Producers Respond

Director of English Touring Theatre Rachel Tackley and producer Michael Harrison introduced the problems of matching show and venue, of the need to be flexible.

There are not many dates where a show can have a long stay so a touring producer has to look at a wide range of venues and, Harrison said, the demands of the show and the theatre building may demand huge adaptation of a particular production to get it in and make it fit. For his production of Barnum, there were three different versions, which then might require further adaptation. In Nottingham, an excellent theatre had less capacity than the 2000-seat concert hall next-door which was more viable despite the extra cost of rigging and other equipment.

Harrison had never had a production that he wanted to bring into the West End. There had been excellent shows, successful on tour, but there are huge differences between the economics of the West End and of touring. Outside London, people go to see shows at their local theatre; there is a relationship with it, and that is missing in the West End where it show stands alone.

Madani Younis, Artistic Director at the Bush Theatre, said when he was at Freedom Studios in Bradford he found audiences would come to created spaces. The Bush’s present home is a former library and many local people shared memories of going there. The site on the Uxbridge Road makes it part of the community and they want to make it more open to everyone, not just theatregoers.

They intend to make a virtue of being closed for a year for building work by taking shows into found spaces, increasing awareness of their presence. While they have lost some of the audience from their old location in Shepherd’s Bush, they have gained new ones but there have been changes that reflect the community.

Tristan Baker is producer at Runaway entertainment whose production of The Railway Children (originally at York) with its live steam locomotive would not fit into any London theatre. It transferred first to the platforms of Waterloo International then they chose to build a new theatre by the railway at King’s Cross at the cost of £1 million. It seats 1000 in traverse and it took only six weeks to get the theatre up and tech the show.

That production has now been joined by the transfer of In the Heights from Southwark Playhouse. They now play 13 shows a week (6 Railway Children, 7 In the Heights) with only 1 hour turnaround between the shows—and that involves changing the foyer as well so that the complete experience is different. You can do that when you are running the building as well as the show, which gives real creative freedom.

Compared to the conventional way of working, it is a joy to have such complete control. They can do their own ticketing and deal directly with their audience at every level, setting the tone of the show from a welcome e-mail on.

Younis added that if you run a building (and the Bush is open from 9AM) you can make choices—like not outsourcing, which makes it possible to share the energy of the creative employees with the FOH staff.

In further discussion, Rachel Tackley suggested a far greater difference between presenting and producing theatres than the commercial and not-for-profit divide. Architects should create theatres with which people fall in love and attitudes to theatres can change. Despite its D'Oyly Carte history, the Savoy was not thought of recently as an obvious theatre for musicals but the success of Gypsy and now Funny Girl has changed that.

Every theatre has its own issues but we need investment in buildings to facilitate changes. Indeed, some theatres have made changes to get a particular show. (In Toronto a new theatre was built for Miss Saigon.) We could learn from America where, rather than the separate refurbishment of individual theatres, a US group of theatres did it together.

That led onto talk about the Restoration Levy. These producers said it shouldn’t be about dealing with wear and tear, that should come out of the operating budget. Restoration fees should be used for restoration and sometimes they are not.