Grandage: London’s hit man

Donmar aims to extend success on B'way

LONDON — Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage is the busiest man in British theater.

Anyone else about to make their Broadway debut — his Donmar and subsequent West End hit production of Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” previews at the Bernard B. Jacobs from March 31 — would be forgiven for concentrating solely on that. Grandage, however, has other plates spinning.

He’s keeping an eye on his Donmar production of Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman,” which opened Feb. 20 to reviews strong enough to sell out virtually the entire run in the 250-seat theater. Then there’s his West End production of “Evita” (closing May 24), the latest cast of his revival of “Guys and Dolls” (now into its third year) and its simultaneous sell-out U.K. tour. And finally there’s the business of running the Donmar, which lastmonth announced its new season through November.

If all this sounds like a balancing act, it’s so far a successful one. U.K. critics routinely accompany Donmar reviews with references to the venue as a “hit factory.” Critical approval is matched by audience attendance: Last year’s figures averaged 96%.

Annual revenue is £3 million ($5.8 million). And while £500,000 ($961,000) comes in a grant from Arts Council England, the company raises more than twice that in sponsorship and fund-raising, an unprecedented contribution to revenue in comparison with similar London theaters.

Smart casting also helps. Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Kim Cattrall all played there last year. But box office names are far from the whole story.

The venue’s ambition is as noteworthy as its success. In the 2006-07 season, Grandage programmed two revivals — David Mamet’s little-known “The Cryptogram” and John Mortimer’s “A Voyage Around My Father” — but the rest was new.

In addition to “Frost/Nixon,” he offered Mark Ravenhill’s dystopic “The Cut” and fresh updates of plays by Euripides and Moliere: respectively, Frank McGuinness’s “Phaedra” and Patrick Marber’s “Don Juan in Soho.”

The venue has a good track record of moving shows to the West End; one of Grandage’s challenges will be to cement the London company’s reputation Stateside with more New York transfers. Not, Grandage insists, that transfers determine policy. “We don’t ever plan with the West End in mind, let alone Broadway,” he stresses. “Wider success is a bonus, not the impetus behind the program.”

“Frost/Nixon” may be the Donmar’s first Rialto showing under his aegis, but if all goes according to plan it won’t be the last.

“I’m hoping this will be the start of a relationship with the city,” he offers.

Does that mean the long-rumored transfer might happen of Grandage’s hit 2005 production of Schiller’s thriller “Don Carlos,” starring Derek Jacobi?

“I know that the longer one leaves it the less likely it is, but I would very much like it to happen,” says the director. And “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway? “There are plans afoot to try to make a 2008 production work.”

Succeeding Sam Mendes as Donmar a.d. in 2002, Grandage inherited a theater already working at a high level. “We set out to do a number of things,” he says. “We started a national touring program, which continues to grow. We also wanted to consider West End co-productions, which is what led to ‘Guys and Dolls.’ ”

The Donmar’s reputation had rested largely on American drama, revivals of London hits from the 1970s and ’80s and small-scale rethinks of musicals (its “Cabaret” revival, directed by Mendes, transferred to a six-year Broadway run). Grandage, has since shifted the tone. The building had never done a European play, but in his opening season the new a.d. presented risky works by Strindberg, Dario Fo and Albert Camus’ nearly-forgotten “Caligula.”

The audience axis also has changed over the five years of Grandage’s leadership, not least with the addition of regular schools’ matinees. “The audience is more diverse and younger,” he says. “We need to ensure we get those new people back — once is not enough.”

That policy of development is mirrored in Grandage’s choice of creatives. The next production (Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” starring Iain Glen) will be helmed by Charlotte Westenra, resident assistant director for the past year. She’s the latest in a line of directors — Anna Mackmin, Jonathan Munby, Josie Rourke — whose careers Grandage has shepherded both at the Donmar and the Sheffield Crucible, the regional theater he put back on the map during his tenure from 1999-2005.

“When I took over at the Donmar, I thought I would never be able to take the type of risks I did when running the 999-seat Crucible,” he admits. “But after the security of the last five years, we can move on. That’s why I’ve appointed Douglas Hodge as the building’s first associate director. He’ll direct one show a year and help define the artistic vision.”

Grandage describes running the theater as a succession of constant self-imposed challenges. “We try not to stick to a template,” he offers. “We are constantly looking at where to go next. That’s how we keep ourselves intellectually and emotionally alive. We can only hope that audiences come along with us.”

Expansion is in the cards. Having increased home output from five to six new productions per year — and won increased subsidy from Britain’s Arts Council — the Donmar is looking to develop “an outreach program we can be proud of” and to grow its touring network.

As expected, Grandage is juggling several future options. Unsurprisingly for a director who is also a trained musician (he plays the French horn), he has turned down offers from at least two international opera houses. He is, however, in preliminary discussions with Glyndebourne about an opera, which probably won’t happen until 2010 at the earliest.

And movies? His response is judicious. “I won’t rule anything out, but at this stage I’m concentrating on theater,” he says.

Even without those outside demands, isn’t Grandage risking overload? “As long as I know why I want to do any particular show, and have enough time to prepare, I thrive on this workload.”

So aside from steering the 2007 season, does he harbor other ambitions? “I made my name with Shakespeare, but I’ve never done one of his plays at the Donmar,” he says. “Maybe that’s what I’ll investigate next.”

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