Producer Clare Lawrence, still only 29, is one of the youngest producers in the commercial West End – and, increasingly, behind some of its highest-profile productions.

Hailing from an entertainment family (her father is a TV director, her mother a scriptwriter and her uncle, the actor Ron Moody, found fame as Fagin in Oliver!), Lawrence, then operating under the name of Clare Moody, launched her professional career as an actress at the age of 14. She appeared in a number of television programmes before a part in a workshop staging of Three Sisters sparked her interest in producing. She spearheaded efforts to take the show to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow and then to the West End for a special gala performance.

Later, while still completing a first class honours degree in English at Cambridge, Lawrence produced and appeared in productions of Strip Show and Whale Music at the Edinburgh Festival and London’s King’s Head Theatre. In 2000, she and her partner Anna Waterhouse formed Out of the Blue Productions and launched the company with the world stage premiere of Shelagh Stephenson’s Five Kinds of Silence, which ran at the Lyric Hammersmith with a cast including Gina McKee, Linda Bassett and Tim Pigott-Smith.

Out of the Blue burst onto the West End stage in 2002 with the UK premiere of American Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. The three-hander, about rich kids living in drugged-up squalor in 1980s Manhattan, won 2003 Theatregoers’ Choice Awards for Best New Comedy and London Newcomer for original cast member Jake Gyllenhaal. And, during its extended year-long run at the Garrick Theatre, it attracted a succession of Hollywood up-and-comers including Matt Damon, Freddie Prinze Jr, Chris Klein, Hayden Christensen, Casey Affleck, Alison Lohman and Anna Paquin, in addition to Gyllenhaal.

Last year, Out of the Blue upped its Hollywood imports count with a revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna, starring Julia Stiles and Aaron Eckhart. This month, the company returns to the West End and Mamet with a revival of another of the American dramatist’s two-handers, A Life in the Theatre, which stars Briton Patrick Stewart and Joshua Jackson, star of American TV series Dawson’s Creek, as actors at opposite ends of their careers.

What's the first stage production you recall seeing?

I think the very first stage production I saw was Cinderella at the Manchester Royal Exchange when I was about three. They had to choose a child to go up on the stage and present a silver bullet on a cushion. The Prince shouted “Where is the silver bullet?” and the child replied “I have it!” and then ran up from the audience. I was the child and I got to go on stage with all the confetti from the wedding scene and all these pyrotechnics going off. That was the first play I saw and I was in it as well so it was very exciting. I’ve still got the confetti in a pot in my room. The first proper, grown-up play I saw was The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican when I was about 13. Jonathan Miller directed it with Fiona Shaw and Brian Cox, who is an old friend. We went backstage to see Brian afterwards. I’d never been backstage before and it was this classic scene of people running around the Green Room in costume and nuns with their feet up on dressing tables, smoking. I thought “oh look, these are real people”, and “how does one do this?”. It made theatre seem like a viable possibility for me.

Why & how did you become a producer?

I started my career as an actress, got my first agent when I was 14 and worked in film and TV until I left university. I was playing Irina in a Scottish workshop production of Three Sisters with some lovely people, and we really wanted to try and do it in Scotland. I worked with Maureen Beattie, who was also in the show, to take it up to the Tron in Glasgow and from there we brought it to London for a gala event at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. It was quite exciting to realise, if I was proactive, I could make something happen myself – rather than sit around and wait for someone else to come to you. That’s what I found most difficult about being an actress, how little control you have, and certainly so at the start of your career. Because of my Three Sisters experience, in 1996, during my second year of Cambridge, my friend Anna Waterhouse got in touch and asked me to help her take a show to Edinburgh. Strip Show, which was written for us by Diana Souhami, sold out for its whole run at the Festival, after which Dan Crawford from the King’s Head in London invited us to do the show there. That was a crazy three months because we were both in the show, but we were still at Cambridge and weren’t supposed to leave. We had to go up and down every night, writing essays on the train. It was hell, but it did very well. Dan invited us to come back once we graduated in 1997, when we put on The Whale Music by Anthony Minghella, which he kindly allowed us to do. At that point, everyone was working on a profit-share type basis. Luckily, that was the year Minghella won everything for The English Patient so the production did very very well and that’s what started us really looking at producing as a career. Shelagh Stephenson then adapted her radio play Five Kinds of Silence for us and we produced it at the Lyric Hammersmith with Gina McKee and Linda Bassett. That was our first proper production in that we had to raise a significant amount of money and we did it on a full Equity basis.

What would you have done if you hadn’t become a producer?

I don’t know if I’d still be acting. It depends how my career had gone, but I’m not very patient, so if it hadn’t been a huge success, I don’t think I could still be sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. At some point, I’d probably have gone stomping off and decided to do something else. I’ve always been fascinated by history and archaeology. I have a feeling I’d have ended up in a musty library somewhere, researching obscure mediaeval artefacts.

How do you decide what to produce?

