MY THEATRE MATTERS SPEECH
My dears –
May I firstly say what an honour it is to be here talking at the Bath Theatre Matters Conference. Anything that celebrates and debates the value and importance of theatre in today’s society has to be celebrated. So to Luke, the organiser here, I say ‘bravo’, dear.
Now – to many of you I imagine you are looking at me asking a few questions. Firstly – who the hell is this bizarre looking man? And secondly – is that a mask he is wearing? Well yes it is – I am indeed in a mask, thankfully this is not my real face – although the one underneath feels somewhat more weathered than this latex exterior you see now.
So here we all are gathered to celebrate and discuss theatre – and how it matters to us all. The format here, with me standing up talking to you all is a little like a director explaining his ‘vision’ to the actors on the first day of rehearsals. So I’m going to begin my speech like it’s day one of rehearsals – and you are all in my cast. And on day one the first thing we all must do is tointroduce ourselves.
So let me go first. My name is Westendproducer – I am an anonymous theatrical impresario, who produces, tweets, writes, and I have been involved in theatre all my life. Why do I wear a mask? Well – it allows me to be honest and say what I feel. Some years ago now I was involved in a production and witnessed the entire company getting more depressed and upset by the day.They didn’t like being involved at all, but didn’t feel they had the capacity to voice their concerns. So I started saying things, and tweeting things anonymously. Which was rather fun. Theatre is about celebrating, playing and rejoicing – of course it is also a business – which is why it is called ShowBusiness – but there are many peoplewho take it far too seriously. And that is why I began. I wanted to inject a little bit of naughty fun into the theatreworld again. I am very lucky – and naughty – because I have been involved in showbusiness all my life – and go to most of the opening nights in London – which really is thrilling. I am particularly interested in the development of new work – and the discovery of new performers and artists. Two years ago I ran the first ever online talent contest entitled ‘search for a twitter star’ – which had a live final in the west end at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. This year I ran a similar contestcalled ‘search for a twitter composer’ – which aimed to find and support musical theatre composers of the future – which had live heats and a final at the Soho Theatre. I am pleased to say we are currently working with our winner on the development of their show. The support and development of new talent is hugely important – as it is what new audiences crave. New talent needs a new audience, and new audiences need this new talent. It is so difficult getting any work on these days in this hard financial climate – and even harder still for an unknown.
Now, I have introduced myself – you all need tointroduce yourselves – so if you all wouldn’t mind turning around and saying hello and giving your name to the people around you – that would be marvellous.Bravo. Now we are all friends. It is extraordinary how quickly an acting company has to get along and trust one another – it can often be within the first half hour that actors are required to jump up and down in tight Lycra, do emotive scenes, and fondle each other in discreet areas. How thrilling, dear.
So – we now know each other – the next stage before starting rehearsals is to have a quick warm-up. So if you would all please open your mouths as wide as possible and repeat a little tongue twister to get your muscles working: so after me: ‘John Michael Ball Barrowman, Michael John Barrowman Ball, John Michael Ball Barrowman, Michael John Barrowman Ball’ – and again, a little faster ‘John Michael Ball Barrowman, Michael John Barrowman Ball’. Marvellous – now open your mouths widely for me – and hold the position. This position once again warms up the muscles of the mouth and face – but should be avoided when singing as it makes you look like a ‘blow up doll’. Of course if you are aiming to look like a blow up doll – then this is the position for you. Bravo. Now, mouths back to normal please. So that’s our quick little warm up. Next I’d like you all to get changed into the lycra outfits my friends are going to hand out. I’m only joking my dears – it’s far too early for that. Maybe we can all get our lycra out this evening after a few drinks.
I am obviously a producer in commercial theatre – but I learnt my trade in subsidised theatre – it is where I started. Now of course I work in the west end. But subsidised and commercial theatre is very fluid – each one is influenced by the other – it’s very symbiotic. This symbiotic idea between The Commercial Sector and Subsidised Theatre is illustrated perfectly by the huge commercial West End success and transfers of both “One Man Two Guvnors” and “War Horse “. And then in the other direction an idea taken from The Subsidised to The Commercial sector is Michael Grandage using the ten pound seatwhich guaranteed him sold out performances for his recent season at The Noel Coward. After all – subsidised and commercial theatre are of the same business – they feed each other. And I want to comment on the wider social implications – not solely my own sector. Which leads me to my next topic.
