Aria Entertainment’s Katy Lipson has already made a big mark on the UK fringe theatre scene, with more than 50 shows since 2012, but she has her eyes set on bigger prizes. She tells Matthew Amer about bringing back chamber musicals – the genre she loves – how she discovers new work, and looking up to Sonia Friedman
Katy Lipson has a reputation for taking on a lot. Yet, despite our conversation being the last appointment at the end of a day packed with meetings, she is full of fizz in the north London studio where she has two productions in rehearsals. The 50 shows in six years that Lipson has produced are testament to her work ethic, but now she is thinking about how to go from a volume business to bigger shows that will leave a legacy.
“I thrive on volume. I have that sort of brain. I gravitate towards that model because it inspires me,” Lipson once told me. But now she needs “headspace” to take the next step with her business, which will come after a busy autumn.
Both the shows in rehearsal are chamber musicals, Lipson’s speciality, and both open in early September. While the term usually refers to the size of the production, Lipson adds: “It’s not all about having smaller forces and a smaller cast, it’s about telling a story without having the added need for anything else. They’re shows that can immerse the audience in them, that are non-proscenium arch, that aren’t full of spectacle.”
Unexpected Joy plays at Southwark Playhouse, while The Return of The Soldier runs at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester. There is also the From Page to Stage festival that Lipson produces, which takes place alongside Unexpected Joy in Southwark. And that’s just September.
Unexpected Joy, Lipson says, was a “unique opportunity” for Aria Entertainment, the production company she founded in 2012, to be part of a transatlantic collaboration creating new off-West End and Off-Broadway musicals. The story of three generations of female singers and a grandmother’s revelation about her sexuality is a co-production with Kierstead Productions, set up by two-time Tony-award-winning producer Jim Kierstead, whose hits include Kinky Boots.
While the US company led on the show’s world premiere, which came Off-Broadway in May, Lipson is lead-producing the UK premiere, which will be very different. “It has different casting, a different creative team and a much more intimate venue,” she says.
The project grew out of two years of networking, exploring ideas and meeting people. “It’s just about chatting,” she says. “I’m one of those people who is always thinking of a new idea, meeting someone new or seeing new venues.”
Learning, evolution and growth are themes that Lipson returns to again and again. “You learn every day,” she says. “Knowledge is power.” Five years after launching, and numerous productions later, she won the Offie award for best producer. Earlier this year Hope Mill Theatre, at which she is producer and co-artistic director, was named The Stage’s fringe theatre of the year.
Lipson fell in love with musicals during childhood, when her mother would play recordings of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rodgers and Hammerstein productions. A talented musician herself – “I sang before I spoke” – when she was bought the “easy” versions of Lloyd Webber’s sheet music, she would “make the piano part more complicated and flesh it out”.
After starting in producing by staging her own show at university, she progressed to creating small concert stagings of new musicals. From there Lipson launched Aria with a charity concert of Children of Eden. She created the From Page to Stage festival, which offers a platform to new musicals, and swiftly built a reputation for balancing myriad productions.
Shows including The Who’s Tommy, Bar Mitzvah Boy and Marry Me a Little followed, before a watershed moment in 2015. That was when Joseph Houston and William Whelton chatted to Lipson about their new project, Hope Mill Theatre. “I immediately knew it was special,” Lipson says. “I needed the space to stage shows I adored. They needed someone to help with programming, commercial vision and to help shows transfer.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
As a performer, it was the final workshop of the musical Zorro. As a musical director, I was assistant MD on the UK tour of Hot Flush! The Musical.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be ambitious and knock on as many doors as possible. Without that drive, you won’t get any further.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My dad. I was inspired by his entrepreneurial outlook on business. I have a lot of respect for that.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Know what you’re auditioning for and who’s on your panel. Remember it’s your time, so embrace it and don’t rush. We want you to get the job.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
I originally started a human genetics degree, so I’d have been a doctor. If I gave it up now, though, I’d do project management. That’s what I thrive on.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t have any rituals, but I do have an obsession with keeping a tidy inbox.
The venue, which brought the ethos of the London fringe to Manchester, was an immediate critical success as in-house productions of Parade, Hair, Yank! and Pippin collected a series of four and five-star reviews.
