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Back on the Road

Mark Shenton ponders the challenges & difficulties of touring quality theatre with English Touring Theatre’s founder & artistic director Stephen Unwin.

By • West End


Kiss Me, Kate has just kicked off a regional tour with a cast that includes Les Dennis and Michael Greco and a touring stage version of Pride and Prejudice will soon feature the return of TV presenter John Leslie. Beyond the tabloid fodder and repertoire of former EastEnders’ stars in light comedies that also routinely fill up the programmes of Britain’s huge network of regional receiving houses, the flame of the candle for more serious fare is kept alight by the efforts of small and middle-scale touring companies.

It’s an important niche, filled by the likes of Shared Experience, Oxford Stage Company, Out of Joint, Cheek by Jowl, English Touring Theatre (ETT) and others, and constantly under threat. The last few years saw the collapse of one of the leading nationally funded companies, Method and Madness (formerly Cambridge Theatre Company), and last November ETT faced an internal crisis of its own when a huge deficit was unexpectedly found in its finances.

An act of terrorism

At the time, artistic director Stephen Unwin told Whatsonstage.com, “It's like an act of terrorism. It’s as if somebody has just flown a plane into my theatre company” (See News, 19 Nov 2003). It forced the cancellation of two tours – a production of a new play by Richard Bean, Honeymoon Suite, that the company premiered at the Royal Court; and a projected tour of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

But the company has re-grouped and is re-launching in September with a seven-date tour of Twelfth Night. Speaking to Unwin now sheds important light not just on the specific difficulties behind them, but also on the bigger, more general challenges of touring quality theatre.

“In a funny kind of way,” he says of the company’s recent nightmare, “every organisation needs a moment like that: the chance to re-evaluate what you’re doing. The company has had to do some soul-searching about lots of things – what we should be doing, and how the future should work. Of course, everyone felt hurt and confused at the time. But we also had to look at how the actual model of the company works as well as what actually happened in this individual case.”

A moment to breath

And while looking at the particular story of English Touring Theatre and its aims and aspirations, it also enables us to look at the model it offers for touring theatre generally. What was certainly encouraging straight away was the stabilising effect of the Arts Council. “It wasn’t about the Arts Council writing us a big cheque, but was about them being sophisticated and understanding and supportive and adult about it, and they were brilliant about rescheduling our grants and accepting that we couldn’t do something in the spring. They understood that we needed a pause to reconfigure our finances, and to give us all a moment to breath.”

Seeking to collaborate rather than antagonise, Unwin resisted playing what he calls “cheap politics” by threatening the company’s closure. “I hate it when companies just run up bigger deficits and say it doesn’t matter, we’ll just wait for the Arts Council to bail us out. That’s a dangerous game. Instead, they came in here and we had a crisis meeting – and everything works when the artistic vision and the practical stuff are linked.”

The crisis came, ironically, at a time when the artistic fortunes of the company, if not the financial ones, were riding high. The company was in the midst of celebrating its tenth-anniversary year, one that began with the West End transfer of the critically acclaimed Timothy West-headed King Lear.

“It was a full-on production and a huge success,” Unwin recalls. “We did a huge tour to massive audiences, with Tim doing barnstorming stuff eight shows a week. That for me was what we’re really about. It then went into the Old Vic for five weeks, and we were thrilled. But interestingly, it wasn’t set up to go there, and we didn’t know it would until the tour was nearly finished. We didn’t do it for a West End run; we did it to put that great play on.”

Getting out there

There immediately is a statement of the company’s intent, but also of its quality: they may have brought 12 productions to London in ten years – “more than any other regional theatre,” Unwin has the right to boast – “but that’s not the reason we exist or why we’re funded. We have to get out there.”

And ETT has been doing just that for over a decade now. “The story of this company is that there used to be three middle-scale touring companies – Oxford Stage Company, Cambridge Theatre Company and what was called Century Theatre. When they offered me the job of taking over Century Theatre, I said we had to change the artistic policy, the name, the board, most of the staff – everything – and then I’d accept. It was an arrogant thing to do, but we changed the whole thing. At first, we were very much the third company. But Cambridge became Method and Madness and went down the pan, and Oxford are now doing this very particular thing which is interesting and impressive and different.

“My long-term vision for the company now is that we become more and more the ‘national theatre of touring’, operating on three different scales. I want to be able to do big Number One tours with big actors; then do things like Twelfth Night like we’re doing now that has a very good cast but doesn’t have a big name in the middle; and then more radical new work on a smaller scale. But I also want us to be a resource for other people who want to tour, and be a broker for that.”

Unwin compares the company to the Royal Court: “I like to think we’re the Royal Court doing the classics. Our values are those of the old Royal Court work where it’s about simplicity, about the play and about seriously good actors. One of the things I think we provide is a place where good actors can come and do the play, and not have to be too hampered by directors’ and designers’ dreams.”

