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Katy Lipson on the changing face of musical theatre and innovation during the pandemic

We chat to the award-winning producer, who has a variety of projects coming up this year

Katy Lipson

One of the first large-scale socially distanced projects to be unveiled during the pandemic last year was C-o-n-t-a-c-t (ironically titled at a time when such a thing was widely discouraged) – an immersive digital experience where audiences had the chance to don headphones and wander through London with actors, listening to a story while watching it unfurl.

Unobtrusive, outdoors and safe, the show was quickly recognised as a symbol of innovation while the majority of venues kept their doors shut.

We chatted to theatre producer Katy Lipson of Aria Entertainment (who are responsible for hit shows such as Mame, Hair and Rags the Musical) about the project, as it gears up for a Manchester run in association with The Lowry in Salford as soon as restrictions permit. Speaking about the initial lockdown she says: "A lot of people shut up shop and began to hibernate, but I knew I had to do something. I asked how I could be innovative – and this is when your relationships with other people come into play."

Those people were Samuel Sené, Mathilde Moulin and Gabrielle Jourdain, who had originally premiered the piece in Paris. "They wrote to me in April, and told me about the piece in France. I asked for a recording of it – because I love innovation. Even with musicals I enjoy presenting the less obvious things, things that are rare and raw, with my own spin."

From there, Lipson says, the show "moved like a machine" – in the space of weeks auditions had happened, locations had been found and a creative team had been assembled: "One of the biggest issues was that we didn't have a box office, no audience and no data. So we had to build all those things from scratch. It was only through social, press reviews and adverts that we got great momentum." Being a largely digital exercise, there are naturally plans to take the project overseas.

One of Lipson's shows halted by the pandemic, The Last Five Years, was briefly able to reopen and is now available to stream sporadically for virtual audiences. Lipson thinks this streaming option is here to stay: "New work has a way to be showcased internationally and that should be exploited. It's so easy to engage with a well-edited piece with great sound quality. Fans really push shows into another stratosphere (Six as an example) by using social and digital – so giving them the tools to do this through trailers and clips is massively important."

This is shaping a whole new eco-system for developing productions, she believes: "We're changing. People are engaging with ideas, the zeitgeist and stars in a whole other way. People like to be a part of something from the very beginning and follow a journey."

© Pamela Raith

Interestingly, I was chatting to Lipson before the explosion of the TikTok Bridgerton musical – which fits what she was describing perfectly. She is now aiding the Aria ALP Chamber Project – to help commission a new musical every year.

As is quite obvious, Lipson isn't allowing her projects the chance to rest idle while theatres remain closed. Her production of The Addams Family musical is waiting for a chance to open, while she's also co-producing new piece The Osmonds (a jukebox show, based on the work of the classic group).

Lipson has worked at a plethora of off-West End venues, and always has an eye on "shows that can take that crucial next step to touring....building a promotional model that means we can be sustainable and invest money into new work for the future."

The model is an important one, and Lipson doesn't shy away from domestic issues for financing home-grown shows: "If you're not pushing yourself to create new content that you can pay to put out across the UK, then there's no sustainability". Lipson compares it to US shows, which often come over with a creative team attached (an example would be Dear Evan Hansen, or Come From Away).

Touring has been one of the trickiest parts of Lipson's time, she admits – initially there was a push to move dates to autumn 2020 (which naturally never came to): "We just keep moving it until we think it's viable. We haven't solidified any announcement, but we're just going to keep checking in on each venue and then decide when it's time."

A third tour, a new play rather than a musical, is set to be unveiled soon. Lipson says the piece was meant to have started last Christmas, but has been pushed back.

Lipson isn't just thinking shows on stage, but also brick and mortar – being part of the Vertical Theatre – a "Covid-safe pop-up venue" (the pictures are pretty cool). She explained: "STUFISH Entertainment Architects have been working on ideas for temporary theatres for a while now and during lockdown my brother Ric Lipson who is an architect there started working with the team...We knew this was a big idea and therefore we created a group with other founding members, Holly Gilliam, Robert Delamere and Jake Berry to cultivate a framework and business model to hopefully roll these out worldwide."

Lipson's is the sort of ambitious, pragmatic spirit that will allow the theatre community not merely to weather this pandemic, but to come back with even more strings on its much-missed bow.

An artist's impression of the space
© Vertical Theatre Group