Hanif Kureishi’s adaptation of his 1989 novel “The Black Album,” about the rise of fundamentalism in Britain, is the latest play to premiere at London’s National Theater. It’s also part of an ongoing strategy in which the not-for-profit and commercial sectors are chasing audiences from South Asian nations including India and Pakistan.
While that push is nothing new — such auds have been targeted by stage and screen hit “East Is East,” the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Indian-flavored “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and a Bollywood-tinged “Wuthering Heights” from British-Asian theater company Tamasha — such audiences are becoming a more tangible demographic.
There is no such thing as “the Asian audience” — there are Asian audiences, plural, says helmer Indhu Rubasingham, associate director of the A.R. Rahman tuner “Bombay Dreams,” which helped send Indian culture around the world long before “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2002, “Dreams” managed only nine months on Broadway but played two years in London’s West End. “If you do something geared to South Asian audiences with a well-known title or a Bollywood reference, it’s clear there is a massive audience,” Rubasingham says. “Those audiences kept ‘Bombay Dreams’ going in London.”
But Rubasingham is circumspect about the phenomenon.
The older generation that first came to the U.K. tends to be more conservative. “But British-born, second-generation audiences are more ready to be confronted,” Rubasingham says. “They need to be treated as you would any other audience. Where marketers tend to get it wrong is the presumption that once that audience is engaged, they will come back again and again. I don’t think they necessarily will come back to see more varied work.”
The director of “The Black Album,” Jatinder Verma, agrees about the complexity of subcontinental auds. In 1977, he founded British South Asian company Tara Arts. Tara is co-producing “Black Album” and will tour the show across the U.K. following its National run.
The makeup of South Asian ADDED: and Indian //audiences in Britain has tracked the history of modern migration, Verma says.
“Initially, people were anxious to see work that reflected them making their lives here. Thirty years on, people are far more settled, they’re British and here to stay, and there’s more sense of wanting to check out what’s appealing. When I’ve directed Shakespeare for Tara, I’ve been delightfully surprised by the strength of (such) audiences. They have become part of the wider audience.”
Verma says class plays a part. “A more educated, more middle-class audience will come to the National than might be the case on a regional tour,” he suggests.
South Asian work at the National is not new. Rubasingham premiered Tanika Gupta’s “The Waiting Room” there in 2000 and her Birmingham Rep production of “The Ramayana” transferred to the Olivier the following year. Most recently, “Rafta, Rafta,” by Ayub Khan-Din (“East Is East”), was a solid hit. (That show, a revamp of Bill Naughton’s 1963 British comedy “All in Good Time,” also had a successful run Off Broadway in 2008.)
Sarah Hunt, the National’s director of marketing, regarded “Rafta, Rafta,” a comedy about two intertwined Indian families in Manchester, as a massive challenge.
“It was a long run in the 900-seat Lyttelton,” she explains. “We played to 70,000 people over 93 performances. That was 83% capacity and, even within the Travelex £10 ticket season, we hit our 65% financial target. One of my favorite things about it was that we weren’t afraid to give it a title that meant nothing to non-Asian audiences.”
Budgets are tight. For a Lyttelton show, Hunt spends around £35,000 ($57,000). For a production in the adaptable 300-400-seat Cottesloe Theater where “The Black Album” is playing, it’s $26,000.
On “Rafta, Rafta” Hunt recruited a cultural marketing and press specialist.
“Hiring a known representative built contacts for us,” she says. “It gave credibility and trust to the campaign in both specialized broadcast and print.”
Media partners like the BBC Asian network gave brand association. “The show was about a young couple getting married, so a big promotion was set up with an (Indian) dating network,” Hunt says. “I never imagined we might do that.”
In attempting to reach niche audiences, there were also tie-ins with local businesses and restaurant owners sharing contacts in return for a profile at the National.
How rigorously does the National analyze its audience?
“We now have a fantastic database,” Hunt says. “It’s a very coarse form of analysis, but about a third of those names are South Asian. And when sending out the next repertoire brochure after ‘Rafta, Rafta,’ we emailed those in attendance to thank them for coming.”
Hunt also checks nightly show reports. “They give a lot of information anecdotally,” she explains. “So if we’re not attracting audiences we want, we can adjust a campaign. But people with clipboards asking intrusive questions feels archaic. We like to think we appeal to all ages and colors. We’re interested in diversity, not specifics.”
Verma believes South Asian audiences are growing. Crucially, they now have choice.
“In London and metropolitan cities, Tara expects to play to audiences that are 30%-35% (South) Asian,” he says. “And there is now all sorts of Asian entertainment to choose between. As people have grown up here and children have gone through schools, there’s an understanding that there is theater, and it can be ours too.
“It wasn’t always the case, but I’m confident now there is an audience out there.”