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Necessary Theatre I: What makes a sellable show?

By • West End
A few weeks ago I was asked whether I would consider taking on a new job, revisiting a role of venue programmer, which I had held for 5 years in Buxton, and 4 years on and off with Edinburgh venues. It ended up not happening and so, in the words of West Wing, "Next".

But in that time I thought again about whether my programming choices would be different from the ways I had been taught in Bristol and Plymouth, and explored later for myself in Buxton and Edinburgh.

When I worked with Chris Hayes, the artistic director of the Plymouth Theatre Royal Company, we came up with five things which helped to make a show a success. If you had all five we thought we had a winner, two or three and it would be a tough sell, and if you couldn’t tick more than one box then maybe we should think again. In hindsight it would have been good to have invented this system at the start of our time there, and not near the end…but hey ho. I have had it in my head ever since.

So here were our five…and remember these only get a tick if we think the audience would give them a tick:
1) Known title (half a point for a known author but less known title).
2) Known stars.
3) Known company or director.
4) Upbeat ( a sense of feelgood /expectation when you book).
5) Spectacular (either from pre-publicity or post-opening if there’s time for word of mouth).

Try it on a few things... War Horse: 1) maybe, 2) no, 3) definitely yes, 4) not really, 5) definitely yes. So, had Tom Morris started the show in a smaller production as a storytelling show at a small rep would it be a global hit? Maybe - but the National and the phenomenal post-opening memory of Joey and the rest of the cast make it work.

Try another: London Road 1) maybe the public think they know the title, 2) stars known to the a musical theatre audience, 3) definitely, 4) no, 5) extraordinary rather than spectacular. So that would be a 1 and 2 halves – so a tough sell in advance, and maybe its easy to understand why it was initially considered for a short run. But now think about the score as it moves from the Cottesloe: (1) yes, 2) still mainly to MT, 3) definitely, 4) I’d say yes now, thanks to the press and the audience reaction, 5) extraordinary. So now I think it scores 3 and 2 halves at least. An easier sell for the marketing team at the NT.

Try it at home! - and apologies for these very personal scores which may be off the mark.

But now I want to add one more category for my own satisfaction, into the future. At a time when the world is changing, challenging, deeply worrying and shifting – I want to be part of making and seeing Necessary Theatre – something that touches me deeply, that is there to serve humanity in some way, or that truly gives its audience a shift in emotional gear, a release, an exploration of some support. I don’t mean necessarily worthy theatre – but now I truly believe it is easier to market theatre which offers an emotional or an experiential event for people.

My next Necessary Theatre blog will look at the extraordinary piece I saw as part of Intransit Festival in Kensington and Chelsea this week.


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