The Producers: Danny Moar, Theatre Royal BathDate: 29 November 2004
Our series interviewing the UKís top commercial producers, inspired by The Producers, continues with Danny Moar, director of Theatre Royal Bath Productions, which this week transfers Blithe Spirit, starring Penelope Keith, to the West End.
Though he was involved from an early age in student theatre and amateur dramatics, even producing the annual school concert before the age of ten, Danny Moar launched his career along a more conventional corporate route. After a degree in English Literature from Cambridge, Moar became an advertising executive at leading agencies Lowe Howard-Spink and Ogilvy and Mather, managing a range of client accounts including Ford, Vauxhall and Shell.
Moar left advertising to pursue a career in arts administration. He moved from sponsorship at the South Bank Centre to marketing development director at Salisbury Playhouse to marketing director at Sadlerís Wells to general manager at the Blackpool Grand Theatre. In January 1997, he joined Theatre Royal Bath.
Built in 1805, extensively renovated in 1981 and expanded to include a studio space in 1997, the Theatre Royal has long been an important stop for major touring productions, often visiting immediately prior to or after a West End season. In addition to its normal weekly schedule, the theatre hosts a mix of annual festivals: the Bath Shakespeare Festival, the Bath International Puppet Festival, the Wild and Wacky Festival for Children and Not the Edinburgh Festival (featuring work heading for the Edinburgh Fringe).
In 1998, the theatre formed Theatre Royal Bath Productions to create high quality drama for its own stages as well as other regional outlets and the West End. Since then, amongst its many touring productions have been: Present Laughter with Rik Mayall, Office Suite with Lesley Joseph, Love and Marriage with Adam Faith, Relative Values with Susan Hampshire, Single Spies with Robert Powell and Liza Goddard, What the Butler Saw with Jane Asher and Michael Pennington, Mrs Warrenís Profession with Twiggy Lawson, Where Thereís a Will with Elaine Paige, Time and the Conways with Penelope Keith, The Deep Blue Sea with Harriet Walter, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Importance of Being Earnest with Wendy Craig and, currently, The Lady in the Van with Susan Hampshire and The Dresser with Julian Glover and Nicholas Lyndhurst.
Several of its productions have also recently transferred to the West End: the 25th anniversary revival of Mike Leighís Abigail's Party (co-produced with Hampstead Theatre), Shakespeare's R and J, and Happy Days starring Felicity Kendal and the 25th anniversary revival of Harold Pinterís Betrayal.
The last was the product of the Theatre Royalís collaboration with director Sir Peter Hall who, for the past two years, has held an annual summer repertory season in Bath. From the inaugural 2003 season, in addition to the transfer of Betrayal, Hallís production of Design for Living toured the UK and his As You Like It visited the US where it will return in 2005 after launching Hallís new Rose of Kingston theatre next month (See News, 17 Sep 2004).
From summer 2004, Theatre Royal Bath Productions this week transfers the Peter Hall Companyís revival of Noel Cowardís comedy Blithe Spirit, starring Penelope Keith and directed by Thea Sharrock, to the West Endís Savoy Theatre.
What's the first stage production you recall seeing?
It was probably Equus at Greenwich Theatre. I saw a whole series of shows at Greenwich when I was a child. My dad used to take me. I also remember seeing Bedroom Farce and Design for Living. They were grown-up plays, but the excitement of seeing live theatre still worked for me.
Why & how did you become a producer?
At my junior school, there was a school concert. One year the head mistress said that the teachers werenít going to organise it anymore, they wanted one of the students to do it. I volunteered because it meant you could have time off lessons so you could wander around classes and see which group of kids were going to do which act. I remember really enjoying it, though I wasnít particularly conscious that I was doing anything other than being just me being a self-important nine- or ten-year-old. I suppose that was the first thing I produced. Then I directed plays at school. I went to a boys school and one of the only ways you were going to meet girls was by being involved in the school plays. Then I went to Cambridge where the drama facilities are incredible. Each college has its own pretty well funded drama society and thereís the ADC Theatre there, which is, to all intents and purposes, a proper fully functioning professional theatre but used by students.
