PETER WILSON AND NORWICH THEATRE ROYAL David Edwards
Norwich is England’s easternmost city, situated in the centre of a large, mostly rural county, half of whose boundary is the North Sea. Once second only to London, Norwich’s elegant cathedral and historic castle, groundbreaking university, modern shopping and vibrant cultural offer merit its civic boast of being ‘a fine city’.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the city’s Theatre Royal was frequently quoted as being one of the most successful theatres in the country and since Peter Wilson took over the helm in 1992, it has gone from strength to strength, emerging after a £10 million makeover in 2007 as one of the most sought-after venues on the touring circuit.
However, it was almost by chance that Peter came to Norwich. After leaving university in the mid-1970s, Peter worked at the Bush, the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, Belgrade Coventry, the Crucible and the Lyric Hammersmith. He co-directed Griff Rhys Jones’ Olivier award-winning performance in Charley’s Aunt, and it was co-producing Ben Kingsley in Edmund Kean in 1983 that gave him his first experience of producing in the West End and on Broadway. PW Productions was born.
Peter and I met in the theatre’s spacious and airy new Circle Lounge Bar to talk about a career that, possibly uniquely, combines commercial producing with running a middle-scale regional touring theatre and which in 2000 earned him an MBE. He is relaxed and generous, clearly passionate about both his roles, an irrepressible raconteur and thoroughly committed to what he calls ‘the perfect city within the perfect county’.
For the past 27 years, PW Productions has provided production and management services for plays and musicals in London’s West End, on tour and internationally. They have been responsible for over 100 shows during that time, most notably The Woman in Black and An Inspector Calls. For 16 years, PW produced the annual Mobil Touring productions, most of which were directed by Peter himself. They have worked with the RNT and RSC, as well as numerous regional theatres and dance companies, taking their productions on tour into the West End and abroad. Used to presenting plays in unusual venues – PW re-opened London’s historic Roundhouse with the RNT’s Oh! What a Lovely War! – most recently they managed Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and then at the O2 Arena, and are about to manage The Railway Childrenat Waterloo Station, while The Woman in Black – first presented by PW in the West End in 1989 – continues to tour the country.
Around 1990, Peter decided to move his family out of London, and was looking for a place in Norfolk – ‘all we could afford!’ – from where he could commute to his West End office. Then he saw the job of Chief Executive at the Theatre Royal had become available. The theatre, with a capacity of 1,300, had been closed for a major refurbishment because its backstage facilities left much to be desired. A fly tower was being added, the wing space extended, new offices and a function room created, with some improvements front of house. Re-opening the theatre in 1992 after its period of closure was going to be a challenge. Its local authority financial support had all but disappeared. ‘A summer season of work presented in a tent in a Norwich park before I arrived had lost several hundred thousand pounds’ recalls Peter. ‘A new Chairman was appointed and I was offered the job of re-launching the theatre’.
So Peter found himself in a new role and didn’t look back. While still involved in major decisions at PW Productions, he now spends around 80% of his time managing the Norwich venue, which could hardly be busier. In 2008/09, the last full year for which statistics are available, the Theatre Royal presented 412 performances of 104 different productions, ranging from musicals, opera and quality drama, to one-night concerts and stand-up comedy. ‘Our programming policy aims to ensure that within a six-to-eight week period, audiences should have the opportunity to experience all the mainstream performing art forms’ Peter explains. Being the only professional theatre in a very large catchment area creates obligations – ‘we have to cover the waterfront,’ says Peter – so the theatre cannot focus on just one kind of presentation. ‘There are certain fixed dates in the calendar, such as pantomime and Glyndebourne on Tour, and we will always want to present work by certain artists and companies such as Rambert, Richard Alston and Matthew Bourne, for example, all of whose work has been seen here.’ Musicals regularly feature. They hosted the tour of Les Miserables this spring, and will be presenting Whistle Down the Wind, Oklahoma! and Chess later in 2010. Peter finds that there are still very strong offers from touring producers, although he notes there are fewer new producers coming forward, and it is the touring drama that tends to be scheduled last. ‘Once programming was driven by print deadlines’ says Peter. ‘Now, however, the internet enables us to programme later.’
We discussed the Arts Council’s review of touring, which drew a wry smile from Peter Wilson. He is concerned at the availability of quality drama and the possibility that it will dry up in the current climate because of the lack of investors prepared to take risks. ‘The Arts Council irrationally dismantled the national touring strategy’ says Peter, ‘and now they are building it up again.’ He believes that the National Theatre has always found it a stretch to combine national touring with the management of its considerable commitments back at base. ‘And I foresee a problem in the RSC touring work out of its new theatre, given the very specific design of its playing space.’ Meanwhile the scale of operation of some theatre chains means that productions may not be available to theatres outside their circuit. ‘We need the great big plums in our programme’ says Peter. ‘We can expect a show like Chess to gross a quarter of a million pounds’.
The Theatre Royal has been a part of The Touring Partnership from its beginning in the 1990s, set up to create work for their own houses without having to rely on the major commercial managements. The Partnership is currently working with Ed Hall’s Propeller on a new initiative to set up a year’s national and international tour of Comedy of Errors and Richard III, with funding from Arts Council England (ACE), which will enable the shows to play in their venues at economic cost.
