The West End's new beginning
Some will call it vulgar, some offensive, some hysterical I find it shocking how much money is going to waste in these regional companies
Wednesday 21 April 1999
Sonia Friedman left Out of Joint, the enormously successful new writing company she set up with Max Stafford-Clark, for one of the most exciting jobs in British theatre. Not only is she now commissioning, developing and co-programming a dizzying array of work in theatres across the country, she is also attempting to change the pattern of London's commercial theatre with the creation of the New Ambassadors Theatre.
For the last two years this venue has been home to the Royal Court but, as that organisation exits in preparation for its new Sloane Square theatre - the opening date of which remains worryingly uncertain - Friedman has ensured that this theatre will not return to its former hand-to-mouth existence of intermittent, respectable runs of respectable plays.
Friedman may not exactly be on a mission to chuck out the theatrical chintz but alongside her opening late-night slot of Michael Wynne's cult hit Sell Out, performed by the hot fringe company Frantic Assembly, her first offering hardly fits the "safety-first" world view of your standard West End producer. Holy Mothers is a fierce comedy by the late Austrian playwright Werner Schwab. "It's not going to be to everybody's taste," says Friedman with a confident smile. "Some will call it vulgar, some offensive, some hysterical."
Her programme is as notable for its variety as for its bravery. Between now and 2000 you'll be seeing Last Dance at Dum Dum, by East is East's author Ayub-Khan Din; Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids; Drummers, Simon Bennett's debut; Shared Experience's production of Jane Eyre; and Spoonface Steinberg with Kathryn Hunter. Friedman's board at the Turnstiles Group must be happy; they've given her the go- ahead for a further six months, to include a long-awaited transfer for Frozen, by Bryony Lavery.
Friedman has achieved all this by her pragmatism. "The question has been about looking at the bottom line: what a theatre owner needs to make on an annual basis to make it worthwhile to keep this theatre open." Potentially profit-making musicals are out of the question because both the stage and the audience capacity are far too small. (Friedman has, however, smartly reduced the seating from 450 to 410, to increase leg room.) The key has been the business of not budgeting for so-called "dark" weeks. As soon as a show can't clear enough profit to cover costs, it closes, leaving a theatre dark and losing money. "It quickly became clear that if you could have it open 52 weeks a year, you could spread the running costs."
Those costs are prohibitive for all but dead certs. Beyond production expenses, a commercial producer expects to pay the weekly rental on a theatre and what's called the "contra". This covers front-of-house staff, ushers, bar staff, stage doorman and at least four full-time permanent technical staff, plus lighting operator, sound operator and fireman. Friedman is trying to change all this. "We are just charging a fee which is 15- 18 per cent of the capacity of the house." Everything else is profit that will go to the companies.
It's very important to her that the New Ambassadors is a West End theatre operating on Society of London Theatre contracts. Venues regularly producing strong work, such as the Lyric Hammersmith and the Almeida, are ineligible for the Olivier awards for the simple but absurd reason that they operate on different contracts.
Friedman is in discussion with the technicians' union Bectu but although her proposed minimum staffing levels levels are lower than normal, the sheer turnover of productions and the fact that the theatre will open seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, should level the playing field. Actorswill be paid above the (paltry) Equity West End minimum of pounds 286 per week.
The other boon for individual companies is that all the work will be centrally marketed and publicised. Friedman's season brochure alone will be distributed to 250,000 theatregoers. That represents a drastic cost reduction for incoming companies. A planned-for London run also allows them to attract good casts - actors with families don't like touring unless they get payback in terms of being noticed, and a six-week London run means just that.
But though there will be some work from the middle-scale touring circuit, many of whom are desperate to play a venue like this, Friedman's focus is resolutely on new writing, not on star-casting. "It's about the work, " she says, simply.
So will this operate as a subscription season? "No. I'm very against them. For the performers, knowing that the same people are sitting in the same seats for every show in a widely diverse season isn't good. We're targeting different audiences for each piece of work. The audience for Holy Mothers isn't going to be the same as will see Jane Eyre." She certainly doesn't want to get into the business of rejecting work because it doesn't fit the regular audience profile. "Do that, and you've lost your policy."
Friedman's aim is to blur the boundaries of so-called "mainstream" and "fringe". She's determined to affect the landscape. "I couldn't possibly do this work commercially without the support of the subsidised sector. We need each other very, very badly. The New Ambassadors will be part of the big picture. It will stop work like Frantic Assembly from being marginalised. This way, new plays and companies playing opposite The Ivy and next to The Mousetrap can be assessed alongside Art and The Phantom of the Opera."
