Donmar widens stage door

Warehouse builds brand far and wide

LONDON — The April 19 Broadway bow of Donmar Warehouse’s “Mary Stuart” would be enough to keep most not-for-profits working overtime. But with five other shows already running, two more in rehearsal and another five in pre-production, this London theater has turned into a master juggler.

Alongside the transfer of Phyllida Lloyd’s “Stuart,” London has Jonathan Pryce starrer “Dimetos” at the Donmar’s 251-seat Covent Garden home, while “Madame de Sade” headlining Judi Dench continues the Donmar West End season at Wyndham’s Theater.

Then there are “Be Near Me” touring the U.K., “Frost/Nixon” on the road in the U.S., and “Guys and Dolls” playing Sydney. And “A Doll’s House” and “Hamlet” are in rehearsal.

Last week, a.d. Michael Grandage announced the program for the remainder of 2009, including his own world-premiere production of John Logan’s Mark Rothko bioplay “Red” and the Spanish Golden Age classic “Life Is a Dream,” helmed by Jonathan Munby.

This bulging slate is especially remarkable due to the staffing level. From Grandage through to casting, development, marketing, administration and management, the Donmar workforce is “an almost absurdly nimble staff of just 15,” as the a.d. describes it.

That degree of output and staff deployment doesn’t come without serious planning. When Grandage took over in 2002, he presented a five-year strategy to the board.

“I said we should spend the first four years consolidating,” he tells Variety. “I wanted to start touring, but argued there should be no West End transfers. You can only consolidate a brand by making it in one place. You can’t take it to lots of places if people don’t know what it means to begin with.”

By 2006, Donmar was ready to roll. “Mary Stuart” moved into the West End, and other productions followed, but the major expansion has been the year-long, four-play Donmar West End season at the 750-seat Wyndham’s Theater.

Where other organizations might have increased capacity to maximize profit, the Donmar has used it more as a profile-building exercise. In a market where West End plays charge a top ticket of up to £65 ($97), the Donmar West End season ranges from a high of $48.50 down to just $15. This is a noncommercial enterprise that honors its governing ethos: access to the highest production values at affordable prices.

That initiative made the season a giant risk, with a financial break-even point of 91%, a figure exec producer James Bierman cheerfully describes as “suicidal.”

A degree of insurance came via leading legit names who agreed to topline each production — Kenneth Branagh in “Ivanov,” Derek Jacobi in “Twelfth Night,” Dench in “Madame de Sade” and Jude Law in “Hamlet” — but to do so at the standard company wage of around $1,120 per week.

The results so far are impressive. “Ivanov” played to near financial capacity. Results are still being computed for “Twelfth Night,” but Bierman thinks the figure will be close behind. Most local reviews for Yukio Mishima’s script of “Madame de Sade” were cool, and an injury kept Dench out of the show for four performances, but even that production is playing at 81%; six weeks ahead of its first preview, “Hamlet” is 80% sold.

Although the Donmar’s research shows the company is attracting an unusually young audience of first-time theatergoers, it is clearly building brand loyalty. The season has been marketed via a unifying visual aesthetic, with black-and-white individual close-ups of leading actors and the large red Donmar logo. Even the “Mary Stuart” Broadway posters are emblazoned with the line “From the theater that brought you Frost/Nixon.”

So what is the brand the Donmar is selling?

The sharpest description comes from choreographer-turned-director Rob Ashford, whose 2007 Donmar staging of the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry musical “Parade” transfers to Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in September.

“The Donmar aesthetic is about allowing the play and its characters to come to the fore more than any of the trappings of design, music or directorial concept,” Ashford says.

The director, who will make his straight-play debut at the Donmar in July with Rachel Weisz and Elliot Cowan in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” says the effect created by the three-sided home space is a key factor.

“That space creates a level of participation in the audience in a play that’s really remarkable,” Ashford says. “And because of that, it demands honesty from the actors, the design team, the director. There’s no fooling anyone.”

The trick, therefore, is to maintain that honesty in productions away from home. So far, the Donmar is exhibiting a winning hand.

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