I didnít have any plans professionally. After Cambridge, I went into advertising as a graduate trainee account manager. It was a normal, late Eighties, Thatcherite career path. You were given a lot of responsibility very young, which I found very exciting, but after two or three years, I got fed up with it. I had a series of jobs in the arts afterwards: sponsorship at the South Bank Centre, marketing development director at Salisbury Playhouse, marketing director at Sadlerís Well, general manager at the Blackpool Grand Theatre and then, in January 1997, I started my current position at Theatre Royal Bath. To begin with, it was just about programming. We were a receiving theatre and didnít produce in any way, shape or form. Then, about six years ago, we started producing because we found that the shows we were getting werenít of a consistent quality week in week out to give our audiences what we wanted. So we started producing shows, touring to other venues and bringing them into town. Thatís what we do now.
What would you have done if you hadnít become a producer?
I guess I probably would still be in advertising now. My experience in that field does help me as a producer now, on the marketing side. I feel very comfortable knowing what I think will work and what wonít work. Also, dealing with advertising agencies all the time, I think it helps that I know what pressures theyíre under, what they can do and how they work.
How do you decide what to produce?
You can have a great passion for a project, but you can only really produce what you know youíre going to be able to sell. If youíre a commercial producer, you have no subsidy, so you are totally reliant on the marketplace. You have to think: Is it a good play? Can I cast it? And will people come and see it? Itís that simple.
The way productions come about is partly strategic and partly opportunistic. At the point Theatre Royal Bath Productions has got to now, weíre being pitched ideas all the time by directors, by actors, by other producers, by theatres. Thereís no way we could produce all the things weíre pitched so itís picking up the right opportunities as they come along. We have a very exciting collaboration with Peter Hall. Heís directed a season of plays for us in Bath in 2003 and 2004. Last year, we brought Betrayal into the West End out of that, and the production of As You Like It that Peter did for us is going to open his new theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames in December. It also went to America last year and is going back again this year. Out of Peterís season this summer, Blithe Spirit has toured and is now opening in the West End. So itís a great source of shows for us. Weíre now finalising Peterís plans for next year. Thatís the strategic part of how we decide what to produce, figuring out with Peter plays that will work as a coherent season in Bath but that will also have a potential future life. We have a three-year contract with Peter. Weíre coming up to the third year in 2005. I would certainly like to carry on and I hope that he would as well.
Whatís so special about Peter Hall?
With Peter, the rehearsal room is a very happy place. You go into his rehearsal space at almost any stage of the production, whether itís the beginning, the middle or the day before they move into the theatre, and thereís a feeling of Ö calm pleasure, is the best way that I can describe it. And that applies whether youíre a young actor whoís never worked professionally before or a Peter Hall old hand. He is very, very, very, very clever, and very pragmatic as well. Heís absolutely interested in all of the audienceís responses, heís really attuned to whatís going to work and what isnít going to work and heís ruthless about that. Heís also warm but not sentimental.
Which productions are you proudest of?
Peterís As You Like It is absolutely extraordinary, a very special production. I remember the press night down in Bath for that and I was just very very happy all evening. Peterís production of Happy Days with Felicity Kendal was extraordinary too. And a co-production of Three Sisters we did with Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. It had Imogen Stubbs and was directed by Patrick Sandford, and that was wonderful. Those three, I guess. Why did they make me proud? Because when Iím watching a show like those three, which are of such a high quality artistically, Iím happy and I kind of stop being a producer and become a member of the audience. Of course, I have a special insight because, having produced the play, Iím probably more familiar with it than other theatregoers unless theyíve studied it in an academic way, but still, I can just sit there and think, ďyeah, this is workingĒ. At that point, money and everything goes out of the window because all youíre thinking is, ďthis is really goodĒ. Commercially, Abigail's Party was a great success in town and on tour, and the tour for Blithe Spirit was extraordinary and advance bookings for the West End are very good.