So – we are back to day one of rehearsals and have introduced ourselves and warmed up – so we’d better start discussing the play. Let’s begin with the characters.And firstly the leading characters. The play we are doing is Macbeth – so let’s discuss the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. We are very fortunate that we have two rather new performers who both show a great capacity at acting, particularly in front of large, well-respected audiences. So playing Lady Macbeth we have an actress called Maria Miller. And playing Macbeth we have a young man called Ed Vaizey. Now Lady Macbeth is a part that requires lots of skill, stamina, a persuasive nature, and a capacity to be lovely to all the proper people but with the prime purpose of progressing her own motives – which Maria Miller does so perfectly. Tome, Ed and Maria, just like any politician are not ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ – which makes them the perfect casting for these tragic characters.
Maria, just like Lady Macbeth has been cleverly using her daggers to savagely cut whatever stands in her way – and for Maria, her daggers have been cutting arts funding. Lets briefly look back at Maria’s maiden speechwhere she seemed to be trying to appease the arts by giving us the chance to make an economic case for the sector. But of course this was just plain foolish – as unions and organisations have been doing this for years.It strikes me that there is a severe lack of understandingfrom our Culture Secretary, and like Lady Macbeth Maria Miller is sleepwalking to disaster. Art needs funding, it needs finances – and in return offers rewards in other ways. If what Miller proposes is that all art mustplay its part in economic recovery by proving profitability – I would like to know how this is to be achieved? By more expensive theatre tickets? Smaller show budgets? Or simply fewer shows? I personallydon’t know and can’t offer all the answers. But what I can say to our actress playing Lady Macbeth is by asking us to only produce profitable theatre, subsidised theatres are being stifled – and like Macbeth, I feel it ‘is a sorry sight’ indeed.
As for dear Ed Vaizey. Bless him. He was overheard recently telling an aide that he is ‘completely useless’. I’m sure many would agree. Macbeth talks of his‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls onth’other’ – certainly Ed’s ambition seems to have made him rush ahead without any real thoughts ofconsequences whatsoever. You may recall that earlier this year there was a report sent to Ed Vaizey about how arts cuts are curtailing new writing. The report’s author, Fin Kennedy, received no reply from the minister until 60 of the biggest names in the arts, including Helen Mirren, Tom Stoppard and Richard Eyre wrote him an open letter pointing out that he had not bothered to reply. Only then for the department of Culture, Media and Sport to rush out an anodyne response stating the current spending on arts. And Mr Vaizey still never personallyresponded! Ed could do well in listening to his character Macbeth’s words and stop his prevarication – ‘if it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly’ Mr Vaizey! His stammering, and refusal to respond is purely bad manners – and like Macbeth he is losing the faith of all around him. The culture department and arts world need to have a continuing dialogue – surely an arts minister should be attempting to engage with the art world? That is his job. I hope in time Ed will listen to Maria’s Lady Macbeth when she tells him to ‘screw your courage to the sticking place’– as oppose to his usual delaying tactics.
As a consequence of these arts funding cuts, creativity is suffering and theatres are closing. Recently many shows are closing before they have even opened. We are knownto have the best actors, directors and writers in the world – most of this talent beginning in subsidised theatre. This new talent and work will end if everything is reliant on profit. Who will take a chance on new writers and talentwhen the pressure of profit is so overwhelming? No-one. The whole system as we know it needs to alter. I know the government encourages theatres to try and cover the cuts by finding private funders and philanthropists – but this is difficult. Especially for those regional subsidised theatres – in fact a recent report from Arts and Businesses showed that donations in London grew by 10% – but for the rest of England it dropped 5.3%. Even more worrying is that 90% of nationwide individual giving goes to London, leaving only 10% for the rest of the UK. So for these arts organisations outside of London they have to spend all of their time and resources trying to get money elsewhere – time which would otherwise be spent on creating valuable work for their local communities. Anyhow – I am very passionate about this matter, as we all are. It always depresses me when arts are not considered as a vital part of our lives – and areconstantly labelled inferior against sport, education and healthcare. Indeed it is vital for the health of the nation to be cultured. Art provides a communication, and aresponse to human nature that brings us all closer together. It is a major part of our culture – and if we don’t start supporting it now, our children will solely think of theatre as a part of history.