The words "Whitehall Theatre" make you think of vicars dropping their trousers and French maids hiding in cupboards. You do not think of delicate, complex and subtle playwriting by Chekhov, John Whiting or even Robert Holman. But one of several unexpected developments in the West End is the residency of Dominic Dromgoole's Oxford Stage Company in that big old 1930s barn of a theatre in which Ray Cooney was once king.
As a matter of fact, in the opening production, Making Noise Quietly by Robert Holman, trousers are dropped, but here it is an epiphanal moment between a Quaker conscientious objector and a homosexual novelist in a field in wartime Kent. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for one of the previews, the new- and old-style West End audiences responded differently. Some of the traditionalists couldn't resist a little tut. "Is that really necessary?" muttered one lady, as if a flash of suspenders would have been more to her taste.
"It's, of course, a monster raving loony idea to put a play as exquisite and fine as Robert's in a place like that," says an unabashed Dominic Dromgoole. "But it's unspeakably refreshing, and it works like a dream in there." Dromgoole's reputation was consolidated by a thoroughly admirable decade at the Bush Theatre, during which time he launched the careers of writers including Jonathan Harvey, Sebastian Barry and Conor McPherson, as well as innumerable actors. From there he moved up West, into the Old Vic with Peter Hall, with responsibility for new writing. One of his aims was to overturn "that awful mentality, which is partly the fault of the media, but also the timidity of the profession, which says that small plays can only be done in small theatres. That's infantile, it's bollocks.".
Though the Old Vic season proved that in certain cases - though by no means all - he was right, the unforgiving logic of commerce forced them out into the cold. Dromgoole then took on the touring Oxford Stage Company. In order to raise the company's profile and keep his own standing high, he approached a number of West End managements with a view to bringing the touring work into town.
Associated Capital Theatres (ACT), which owns nine West End houses, asked him to spell out his fantasy option. And then they gave it to him - the Whitehall. Oxford Stage Company gets the theatre rent-free, but pays running costs and marketing for six, six-week runs programmed and produced by Dromgoole. In return, they hope a vaguely disreputable theatre, host to Channel 5's Jack Docherty Show and little else for two years, will be transformed into a hot spot for quality drama.
"To do it as a financial risk would be a flagrant misuse of public funds, and a bit naughty as well," chuckles Dromgoole. In order to fulfil the company's existing touring obligation, while indulging in this metropolitan adventure, he "released" pounds 450,000 from the budget and from the company's reserves. That represents some pretty hefty streamlining. "If you come from a `poor theatre' background like I do, it's quite shocking to find how much money is going to waste in these regional companies," he says. "You can see where two people are being paid to do one person's work, and just cut right through it."
Dromgoole's own production of Three Sisters, on tour at the moment, will follow Making Noise Quietly, and then he hopes to buy in another one or two productions before opening A Penny for a Song, a John Whiting play which he also directs. "I'd like to get a couple of new plays in as soon as possible, but it's a question of finding the right product," he says, hanging on to his old commitments while being at ease with the new jargon of commercial management. He readily admits to enjoying the "pleasantly hard-headed logic" of the West End. "The criteria for whether something will work or not are very blunt and easy. They want you to make enough money on it." He is securely buffered from the sharper edges of commerciality by ACT's remarkable deal, but the implication is that it's a relief to take a break from the need to satisfy the funding bodies' social, political and educational criteria.
The risk, at least financially, is more on the side of the management. But a dark theatre is the worst option for any theatrical management. They won't receive any rent for the next 40 weeks, but they won't pay any costs either, so if the magic works, their gains will be manifold. Deborah Bruce, 29-year-old director of Making Noise Quietly, says the theatre's technical crew is the most helpful she has worked with as they are so delighted the theatre is showing serious drama again.
It's a pretty exciting opportunity for a young director like her, as well. "A lot more people will come to see the work at the Whitehall than were prepared to come to, say, Chester," she points out archly. She has worked on the main stages of Chester Gateway and Theatr Clywd, but never a theatre as large as the 660-seater Whitehall. She remains unfazed, and the transition seems seamless. But most significant is the conceptual leap to the West End which will change her outlook, and that of her contemporaries. For younger writers and designers as well as directors, the West End is now a possible option. Dominic Dromgoole's dream outcome is the breaking of new talent. "If Robert's play could settle in, that would make me blissful," he says. "If you can make a case for a fine play like that, the whole world is a better place."
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