Which productions, in hindsight, might you not have done?
It wouldnít be fair on the people Iíve worked with to single any out, but there have certainly been a few which, in retrospect, we shouldnít have done, either because they didnít work artistically or they didnít work commercially or in some cases both.
What shows do you wish youíd been able to get your hands on?
There are shows around that I admire that I never could have produced. I saw the last night of Mary Poppins in Bristol. I think it will be the biggest musical ever, itís absolutely extraordinary. We could never have produced that, but I admire it enormously. Musicals are not really our bag. Maybe if the right musical came along Ö. But we have experience producing plays, thatís what we like doing and thatís what weíll go on doing.
What do you think of industry awards?
I think theyíre good as long as there arenít too many of them. As soon as you get too much of anything, it devalues the whole concept. The principle of any industry celebrating achievement in particular areas has got to be a good thing as long as it doesnít get too crazy.
How did your current productions come about?
In addition to Blithe Spirit, weíve got two other shows, which are on tour at the moment: The Lady in the Van with Susan Hampshire, which is the first major revival of Alan Bennettís play since Maggie Smith did it in town in 1999, and Susan is absolutely tremendous in that; and The Dresser, directed by Peter Hall and starring Nicholas Lyndhurst and Julian Glover, which is again a wonderful piece of work. The Lady in the Van came about because weíve worked with Susan Hampshire before, sheís an actress I admire and respect very much, and her agent and I were thinking of a play for her to do. Itís as simple as that. With The Dresser, Peter had one of his very rare gaps in his schedule and we were thinking what we might produce together. Nicholas Lyndhurst had been attached to a revival of The Dresser for a long time. The rights had sat with two or three different producers. That happens with so many projects. An actor is keen to do a project and, for whatever reason, it doesnít happen and then it changes various hands. In this case, it ended up with us, which is fantastic, and all the dates worked.
Do you have an annual target for the number of shows youíll produce?
No. The whole point of Theatre Royal Bath Productions is to make money for Theatre Royal Bath. Whatís important for us is not Danny Moar producing a play, itís the theatre producing a play. The pleasure I get is producing for this theatre and opening plays in Bath. Itís the most beautiful theatre in the country, I mean it really is. Also, I think a crucial difference for us is that, when we produce a play and exploit it either on tour or in the West End, we donít hand it over to commercial management, we are the commercial management. With Blithe Spirit, because itís a co-production with Duncan Weldon, that means 50% of the money for putting it on in town is ours, we will get 50% of the profits if it succeeds and we will suffer 50% of the losses if it doesnít.
What impact have profits made in Bath?
Itís made a big impact. All the money we make goes back to Bath, where weíve currently got two theatres, a main house and a studio. As we speak, weíre also building a third theatre called the Egg and it will be just for children and young people. Itís going to open to celebrate our bi-centenary next autumn. Weíve got a very big education department at the Theatre Royal. Itís probably the biggest education department of any regional theatre in the country and thatís basically funded by our production company activities. I mean, it canít be funded from anything else, because we get no subsidy whatsoever. We have tried to get government funding in the past, but I know I could spend six months lobbying, schmoozing and writing business plans to get maybe £50,000 a year or I can produce one play and make two or three times that. So itís a more efficient use of everybodyís time to produce plays to make money than to go cap in hand to funding bodies.
What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful producer?
Youíve got to be resilient. Youíve got to be able to have a flop, wake up the next morning, read the reviews, know that youíre inevitably going to lose money and still keep going. Resilience. Show me a single producer in this town who hasnít had quite a lot of failures. We all have but you just have to keep going. On top of that, you need faith, discernment, passion, financial acumen Ö all of that normal stuff.
If someone is able to maintain a certain emotional detachment, I canít think of anything thatís better to do than be a theatre producer. It can be very addictive, but itís dangerous if you live and breathe it to the exclusion of all else. That can be very punishing personally. For me, producing is a part of my life but itís not my whole life. I mean, Iíve got a family, beautiful children, and they are obviously more important to me than anything. That helps me keep a sense of perspective.
