What next for Samuel French?
London’s theatre lovers, amateur and professional, are soon to lose the iconic French’s Theatre Bookshop, off London’s Tottenham Court Road, which is closing down in April after 34 years at its current home and more than 170 years in the capital.
It has long been the go-to place for amateurs in search of fresh ideas, drama students looking for audition pieces and theatre buffs after a good read. Despite its limited floor space, the shop has always taken a laissez-faire attitude towards those customers on a mission, even when they leave the shop after an hour or two’s browsing without making a purchase.
The reason for French’s demise is that its owner, the publisher Samuel French, having come to the end of its
present lease, was faced with a 200% rental increase by the freeholders, making its continued tenancy unaffordable.
“Ironically, the bookshop has been doing rather well in recent years, diversifying the range and introducing new theatrical merchandise,” explains managing director Douglas Schatz. “Our turnover was up by 15%, but unfortunately that still wasn’t enough to make the shop sustainable.”
The move follows the 2012 closure of West End theatre shop Dress Circle, which specialised in theatre recordings, sheet music and merchandise. Though Samuel French’s shop will be closed from mid-April, like Dress Circle, it will continue to have an online presence.
In fact, according to Schatz and in common with many other retailers, its business has been veering in a digital direction for a number of years, with four out of five book and script sales already happening online. The site offers a 6,000-strong range of plays and reference books, as well as specially curated features for performers, students and teachers.
“You can search for plays by genre, gender, cast numbers and various other ways, as well as making licensing applications online and checking out any restrictions there might be on your chosen show,” says Canadian-born Schatz, who has lived in London since the 1980s. “We shall also be expanding our catalogue to include other UK theatre publishers such as Oberon and Nick Hern Books.”
The history of Samuel French Ltd dates back to the 1840s, when the English actor and playwright Thomas Hailes Lacy set up as a bookseller in Wellington Street, Covent Garden, relocating in 1857 to the Strand. Lacy’s Acting Editions, introduced in 1848, eventually ran to 99 volumes. American entrepreneur Samuel French had started a similar venture in New York, and the two men acted as each other’s agents across the Atlantic.
French acquired the business in 1872, when Lacy retired. He moved to London and left the New York agency in the care of his son, Thomas. It remains a transatlantic company, with a head office in New York, and a large retail outlet in Hollywood.
By the time he died in 1898, Samuel French had become one of the most important men in British theatre. Scarcely a playwright or producer in the country had not been represented by the company that bore his name.
Traditionally, French’s Acting Editions were published for amateur licence once a play or musical had completed its professional run, and the company remains the leading show-licensing body in the UK. Last year, the company licensed 7,000 plays and musicals for amateur and student productions.
“The amateur market is far more diverse than you’d imagine,” says Schatz. “The bigger companies build a season of four or five shows, and that might include a musical, a tried and tested comedy, and a new piece of work, like Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist, about boys from Bristol going to fight in Afghanistan. A lot of the amateur companies take risks they are not credited for.”
One of the innovations Schatz is most pleased with since taking over the UK arm of the company three years ago was to update and reformat the acting editions, the cornerstone of French’s publishing operation, making them fit for present-day purpose. They surveyed their customer base to find out how they could be improved, and the suggestions were all to do with style, presentation and user-friendliness.
The new larger-format acting editions are clearly laid out, with more spacing in the body of the text, and wire-bound spines so that users can work on a single page without damaging the whole book. However, they retain such useful information as stage directions, guidelines for presentation and author’s notes.
An equally important innovation is the launch of French’s app Abbott, an e-reading platform for plays, with an expanded suite of online resources for actors and students. It enables users to highlight areas of text, or black them out, and to refer to the text on their phones or tablets in rehearsal.
Despite the drama cutbacks in education, Samuel French still licenses many shows to schools and colleges all over the UK, as well as drama schools. The website will include dedicated areas for students and teachers, with selected titles and speeches relevant to their studies. It has also published a hard-copy guide, listing and categorising plays and musicals available for licensing. New shows include David Wood’s adaptation of the 1981 novel Goodnight Mister Tom, Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, and Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of the Sebastian Faulks bestseller Birdsong.
It has brought out a special schools version of the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, excising some of the more adult material from the original, which is proving extremely popular. So is Patrick Barlow’s helter-skelter version of The 39 Steps, which has the benefit of modest production values and an indeterminate number of cast members.
Schatz is keen to maintain a more personal connection with his customers, as well as the virtual relationship online and to this end he is introducing what he calls “roadshow events”. He says: “We don’t only want to be London-focused, because Samuel French serves the whole country. We’ve always done author events and book launches at the shop, so our experience has been that our customers love to get together and share their experiences.
“The shop has served as a library for actors and acting students as well as a retail outlet, and we’ve been happy to accommodate that. Now we are hoping to present workshops on licensing (particularly aimed at our amateur customers), what to do after graduating from drama school, producing musicals and so on. We’re also hoping to persuade some of our authors to meet with customers. We did an event at the Charing Cross Theatre last year and we attended the Surviving Actors event in Manchester recently. Everything tells us that our customers are in favour of this kind of interaction.”
There will also be an ongoing day-to-day relationship between Samuel French staff and its customers over and above its online presence. The company will still have a physical presence in the West End at new offices just five minutes away from the old bookshop.
“We have a team of eight people who are really knowledgeable about our catalogue, the licensing process and the theatre in general, who will be available to advise and inform,” explains Schatz. “Where we are now is an old-fashioned building, with several flights of stairs, so one of the advantages of the move is that we’ll all be on the same floor in a modern office block, which will make it easier to work as a cohesive unit.
“In the new office, we’ve set aside a designated space for customer events, seating 50, where we will continue French’s tradition of having talks, workshops and readings.”