After training as an actress, Nica Burns (pictured) moved from leading roles in repertory theatre to directing and producing shows.
From 1983 to 1989, she ran London’s Donmar Warehouse, ahead of the theatre’s closure and eventual redevelopment under Sam Mendes. In 1993, she joined Really Useful Theatres as its first production director. There, she heads a production department responsible for programming and managing all the shows presented in Really Useful Theatres' dozen West End theatres.
In addition, Burns also continues to independently commission, develop and produce. Her earlier productions included: A Whistle in the Dark (Royal Court); Hedda Gabler starring Fiona Shaw, directed by Deborah Warner (Playhouse), which won two Olivier Awards; Eartha Kitt in Concert (Shaftesbury Theatre); You Never Know Who's Out There by Debbie Isitt (Drill Hall); the Comedy Store Players (national tour) and Mike McShane with Sweeney & Stean (tour).
Amongst Burns’ more recent West End successes are: Defending the Caveman (Apollo), 2000 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment; Scissor Happy (Duchess); and Dawn French in My Brilliant Divorce (Apollo). In 2001, her productions won four Evening Standard Awards: Medea (Queen's), starring Fiona Shaw directed by Deborah Warner, won Best Actress and Best Director (and went on to Broadway) and Feelgood by Alistair Beaton (Garrick), a play Burns commissioned, won Best Comedy, and Kiss Me Kate (Victoria Palace), the Broadway transfer for which Burns was also associate producer, won Best Musical.
From 1983 to 1998, Burns directed and choreographed all cabaret group Fascinating Aida's shows, including those at the West End’s Piccadilly, Garrick, Vaudeville and Apollo theatres. She has also acted as the European representative for Australia’s Festival of Sydney, programming a huge range of shows, is on the board of Sadler's Wells Theatre and is chair of the King's Head Theatre in Islington, north London.
In Edinburgh, where Burns is the self-described “ultimate Edinburgh Fringe graduate” after 23 consecutive years at the festival, she was associate director of the Assembly Rooms for six years and, since 1984, has been director and producer of the Perrier Award for Comedy, also presenting the annual West End transfer of the Perrier Pick of the Fringe.
Burns is also currently represented in the West End by the high-profile revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, starring Hollywood’s Christian Slater. Despite being beset early on by problems including a last-minute directorial change, a bout of chicken pox and cancelled performances, the production - first seen at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe in August – has become a box-office sell-out at the Gielgud Theatre.
Burns is producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for Theatreshare plc – an investment and production company launched by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2002 to develop a variety of plays and musicals, working in close conjunction with Really Useful Theatres (See News, 29 Jan 2002) – along with Max Weitzenhoffer and Ian Lenagan.
What's the first stage production you recall seeing?
I was a very lucky person because the first theatre production I saw was Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Aldwych where I was taken as a child. I remember at first feeling insulted because this white box with a great big red feather was Titania’s bower and, as a prissy little schoolgirl, I thought “oh, that’s not what Shakespeare is like”. Then this most extraordinary thing happened. I think I’d seen other shows before then, but that’s the first I really remember. I didn’t understand all the language, but I was riveted and I could not stop thinking about it afterwards. If all young people were taken to theatre that good as their first experience of the art, I can’t believe they wouldn’t want to go back again.
Why & how did you become a producer?
I never wanted to be a producer. When I was young I was ballet-obsessed and I first set out to be a dancer, then I decided I wanted to be an actress. My mother, however, was extremely clear that, if I didn’t do a law degree, I was no longer welcome in the family. I struck a bargain with her: I would do the law degree if she would then pay for me to go to drama school. She tried to renege on me, the rat, but I wouldn’t let her. I did a post grad course at Webber Douglas and then started quite a healthy career as an actress. I’d had quite a good year. I’d done a Hermia I’d been very proud of with the Regent’s Park Company on the road and after that I did a Ayckbourn play in a rep which was really quite poor. It was when standing at the side of the stage in the Rep one day that I had a road to Damascus moment, thinking “What the fuck are you doing?” I did not go into the theatre to be poor. I’d never had that experience before, of thinking I wasn’t very good, never, and it was horrible, horrible. You do this because you love it and you want to be the best so I thought “right, I’m going to do something about it”. I formed my own theatre company and I did an adaptation of HE Bates’ Dulcima, which had a lovely yummy big part for me! Colin Watkins directed and we put it on together. We took it to the Edinburgh festival – my first in 23 consecutive years of the Fringe – where it was a very great success and we then toured it and we did some more work the next year and attracted a lot of attention. Doing that changed my life. I learnt to produce, hands-on with very little money, because I wanted to do good work as an actor. All we had was the £600 I’d saved in rep - if the set didn’t fit into my Ford Escort or the roof rack, it was out. In autumn 1983, within two years of doing Dulcima at Edinburgh, Ian Albery took a very large gamble and asked me – who had absolutely no experience whatsoever and was still quite a baby really and naïve about the whole thing – to run the Donmar Warehouse. I’ve never been ambitious in any sort of normal form. All I’ve ever wanted is to do good work, that’s it. And, in a sense, everything that’s ever come to me is because of that. I’ve only ever wanted to work with the best people in the theatre and I’ve not been interested in being in any other place. I love it.