Macbeth sums up Maria Miller and Ed Vaizey’s time in government perfectly when he says it is ‘ a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. My biggest hope is that their time in government does amount to nothing – and the next people we have understand the true value of art.
The most depressing thing is when did you last hear a politician speak passionately about the arts? What we need are politicians who affirm them – and not solelyworry about the expense of them. The general publicrecognise its value – so why can’t our esteemed politicians? The time has come that as artists we must fight and not be disposed of as an unnecessary expense. We are an asset to the country – and have a world-widereputation. Our actors are international ambassadors – and the art we produce is an international commodity.And without the support of an understanding government our place in the world as leading creators of arts and artists will fall.
What we need is someone like Jenny Lee – who was Arts minister from 1964 – 1970. She was, like Maria Miller a female Labour Minister, but unlike Ms Miller, Jenny was admired and loved by the arts community. Lee was a passionate supporter of the building of the National Theatre. She believed there was a danger in politicising funding for theatre as this leads to what she saw as stagnant art.
Jenny, being a Socialist, recognised the Social value of Theatre unlike current politicians who see the cost of everything but not the value . She showed that politiciansactually can be good news for the arts – if they understand and have a passion about them. And that is what we need again. Someone who wants to save arts, and not merely squeeze every ounce of profit out of it.
Of course the most frightening thing about withdrawing and diminishing support for the arts is once its gone how do you get it back ?
Anyhow – I must move on to other matters otherwise I will be whipped.
So – back to our first day of rehearsals. On day one it is usual that the producer will be there walking around in his mink coat and surveying the wonderful team he has assembled. I don’t always walk around in mink – mine tends to be a far subtler outfit…as you can all see.
So let me talk about producing. Producing is a risky business – now more so than ever. There has recently been a trend of shows that have been pulled before they have even opened. In London we had Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory, a tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and more recently the tour of Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy – it is a worrying time – both for the commercial and subsidised sector.
A producer’s role is to oversee all aspects of mounting a theatre production. They find the script, develop ideas, start the development and attempt to secure funds for the production – often by bringing investors into the production in a limited partnership agreement. They hire the team, create the budget, and hire the publicist. Now obviously this is not cheap. There is a fallacy that all theatre producers are rich. I’m afraid not. In fact only one or two are – and they’re the ones that own most of the theatres in London.
To produce a show in the west end costs millions. To give you an approximate idea to produce a small-scale play costs around £400,000 in start up costs – plus another £100 – £180,000 to run every week. This however, is only for a small play. For something like a large musical it is excessively more. An average musical in the west end will cost around 3 – 5 million in initial investments – plus the extra weekly cost of contractors and theatre rent. If we take a look at some more recent shows – we can see how prices seem to rise on a yearly basis. Charlie and the chocolate factory cost around 10million, Matilda 7 million, and the new X factor musical is around 6 million (although obviously this is just a drop in the ocean for Mr Cowell). With such huge money needed to start a show you can see how easy it is to lose it. Take Viva Forever, this show opened with a 4 million advance, and seemed to have all the traits of a successful show – but closed a few months later at a loss of 5 million. Betty Blue Eyes cost around 4 million in initial investments – but sadly lost several thousand more. It is a very risky business. And when the stakes are so high producers and investors have to do all we can to try and maximise profits. Of course – profits in the west end, or any show in fact is very rare. A show that only covers costs – or makes a small loss these days is evenconsidered successful.
However – I am pleased to report that in 2012 West End theatre revenues were higher by 3.1% than the year before – to £528 million. And there has been year-on-year growth for the past eight years.
I am often asked ‘How I decide on what show to produce – is it the script, the music, the venue, or the stars?’ Truthfully it is all of those things – mixed with a strong feeling in my gut. So if I am suffering from indigestion I avoid this method.
One of the most important things I consider is subject matter – what the show is about. There is no point in me producing anything that would only interest twenty people and their dog. The show has to have a theme and story that will move and touch a huge amount of people. And crucially it has to interest them enough to make them buy a ticket. I have been involved in many shows that have gone through an initial development stage, had money pumped into them, only for them to be deemed not quite ‘right’ at the last minute. And when this is the case it is far better to lose the few thousand already spent, than invest millions more into a show that will eventually never even cover costs.
