US Funding for Geordie musical

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 18th August, 2015

“If you don’t run a venue I don’t think you’d realise how many individuals walk into the building and ask to speak to you to tell you they have the greatest play or musical or idea ever!”

So says Ray Spencer, Chief Executive of the Customs House in South Shields, talking about the genesis of a new play, Geordie the Musical, which begins previews this coming Friday, 21 August 2015.

“I’ve got so say my heart sank when, back in summer 2013, my office phone rang and front of house told me that a man wanted so see me about a play!” he went on, “But I went across and met him.”

It was a different kind of meeting to what he had been expecting; rather than the attempts to sell him a play, he was asked lots of questions about time-scales, costs and so on. Neither was the man himself what he thought he would be: he was, in fact, a South Shields man who had been living in Texas for more than thirty years.

“I didn’t have much time,” Spencer says, “but he did interest me so I suggested that the next time he was in the area we could set up a meeting with adequate time to talk properly.”

The ex-pat was Andy Bogle who had been born in Garrick Street in Shields (an appropriate name!) and had gone to the US as a young man where he became involved in the early days of the offshore oil exploration business.

“Whenever I came to visit family over here,” he said, “I realised how much our dialect is changing, becoming more Americanised. That upset me because dialect—language—is the foundation of our culture and I thought that a play would be a good way of celebrating it. I knew music would be a part of it so I made a song list, wrote the story (which is set in 1891) and passed them on to Ray.”

“Andy’s passion is palpable,” Spencer says and he found the whole idea attractive.

However what really clinched the deal for the Customs House was that Bogle was prepared (with 25% of the support coming from the family trust of a friend in Texas) to pay all the costs of the production.

“That’s not unusual over in the States,” he told me, “That’s how things are funded.”

He is a trustee of the Unity Theatre in his home town near Houston and 60% of its funding comes from contributions from individuals or people underwriting productions. Unity, he says, plays to an average house of 85% but ticket sales only make up 40% of its income.

And it’s not just theatre which is funded in this way: orchestras, opera, exhibitions in the US all depend on the generosity of individuals, trusts and companies for their existence.

NE writer Tom Kelly was commissioned to write the play and so began the process which culminates in the longer than usual run which begins this week.

“It’s something we couldn’t possibly have considered without Andy’s underwriting it all,” Ray Spencer admits. “It has a cast of ten and it’s an original musical which, for a venue which isn’t funded for drama, would have been impossible.

“Now though, with all the costs taken care of, we will be using the box office income to fund more new writing celebrating our local heritage which is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I took up my job. We have great plans!”

The play was to have been directed by Jackie Fielding who has had a long association with the Customs House but she tragically died suddenly in May during the run of another Customs House production which she directed, The Man and the Donkey, just as the finished script was due to be delivered.

“We see this as a tribute to Jackie,” Spencer says. “Jamie Brown, who played the lead in The Man and the Donkey, has taken over the direction and he is assisted by Viktoria Kay who was also in the play that was Jackie’s last ever production.”

Geordie the Musical opens on Friday 21 August at the Customs House in Mill Dam, South Shields, and runs until Saturday 5 September.