What would you have done if you hadn’t become a producer?
I went quite a long way along the ballet line. I was quite good and used to do competitions and all that. But I’ve never never ever considered working anywhere except in the arts, although I would have been quite a good lawyer. As it turned out, much as I made a fuss all through my law degree to my parents, having been a lateral thinker, it was very useful to do a degree that teaches you to think logically. But still, I can’t imagine I wouldn’t be in theatre.
How do you decide what to produce?
With Dulcima, I’d read the book years before and thought, “one day I’m going to turn this into a stage play”. For me, it’s complete instinct. I suppose it’s about interacting with the wider world, whether that’s by reading a script or by going to see a play and loving the writer. Of course, now I’m in a position where people bring me projects, but I still have to be completely in love with a project. Unless I can read the play and feel a connection with it, have an idea about what sort of production I wanted and therefore who I wanted to direct it and who I wanted to be in it, then I’m the wrong person to come to. I could never produce to order. I wouldn’t do it well and it wouldn’t make me happy. This is not criticising others – all producers produce differently but hopefully arrive the same point - but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t produce just to fill a gap in a theatre. If I had a project I was working on, I might be able bring it forward but that’s it. I really have to love the material and want to live with it for a long time - because productions a long time so you have to live with it for ages.
Which productions are you proudest of?
I’m very proud of Feelgood because that was something I commissioned off a six-line treatment Alistair Beaton gave to me. I loved the idea. It was a total and utter risk because Alistair had more of a track record on TV than he did on stage and he was very scurrilous from day one. At the time, satire was not fashionable and, at any time, it’s incredibly hard to get right. So that was a great feeling taking Feelgood from a totally blank page right the way through to a successful run first at Hampstead and then at the Garrick Theatre. I’m very proud of Medea, which was controversial in a different way. Not everyone liked it but I don’t mind that – I would hate people to have a middle-of-the-road reaction to anything I produced. Audiences loving or hating it makes me quite happy because at least that means you’re saying something. Our Medea was a very dangerous, edgy production of that classic. Deborah Warner is an outstanding and demanding director and Fiona Shaw took the company every step with her. We got all the way there too – to the West End and then Broadway.
I’m also proud of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest because no production has had so many obstacles flung at it, and all from outside forces. None of the adversity we faced was due to anyone in the production really. So many times, it would have been very easy to have walked away. When you have a company of 15 placed under such stress, it’s so easy for it to fracture. Although we came close a couple of times, we didn’t fracture. The fact that, as producer, I was able to steer through that was very satisfying. When you’re a producer, there’s no benchmark really, no way to measure yourself against others, to figure out if what you’re doing is right. But there are a very few moments when you think, “I really can do this”. On Cuckoo's Nest, I did actually think, “gosh, well done on managing to get there”. I am very proud of the production and the company – we’re all very close now because of what we went through together.
Which productions, in hindsight, might you not have done?
None. Remember, I’m not a volume producer. I am very hands-on so, if things fall to bits, then I have no one to blame but myself. You perhaps don’t always get the last little bit right, but that happens. I always think pushing that last 10% is the difference between a good production and a great production, and that’s the hardest 10% to get right.
What shows do you wish you’d been able to get your hands on?
When you’re originating work, rather than transferring it, the reason it is what it is is because of the combination of people who’ve been involved, so you can’t reproduce it. There are other productions I admire, where I think, “I would have been proud to have been part of that”, but whether I would have made it as good as someone else has made it, I don’t know. There’s a synergy that happens in a production. Who knows? I would have been very proud to have produced Festen. It’s wonderful and everything that I respect and love, everything that good theatre should be: a great ensemble company, immaculate direction in terms of the most brilliant decisions being made at every single moment, stunning design. Everything about it is, as far as I’m concerned, perfect. It’s absolutely fantastic but also very disturbing, much like Medea was. And that’s doesn’t make for an easy sell. Medea won loads of awards, but we didn’t do as well at the box office as we hoped and I think we should have done. These more art house things are difficult in a commercial world but I don’t regret a penny that I lost on Medea. So Festen and there’s a lot of work at the National that I would have been proud to have been involved in. As for musicals, there are a couple of the big ones. I was associate producer on Kiss Me Kate (in the West End in 2001/2002), which I thought was the most wonderful production of that musical.