Instinct, I suppose, is the most important thing. People often ask us what our creative policy is and, to be honest, the only creative policy is, if we read something and think “we have to produce this”, we do it. Luckily, Anna and I have very similar tastes, and because that feeling doesn’t happen all that frequently, it tends to pan out fairly well when we both feel the same way about a play. Alternatively, we might have an instinct about meeting a particular young actor. For example, meeting Joshua Jackson was one of the impulses for putting on A Life in the Theatre. He’s very exciting, so intelligent and so right for this play. We’ve had the rights to the play for a while, but it was only really after meeting Joshua and saying “ah, that’s the boy we need” that it made an awful lot of sense to put it on.

Is luring over hot young American actors a conscious decision?

No, it’s not a conscious decision. It all started with This Is Our Youth. Anna heard about the play after its successful off-Broadway run in 1996. She read it and showed it to me. We absolutely loved it. Because it’s about 18/19-year-olds in Manhattan, we wanted to cast it as close to that age as we could and we wanted it to be really raw and convincing. When people put on accents, there’s always an element of alienation and it takes awhile for the audience to get into the story as a result. We wanted to cast Americans. It made sense to go to Hollywood and try to get kids who, even though they were only 18 or 19, had been in the business for years. It was the perfect combination of actors who were incredibly experienced, very confident and prepared to put themselves on the stage, who also had in commercial terms some kind of audience and were the right age. From working with the first cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin), we were able to recast with other Hollywood actors. With Oleanna, it was a similar thing. David Mamet’s dialogue is so specific in its rhythm. That’s how he writes. You know, it’s practically scored when you look at it on the page. There are underlinings and markings, and you have to pause in the right place and breathe in the right place. So I was particularly interested in hearing the piece performed in real American voices. Again, with Carol, she’s supposed to be a student so we wanted to cast someone of the right age. Julia Stiles was perfect and that’s how that came about.

So you’re largely attracted to American plays then?

Actually, at the moment, it’s simply that those are the projects we’ve done. If I found a fabulous English play I wanted to do, then obviously I’d cast it with English actors. I have looked at a couple of English projects and I hope we’ll do some soon. But I do think that, amongst the writers we’ve come to know anyway, there’s an energy about modern American writing that appeals specifically to myself and Anna. I don’t know if it’s because our generation has grown up surrounded by so much American culture, but it does speak to us in a certain way and we all feel very at home with New York stories and LA stories. It almost makes as much sense to us as our own cultural heritage. I like the pace of modern American drama and the drive of them, I think they’re bold. While we have an opportunity to produce these kinds of plays in the West End with these kinds of actors, I think it’s a good thing to do. Normally, it’s so hard to get any new American drama in the West End.

Which productions are you proudest of?

We’ve only really done three and I’m proud of all of them in their own ways. But I’d have to say I’m proudest of launching This Is Our Youth. It was a huge undertaking and very difficult to get off the ground. When we first brought the play over, nobody was interested in it at all. We wanted to open off-West End or out of town so we showed it to all the new writing houses. Nobody would touch it, nobody would give us any money and everyone said a new play by an American writer with young kids in it would never work in the West End. It was absolutely terrifying. Nica Burns at Really Useful Theatres was the only person who encouraged us (See Features, “The Producers: Nica Burns”, 18 Oct 2004). She said, “well, if you really believe in it, take the chance”. All the way through until opening, we just didn’t know if we were going to succeed. It was nail-biting. Thank God, it paid off.

Which productions, in hindsight, might you not have done?

None. The only thing I’d have done differently was our first show, Five Kinds of Silence. I would never again produce a play about murder and rape and incest in Burnley and put it on in the height of a summer heat wave, in the middle of Euro 2000. My only regret is that we didn’t produce that at a different time of year.

What shows do you wish you’d been able to get your hands on?

If I swapped myself in as a producer and somebody else out, it’d be a different show so it’s hard to say. Of the things that are on at the moment, I think Festen is remarkable, as is Don Carlos, which I saw in Sheffield. I’m quite jealous of those. I would absolutely produce a musical someday. The musicals I love are the dramatic ones, like Cabaret, Chicago and Sweeney Todd, which really take the form and play with it.

How do you & Anna Waterhouse divide your producing responsibilities?

By continent. I work here and she’s based in New York now. With the American-led projects, that means she quite often has the initial access to actors and writers. She’ll meet somebody in New York and say, “if you’re interested in doing some theatre, you must meet my partner in London”. Anna is also working more and more in independent films in New York so that brings us another connection. We’d like to cross over more between film and theatre. We’re working on a few things at the moment so, fingers crossed.

What do you think of industry awards?

I think they’re very valuable in terms of being able to recognise your peers and what they’re doing and – if they’re are audience-voted like your Awards – of getting a real sense of what the audience is thinking. That’s probably more valuable than listening to what your peers say. They’re the people who actually buy the tickets to see your work and that matters more than anything.

What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful producer?

Masochism? (laughs) Instinct, as I said before, is the most important thing. Also, I suppose you’d call it compassion or patience. There’s so much ego and insecurity in this business. Learning to deal with everybody on their own terms, and with as much understanding as you can give them, helps get through the nonsense of the day-to-day.