What would you advise the government Ė or the industry -
I think thereís a tendency, not so much in the commercial sector but in the subsidised theatre, towards a kind of victim culture. That really doesnít help. Iíve worked in the subsidised sector a lot and there are an awful lot of people there who are downtrodden, partly because they let themselves be downtrodden. I think we all need to be more positive. School parties aside, no one is ever going to go to the theatre because they have to or because itís good for them. My only advice is letís be more forward-looking, more positive. We have to recognise that theatre is part of a whole range of entertainment and leisure possibilities, people have a lot of choices. From the governmentís side, you could talk about tax breaks for theatre investment in the same way that there are tax breaks for movie investment, but no, generally I think itís pretty healthy. I have no industry-specific complaints at all for the government. I have general complaints that we, as citizens, pay too much tax, which means everyone has less money, which means they canít go to the theatre so often, but that applies to every consumer activity. Obviously, if the economy is strong, people will spend their money more and theyíll spend their money more on theatre along with everything else.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
I donít think theatre per se is important Ė itís good theatre thatís important. Thereís lots of very bad theatre and thatís worse than unimportant, itís pernicious. Good theatre is important like good literature or good paintings or good music is important. Art, at its best, holds a mirror up to our lives and ourselves. Thatís true even with something like Blithe Spirit. As well as laughing at the comedy in it, thereís a picture of three marriages on display in that play, and you do get an insight. Parts of those marriages are probably recognisable in all our marriages.
How would you describe the current state of the West End?
I remember all the headlines over the spring and summer about how it was completely dire it was in the West End. Now The Producers has had a huge opening, The Woman in White is doing good business so I hear, and Mary Poppins is going to blow everyone away. Itís a cyclical thing. The autumn and spring are always stronger than the late spring and summer.
Itís true that the three I mentioned are all musicals, but I donít think thereís a danger of musicals squeezing out plays in the West End. Places like the Lyric, the Gielgud, the Comedy and Albery and the Duke of Yorkís, those are playhouses, theyíre too small for most musicals, so there are always going to have to be plays to fill them. Iíve heard the statistic about only one in ten plays ever making money, but I donít really believe it. I think people like to say that because itís part of the self-styled heroic posture that some producers, including myself, sometimes enjoy adopting. But you wouldnít have people like Duncan Weldon, Michael Codron and Bill Kenwright, all those fine producers, producing plays in the quantity that they do if they continually lost money. If nine out of ten of Duncanís or Michaelís or Billís plays lost money, they would have stopped doing it a long time ago. This is a marketplace and people are in it to make money.
What are the most important issues facing
People just need to hold their nerve. Theatre has been around for thousands and thousands of years, and commercial theatre, as we recognise it, for many hundreds of years. It has survived cinema, it has survived television, it has survived video and, if the shows are good, people will keep going and it will survive whatever this century throws up. We just need to remember that and hold our nerve.
What are your plans for the future?
Peter Hallís season next year is the big thing on the horizon. I canít ever imagine us having more than two or three plays a year in the West End. I would call us an occasional West End producer rather than someone like Bill Kenwright or Duncan Weldon. We had four productions last year but only Blithe Spirit this year. Next year, we might have two or three but thatíll be the maximum. We really hope The Dresser will be one of them. Itís a great play and a great production. The pre-West End tour finishes middle of February so theoretically, it could be any time after that. The Lady in the Van is perhaps a possibility, too. Ours is a good production, the tour figures are very good, and the play did have a reasonably short run on Shaftesbury Avenue the first time round. Possible, possible.
Next year, weíre also reviving John Osborneís Look Back in Anger, with David Tennant and Kelly Reilly. Depending on how it goes in Bath and Edinburgh (where it plays in January / February), weíd like to present it in town in 2006, the 50th anniversary of its premiere at the Royal Court.
- Danny Moar was speaking to Terri Paddock
Blithe Spirit opens on 22 November 2004 (previews from 16 November) at the West Endís Savoy Theatre, where itís currently booking up to May 2005.