main stage up to two student productions a term. This term it was the highly-acclaimed The Pillowman and Oxford University Classical Drama Society’s The Furies. In Hilary, it will be Sondheim’s West Side Story and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Enthusiastic about these productions though Chantal undeniably is, it is the prospect of staging a piece of new student writing on the main stage that especially excites her.
“People see the playhouse as this daunting 600-seat theatre, and they feel obligated to play it safe. I would love to open up the main stage to a new, original student production; we just don’t get any applications. Of course, you would have to convince the panel that it would sell tickets, and would bring in an audience that wasn’t just students, but if you did that…”
Finding ways to draw in new audiences is an integral part of Chantal’s role as Chief Executive — it is evidently a chief concern with student productions — but she is unwilling to compromise the Playhouse’s niche in Oxford’s cultural scene to do so.
“We do, for want of a better phrase, ‘serious theatre’,” she tells me. “It’s a slight misnomer, this ‘theatre for everyone’ label, because it doesn’t mean every show is for everyone, and nor does it mean we produce end-of-the-pier, lowest-common-denominator stuff. But it behoves us, financially and culturally, to get more people through the door.”
“So we are concerned with bringing as many people in as possible, but at the same time, I’m really not interested in competing with other theatres in putting on musicals with people off the telly.”
I ask Chantal about her plans for the future. The coming season is the last assembled by her predecessors, so audiences will have to wait until the summer to appreciate Chantal’s vision.
“The programming team here are so brilliant and diligent that pretty much the whole of 2015 is already sorted. I want to do more of our own shows, but I won’t be able to until 2016, and that’s driving me mad. I want to do more international work as well; we’re getting involved with a lot of international co-productions.”
“Theatre was my life when I was an undergrad. It’s lovely to get involved again.”