The man who will set the artistic agenda for Chester’s new cultural centre is Alex Clifton, acclaimed director of the city’s Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre project.

Mr Clifton has this week been appointed the artistic director of Chester Performs which will run the new £37m centre which is due to open in autumn 2016.

The appointment comes after an extensive interview and selection process involving the company’s board of trustees, funders and independent advisors.

Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Mr Clifton has been artistic director of the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre since its inception in 2010 and has seen the eight-week long repertory season grow from playing to an initial audience of 5,000 to 25,000 this year, selling out in 2014.

He has directed many of the productions himself especially the presentations of Shakespeare which have been such a feature of the project including last year’s much-praised Macbeth and Comedy of Errors.

A scene from the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre production of Othello
A scene from the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre production of Othello

He is also a senior acting teacher at RADA, and has just completed a major book for Methuen on teaching methods for actors and directors.

This is a homecoming for Mr Clifton, who will move to Chester to take up the role. After attending Christleton High School he went on to study English at Oxford University.

He has worked with theatres and opera companies across the UK including the National, Old Vic, English National Opera and the Oxford Playhouse, as well as having directed community theatre internationally.

As a freelance theatre and opera director, he has twice been awarded Time Out Off-West End Production of the Year.

Exciting project

Chester’s new cultural centre, a partnership with Cheshire West and Chester Council, was described as a “one of the most exciting projects in England” by Arts Council England chair Sir Peter Bazalgette.

The new theatre's flexibility will see it accommodate audiences ranging from 800-500 strong in a unique transformation delivering a winter touring and summer producing theatre.

Mr Clifton’s expanded Grosvenor Park company will deliver the home-produced theatre which will make up around half of the theatre’s work.

The building also houses a major new library for the city centre and a boutique cinema.

Cultural life

The new artistic director will work directly alongside Chester Performs’ chief executive Andrew Bentley in steering the cultural and community life of the new building.

Mr Bentley said: “It’s incredibly important to the centre, and the city, that we cement a great, and hopefully one of the great, partnerships at the heart of this organisation.

“Alex and I have been working for five years on Grosvenor Park. He is a phenomenal catch who was ready to lead any number of the great artistic teams in the country. He won this job against fierce competition and we’re so lucky that our long-term collaborator is with us on the journey.

“He’s a great leader, communicator and artist and we are honoured to have him.”

"A huge privilege"

Mr Clifton added: “I am delighted to join the endlessly creative Chester Performs team. Working with Andrew to lead this organisation as it moves into its new home is a huge privilege and I look forward to the many challenges ahead.

“Helping define a cultural centre that serves this wonderful community is a unique opportunity and means all the more to me personally as I was born and bred in Chester.

“This accessible, ground-breaking building will be a hub for invigorating creativity and a unique resource for our diverse, proud community.”

Bill Hughes, chair of Chester Performs trustees, who led the recruitment process, said: “We are delighted to have secured Alex as our artistic director. He will be joining us after 13 years in London where his career has been developing in a most impressive way.

“He has had directing experience with prestigious companies such as English National Opera, and the National Theatre Studio, but has also undertaken innovative community theatre projects in this country and abroad.

“His work at RADA will have given him particular expertise in working with young people, an aspect of theatre we are most keen to develop.”

Graham Lister, project director at RE:NEW, Chester’s new cultural centre, said: “I am delighted that Alex has been chosen as the artistic director for Chester’s new cultural centre. He is an inspirational leader with a strong vision and commitment to ensure its work reaches out and connects with every part of our community.”

Alex Clifton will take up the role immediately and is currently rehearsing Romeo and Juliet and Glyn Maxwell’s new version of Wind in the Willows for Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre this summer which will also feature a production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Rebecca Gatward.

Day in the Life: Artistic director of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre Alex Clifton

Chester Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre unveils cast for 2015 productions