What do you think of industry awards?
We are all about wanting attention so, if awards can bring more attention, that’s great. In this industry, I would like to see them be more important. Theatre awards don’t have much impact at the box office, which is disappointing - why is it that the public don’t take notice? I know, for example with comedy, that the Perriers sell tickets because I get quite specific feedback as to how much the takings for a comedian goes up after the year they’ve won the Perrier, particularly on the road. If we’re going to do theatre awards, let’s do them really well and let’s have them mean more. The Oscars certainly affect a film’s box office plus the currency of the performer who’s won, leading to better roles and more money.
I do enjoy awards ceremonies, that’s just me. They make for a lovely day, a great industry get-together. I enjoy them when I’ve been nominated and not won but, of course, I enjoy them most when I’ve been nominated and won! I don’t always agree with the judges’ decisions. There have been some moments where people have been absolutely stunned by something winning or not winning. You have to keep it in perspective. Awards are not the be-all and end-all, and you should never ever ever do a show in order to win an award. I know people, very close to my heart, who, ten years later, still feel bitter that they didn’t win an award they were nominated for. You have to move on. On the subject of honours overall, I do think Thelma Holt should be made a Dame. She deserves that and the title would suit her so well.
How did One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest come about?
It’s part of being a permanent fixture on the Edinburgh festival scene. At the end of the 2003 festival, I approached Guy Masterson about bringing his production of Twelve Angry Men to the West End and we would indeed have done that except that Roundabout Theatre Company, which is doing it on Broadway, happened to have the rights for London and they wouldn’t give them to us despite badgering everybody I could think of. Out of that, Guy and I started talking about 2004 and Cuckoo's Nest came up. That was what the same group of comics/actors wanted to do. I thought, yes, do it, but I felt very strongly about the casting of RP McMurphy casting and Nurse Ratched. After sitting in auditions, I thought we had to have an American playing McMurphy and, from that, it wasn’t very far to getting to Christian Slater as our ideal McMurphy.
Why did Masterson withdraw as director during pre-Edinburgh
rehearsals for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?
I can’t talk about very much about that because we have an agreement and it’s done and dusted. I wish everything had all been happy and smooth sailing all the way through - that Christian hadn’t got chicken pox and that today we would be enjoying a West End hit with Guy Masterson. But there’s no kind of blame. Guy and I are still very good friends. It was a conjunction of a whole load of things in Guy’s life which just made it very difficult. He did withdraw for personal reasons and that was the right decision at the time. It was also the right decision that we should get on with it. When you’re in a situation like that, it’s hard for everybody because your director is captain of the ship. But there really is no big inside story. Now we all just want to put it behind us and get on with things. If Roundabout don’t bring in their Twelve Angry Men, I would still be very delighted to produce Guy’s production in the West End. That would be such a nice way of rounding it off. I remember in August when I’d gone up to Edinburgh and Guy was doing his solo show, we ran into each other in the Assembly Rooms bar and hugged each other to the sound of everyone else’s jaws dropping. We just laughed. Why do people think it shouldn’t be like this? You can have a very difficult time, yet still come through it with respect and friendship. He’s now in Australia, back on form and directing Twelve Angry Men there. He will no doubt be holding court in the Assembly Rooms bar next year with another Edinburgh big hit and, depending on what it is, I may or may not be part of it. I will certainly produce Twelve Angry Men if we get the rights.
What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful producer?
If you are originating work, you’ve absolutely got to be able to read text and, from that, imagine your production because. Once you know what you want it to be, you can start thinking about who you’d like to direct. That’s the starting point. It’s also very important to be able to sit in an audience and be a punter, to have a good grasp on audiences. You have to be able to make decisions, often extremely unpleasant ones. And you have to be able to work with lots of crazy people. If you’re not a good people person, you can’t produce. Lots of actors would say there are an awful lot of producers who aren’t people persons, which leads on to the next thing… you have to be able to deal with actors.
What would you advise the government – or the industry -
to secure the future of British theatre?
