London troupes go homeless and like it

Producing model is rare in the U.S.

LONDON– At first glance, there’s not much that links upcoming productions of Mike Bartlett’s decade-spanning “Earthquakes in London,” Bryony Lavery’s boxing tale “Beautiful Burnout” and the interdisciplinary legit take on Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter.”

But these outings produced by key players in the U.K. theater economy are all products of a creative and business model almost unheard of in the U.S.: All three were created by not-for-profit theater companies that are all, in a word, itinerant.

The trio encompasses Headlong (“Earthquakes,” opening this month at the National in London), Frantic Assembly (“Burnout” for the National Theater of Scotland) and Kneehigh (“Encounter,” getting a Broadway run this fall). And the three companies utilize a wide number of venues rather than occupy a single building that serves as a home base.

The prominence of such roving companies, whose number also includes longstanding Brit troupes including Cheek by Jowl and Shared Experience, stands in stark contrast to the Gotham theater scene, where most major midsize nonprofits — the Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, New York Theater Workshop — operate out of permanent New York outposts.

Each of the British companies fulfills its theatrical vision via an office with a handful of core staff. The reduced overhead means income goes predominantly to commissioning and creating work that is then co-produced with other producing partners.

Not only do they provide often innovative product to the mid- to large-scale U.K. touring circuit, they also collaborate artistically and, crucially, financially with often cash-restricted producing houses striving to expand their output.

There are, to be sure, companies in the U.S. that also choose homelessness, not least the Wooster Group. But in that company’s case, and the cases of many others Stateside, their embrace of the avant-garde sees them consciously eschewing the idea of being part of the mainstream.

For many of the Brits, however, being homeless doesn’t preclude admittance to the mainstream.

Consider Headlong. Founded under the name Oxford Stage Company in the 1970s, its latest incarnation (and moniker) came with the arrival of a.d. Rupert Goold in 2006. The company has since created almost 20 productions.

Although its most famous commission, “Enron,” quickly died on Broadway, the show had two soldout runs at Chichester Festival Theater and at the Royal Court before settling into its current six-month London run while readying a forthcoming international tour.

Meantime, two of Headlong’s other 2010 shows, “Lulu” and “Elektra” have just completed runs. Plus, a staging of “Salome” is touring, and “Earthquakes in London” is in rehearsal.

Creating an average of four shows a year requires cash, and Headlong receives approximately £700,000 (about $1.1 million) per annum from Arts Council England, the government body funded by taxpayers. The coin goes toward paying Headlong’s five core staff and to creating work.

“If you don’t control the means of production, you are at the mercy of producers,” says Goold. “As a separate company, we have pretty much complete freedom, so there’s more chance of being able to take risks, particularly given our ambition with regard to scale. That ambition might be for technical resources, or a large cast or added length of rehearsals. Because we bring matching funding to the table with co-production deals, we can influence all of that.”

Headlong put about $121,950 into “Enron” and $243,899 into “Salome.” Adding not just creatives and script but cold, hard cash to shows as big as “Six Characters in Search of an Author” allowed the company a cast as large as 15 when, for obvious economic reasons, most theaters prefer two- or three-handers.

Kneehigh, too, has a huge output. Last year, “Brief Encounter” toured the States for 26 weeks, “Hansel and Gretel” played the U.K. and “Don John” (a Royal Shakespeare Company co-production) completed a tour. The company did $3.1 million worth of business — not bad for an organization based in rural Cornwall with eight fulltime staffers.

In almost every case, the artistic directors of these nomadic legit companies maintain simultaneous freelance careers.

Take Steven Hoggett, known in the U.S. for his work as choreographer of the National Theater of Scotland’s “Black Watch” and of Broadway’s “American Idiot.”

In the U.K., he’s best known as joint a.d. (with Scott Graham) of Frantic Assembly, the trailblazing physical theater company the pair founded in 1994. They have created, choreographed and directed 22 major productions including the recent hit “Stockholm.” When legit producer Sonia Friedman took over London’s Ambassadors’ Theater in 1999, she opened it with a Frantic Assembly show.

Hoggett is aware of the unique funding position for U.K. companies.

“It’s very apparent to me that structures like ours don’t happen in the U.S.,” he says. “Culturally, there just hasn’t been that earlier era of companies that others looked to emulate.”

When Hoggett was training, the work he aspired to was being done by such adventurous outfits as DV8 and Complicite, both of which continue to tour, the latter at the Lincoln Center Festival with its Olivier winner “A Disappearing Number.”

Owing to his background in choreography, Hoggett sees the differences between U.S. and U.K. troupes from a dance angle: Whereas in the U.S. itinerant dance companies are very often led by an eponymous creative whose vision entirely defines a troupe’s output, these U.K. theater troupes tend to shift and grow as collaborators and leadership change, he says.

Many of these Brit theater companies work with the same pool of artists over a long period of time. Kneehigh’s a.d. Emma Rice, for instance, joined the now 30-year-old troupe as a performer in 1994. And while some might see stagnation as an inherent possible danger, Hoggett argues that’s not the case.

“When you’re with a company over a long time, you get found out,” he says. “That’s really healthy. I know I cannot just pull out and use the same box of tricks.”

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