The name of the show is also very important – if a show doesn’t have a catchy title then no one will go and watch it. That’s why I avoid shows that have the words ‘bottom’, ‘poo’, and ‘love never dies’ in the title..
Every successful show will also have been marketed well. It is essential that a show looks and sounds attractive to the general public even before they know what it is about. This involves securing lots of press coverage, interviews for the actors on TV and radio, and huge amounts of promotional materials (flyers, posters, websites, and tattoos on women’s bottoms). And very importantly the main image that is associated with the show has to be powerful and instantly recognisable – just like John Barrowman’s willy is to virtually everyone in the west end. If any of the above isn’t handled correctly a show doesn’t stand much chance of reaching its target audience – and consequently it won’t sell. Which is not good for my Dom supply, dear.
As you can imagine it is very difficult for new producers to get started. The best way is to get in touch with organisation like StageOne – who offer support and training to new producers. They also offer bursary schemes to help producers with their first ventures. Another good way into producing is to contact producers directly – ask to assist them, or simply ask for help. You will find in this business that most people are only too willing to help and advise. And those that aren’t willing are best avoided as they are usually ignorant prats who practice self love on an hourly basis.
The next stage on the first day of rehearsals is the read-through, or if we’re doing a musical – a little sing through of some of the songs. Which leads me nicely to talk about one of my passions – musicals.
Recently, musicals and musical theatre performers have been getting mocked by certain members of the media. I read an article a few months ago that stated that musicals are ‘embarrassing and stupid’ – an article that was so narrow minded and naive I was surprised it even got the column space. In talent shows like the X Factor and The Voice the title ‘musical theatre performer’ is used as a derogatory term – and implies that musical theatresingers are not skilled and don’t have the star quality that pop or soul singers have. Well I say to the likes of LittleLouis Walsh and Jessie Loudmouth J that musical theatre performers are the most skilled kind of singers and performers there are. As well as being able to sing and adapt their voice to any style they have the capacity to understand and tell the story of a song in a way that somemore mainstream pop stars are unable to do. To musical theatre performers a song becomes a story – and the story takes the listener on a far more rewarding journey than simply hearing some lyrics being wailed and scatted out by a drugged up diva. And on top of that musical theatre performers do it at least 8 times a week – double that if they’re in a Kenwright show. ! And I need not mention the talent, stamina and years of training it takes to become a competent musical theatre performer. Musicals are such a hard craft to perfect – and many of our performers are the best in the world. So I say it’s time to give musical theatre performers the due respect and admiration they deserve.
In fact if we look back, musicals have always been a vital part of entertainment and escapism – for example during both world wars – they provided an important role in keeping people’s spirits up. A good melody written by Irving berlin or Cole Porter provided the perfect accompaniment in aiding people’s positivity – and was indeed not looked on as being ‘banal’.
These musicals came as a direct reflection and reaction to what was happening in the world – just as musicals do today. Take London Road at the National recently – which documented the events of 2006 during the Ipswich serial murders, and how the residents on London Road coped with the events. The piece pushed boundaries, raised dark questions about society and togetherness, and succeeded in being utterly compelling, innovative and thoroughly explorative.
Musical theatre has also played a hugely important role in the development of entertainment since it’s birth. Looking back in it’s history there have been numerous occasions where the musical has challenged social stigmas, raised controversial issues, and indeed changed the way entertainment as a whole now exists. Take the musical ‘HAIR’ for example – this production effectively marked the end of stage censorship in the UK, andallowed lots of curious audience members to stare at actor’s wobbly bits.
A musical, like any art, is something that should be embraced and respected.
Right – well I’m aware of time so I must move on. There are so many wonderful speakers and events happening today that I mustn’t hold up the proceedings for much longer.
So, I started my speech as the first day of rehearsals –and I will end it as a company notes session.