Peter encapsulates his role in Norwich: ‘I haven’t got a brief to attract people to the theatre,’ he says ‘my brief is to attract people to THIS theatre’. In 2008/09, 377,000 tickets were sold, the equivalent of 78% of capacity, 16% higher than the Theatre Royal’s measurable peer group. Up to 40% of ticket sales are now done via the internet, despite the notorious slowness of broadband in rural Norfolk. Box Office records show that 85% of tickets are sold to people who live within Norfolk, and that one in four people in the county comes to the Theatre Royal at least once a year.
Peter explains his accessible pricing policy: ‘We aim to ensure that our top price is 60%-75% of what might be the top price in the West End, and set the bottom price in direct comparison to a visit to the cinema or a couple of drinks at the pub.’ In 2008/09 the average price paid was under £20, with 6% under £5.50.
Theatre Royal Friends have been a very important part of both the theatre’s fundraising and marketing strategies. There are now nearly 11,000 Friends who get generous discounts and other benefits in return for a range of subscription levels. The scheme, which Peter says taps into a very deep vein of audience loyalty, generates around £200,000 in revenue from subscriptions each year and accounts for 20% of ticket sales. The Corporate Club now has 74 members, ranging from local solicitors and accountants to Coca Cola, banks and a local funeral parlour.
Each year since 1993, the Theatre Royal has calculated its impact on the local economy, using accepted ACE formulae. In 2008/09 it was calculated at £20.6 million and Peter anticipates it will be even higher in 2009/10 because of Les Miserables, which he reckons will have circulated a further £4.5 million around the local economy. ‘I think we have to be cautious as to how we use these claims so that they do not appear extravagant’ says Peter. ‘To do so does our sector no favours’ he adds, but nevertheless, the figures show that over £1 million is spent directly with local businesses and suppliers in the course of a year.
Peter himself was largely responsible for raising the funds for the latest modernisation project. Taking advantage of a £1.6 million VAT rebate, he was able to use this as a bargaining chip to lever £5 million from the City and County Councils, and he then worked to raise a further £3 million. The latest modernisation – designed by Tim Foster Associates – has focused on improving facilities for audiences, extending Front of House and reshaping the whole of the frontage. There’s space for a new restaurant, improved bars and sales areas, more toilets and a pair of lifts. The glass frontage has balconies overlooking Theatre Street. The whole theatre became fully accessible for the first time. The Carmen Electronic Architecture system was installed in the auditorium, transforming the acoustics to concert hall standard. The ventilation system was renewed and the seating replaced. The work was completed over just seven and a half months in 2007, in time for the celebration of the 250th anniversary.
Peter is clearly energised by the Education programme, which he explains is placed under the Marketing Department, as part of the outward-facing arm of the theatre. ‘We see it as an investment in future audiences,’ Peter says ‘involving children at an early age means that they will no longer be frightened to cross the doorstep in the future’. Dating back to 1997, when the Theatre Royal presented a Norwegian Ring Cycle as part of its contribution to the Region of Opera and Musical Theatre, primary school pupils are invited to create their own 15-minute operas, based on themes from a forthcoming production, which they then present on the Theatre Royal stage. He beams as he recalls parties of 9-year-olds sitting like lambs watching Das Rheingold – ‘these are experiences that will stay with them always,’ he says. The pupils then see, free of charge, the professional versions, often by Glyndebourne, and are given vouchers for free tickets to any show of their choice over the next year. The Theatre Royal also supports a wide-ranging training programme for young people and adults, as well as offering professional support for all kinds of local initiatives.
Peter is confident that 2009/10 will have been the 12th consecutive year of surplus, ‘every penny of which will go back into the building’ he says. He is not fazed by difficult times ahead for local authority funding. ‘I see the future as stabilising and securing the theatre, without being able to depend on outside support’ he says. ‘I believe it is genuinely possible to run an independent, medium-sized regional theatre at a surplus, including a significant education programme, with whatever public subsidy is actually going to be available over the next few years.’ Although the recent capital works are now complete, Peter is planning to build up a £2.5 million ‘fighting fund’ over the next 13 years for the capital renewals of the future. ‘We cannot rely on funding being available to pay for future essential building works, so we need to start preparing for it now, by putting aside money each year.’
Peter still directs from time to time. He was instrumental in setting up The Actors Company in 2007 as the only professional drama company in Norfolk, presenting its work at the nearby Norwich Playhouse. Peter recently directed Skylight for them, which he says was ‘four weeks of pure joy’. He is equally passionate about his involvement as Chairman of a project in nearby Great Yarmouth to restore St George’s Chapel. In the 18th century, Great Yarmouth was a major port, he explains, connecting Norwich to the continent. The chapel, modelled on St Clement Dane’s, was opened in 1715 and remains an outstandingly beautiful building. ‘With support from many sources we are turning the chapel into a dazzling venue.’
Around the back of the theatre is an old chapel of his own, currently used as a store and workshop. Peter’s eyes sparkle as he talks enthusiastically of ideas he has for converting it into a more creative workspace, although he is not yet quite sure what it will be. Clearly, his work in Norwich is not yet done.
■ DAVID EDWARDS
DAVID EDWARDS IS CHAIRMAN OF THE NEW WOLSEY THEATRE, IPSWICH