UPDATED on 4 Dec 2006: To read more tenth birthday greetings from industry figures including Richard Eyre, Sally Greene, Adam Kenwright, David Eldridge, Raymond Gubbay, Thelma Holt, Anthony Pye-Jeary, Edward Hall, Daniel Evans and many others – CLICK HERE. And for thoughts from theatregoers, including a Whatsonstage.com version of “My Favourite Things”, CLICK HERE.
Whatsonstage.com has been my baby since 1997, but I wasn’t there at its birth. In late 1996, it was founded by media mega-corporation and FHM publisher EMAP. I was just the hired hand. The real mother of this invention was a woman called Carol Dukes and a team of corporate geeks, in the bowels of a Clerkenwell office, with an instruction to build websites and change the world.
By the time I joined, we had tickets and listings and all we needed were a few news stories and an audience. I was hired to fill in the blanks, two days a week. In common with our readers, I was a keen theatregoer, proudly posting my first review, in July 1997, of Ben Elton’s Popcorn and my first news story, the following month, on Ian Rickson’s appointment as artistic director of the Royal Court. We were off.
Well nearly. In late 1999, with the Internet boom in full swing, EMAP decided theatre was not for them, and I was staring at the prospect of giving up the job I loved as Whatsonstage.com was put on the block. A few hasty phone calls and an even hastier business plan later, I and my partner David Dobson scraped together the investment to buy the business and we were off once more. It’s been independently run ever since.
It wasn’t easy. The theatre industry was slow to adopt ‘new technology’ and suspicious of us as outsiders. Publicists and producers were indifferent at best, hostile at worst. But the lesson we learned was that we had to become part of the theatre industry first; the media industry was by the by. We beavered away on extremely limited resources and slowly we seemed to make headway.
The website grew organically; in other words, certainly in the early days, most things happened by accident. We knew we wanted to make the site interactive, promoting the idea of online community, so we added the Discussion Forum in 2000. More than 150,000 postings later – usually mature and considered, though not always - the highs and lows of Theatreland are laid bare and scoured by theatregoers and practitioners alike. Meanwhile, our Big Debate survey results have regularly been picked up in the national press.
Taking interactivity to its extreme, in 2001, our readers collaborated to write a play online with Soho Theatre, later staged as part of Soho’s annual new writing festival, and Ray Cooney recruited us to put together a guinea pig audience to help develop his latest farce.
With the help of a team of freelance reviewers, a long line of interns, successive contributing editors (Mark Shenton and Michael Coveney) and now my full-time deputy Caroline Ansdell, we quickly surpassed our initial aim of generating one or two news stories and reviews a week. At last count, we’d written 4,445 news stories and 2,153 reviews – in addition to 1,292 gossip items, 290 interviews and 240 other features. Oh, and something in the region of 2,000 ticket offers.
Our readers have been even more prolific. We introduced User Reviews in July 2000. The first poster explained his three-star rating of The Graduate with just one word, “good”. Since then, 15,584 more User Reviews have been added. These, and the Discussion Forum, are watched closely by people working on the shows - I remember one producer who had his secretary trawl through the previous 100 comments on his musical and calculated that our star rating was a fraction out.
Theatregoers have their say in a more permanent way via our annual awards, which, again, started accidentally. In January 2001, when that year’s Laurence Olivier nominations were announced, we ran a poll asking readers who they thought should win. As the results were quite different from those of the Olivier judges, we thought there might be something in it. There was and our annual awards now attract tens of thousands of votes.
But, of all the things we do, what I find most rewarding are our Whatsonstage.com Outings, which, like many things, came about from a suggestion on the Discussion Forum. Our first event, involving a grand total of 12 theatregoers, was to a matinee of Chicago in spring 2001. Since then, we’ve hosted events to more than 100 shows in the West End and beyond, and had lively post-shows with everyone from Boy George to Alan Rickman, Derek Jacobi, Julia Stiles and Jim Broadbent.
What I love about the Outings is seeing, at first-hand, how others can, like me, catch the theatre bug. People come once, and then they come again and again. (It was out of the Outings that our Theatregoers’ Club was born, so that our most regular customers could afford to see shows even more frequently.)
The Outings also probably account for my most embarrassing, happiest and saddest memories of the past ten years. The most embarrassing was when Queen’s ever-charming Brian May insisted I join him for the curtain call of We Will Rock You at a packed Dominion. The happiest, and saddest, was meeting the actor William Hootkins after Hitchcock Blonde at the Royal Court. He became a true friend and a great drinking buddy. Hoot died last year, I was devastated.
As if running a website were not enough, we took another big step in 2005 by acquiring Theatregoer, now What’s On Stage magazine, from its forward-thinking founder, Madeleine Lloyd Webber. Now under the astute editorship of Roger Foss, it’s gone from strength to strength. And back online in the past 18 months, we’ve added extensive radio, television and photo coverage, amongst other new features, to Whatsonstage.com.
For me, what started as a part-time job has become a much more than full-time passion – for Whatsonstage.com, for theatre and for all of the amazing people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with. It doesn’t seem to have become any easier – just a lot busier – but, as we enter double digits, I’m encouraged by what we’ve achieved so far and I hope that, by continued accident or design, we can achieve much much more.