Completely alien land

But if the company’s work is properly about the actors who work for it, it’s even more so about the audience they serve. “What you have to do in this middle-scale touring world is recognise who your audience is and what the context of the work you’re doing for them is. Our audiences won’t have seen a play like As You Like It 17 times before. Frankly, the only people in the world who have are the critics. Most audiences are coming to a great play for the very first time.

“With Twelfth Night, my bet is that 75% or 80% of the audience will be seeing it for the very first time. For me, that’s a brilliant thing. I like it that you’re having a conversation with the audience about the play rather than simply about previous productions that they may have seen. We’re trying to come to things fresh, with real clarity, with real integrity, to find out what the play is. Theatre can get awfully up its own arse. I prefer to come to Twelfth Night like it’s a completely alien land that I know nothing about. I prefer to do that than to come to it thinking I know everything about it and must now do something different with it.”

He goes on, “An artistic director of a company that now no longer exists said to me once about the touring circuit, ‘I hate our audiences’. And I thought, then you’re fucked! Well, don’t play to them then! Go and do it somewhere else. These high-quality, extraordinary plays are part of our national heritage, and I believe there’s a way of saying that artistic and intellectual integrity and credibility are not in contradiction to accessibility. I just don’t believe you have to water it down or dilute it or piss about with it.”

Big beliefs

His company, Unwin insists, “has got some quite big beliefs – it stands for a lot, like that open-minded position to the audience”. It’s an audience he believes is still out there that’s open-minded enough, too, to embrace this kind of theatre: “There is still that big, broad audience in the UK that likes the theatre. You’ve got to find the right thing, of course, and it’s very hard, but I think they are still there.”

Sometimes, the numbers may not be as great as hoped, but Unwin tries not to be discouraged. “If it’s something slightly more obscure, I might get a bit depressed. We did a rather wonderful production of John Gabriel Borkman with Michael Pennington, Linda Bassett and the late, great Gillian Barge. I remember sitting watching it once and there were about 250 people in the audience. As I was driving home, I was speaking to a friend about how miserable I was, and he told me, ‘250 people? That’s a sell-out at the Donmar – that would be considered a triumph! And it would be pretty good in the Cottesloe. So stop beating yourself up!’”

Star casting might help attract a bigger audience, but the right names are hard to come by. “What’s weird, and this is part of our celebrity culture, is that real stars are becoming a smaller and smaller group. I’ve spoken to commercial people, and they say there are maybe 20 ‘names’ – a list that starts with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and goes on from there.”

Brilliant actors

There are deliberately no names in Twelfth Night - though Unwin quickly adds, “the title is a very good name, and I’ve got some very good actors. There are lots of brilliant actors out there who like to be in good plays. And we get a lot of people who a year later turn into big names - like Alexandra Gilbreath or Alan Cumming or Samuel West or Daniel Evans or Paterson Joseph - people we catch on their way up.

“Getting well-known actors to tour is incredibly hard, and I can understand why. Why do they want to go around the country for not very much money? The best favour that those experienced, well-known actors can do the theatre is not to write out a cheque for £1000 but to do a play. There are a few who do, and they need to do it and the audiences in the theatre need to see them, too. That’s the single biggest challenge. There are endless plays I want to do, it’s just finding the right actors to do them.”

Getting the casting and the product right is important, particularly if the company is to maintain its relationships with the theatres. “In putting together a programme, the first people that you have to sell it to are the managers. If you’ve got a big name, that’s fine, but if not, it’s tough. If you take too many shows to the theatres and they lose money, you won’t be asked back.”

Destiny

Even if a show is programmed by a theatre, the company isn’t entirely in charge of its own destiny. “We can’t control ticket prices or the way they market us, and making connections with the audience is harder. If I was running a rep, I’d be there every night seeing the curtain up and meeting the audience, which you need to do. But on a 12-week tour, I can’t be in Aberdeen for a whole week – I have a day job to look after.”

It’s also sometimes difficult to get the media interested – or even aware. “When we did The York Realist at the Royal Court, most of the critics reviewed it as if it was a Royal Court production. The fact that they turned the play down and we took it up is really difficult!” But Unwin says that complaints like this “spoils my breakfast but never my lunch!”

At the same time, he’s rightly proud of achievements like that hit production, which subsequently transferred to the West End from the Court – though they don’t do many new plays, “we’ve done six, and four of them came to London.” He’s also proud of the company’s education programme – “it’s incredibly important and part and parcel of what we’re about” – and it’s nurturing of young directors that have seen talents like Mick Gordon, Erica Whyman, Thea Sharrock and Sacha Wares come through its ranks.

A company like English Touring Theatre thus doesn’t merely keep quality theatre alive wherever it appears, but is also constantly regenerating it with new talent. It’s a big job – and an important one.


Twelfth Night opens on 9 September 2004 at the Oxford Playhouse and continues to Brighton, Salford, York, Buxton, Guildford and Durham, where the tour concludes on 30 October.


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