The first co-production began with The Kingfisher with Rosemary Leach and Francis Matthews in 2005. It’s a wonderful relationship where both parties respect each other’s values and achieve a shared vision. Over a very short time, we’ve created a lovely legacy of highly-respected stage actors and directors in wonderful productions as a direct result of our partnership. These include Warren Mitchell in Visiting Mr Green which transferred to the West End), Roy Dotrice in Brief Lives, Philip Franks, Peter Egan and Belinda Lang in Noël Coward’s Song at Twilight – all of which have been very successful on tour. Now it’s Michelle and Rupert in Deceptions.
How did you become a producer and when?
It was really by chance in 1989. I had been working for the wonderfully kind Mark Furness and he encouraged me by giving me an office and all the advice anyone would need. My first show was Blues In the Night which came out of Liverpool Playhouse with the late Stephanie Lawrence in the lead. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bill Kenwright for all of his help and support over the years.
What were you doing before that?
My first job began when I was in the middle of my A-levels at Bexley Grammar School and I talked my way in to a flyman’s job at the London Palladium in the middle of the run of The King & I starring Yul Brynner. Luckily we had physical education at school on a Wednesday afternoon so I could play truant and do the mid-week matinée! I then went on to work in stage and company management at the ripe old age of 20 for various London producers, including Duncan Weldon.
How has touring theatre changed over the years?
Beyond recognition really. Some of it for the good and some for the bad. Regional theatre audiences are fabulous and can be very discerning, so it’s really disappointing when good-quality actors simply refuse to consider touring. Although this is now starting to change, slowly, with the demise of TV commissions. The marketing support in regional theatres has also become much more sophisticated, although I always provide my own marketing team to work alongside those at the venues.
Are audiences' expectations the same now as then and, if they have changed, in what ways?
The standard of actual physical production is much higher than it used to be and of course, with the advances in the cinema world, audience expectations can also be far higher. Our recent production of The Hound of The Baskervilles toured with over £250,000-worth of projection equipment as the show effortlessly glided between physical production and film.
What influences your choice of plays?
A good story, casting potential and of course – being a commercial producer – the projected income!
…and of playwrights?
It’s back to the good story. I am as happy trying a new undiscovered writer as a well-known one, as long as the jigsaw all comes together in the way that I need it to. I am very fond of [Alan Ayckbourn and am presenting one of his new plays Sugar Daddies next year.
…and of directors, designers and actors?
I only ever want to work with people who are as enthusiastic about the project as I am.
Do you feel that actors today enjoy touring less or more than their predecessors?
I think it is pretty much the same – some love touring, others hate it!
How do you think that theatre will cope with the current economic downturn?
Research proves that theatres actually do well in times of recession. People may cut a holiday or postpone the new car, but they still feel they need some sort of treat and a night at the theatre delivers that. Also against larger consumer activity, such as a new car, the price of a theatre ticket pales into insignificance! I have no doubt that customers may reduce their frequency of attendance and so be more selective in their choices and so the challenge for the venues is to maintain the box office income by being more creative with their pricing policies. Access for everyone, whatever their level of income, has never been more important, and the venues need to ensure that people can still come whatever their personal financial situation.
In your opinion, will there be more, or fewer, partnerships such as yours with the Mercury, and why?
That depends on the Arts Council to an extent! I have had a great relationship with the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford over the years, and they have just had their grant cut and been left high and dry! I am looking forward to working with Nottingham Playhouse later this year and also with Northampton Theatres and the West Yorkshire Playhouse next year. I think together subsidised theatre and commercial theatre can make a great team and bring their own gifts to the table.
Ian Fricker was talking to Anne Morley-Priestman