Happy birthday greetings
"There are many theatre websites, but Whatsonstage.com is the one that made the difference and started the change in every theatre's relationship with its audience. Bang go previews, bang go press nights - we're all just following the threads. Of course we know you support many theatres. Even so, somehow you make us feel as though you really love us and want everything we do to be a big success." - David Lan, artistic director, Young Vic
“This is the best theatre website. Informed, comprehensive, imaginative – run by people who know and are passionate about theatre.” - Nica Burns, producer and chief executive, Nimax Theatres
“There’s much for us to be proud of when we look at the rich heritage of theatre in this country and Whatsonstage.com plays a really important role in spreading the word.” - Kevin Spacey, artistic director, Old Vic
“A pioneer of online communication, Whatsonstage.com ignited the potential and continues to promote theatre as popular culture to a growing global market. Effervescent and resourceful, its journalists transmit breaking news with a true sense of event.” - Caro Newling, Neal Street Productions
“Whatsonstage.com seems to be the only website that people refer to for theatre information. It’s both an asset to the theatre industry and the theatregoing public.” – Andrew Lloyd Webber
"Whatsonstage.com is a useful way of keeping in touch with what's going on both on and off stage. The prominence that it gives to the views and reviews of audience members has proved decisively influential in arts coverage in all media." - Michael Boyd, artistic director, Royal Shakespeare Company
“Two of the great things about Whatsonstage.com are its reader reviews and its pungent discussion board. Both give theatregoers the chance to score revenge on us professional critics. This may be an uncomfortable experience for the victim, but it seems a desirable state of affairs that critics should sometimes be on the receiving end.” – Quentin Letts, Daily Mail
“Whatsonstage.com has developed into one of the major points of reference for the theatre industry." – David Ian, chairman global theatrical, Live Nation
“Reading Whatsonstage.com is a guilty pleasure. I associate theatre internet sites with dweebs and obsessives, so there is a degree of shame in my daily check-ups. However Whatsonstage.com’s mix of information, gossip and opinion makes it hard to ignore. I find it indispensable.” – Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director, Shakespeare’s Globe
“Whatsonstage.com has always had its finger on the pulse. It is the first place I go to get the latest news and gossip.” – Thea Sharrock, artistic director, Gate Theatre
“I first came across the website when we were rehearsing Billy Elliot. Every so often Rick Fisher - genius of lighting - would pipe up and give us some vital piece of industry gossip. I assumed he was just the most well-connected person in British theatre until one day I looked over his shoulder and saw he was logging on to your site. Ever since then, I have been logging on several times a week.” - Lee Hall, playwright and lyricist
“Whatsonstage.com is so ‘first’ with the news about what’s going on in Theatreland, I’m terrified that one day I’m going to read my next season on the website before I’ve chosen the plays.” – Anthony Clark, artistic director, Hampstead Theatre
''I regularly visit Whatsonstage.com. It's the only site I know in our industry that has up-to-the-minute news bulletins. It is essential reading for anyone interested in theatre. Whatsonstage.com evenings can be the best performances in the run for a play. The question and answer sessions are always stimulating and revealing. We often learn a great deal from them." – Sonia Friedman, producer
“Whatsonstage.com Outings are always so friendly, and I love that we can gain insights into the performance through meeting the people involved. The Outings have also saved me a fortune over the years.” – Cara McMahon, theatregoer
“Whatsonstage.com provides a very lively resource for enthusiastic theatregoers. And I know that acting companies greatly enjoy the chance to meet some of them at the regular Whatsonstage.com Outings.” - Nicholas Hytner, artistic director, National Theatre
“Whatsonstage.com is a unique and remarkable organisation. Ironically, it's probably a misnomer. Your true achievement lies in ‘Whatsintheaudience’. And the answer is - in relation to your evenings at the Almeida - people who are lively, responsive, involved and informed. Long may you prosper.” - Michael Attenborough, artistic director, Almeida Theatre
“There's a real sense of excitement and enthusiasm about the site. You really feel that you are part of a community that loves experiencing and enjoying theatre.” - Dominic Cooke, artistic director designate, Royal Court
“When I first came across Whatsonstage.com, I was curious and asked others about you. ‘They’ll be out of business in a minute - here today, gone tomorrow’ was the response. Wrong. Ten years on, Whatsonstage.com has become a major player in British theatre, and the snobs and doubters have turned into your readers and supporters.” - Matthew Byam Shaw, producer
“Perhaps one can divide the theatre community into two factions; those who admit to reading Whatsonstage.com and big old fibbers.” – Jeremy Sams, director
“What I like about your site is that it has aspirations beyond just the gossipy side of it all. It seems to say ‘we believe in theatre as a force that can change and engage people, a force that pushes people's boundaries’. It's aggressive about theatre and is for people who genuinely want to be serious theatregoers.” – Michael Grandage, artistic director, Donmar Warehouse
“You have managed to make theatregoing part of our lives. It has become part of who we are and what we do. Before Whatsonstage.com, we didn't realise the possibilities. Thank you, thank you.” - Elaine and Mike Denison, theatregoers
We’ve been overwhelmed with birthday greetings. To read more – from industry figures including Richard Eyre, Sally Greene, Adam Kenwright, David Eldridge, Raymond Gubbay, Thelma Holt, Anthony Pye-Jeary, Edward Hall, Daniel Evans and many others – CLICK HERE. And for thoughts from theatregoers, including a Whatsonstage.com version of “My Favourite Things”, CLICK HERE.
A decade of theatrical milestones
What else has happened during ten years of Whatsonstage.com? Here are a few milestones to jog your memory…