The concept of mounting a theatrical tour in the UK is enough to drive some producers into a logistical tailspin, but in January this year the staff at Broadway Entertainment Group and NETworks Presentations launched the first leg of a global touring production of Shrek the Musical. Opening in Istanbul at the 2,000-seat Zorlu Center in the last week in January for a 22-show run, it then moves on to Shanghai, via Abu Dhabi and Milan, in a tour that encompasses more than 11 countries and four continents.
One of the driving forces behind this global tour is BEG chief executive Liz Koops, whose career has long been dedicated to extensive international touring. In 1995, together with Gary McQuinn, Koops founded Back Row Productions in the UK, which focused on mid-scale international tours of non script-based work such as Tap Dogs out of Australia and Gumboots from South Africa. In 2000, the company was acquired by Clear Channel, the world’s largest live entertainment company, which saw Koops, as managing director, touring titles such as Fosse. In 2005, Back Row Productions became independent again and went on to tour shows including Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.
Koops recalls: “I had been working for a long time internationally, and while I was with Clear Channel I began to look into musicals. We opened in the European market with Cats and took it to Portugal, Greece and Italy. Musicals like this had come out of the UK, so I already had quite a bit of experience touring from the UK to western Europe and Asia, but Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is what I consider to be our first global tour.”
Touring out of the USA, Beauty and the Beast was the first collaboration between BEG and NETworks. It opened in Istanbul at the Zorlu in October 2014, on a route that would include the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Macau.
Koops continues: “Our original experiences had been bus and truck, but because of the distances, we knew this had to change. After the premiere in Istanbul, our next move was by air cargo to Abu Dhabi. It was exciting, as we closed on a Sunday at the Zorlu – a brand new theatre at the time – and then we opened on the Thursday at the Du Forum in Abu Dhabi. It was incredibly nerve-racking, but we achieved it with a combination of air cargo and sea freight.”
The diversity of touring this way means that a production tends not to stick with a single freight company for haulage. Instead, a variety of companies are contracted that specialise in each region, including Henx Asia for sea cargo, and UK-based Rock-It Cargo or Express Freight Management for air freight.
After the success of Beauty and the Beast, the team was keen to follow it up with something just as popular. The familiarity engendered by stage adaptations of cinema blockbusters is particularly attractive, and Koops surveyed presenters and promoters in each market to find popular titles that would work best. Sister Act and The Wizard of Oz were contenders, but the musical version of Dreamworks’ Shrek, by David Lindsay-Abaire with music by Jeanine Tesori, popped to the top. Its broad audience appeal, coupled with a strong visual brand, place it as a big seller that should appeal to ex-pats and locals alike.
The average run at each venue is a minimum of two weeks to a maximum of five to six weeks. The more mature markets, such as those in Asia, can sustain longer runs because they are more familiar with the titles and the markets are more developed. In the newer markets, these productions are far too large for a one-week season, especially when taking into consideration the distances involved. For instance, productions appearing at the National Theatre in Taiwan require two weeks’ sea freight either side, so realistically it is a six-week proposition for a two-week performance season.
1. Since its premiere in Seattle in 2008, Shrek the Musical has toured extensively in the US, the UK and Germany. The current global tour will now take it to Istanbul, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain, St Petersburg, Milan, Trieste, Rome, Athens, Manila, Singapore, Macau, Taiwan, Moscow, Jakarta, Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, Delhi and Guangzhou.
2. While Shrek the Musical is perhaps composer Jeanine Tesori’s most commercial score, the song list and occasionally the characters have varied slightly from production to production. What has remained constant since the Broadway production has been the inclusion of I’m a Believer as a finale. Written by Neil Diamond and made famous by the Monkees in 1966, the song provides a further tie-in with the Dreamworks movie.
3. Istanbul’s Zorlu Center is operated by New York-based
Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, while the largest venue on the Shrek tour is the National Taipei University, with 3,500 seats.
4. With 20 carts of costumes and five carts of wigs, more than 100 costumes and 60 wigs are used at every performance, and all the ensemble characters do a minimum of four quick changes. The fairytale creature wigs are also specially designed to hide human ears.
5. The production has approximately 60 scene changes (based on LED image changes and set changes). There is a 10 metre by 6 metre LED wall, 1 tonne of show deck, trees are 7 metres high, and there are 60 moving and 100 conventional lights.
Koops is justly proud of this global venture: “It’s always been a big dream to forge this theatrical network, linking up these fantastic venues around the world and delivering a quality product that they may never have had access to before. It starts with a grand vision and then you look at how you can route it economically, assessing the seasonality of each market, taking into consideration cultural observances and public holidays. At basics, you start with a roadmap to see what can be achieved physically and take it from there. It’s a big learning curve as new and emerging markets open up.”
BEG’s head office is now in Dubai, but it has satellite companies in New York and London and is in the process of setting up an office in Shanghai in March. When it comes to staff, the company has traditionally used the offices of the local promoters as they tend to have their own teams, but there are instances where consultants are brought on-board in different countries. For example, when investigating new markets for a global route, BEG worked with UK Trade and Investment, the UK government department working with businesses, to assist their success in international markets.
“UKTI did a lot of research for us because we were looking at new business, as in a lot of these markets there were no tour promoters as such for live theatre. So we worked with consultants, there was an introduction service and we met up with half a dozen companies – so it took quite some time to get to know who the presenters were.”
With Shrek touring through so many countries, safety is considered a top priority. BEG employs a security consultant who, at the beginning of each tour, addresses cultural sensitivities and the physical landscape to ensure that the cast and crew are as well-informed as possible.
“When the latest incident in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square took place [January 12], the security consultant was on the ground, because they are normally there for all the shows for the first week. So if there are any concerns, they’ll provide full reports before we enter that particular market. I suppose the reality is we take the best precautions anybody could possibly take visiting any city. Interestingly, 10 years ago we wouldn’t have had a security consultant.”
Aside from local consultants, the show also incorporates local children playing the young Shrek and young Princess Fiona. Elements such as this help the company engage with the communities within each market, heightened by school liaison, backstage tours and talks aimed at educating a broader public who are hungry for a greater understanding of theatre productions.
“Just as important as the show working in each market is developing an understanding of what a large-scale production actually is,” says Koops.
Shrek is an English-language production, so surtitles are used as another way of engaging with global audiences. It’s something BEG invested in with Cats, but it is currently investigating the possibilities of simultaneous translation technology.
Koops elaborates: “Surtitles are great, but we found that parents explain the story to their kids throughout the performance. This new technology, disguised as donkey ears to tie in with Donkey in the show, will mean that kids can hear an automatic translation as they watch. We are in discussion with the sound engineers and hope to have it ready for the Ciputra in Jakarta for May this year, or at least the Chinese leg of the tour.”
Pioneers both in spirit and deed, Koops and her team at BEG are crossing boundaries and forging relationships that will undoubtedly have an impact on the future and perception of global theatre. There is an evident thirst for high-quality product in these emerging markets around the world, providing viable business opportunities – on stage and off – for equally entrepreneurial arts professionals.
Director: Liz Koops
Founded: 2012 with international tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Based: Dubai, with an office in London and registered office in New York
Current tour: Shrek the Musical, touring until 2017 with further dates to be added
Touring personnel: 28 performers, 16 crew, 12 orchestra plus management
Number of countries: More than 11, with additional countries being planned
Number of performances: Average two weeks per city
Key contact: email@example.com, +971 44385515, broadwayentertainmentgroup.com, networksontour.com
Shrek the Musical is touring internationally. Visit broadwayentertainmentgroup.com for full details