My first note is to the National Theatre. I must admit I was thrilled when I heard the news about the new ruler of the national theatre. My colleague told me that Ruthie would be taking over – and I was overjoyed that a woman of such skill, passion, and musical theatre experience was going to be running it. Of course, I was then informed that it wasn’t Ruthie Henshall at all butRufie Norris – that tall man with the lovely tight black perm. Rufus Norris is a marvellous choice – and a very exciting successor to Nicky Nytner. I know many people who have worked with him and claim he is the best director they have ever worked with. I for one am thrilled that someone who wasn’t educated at Oxbridge has made it to that prestigious position. And also that he used to be an actor- just like dear Larry Olivier. Actor–directors and actor-managers always seem to have a greaterunderstanding of the whole process as they have been on the other side themselves. In fact I always think that directors who have never acted should bloody try it so they get to understand it from both sides. Personally I think it’s about time we all saw Nicky Hytner giving his Nancy.
So to Rufus – my one request to you is that you try and make our National theatre truly national. Do co-productions with theatres around the country. Develop and support the work of other theatres, and allow more work from other subsidised theatres to shine at the national. Listen and watch work that is being done beyond London. Collaborate. Create partnerships. Co-produce a piece of work with all the major producing theatres up and down the country – a project that utilises the best of every area. I know War Horse is touring which is wonderful news – but the time is now right that the National tours with other companies. Why not invite the cream of national talent together to create at the national – and make it not a national theatre that just creates work in London, but one that creates work nationally. Now that would be thrilling.
Finally – I have a few notes for actors.
There is a saying – that there is no business like show business. Perhaps not. But there are professions that offer bigger salaries, a company car, a rewarding pension plan, promotions, holidays, a staff Christmas party, a big office and company shares. The perils and problems of being an actor and surviving in this industry, in whatever capacity, get tougher by the year.
Every year there are another select breed of twirling,ball-changing, gurning and dribbling new graduates from not just only London but the world. Add to that the influx of people who enter the acting business without training, and the competition for work each year increases dramatically. And that is why it’s so hard. There is no definite qualification for being an actor. In fact anyone can wake up one morning, and proclaim to the world that they are ‘an actor’. It’s that simple! Why not try it tomorrow morning?
But that’s the easy part. Saying you’re an actor and being an actor are two very different things altogether. I see it first hand every time I work on a new show. The number of applications we receive for shows nowadays gets into the thousands – it is at once wonderful to see that so many people want to perform, but is sad that the competition is so intense. It is not unusual to receive a thousand submissions for one role, which have been submitted through agents – so this doesn’t even include artists who submit themselves. And we simply don’t have time to see every single one of them! And even if we did it would lead to my casting department, and myself, going slowly insane after listening to hundreds of constipated renditions of ‘Corner of the sky’.
A modern actor doesn’t have all the glamour and money of a celebrity (unless they are very lucky). Most actors will be touring theatres up and down the country while staying in randy old ladies houses. They will do at least 5 recalls for every show they audition for, they will smile on demand, work for no money, pay an agent to sit in an office all day, agree with bad directors, and try their best to avoid contracting fungal infections from dirty costumes.
But for all the heartache and pain, a career as an actor is one to be admired. You have made a bold choice to be different, to make your own work, to try and succeed in a business where YOU are the business, and most of all to work doing what you love. And that is why I admire actors everywhere. They are artists who selflessly create and entertain for a living. And we should all be proud of the marvellous actors we have – and support and cherish their skill and passion.
And if this is what you want to do – if you want to act – then I have two words for you. DO IT!
So now my dears, we’ve reached the end of my speech – but before my time runs out I have one little request of everyone here. Think of this as a little ‘after-show’ aperitif in the bar. All I want you to do is lift both of your hands in the air. That’s it. Lift your hands in the air. Nowspread your fingers, and sway your hands side to side. And voila – you are displaying your jazz hands. Doesn’t it feel good? We are now an acting company working together to put on a show and celebration of jazz hands. So if ever you feel down, display your jazz hands. If ever you feel upset do a sneaky little ball change. And if you ever want to feel inspired, uplifted, energetic and recharged – go to the theatre. It is your theatre, and you are the people that allow it to happen. So lets carry on supporting and nurturing this community that has made our country leaders and ambassadors of this art form.Theatre is our countries greatest asset – it is not complacent to say ‘nobody does it better’ – we entertain and transport people from their worries, we give audiences an uplifting experience, we challenge, provoke, debate, and shock – all of which is the healthy lifeblood of a cultured society. Squander it by neglect and we become unthinking and uncultured.
Theatre Matters – and now it the time we have to actbefore it is too late – because as I said earlier – once support for our arts has gone – how will we ever get it back?
Thank you for your time and concentration.