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Playful Productions: ‘Most theatre is as dull as ditchwater’

Matthew Byam Shaw, Nia Janis and Nick Salmon of Playful Productions

It takes all of five minutes for Nick Salmon, Matthew Byam Shaw and Nia Janis – the three directors of Playful Productions – to start defending commercial producers as a species. You can understand why. The slick, old school, fat cat image still lingers – despite a West End as varied and vibrant as it’s been in years.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 16.59.39“There’s a lot of suspicion,” says Salmon. “There’s a perception in the media and in certain parts of the industry that every producer is just making a fortune out of other people’s talent and exploiting the public for every penny. It’s not actually true.

“People think we’re out to make money. There are very few rich producers around: Cameron, Andrew and then you think, ‘and who…’ Most people make a living, they don’t make a killing.”

A few minutes later, I make the mistake of dropping the word “product” into conversation. “That’s exactly why there’s suspicion,” Byam Shaw jumps in. “We don’t call it ‘product’ and we don’t call it ‘backing.’ We are driven by a creative desire to put on a show that we think we could sell ourselves a ticket to.”

“Most theatre is as dull as ditchwater,” he continues. “We commission plays because we would like to see them on stage and we think there’s an audience for them. It never becomes product.”

Playful is about to have its fifth birthday, having set up shop in 2010, after the three directors cut ties with ACT Productions. Salmon, a former actor’s agent (“gamekeeper turned poacher,” says Byam Shaw), had been ACT’s executive producer and Janis its general manager, after stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. Byam Shaw, an actor turned producer, was working independently, but regularly joined forces with ACT on productions such as Enron and Frost/Nixon.

A scene from Shrek the Musical, for which Playful was general manager. Photo: Helen Maybanks
A scene from Shrek the Musical, for which Playful was general manager. Photo: Helen Maybanks

“I think we’d outgrown it in a way,” Janis explains. “The three of us had been working at ACT for quite a long time and enjoyed that dynamic, but we weren’t in control of our destinies and we weren’t making the final decisions.” It was, she says, “quite clean” as breaks go, though clearly born of frustrations. The move triggered a rethink at ACT: Roger Wingate’s company stopped general managing third-party productions.

For Playful, that was a fundamental part of the business model. As Janis puts it: “The general management would cover our overheads – more if we were lucky – and then we would have the stability to take the risks on the producing.”

That gives a clue to the company’s momentum. A commercial outfit needs money to motor and shows to sell. It takes time to build. In five years, its staff has grown from seven to 29 and, with a reserve allowing risk, as shows in development come through, it has become an increasingly significant presence in the West End and beyond. The balance between management and production is roughly still the same, but the aim is always to grow the latter side.

Hence, the spectacularly busy spring that’s coming up. Wolf Hall – Playful’s commission, taken to the RSC – is about to open on Broadway, hot on the heels of The Audience, also born in-house. Peter Morgan’s play will

Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall. Photo: Tristram Kenton

also return to the West End, with Kristin Scott Thomas in the royal role. Those two shows are Playful’s biggest successes to date. Elsewhere, it’s bringing Damian Lewis into American Buffalo and Michael Ball to Mack and Mabel. All while general managing five large-scale musicals: three in the West End, including the Tony-winning Kinky Boots, and two on tour. The future holds a new David Hare play on the opera world and Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land.

The three of them make a good trio. Byam Shaw, 50 this year, is youthful and gregarious. He sits forward in his chair, while Salmon, sage and considered, leans back, legs crossed. Janis, to complete the set neatly, is straight-backed and upright. There’s a definite sense of difference and balance in that arrangement. “There’s no good cop, bad cop,” says Janis. “Matt is at the more maverick end of the scale, I’m at the naysayer end and Nick sits somewhere in the middle.” There being three of them, there’s always a decision in the end, even if it comes after a lot of persuasion. “One of us has to be passionate about a project.”

That’s what makes the risk worthwhile and, says Salmon, “it is a huge risk. It’s phenomenally easy to lose money. Three out of 10 West End productions recoup or make a profit, maybe four.” Playful’s record, incidentally, is rather better than that: upwards of 70%. It has overseen £130 million in box office revenues over five years, of which more than £20 million is from its own productions.

However, the game has got harder in that time. “There’s more product,” says Salmon, before Byam Shaw ticks him off for the word. “The costs have really gone up. Talent costs, theatre costs, ticketing costs, restoration levies. You’re probably looking, since we started, at a rise of 25-30% – and this is in a time of recession. God knows what’s going to happen if we get back on track.”

Byam Shaw provides some context: Humble Boy, which he produced in 2001, cost £250,000; The Weir, a recent Donmar transfer with a smaller cast, came in at £650,000. Wolf Hall and The Audience were upwards of £800,000. “It’s bizarre,” he says. “Absolutely bizarre.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 17.00.01This gets to the root of the suspicion they mentioned – and their defensiveness about it. “Ultimately,” says Salmon, “there’s only one way we can pay for those extra costs and it’s by putting the ticket prices up.” The point is that their hands are tied, though the perception is different. “The public thinks it’s just the producer,” says Byam Shaw. The reality is that investors need an incentive or nothing would get funded, but the danger is Broadway-style rates. Wolf Hall, there, needs $4.2 million, and ticket prices reflect that.

The other difference, in five years, is the relationship between subsidised theatres and commercial producers. Playful has strong ties with the subsidised sector – witness Wolf Hall, for which Playful bought the rights and brought the RSC on board. “When it comes to producing new work, they [subsidised theatres] are the best producers anywhere,” says Salmon. “It’s very unlikely we’d have got [the Mantels] on board without the RSC. It was a major, major undertaking and it needed a company with the resources to put on that scale of production.” All Playful’s three directors sit on various boards, something Byam Shaw feels can be overlooked: “A lot of us are working pro bono, trying to help out.”

However, as subsidised theatres have sought to self-produce, it has affected other parts of the industry. “It’s certainly taken a slice out of commercial producers’ repertoire – not just when they do it solo.” Co-productions, too. “That balance has changed.”

Understandably, Playful’s team is wary of it – not least because subsidised theatres haven’t got the same sorts of reserves that commercial outfits do. One unexpected disaster could have a huge impact back at home. “Should a theatre supported by the arts council be gambling in the commercial arena?” asks Byam Shaw. “I can see someone getting a very bloody nose sooner or later.”

Salmon lays it out: “The difference between us and subsidised theatre is that we don’t survive if we lose money and they’re paid to do exactly that, to lose money.”

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