For-profit initiative rethinks West End production strategy

LONDON — If you can’t beat ‘em, take their business model.

Over the past few years, London’s commercial theater sector has watched U.K. nonprofits generate hit after hit and nab award after award by offering bold new shows with top casts at lower cost, and lower ticket pricing.

Producer Howard Panter, creative director of Ambassador Theater Group, the country’s largest, with 39 venues in London and outlying regions, is aiming to mix the subsidized sector’s creativity with his commercial savvy in order to modify, or at least augment the way the West End produces shows. Panter and director Jamie Lloyd have launched Trafalgar Transformed, a year-long season of four productions from Lloyd in the newly reconfigured Trafalgar Studio 1.

Lloyd — whose previous hits include the Donmar’s “Passion,” the Royal Court’s “The Pride” and the National’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” as well as the recent Broadway revival of “Cyrano de Bergerac” — is casting and sealing deals on a tasty slate of three projects: a revival of Harold Pinter’s caustic satire “The Hothouse”; the West End premiere of “Apologia,” Alexi Kaye Campbell’s acute comedy-drama of family ties and feminism originally mounted at the Bush Theater; and a possible West End premiere for Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” all to be designed by regular collaborator Soutra Gilmour.

First up, however, is their contemporary, dystopic take on “Macbeth” starring James McAvoy. Its 11-week run begins previews Feb. 9, prior to a Feb. 22 opening.

With its large cast, “Macbeth” is far from a low-cost option. It, and the season’s other two plays, price out at between £300,000 ($476,000) and £400,000 ($635,000) apiece, in common with most such West End productions. (The tuner, predictably, will be more costly.) But the actors and other creatives are working for the kind of fees they would receive in the subsidized theater, wages significantly lower than typical for the West End.

In a large West End house, that could potentially leave room for sizable profit. But the unions and the talent have agreed to the lower rates because Trafalgar Studio 1 is notably smaller. The previously unfriendly auditorium, with a notoriously vertiginous rake, is being reconfigured for far greater connection between actors and auds. Panter reckons the final capacity will be between 420 and 450.

With relatively competitive ticket prices that range between £24.50 and £64 ($39-$101) — plus all seats £15 on Mondays and nightly standby for just £10 — the model is definitely a risk.

Maximizing profit, however, is not the motivating factor, according to Lloyd.

“Assuming we get it right so we don’t actually lose money, I believe you can be bold in programming,” Lloyd says. “Commercial theater can take as many risks as subsidized theater while being socially engaged.”

Given that Lloyd is a protege of Michael Grandage, whose eponymous West End company launched two months ago, the younger man’s espousal of a social perspective for theater comes as no surprise. A plethora of workshops, master classes and rehearsed readings surround each Trafalgar Transformed production, buttressed by a wealth of education initiatives via ATG’s creative learning division.

But the plays themselves also have a sociopolitical bent to them, in terms of both subject matter and marketability. From the investigation of the clash between individualism and parental responsibilities in “Apologia” to Sondheim’s celebrated meditation on the motives of those who sought to shoot U.S. presidents in “Assassins,” these are topics designed to appeal to younger, non-traditional audiences.

The lineup contains a degree of creative daring that’s attractive to Panter.

“The polarity between hits and misses is much more marked than it used to be,” he says. “The shows that are selling are the ones that are distinctive.”

Given the economic times, shows with a sociopolitical consciousness may just be an asset.

Total West End audience figures and box office for 2012 have yet to be released, but one thing has become ever clearer over the past year: The U.K. economic downturn — which shows no sign of slowing — has meant that not only do people have less disposable income, but that old-fashioned productions built around trusted names in standard-issue revivals are failing. Even the well-reviewed revival of Noel Coward’s West End staple “Hay Fever” with Lindsay Duncan struggled to find an audience.

The key to success, according to Panter and Lloyd, is in providing access to something exciting.

Thanks to ATG’s vast database, Panter says Trafalgar Transformed has already built a “very healthy” advance (though he wouldn’t be drawn on exact figures), without yet having to spend large sums on advertising. Time will tell if they’ve hit on a new commercial formula.

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