Maven sets up theater company with accent on stars, community
While the hotly anticipated first preview of comedy “Privates on Parade,” starring the estimable Simon Russell Beale, makes its debut Dec. 1 in the West End, there’s even bigger buzz among those in the London stage world about the impact of the man behind the show, Michael Grandage.
After an agenda-setting 10 years at the helm of the Donmar Warehouse that saw productions including “Frost/Nixon,” Jude Law’s “Hamlet” and “Red” travel to Gotham and beyond, the director has formed the Michael Grandage Company, with “Privates” the first of a slate of star-driven stagings financed via a moderately risky financial model that includes a commitment to affordable ticket prices.
When Grandage announced he was leaving the 250-seat Donmar, industry speculation was rife. Was he about to embark on a potentially lucrative freelance career, or was he readying himself to succeed Nicholas Hytner as the head of the National Theater — or would he plunge into movies like his Donmar predecessor Sam Mendes?
Instead he stepped up as a commercial producer, launching his own shingle with former Donmar exec James Bierman. “Privates” launches the company’s inaugural 15-month slate of shows, which includes Daniel Radcliffe in a revival of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Judi Dench starring opposite Ben Whishaw in the world preem of John Logan’s “Peter and Alice” and Law playing the title role in Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Commercial producers armed with stars of that wattage typically hike ticket prices and watch the money roll in. But a crucial determining factor for both Grandage and Bierman is their desire to widen access to theater. That’s reflected in their ticketing policy at Cameron Mackintosh’s Noel Coward Theater.
The company’s £57.50 ($92) top ticket price is comparable to the current West End standard. But not only is the 942-seat house offering only 15 premium seats per night at £85 ($136), there also is a range of seats that are significantly cheaper, with just two other pricing levels: £27.50 ($44) and £10 ($16), with the latter accounting for more than a quarter of the house at every performance.
The opportunity for the season’s investors to make a killing is further diminished by the fact that for one performance of each production, the entire house will be free to first-time theatergoers.
It’s the type of loss-leader Grandage has tried out previously on the West End — an education initiative expanded here into something even more ambitious. Called MGC Futures, the program includes training posts for young people, who will shadow all the key creatives; a youth company of actors; a cross-generational project at the end of the year in collaboration with seniors charity Age U.K.; and a website that encourages young people to experience all aspects of the theater biz via every department, from wig-making to marketing.
Given both the pricing structure and the company’s educational endeavors, pressure on the budget is unusually high.
London producers never publish weekly box office figures or specific production costs, but Bierman is willing to discuss finance in terms of the key break-even figure. Most producers begin to get a little nervous at a budget that requires a break-even above 50% of gross potential, but the MGC season break-even is 65%.
Grandage is therefore understandably proud that the total capitalization for the season — grant-free — was raised within six weeks of the company’s initial-season announcement. Adds Bierman: “There was no cherry-picking. Investors have had to support the season as a whole. But that brings with it the advantages of a spread bet.”
It’s not just the combination of high-end legit actors and playwrights that proved attractive to investors. As one backer told them, “I could get a potentially higher return elsewhere in theater, but I think you’re giving me the best chance of getting my money back.”
And MGC has a movie in the works too.
Deals are being struck over Grandage’s 2014 film debut “Genius,” starring Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender, Logan’s drama about the relationship between writer Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins, based on A. Scott Berg’s book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.”
Before that, comes the company’s inaugural stage season. The impact it will have on the wider West End ecology remains to be seen, but for Grandage and Bierman, it’s definitely not a one-off.
Grandage says the company and business partnership is designed to last “for the rest of our working lives.” Neither he nor Bierman will be drawn on details, but for 2015, after “Genius” is in the can, they’re already planning another season.
And while all the audience outreach won’t be cheap, Bierman recalls kids who’d never been inside a theater being bused in to see Law in “Hamlet.”
“We didn’t know what to expect, but they were honestly one of the most attentive audiences we had, and they were laughing at the comedy,” Bierman says. “I overheard one girl leaving the theater saying, ‘I really felt for that Hamlet because my mum’s a bitch too.’ “