Feeling like a ringmaster

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Timothy Sheader admits he feels rather like a ringmaster at the moment. Which is all very appropriate.

He’s directing the monumental circus-inspired summer spectacular Barnum in Chichester Festival Theatre’s new temporary Theatre in the Park. “Directing a musical is a far bigger project that people imagine,” says Timothy, who is

is artistic director of the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park. “It’s far more difficult than directing a play. Musicals are often looked down upon, but the sheer volume of people on stage is just incredibly hard work.”

Particularly with a show such as this one: “You have got to keep everything moving constantly. It’s not people sitting around and talking or standing by the kitchen sink and talking or, as with a Shakespeare, just talking and talking with a minimum of background. With this it has got to be moving all the time. You have got to be creating images all the time.

“It’s just a constant, and that’s my main job – just bringing it all together. There is a music department. There is a choreography department. There is a flying department. We had someone come in to teach whip-cracking. We had a magician come in. Someone came in to teach juggling. There are just so many things that you have got to bring together in the one show.”

Hence he feels like the ringmaster: “It’s complicated, and it is a great challenge, but the main thing is that it is also great fun and very colourful!”

This musical follows the irrepressible imagination and dreams of Phineas T Barnum, America’s Greatest Showman. We follow the legendary showman’s life as he lit up the world with the colour, warmth and excitement of his imagination and finally teamed up with J A Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey’s Circus – the Greatest Show on Earth.

“He was an amazing producer, really amazing at advertising and PR and spin and creating something out of nothing and taking an idea and making it sellable.

“He was a megalomaniac in some ways. He couldn’t rest. He couldn’t keep still. He was taking ideas all the time and working with them, but it wasn’t just about the money. It was not just ‘Let’s get rich!’ It was about the thrill of it, the chase after it, the smell of it, the excitement of it all – as anyone who is good at advertising will tell you. That is what was driving him.”

And to that tale has been added a degree of romance, which almost certainly wasn’t there...There was no decent family life in reality. He was always away on tour. His wife was very different to him, but in reality he was barely at home. He barely saw his children. But this play makes the love story central for human interest, and it plays it up quite differently. In this she tries to keep it all together and is the backbone of his ideas. But in reality their lives were pretty separate.”

But as Timothy says, it all adds to the fun – a big part of which will be performing in the brand-new temporary theatre, which this summer replaces the CFT’s main-house, which is currently undergoing a multi-million pound refit and refurbishment.

And for Timothy, adding to the excitement is the fact that he and the company don’t get to see the new theatre until a week or so before the show opens in Chichester.

“I have seen the plans. It is going to be great.”

Barnum runs in the Theatre in the Park from July 15-August 31.

By Phil Hewitt