For the government, the first thing I’d say is start appreciating the extraordinary standard of the arts in this country. We are particularly good at text-based arts. British culture is based on the word. We’ve never been leaders in visual or musical arts, but we’ve produced the greatest writers out of any culture in the world, in my view. That’s novelists, poets, playwrights and, yes, some great journalists, too. We’re very bad at beating our own drum. Americans can celebrate achievement and talent in a way that we don’t. The arts do not get credit for the financial contribution that we make to the economy, particularly in London. I would like the whole kind of miserable mingey attitude to subsidising the arts to go because that money is paid back twenty-fold through National Insurance and VAT and also in terms of exporting product worldwide. Actually, I regard subsidy as merely cash-flow rather than real subsidy. I think the government should help the commercial sector right across the arts more through tax breaks. That would actually have very little impact on them, but would create the ability for the arts to be more adventurous. We have the talent and we have the desire in British theatre, but the financial side is very very hard. If they could just wake up to the sheer commercial sense of giving better tax breaks, we would repay that money three times over in terms of what we would achieve with it.
As for the industry, I think it does pretty well, although we do need to try and work together more. That’s difficult because, in a sense, what we all do is based on individual talent. But you have to pull together so much to make a play happen. It’s the ultimate in collaboration, whether it’s the creative team working with the actors, working with the marketing, working with the theatre. If you don’t get one piece of jigsaw right, it really does affect the whole thing.
More important than the government or theatre professionals, a big problem is that we now have a press that is very hostile towards the arts. This is part of the whole British thing of not being able to say, “this is really good stuff that we’re doing here”. I also worry about the widening gulf between critics and audiences. For me, the industry at large includes those who write about theatre. They are all part of it too. I would like to see more weight given by editors and newspapers to the arts, because it is important. We dismiss these statistics about more people going to the performing arts than to football, but that is actually true, it’s not invented. So why don’t the media take us that little bit more seriously? Why don’t we work more closely together? Why the annual round of articles on “the death of the West End”? There was a lovely piece written by JB Priestley for the Bolton Bugler in the 1930s, in which he writes about going to a music hall which was full and then to a really good play that was half-empty. We’ve been asking the same questions all these years.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
It gives people an emotional experience which - in our 24–7 culture, where people are brought up more and more to get all of their information from a machine and therefore have to interact less and less – is increasingly hard to find. That interaction is what theatre will always gives you over film or television. You can’t – in some cases, sadly - turn it off, you can’t channel hop, you have to go with it. And really good theatre, whether it’s a journey of laughter or tears, will provoke real, raw emotion. That is it’s very special gift.
How would you describe the current state of the West End?
Right now I think it’s really good. Look at Shaftesbury Avenue. We’ve got Les Mis, which might be old but is very good; Festen, which is fantastically stimulating; Cuckoo's Nest which is great entertainment and attracting a very young audience who don’t normally go to the theatre; plus the spectacle of The Woman in White; and shortly, the comedian Bill Bailey. In terms of breadth of entertainment, that’s hard to beat. Having The Woman in White, The Producers and Mary Poppins, three great big new shows opening in the same season, is fantastic. And though I can’t talk about them all, what’s coming on the slate over the next six months, is looking very exciting. You also have to take your hat off to the National, which lights up all of our theatreland, and the Donmar, the Almeida, the Royal Court. We just have great work happening all over. There’s a really good buzz at the moment. And, I for one, welcome it as a great compliment to the British theatre industry that there are so many American stars who want to come and show their theatre abilities here. They do it because London is still the best place in the world for theatre. It’s why Christian is here, why Kevin Spacey has taken time out from film to run the Old Vic, why Holly Hunter, a great actress, is coming to do a dangerous new play here. I mean, isn’t that brilliant?
What are the most important issues facing
commercial theatre in the 21st-century?
I think it’s how to constantly widen audiences, how to make theatre accessible in terms of the practical side, how to get people to see theatregoing as an easy and natural thing to do. It’s changed since the government stopped funding Theatre In Education. In the 1970s and 80s, that gave many people their first idea that theatre could be for them, too. Creatively, we need to keep develop writers more, be more ambitious and adventurous in terms of what we want to put on, and throw out rules that serve to limit what we do. We need to just go for it. Because I do believe, if you do good work, people will come; if you strive for artistic excellence, you’ll find an audience.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m doing Amy Rosenthal’s play Sitting Pretty at Watford Palace in January. I love it. Amy is a very very good young writer, and the play has a real positive message, it’s very funny and heart-warming. If it’s good enough, we’ll bring it in after a tour. I’m also doing Eugene O'Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, which we’re casting at the moment and, hopefully, Howard Davies is going to direct. That will be early next year. I’ve also got King of Comedy, which Jeremy Sams is adapting and directing, and a new play by Tony Bicat.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is playing at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre, where its limited season is booking up to 4 December 2004.