But most of the Aria-produced Hope Mill shows since Yank! have run at a loss during their Manchester incarnations. While the shows can cost £90,000 to £130,000 to stage, “the best might take £80,000”. How do they cover the shortfall? “We put the money in ourselves.” Either that, or Lipson has to find investors who understand recoupment or profit will hinge on the show’s future life. A recent knock-back from the Arts Council has also led to a crowdfunding campaign for The Return of the Soldier.
“We give everything to the actors and the creatives,” she says. “We have an Equity in-house agreement, but we often go above it. I felt, as a commercial producer, I had a responsibility to be better. Although we might struggle financially, we’re still standing. I’m proving it’s possible, I just need a long-term solution, so I don’t have to struggle show by show.”
It helps Lipson and her investors when shows transfer. That was what made 2017 such an important year for her, Aria and Hope Mill. Yank! moved to Charing Cross Theatre during Pride, Hair transferred to the Vaults, Pippin enjoyed a season at Southwark Playhouse and Lipson staged a touring production of The Addams Family. “That’s the biggest show I’ve done,” she says. “When I announced that show, the industry saw me transition from a prolific fringe producer to a commercial one.”
Lipson is clearly driven to grow her business, and that means adapting as well. It’s one of the reasons From Page to Stage is more compact this year following 2017’s three-week offering at the Other Palace.
“I launched the festival,” she explains, “to see what was out there and to create a platform. I’ve grown, and my business model has developed. Now I want to use it to curate, to find composers and lyricists to commission and to find shows I want to produce. I only need five or six slots to do that.”
This is the next phase in the growth of Aria Entertainment. Lipson intends to slow down her output a little and concentrate on creating a smaller number of larger-scale shows each year. She already has a trio under commission but is tight-lipped about the titles.
“I want to create a show that has a legacy,” she says. “At Aria, we’ve done 50 shows since 2012. I’ve found my feet. I’ve found what works and what doesn’t. It’s got to a point where I’m in my 30s, I’ve had a great time, I’ve learned so much, but I want to make some money. I’m not waiting for these shows to fall into my lap, I’m going to go out and make them.”
Her evolution comes at a time when she believes the world of musical theatre is changing. The imminent West End arrivals of Waitress, Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away, along with Hamilton, she thinks, could herald an altering in the perception of musicals. “It’s going to be the chamber musical that redefines the genre,” she says. “Although they’re not chamber musicals as such, they are in comparison to something such as Wicked. They’re not full of over-production; they’re about telling a story.”
They could, she thinks, inspire a new generation of British musical theatremakers to explore new ideas. But inspiration alone is not enough. “We have to subsidise shows that deserve to have an audience,” she says. “If we’d only had that support 20 years ago when the national portfolio organisations were bringing out phenomenal plays, we’d be in a different position. It needs a big philanthropic gesture to change the ecology. If I had a hit show that brought me in excess funds, I’d self-subsidise other shows, because I believe that’s what this country needs.”
I would love to know what goes through Sonia Friedman’s mind when she’s looking at the box office figures for four shows at once
That’s the next step for Lipson, to find and produce that big new show. “Experience is everything,” she concludes. “What I know now, I didn’t know last year. Next year I’ll know more. I’m learning all the time. You’ve got to be open to that and you have to ask questions. As much fringe experience as I’ve had, I’ve never worked on a West End show. I would love to know what goes through Sonia Friedman’s mind when she’s looking at the box office figures for four of her shows at once. I’m looking forward to learning more about that and growing.”
Born: 1985, Manchester
Training: London School of Musical Theatre and Goldsmiths University
All at Hope Mill Theatre
• Hair (2016)
• Yank! (2017)
• Pippin (2017)
• The Addams Family, UK tour (2017)
• Offie Award for best producer (2017)
• Fringe theatre of the year for Hope Mill Theatre (2018)
• Best Off-West End production for Hair, WhatsOnStage Awards (2018)
Unexpected Joy is at Southwark Playhouse, as part of the Page to Stage festival, from September 5 to 29. The Return of the Soldier is at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester from September 6 to 29