LONDON — Any of the judges placing a quiet bet on their chosen winner of London’s prestigious Evening Standard Theater Award 2005 for best newcomer would have been handsomely repaid. This wasn’t some eye-catching acting talent or a backstage wunderkind, as it had always been in the past. The chosen promising fledgling wasn’t even a person, it was a venue: the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Within five months of opening, this fringe powerhouse already had made a serious name for itself. Energetic artistic directors David Babani and Danielle Tarento teamed up in December 2003 as soon as they clapped eyes on the unusually versatile 1870s building, which really was a former chocolate factory. It houses an adaptable theater that seats 140-160, a gallery, a bar, a rehearsal space and a 60-seat restaurant. A convivial atmosphere in which actors and audience hang out, eat and drink before, during and after a show is extremely rare. Here it works.
Their first major hit was, appropriately, the London run of U.S. playwright Becky Mode’s backstage-in-a-restaurant play “Fully Committed,” a property that far more experienced producers like Sonia Friedman and David Pugh had been after. It catapulted the Chocolate Factory to critical attention, extended for two months and transferred to the West End.
As Babani puts it, “Traditionally, London hasn’t had the equivalent of Off Broadway venues, but that’s what this is. And we’re six minutes from the West End.”
Diversity has been the hallmark of Babani and Tarento’s program. Attention-grabbing U.K. premieres of cutting-edge writing talent like David Greig and Philip Ridley have been balanced by a strong American strand, most notably in musicals.
The first of these was the well-received U.K. preem of “Tick, Tick … Boom” by Jonathan Larson (“Rent”). Then, immediately after winning the Evening Standard award, the Chocolate Factory opened a rhapsodically received, SRO production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” Teaming with Boyett Ostar, Caro Newling of Neal Street Prods. and Mark Rubinstein, Babani and Tarento have successfully transferred the show to the West End, and Babani is currently in New York discussing a probable transfer.
The artistic directors know they were extremely lucky. The location is perfect — adjacent to the fashionable Borough Market at London Bridge in the Bankside stretch revivified by the Globe and Tate Modern. It’s unusually well served by every kind of public transportation and even has parking space — a London rarity — all around the building.
The other thing that makes this venue distinctive is its enviable economic model. A New Zealand property developer (who remains anonymous) had already done the major structural work, which meant the startup capitalization costs were negligible.
“We spent £10,000 ($18,350) on computers and basics,” says Tarento. In fact, it was her particular skill-set that has made the finances mesh. A former actress moving toward producing, Tarento had spent two years as a restaurateur. She and Babani both realized cross-fertilization was the key to making the building work.Having seen the space on Dec. 23, 2003, the duo signed on New Year’s Eve and moved in Jan. 5. They were open for business in six weeks. And from day one of the first show, “Julius Caesar,” their inclusive meal deal was the most popular ticket. “We instantly had people eating in the restaurant every night, most of which was instant profit,” Tarento says.
That fed straight into the theater. Babani points out that the two-course meal deals are priced aggressively so they sell out. “They’re only ever about $13 more than the top-price ticket, which for a musical is $42. That means audiences can afford to take a gamble. That then creates a great customer base for the restaurant, and it stimulates demand because sell-out arrangements are attractive.”
The Menier’s staff, including Babani and Tarento, the waiters, kitchen porters, and box office, totals 14. To support that, Babani and Tarento know the shows they produce must have a commercial edge. “We have consciously built the program with contrasting material,” Babani says, “but not so much to alienate the previous show’s audience. We’re stretching their taste. People came to ‘Sunday’ who have never been to a musical.”
There’s more of that to come, with a new-to-the-U.K. tuner every summer and a musical revival every Christmas, plus three or four other plays per year. “We have the ability to tap into material which played in all those midscale New York houses,” Babani says. “There’s 50 years of material to draw on right there.”