Year of the Producer: Howard Panter & Rosemary Squire On … Topping the Charts

Last week Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, the husband-and-wife team at the helm of the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the country’s largest theatre owning and producing group, jointly topped The Stage newspaper’s list of the industry’s 100 most influential people for the third year running.

Joint CEOs, Panter and Squire co-founded ATG in 1992. In 2010, they successfully purchased 16 Live Nation theatres for an estimated £90 million, taking ATG’s national portfolio to 39 venues, including 12 West End houses, amongst them Trafalgar Studios, the Piccadilly (currently home of Ghost the Musical) and the Savoy (housing their own production of Legally Blonde).

As part of our “Year of the Producer” series on Whatsonstage.com – inspired by our adoption of Stage One as the charity for the 2012 Whatsonstage.com Awards – we spoke to theatre’s power couple about how they make it work.

What’s the key to being a good producer?
Rosemary: Material is crucial, the right script. It comes down to the writing in my view. To find good material, you have to look all over, and for commercial theatre, it’s unlikely to come from a brand new writer. There are rare occasions – we produced Polly Stenham’s play That Face, which came via upstairs at the Royal Court and we transferred it. It’s unusual to do that, but it does happen exceptionally. In terms of new writers it’s going to be the more established writers who cut their teeth at subsidised houses before you see them in the West End. Jez Butterworth is a good example of that. We worked with Jez back in the Nineties on Mojo. A hit like Jerusalem takes years, it doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Collaborations between producers and writers are a good way of working together, and of course, there’s lots of material with a great heritage for revival. We’ve got hundreds of years of this stuff.
Howard: I guess it’s trying to hold the ring on a production, which is everything, because in the end the buck really does stop with you. Whether it’s the money that goes right or wrong or the art that goes right or wrong, in the end, the producer is the only one left to blame, you’re the only one who has to make those final decisions. So I think it’s the ability to hold the ring and to make the big decision, that’s probably the essence of a good producer.

ATG has a unique position in that you’re the largest UK theatre owners as well as theatre producers. How does owning and managing such a massive chain of venues affect your production side?
Howard: We have a very eclectic, broad landscape. I always say we’re more like the BBC than a niche publisher. In other words we do everything from EastEnders to Panorama, whereas say the Royal Court does Royal Court work and that’s it, they do it very brilliantly, but that’s one strand of work. So they’re a niche publisher, and we’re a mainstream broadcaster. Because we have 400,000 seats a week to sell, we have to be mainstream and we have to do everything from Glyndebourne to pantomime. We tend to go by the Crufts Dog Show maxim which is “I don’t mind whether it’s a Labrador or a poodle, as long as it’s the best Labrador and the best poodle”. So we try to do the best pantomime, the best dance with Matthew Bourne, the best opera with Glyndebourne, the best plays with the Royal Court. It’s about the best of breed, the best of any particular genre, that’s how you get quality across the portfolio of buildings we’ve got.
Rosemary: We’ve got a lot of theatres to fill 364 days a year, so I suppose it’s focused producing towards meeting some of those needs and an enlarged producing team. We’ve recently added Evanna White and Adam Speers to our in-house team, and we are focusing on producing work for the regional venues, with a lot more regional touring musicals in particular. It started with Spamalot, which was a new version we launched in 2010 and that’s been very successful. We’ve got Legally Blonde and South Pacific out now and soon we’ll have Monkee Business with Michael Rose.

Howard: We’re also working with Matthew Borne doing Nutcracker again, we’re premiering Zac Braff’s play All New People, and we’re doing a new version of Dolly Parton’s musical 9 to 5. We’ve got a huge range of new plays, great dance work, popular rock and roll musicals, classic musicals … it’s a big, big canvas. And, as I say, it’s really trying to get the best of each type of work, that’s the way you get people to come. Today more than ever, it seems to us, people want something special, they want something worth getting off the sofa for.

How do you balance your time between production and venue management?
Rosemary: Howard and I have complementary skills and, between us, there probably isn’t a job in theatre that we haven’t done. I’ve got 31 years’ experience now and you’ve got rather more.
Howard: I’ve got a bit more, yes. It’s an oversimplification to say Rosemary looks after corporate, business operational and finance and I look after content, programming production and marketing. It’s broadly at least where our primary responsibilities lie, but we cross over all the time. Often, problems are not just one thing or the other but a mixture of issues. In order to get something solved, one has to look at something from a programming point of view, a financial point of view, a marketing point of view all at once. Hopefully, between us, we’ve got enough experience to deal with those things.

Rosemary: There are pluses and minuses to our being married. You never leave work at the doorstep, but you have a great shorthand. So the upside is you can get to the nub of something very quickly, and you trust each other. You know what the other person is saying is true and real and honest so you can get to the essence of what the problem is quicker, and you can trust each other’s judgment and make a decision fast. But the downside is that work does come home and can drive you insane.

How important is the connection between New York and London in theatre today?
Howard: Certainly in contemporary theatre history, for 60, 70 years or more, there has been crossover between the two cities. I don’t think it’s the only relationship that matters in world theatre, it’s slightly overrated. Ours is a transatlantic business, and we do trade shows back and forth. We’re doing South Pacific here, that started at the Lincoln Centre. We’ve also opened The Mountaintop on Broadway, which started over here. It’s a two-way street. I think New York has many virtues: talent, money, excitement and all those wonderful things. And it has things that aren’t going for it: cost, the dominance of one newspaper, and the way things tend to be more polarised in New York. On Broadway, you’re either a hit or a flop. There tends to be less middle ground as there is in London, which I think is healthier for theatre generally. London also tends to be more diverse and that’s healthier too.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young producers today?
Howard: If you’re not wealthy and you don’t have an immediate circle of wealthy contacts, it’s extremely hard to raise money today. If you do manage to raise it, and, as can easily happen, your first one or two shows go down, you can go right down with them. That’s really hard. The numbers have got so much bigger, and the ability to lose money quickly is much sharper. I think there should be many more tax-friendly schemes for raising money for theatre production. It’s quite complicated to set up an EIS scheme or its equivalent today. They’re quite complicated. A lot of young producers will find it difficult to set up a corporate entity like that, difficult to get that kind of shareholding base, difficult to jump through all the hoops. In the same way as there have from time to time been tax breaks for investments in movies in this and other countries, there needs to be a serious attempt to help fund the commercial theatre. All the independent surveys by Ernst & Young or Deloitte or whoever it is, every time they look at our industry, they say “My goodness me, commercial theatre generates eight times as much for the economy as it costs”, and that’s without a subsidised sector. Theatre always comes out as a real plus for the economy, never mind the social and creative and other benefits that it might bring. But it’s so difficult.

I started up with no money at all and Rosemary had about the same. Perhaps we were lucky, perhaps we worked three jobs at a time, but even when the numbers were smaller, we had to mortgage the house or the flat twice, or sell the car to pay wages. I don’t fear for the producing talent coming through today – that is, I don’t fear for the enterprise, I don’t fear for the imagination or the enthusiasm or the passion, but I do fear for the difficulty young producers face to raise money given that a lot of commercial shows don’t make money and it’s hard to get a momentum going. I worry whether new, normal people who just don’t have any particular capital will be able to become successful producers.

– Howard Panter & Rosemary Squire were speaking to Whatsonstage.com managing & editorial director Terri Paddock