What would you advise the government – or the industry -
to secure the future of British theatre?

Anything that can help commercial producers reduce ticket prices, that’s the most vital thing. Ticket prices in the West End are absolutely ludicrous. I empathise with theatregoers - I can’t afford to go to the theatre either! At £40, which is about standard for a top-price ticket to a play, if you have two people going to the show, hiring a babysitter, going for a meal, travelling into London – you know, you’re close on £200 by the end of the evening. It’s hard to say what should be done because, in the real commercial world, everything is related to the scale and budget of the show. So, unless there’s a massive overhaul in how the West End works, it’s just impossible to solve.

Why can’t you as a producer lower ticket prices for your own shows?

Because, unfortunately, you’re trapped in a vicious circle of how much shows cost to produce. People tend to think that producers get all the money that they charge for tickets and they don’t. A portion of it goes to the theatre owners as part of rent deals, which is fair enough, a portion goes to ticket agents who help sell the tickets, then there are royalty deals attached to the production as well and, of course, a huge portion goes on the cost of running the show, just physically keeping it on week after week. You really have to be doing incredibly well to make any money as a producer in the West End. Or you have to have an incredibly cheap show, which is not something I believe in. If people are paying those ticket prices, they should bloody well get a top quality show.

Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?

Theatre is important because there are very few experiences which connect people anymore. We are all so cut off from one another. Especially for my generation, our forms of entertainment have become more and more isolated - home DVDs, video games, ipods. The theatre is one of the few places where people can still share a common, live experience. The way younger people responded so positively to This Is Our Youth and Oleanna - both very different pieces of work, staged very simply - and came out discussing and arguing and telling their friends to go and then going again for a second and third time, indicates to me that theatre is as exciting an experience now as it has ever been. We just have to make sure that we produce work that’s relevant and enticing enough for people to want to go.

How would you describe the current state of the West End?

I think it’s picking up. It’s an encouraging West End if you can have productions like Festen still on and doing well. Anna and I are often got at in the press about bringing stars into the West End, but the West End has always to a certain degree been about stars. Having them here helps to generate some of the excitement and the glamour of the West End, it makes going to the theatre a really special and worthwhile occasion. And just because someone works on the screen doesn’t mean they’re any less of a performer. They’re all just actors who are happy to do both stage and screen.

Do you think star casting is essential in the West End today?

It’s not essential but, especially if you’re opening cold, with no tour or transfer, it certainly helps. I think it’s one of the realities of modern media that everything tends to be driven by stars. That’s what people key in to. They don’t just want to see a particular play; to a large extent, they want to see certain people in that play. Obviously, if you have a fabulous production of something that’s already won its own glory on its own merits, you can succeed without stars, but as a commercial producer you kind of have to rely on them.

What are the most important issues facing
commercial theatre in the 21st-century?

Reaching a broader audience, by which I mean making theatre accessible to people so that they can come and have an experience they can’t have anywhere else. We did a survey on This Is Our Youth and something like 30% of the audience had never been to the theatre before. They’d write into the show website saying “I really loved it, what should I go and see now?”. The fact that I would often struggle to come up with suggestions is probably something that needs looking at. I produce for my generation. All any producer can do is produce the kind of things they want to see. And there aren’t that many plays I would want to see in the West End, although it is getting better. That’s probably because there aren’t enough young producers. I’m the youngest producer at SOLT (the Society of London Theatre, for theatre owners and producers), and it’s quite bizarre. It’s very hard to get started in producing because the risk is enormous. As a commercial producer, the only way you can start is to have a hit show! If you don’t have a successful first run, that’s it. And, at this stage in a company like ours, if you don’t have a successful second run or third run …. You really go hand to mouth with every production you do. It’s always scary, as with any small business. If you have any show that starts to lose money, the only place that money can come from is your company. That’s how new producers fall down so quickly.

What are your plans for the future?

We’re planning to produce the world premiere of a new Neil LaBute play this spring. It’s called Some Girls…, and it’s got a cast of five - one man and four women - but I can’t tell you who yet. At the end of the year, we’re also going to produce a revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This with Ashley Judd. Those are the only definite plans at the moment, although there are other things we’re trying to schedule. Anna works as a screenplay writer as well as a producer and she’s got a couple of film projects she’s trying to get off the ground in Los Angeles, too. She’s just been executive producer on a film that got into the Sundance festival called Lonesome Jim. It’s directed by Steve Buscemi, with Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler. We helped put that together so that’s the first film we’ve been involved with. We were approached about doing a screen version of This Is Our Youth. Unfortunately, we don’t own the film rights, although we’re very friendly with the people who do. Maybe that will happen one day - I think that would be a matter of finding exactly the right cast for that particular moment.

A Life in the Theatre opens on 2 February 2005 (previews from 27 January) at the West End’s Apollo Theatre, where its limited season is currently booking until 23 April 2005.