Interview with Geoff Clifton, Former Chair of the board of trustees

If Geoff Clifton has a couple of hours free, he likes nothing better than to “nip down” the road from his city centre home to spend some time at Storyhouse sketching. 

“It’s just so lovely to sit down and watch all the people,” he explains. “It’s a huge satisfaction how much it’s been taken to the city’s heart.” 

That satisfaction comes from having been instrumental in Storyhouse’s planning and birth as part of a total of 22 years’ involvement in the cultural and creative life of Chester – including the last 16 as a trustee of the organisation. 

The Exeter-born retired consulting structural engineer moved to the city more than 40 years ago with his young family after a spell in Africa. Gifford, the company he worked for, had just won the contract to design the city’s new hospital, and he built up a new Chester office from scratch to employ more than 70 people. 

Geoff eventually became CEO of the whole firm, travelling to visit projects across the world including the Falkland Islands. But Chester remained home, and the arts became what he describes as “a counterbalance stress reliever really to that high pressure work.” 

In the 1990s he was asked to become a trustee of the Gateway Theatre. 

“During those six years the Arts Council said they were no longer going to continue to support the Gateway as a theatre,” he recalls. “They’d support it as a multi-use arts centre, but at the same time there was a need to spend a huge amount of money on refurbishing the theatre. By then it was 25-30 years old and all the ropes in the fly tower and the electrics needed replacing.” 

Pressure of work meant after a six-year stint he gave up his trusteeship.  

But when the Gateway subsequently closed its doors, leaving the city without any major arts or performance space, Geoff was instead asked if he would join “a group of people to try and make something happen”. 

That group became Chester Performs, which set about enlivening the city centre streets with events. After six months, Geoff became Chair. The group became a charity, and a business plan was drawn up around the idea of a new theatre as part of the proposed Northgate development. 

“That was the start of what eventually became Storyhouse,” he says. “Through 12-13 years of changes up and down we did a number of successful festivals on the streets. And after about four years we started the open-air theatre as a way of getting something going. 

“That was very helpful in persuading the city to broaden their thinking; no, we don’t want just another 400-seat theatre like the Gateway, times have changed, we want something different. 

“I said to them that I wanted a new Chester living room – somewhere anyone could come, and they’d feel comfortable, whether they were the Duke of Westminster or the homeless guy down the street, they could all come and feel as though they were home. 

“That was my early thinking, and it developed and developed. And Andrew (Bentley, Storyhouse chief executive) is such a creative guy he kept coming up with all sorts of wonderful ideas.” 

Success came through getting people on board with the plans – including the leader of the council and libraries expert Erik Boekesteijn and, in Geoff’s words, “expanding steadily, and people understanding that things could be different.” 

Geoff became Chair and in 2017, Storyhouse was opened. 

“I’m flabbergasted that we achieved what we’ve achieved,” Geoff says. “I never thought we’d achieve it 10 years ago. 

“But it was about being very receptive to what’s out there and having this vision of something that’s for everybody in Chester – it wasn’t just about a theatre at all. 

“It was about the culture of the city, and that means everybody. It was community-driven, and the community would decide what a lot of things that take part in it were.” 

In 2020, he was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work. 

Now after planning to step back before the Covid pandemic, he is finally retiring from Storyhouse’s Board of Trustees. 

But while Geoff may no longer be an official board member, and says he will miss meeting up with the “interesting and diverse” group of fellow trustees, he still intends to be a regular face at Hunter Street. 

“I’m not going to abandon Storyhouse,” he says. “I’ve already set up becoming one of the volunteers. That will keep my foot in the door.” 



Words by Catherine Jones