How do you set up a successful touring company?
Some early advice from a West End producer set Michael Cabot on a different path. He gives a glimpse of the pleasures, and the difficulties, of being constantly on tour to Nick Smurthwaite
All tyro directors face the same choice at the start of their careers – either you try to get a job assisting an already established director or you start your own company.
Having drawn a blank with his efforts to get an assisting job, Michael Cabot set up the rather grand-sounding London Classic Theatre in 1993 on graduating from the Drama Studio, staging ambitious European plays on the London fringe circuit for six years.
“I was already in my mid-20s and I was impatient to get cracking,” says Cabot, who reached the finals of the National Student Drama Festival two years running while a drama undergraduate at Swansea University. “I wanted to get as much done as quickly as possible.”
Eager to fry bigger fish, Cabot approached West End producer Nica Burns to see if there was any chance of an LCT show transferring to the West End.
That conversation was a real turning point
“Nica said she thought it was too big a leap and asked if I’d considered touring. I said I hadn’t, and that I had no idea how to go about it. I had no contacts in regional theatre. She told me to get on the phone to some regional venues and tell them what we were doing. That conversation with Nica was a real turning point for me and the company.”
Cabot relaunched London Classic Theatre as a touring company in 2000 with a production of David Mamet’s 1992 play Oleanna.
“I wrote to some 200 venues all over the UK. We ended up going to 51 of them in 11 weeks and lost about £9,000 because of my lack of experience. Even my family started to ask if this was ever going to provide some kind of living. However, the best way to learn about touring is to have a bad experience because you find out so much more than you do with a success.”
From the start, Cabot wanted the company to sidestep being labelled as a small-scale or mid-scale company. They would go wherever they were invited, and make sure their productions were flexible enough to be performed in any space.
“In the early days we often performed at six separate venues in a week, sometimes hundreds of miles apart. Everybody worked really hard to deliver that kind of schedule. You had to ensure that the last show of the week was as good as the first, even if everyone was knackered.”
For the most part, the company’s repertoire has consisted of modern British plays, such as Look Back in Anger, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Closer, The Caretaker, After Miss Julie, Frozen and Entertaining Mr Sloane, with occasional forays into archive classics such as The Importance of Being Earnest, Ghosts and The Double Inconstancy by Marivaux.
They will be touring two shows this year for the first time – Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends and, later in the year, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
After a rocky start, and years of “pulling through by the skin of our teeth,” Cabot says the company is now on firmer ground financially and artistically. “Our production of Abigail’s Party in 2008 opened the door to a lot of new venues and managed to make a decent dent in my overdraft. It was when we did Equus in 2011, though, that I felt we really stepped outside the box and went up a level. It was the first time we’d been able to do something that big and bold.”
Kevin Shaw, chief executive and artistic director of the Oldham Coliseum, a port of call for LCT for more than a decade, regularly makes their shows part of the Coliseum season ticket offer.
“Having taken 10 LCT shows since 2005, our audience understands that a visit from the company is not only a mark of quality but also an opportunity to see an interesting play that might be difficult for us to produce ourselves,” says Shaw.
Has it been difficult for LCT to build a reputation for consistently high standards, not to mention lasting relationships with umpteen different venues?
“Yes, it takes a long time and great perseverance,” says Cabot. “For our first four or five years I went to every single venue to meet and greet. You have to knock hard and long to get through some of the bigger regional doors. When they do finally give you a chance, you have to make it count, otherwise you won’t be asked back. The best feedback you get is when they book your next show.”
Cabot doesn’t belong to UK Theatre, the trade association for regional theatres and producers, and he says the only schmoozing he does is for the good of the company.
“I’ve always thought if you concentrate on the work, making sure everything is the very best it can be, everything else will take care of itself. Having come from fringe theatre I believe professionalism is a state of mind, not about how much money you’re making.
“One of the things I’ve always tried to instil in the people I’ve worked with is that it doesn’t matter if there is an audience of 600 or six, they’ve all paid for their tickets and they deserve to have the same experience.”
Clearly running and sustaining a company like London Classic Theatre is hard graft, but after 15 years of constant touring Cabot says he and the company are in a good place.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to wake up every day and do the job that I love. However, I’m also restless to see where we can go next, and that may well involve stepping a little further afield.”
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