THEATRE / Venture: Theatre in twenty stages: Later this year, the director Sam Mendes will open the Donmar Warehouse to playgoers after some 15 months of preparation. Thomas Sutcliffe reports on the long road to running your own theatre

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Or let it find you. As Sam Mendes remembers it, the path towards running his own theatre started on the way to another. 'When I was doing The Cherry Orchard in the West End I passed the Donmar - they'd just ripped down the doors and there were lots of old posters lying around. I asked Michael Codron (the theatrical impresario) 'What's going to happen to the Donmar?' He told me they were going to refurbish it and gave me a contact.'


'I rang George Biggs, who runs Maybox (the West End theatre managers), and said 'Look, I've got this wonderful idea. Why don't you treat this just like another theatre, but allow me to run a production company? To my great surprise he said yes.'

Mendes's doubt is understandable; his career, while not quite in its infancy still doesn't have to shave very often. But a quick look at his reviews no doubt helped Biggs make up his mind. Critical and commercial success both at the RSC and in the West End presumably quietened a businessman's anxiety about handing over a theatre which would have to combine elements of both. And the prospect of having a source of high-quality productions which might transfer into other Maybox theatres won't have done any harm.


'I signed the contract and put it in the post on Boxing Day (1991); it was like posting in three years of my life. I'd never signed myself away for such a long period of time.'


Mendes and Newling didn't have to look far; as the Donmar is being refurbished as part of a larger commercial development, architects were already in place. But they arrived in the nick of time. 'There had been other people involved who suggested that the theatre be turned round to form a small proscenium stage,' recalls Mendes. 'So when I turned up for my first meeting with the architect (Gordon Forbes), I was presented with a model of a theatre which was completely unlike the one I had remembered. I threw up my hands in horror and said: 'The whole point of this theatre is that it's in the West End, but it's not a West End style theatre.' Now the design has reverted to its historical arrangement - an open space in which the actors can often brush against the knees of front-row audiences. By some structural sleight-of-hand, Gordon Forbes has also conjured extra space for two bars, a larger entrance from the street and a number of offices, dressing and storage rooms. Sightlines have been transformed, too, by hanging the balcony from the roof structure and removing the pillars.


Mendes's first appointment was Caro Newling, then senior press officer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, to act as administrative director. 'For the first year there was Sam and myself,' she recalls. 'The next major appointment was Anne McNulty who joined us as production administrator - her responsibilities are wide-ranging but fundamentally casting.' The link with Maybox has helped considerably, providing a pool of experienced theatre technicians from which the technical director, theatre manager, chief electrician and box office manager have all been drawn.


'I'm a believer in retrospective policy,' says Mendes. 'In three years time we'll look back and a clear policy will have evolved . . . ' For the moment then, the house-style is flowing from the house itself, from the stripped-down, compressed auditorium which attracted Mendes in the first place. 'It's not going to be a design house,' he explains, 'it's going to be a house in which spoken word is at the forefront - 'two planks and a passion' to use an old cliche. I don't want to be caught up in fiddly, naturalistic plays - a huge experience in a small room, that's what I would like to achieve - I'd like the theatre to be bursting at the seams.'


'The difficulty,' Mendes notes, 'after years of holding back your megalomania in a rehearsal situation or being part of a larger institution, is actually having the strength of character to say 'that's what I want' and when you're asked 'why' you say 'because that's what I like'.'


An unfilled season, with many unfilled parts, sends out a powerful pulse readily detected by the radar of agents and actors. 'I had to say no a few times to projects that weren't . . . ' Mendes pauses and coughs diplomatically, before deciding on a releasable statement. 'A lot of people came to us with plays without quite that edge that we need to fill that space. If you're only doing four plays a year they have to be really well considered and pretty much high profile in terms of who's directing and acting in it.'


'We had to start with the unions,' says Newling, 'but it's very easy for them to see, when you look at the capacity of the Donmar, that there's no way we can be making money out of this operation.' They wanted a single flat-rate payment for everyone - a policy which avoids the time-consuming business of individual negotiations and improves back-stage harmony (the dressing-rooms are far too small to accommodate displays of temperament). Nobody will get rich; 'The agreement we've arrived at with Equity means that we're on the Provincial theatres agreement rather than a West End agreement,' says Newling, 'In the same way, the Musicians Union have given us a very sympathetic house agreement . . . There's no margin for us to put our fees up and certainly nobody will want us to put them down.'


Because the Donmar's own productions will only run for 35 weeks of the year, the theatre will also act as a receiving house, with visiting companies effectively renting the theatre. A contra, then, had to be drawn up. 'The contra represents the cost involved in running that theatre for a week,' explains Newling. 'Staff, heating, cleaning etc.' Whatever happens, the Donmar won't lose out; the contra is detailed enough to include small amounts for both Pest Control and Sign Maintenance.


'We wanted to get 268 because it would increase amount of revenue,' says Newling, but in fact they've had to settle for 252 because of safety requirements, a change which resulted in a recalculation of all budgets. 'We've elected to use fixed bench seats, they give a basic standard of comfort and they're cheaper . . . The width is actually laid down by a thick volume called the Theatre Regulations for Places of Public Entertainment, which lays down standards of seatways, space between the aisles, width of bottoms - it's actually 500 millimetres', says Gordon Forbes. 'If the productions aren't popular you'll have plenty of space. But I think we're going to be tightly packed,' he adds loyally.


'We want to keep the ticket prices low,' says Mendes. 'The Donmar is an anomaly from start to finish - it's a fringe theatre with West End status with no subsidy operating in a non-commercial environment . . . We've budgeted at 80 per cent capacity on Assassins (their first production) to cover our running costs - and 65 per cent for the other three. For the start up costs we have to look elsewhere.'


Nobody wanted to speak aloud about corporate sponsors in case these increasingly shy creatures were frightened away. But there have been nibbles at the bait of a West End presence for a Fringe expenditure. They need pounds 200,000 to cover four productions a year and are building their appeal to private donors on the guarantee that money will flow into creative costs - props will benefit from donations of pounds 25 plus, for example, while those over pounds 100 will go to costumes.


'I'm hoping that at least 50 per cent of the season will be made up of new work,' says Mendes. 'Assassins, as far as I'm concerned, is a new work, because it's the English premiere of a piece by Sondheim. Stephen sent it to us on the advice of Richard Eyre at the National . . . I took it straight away as a fascinating piece which fitted perfectly into the space. It was actually going to be the third show but our dates were put back and I thought 'what the hell, it's an event'. We would now feel odd considering anything else to open with, it feels so natural.'


'We did write around to agents who had the sort of client list we wanted to see for Assassins,' says Newling. 'And, once you start to see people, word gets around to other agencies and then after that individuals start to send in their CV's, so you build up a casting library. Agents were ringing on a daily basis expecting to talk to a casting department. Well, that was whoever was on the phone, usually me.'


'Maybox is looking after building and personnel,' explains Newling. 'We will insure individual productions as we go along. We didn't want an understudy system - because our standard salaries are fairly low anyway we felt it would be wrong to pay some people more for understudy obligations. So we looked into insuring against losing a production and realised in the end that it was more cost-effective to carry the understudy payments.'


'We went to see the Covent Garden Community Association, because there'd been concern from residents about our application for a license for late-night performances,' says Newling. 'We came to an agreement in the end that we could programme late-night activities up to 1.30am on Friday and Saturday and that there would be 12 weeks of the year when we could programme up to 1.00am on weekdays.'


This is essential for most arts organisations (the National and the RSC both have charitable status) and was made easier in the case of the Donmar because it had already been granted for the previous resident company and merely had to be resuscitated.


'We had nothing to spend - pounds 500 - but the design group T3 agreed to do it, which is a sort of hidden sponsorship really. We wanted to pick up on the history of the building, not just in its roots as a warehouse but the sense of what it had achieved in its former eras - raw, experimental but sometimes sophisticated.' They have ended up with a spotlight raked across brickwork.


Rehearsals for Assassins begin on 14 September, after three weeks in which the technical staff fit equipment. The production opens 29 October.

And then the real work begins.

For details on how to join the Friends of the Donmar scheme and receive advance booking information for the opening season, telephone: 071- 839 8835, 9am to 8.30pm, Monday to Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)