Rebecca Kane Burton: ‘We need to make these historic West End theatres more inviting’
After beginning her career at English Heritage, the entertainment executive went on to manage events venues Alexandra Palace and the O2 during the London Olympics. Now managing director of Really Useful Theatres, she tells Nick Smurthwaite about embarking on a mission to revitalise the company’s grand theatre buildings.
The first big London show Rebecca Kane Burton ever saw was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Jason Donovan at the London Palladium in 1991. She loved it so much she saved up her pocket money to see it again – not once, but twice.
Twenty-six years later, she is in charge of the London Palladium, working for Joseph’s co-creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“It sounds silly,” Kane Burton says in a recently refurbished anteroom at the Palladium, “but I still feel it is an honour to be working alongside someone I revered as a child.”
As managing director of Really Useful Theatres, it is Kane Burton’s job to look after the seven theatres owned in whole or in part by the group: the Palladium, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Adelphi, Cambridge, Her Majesty’s, New London and the Other Palace – formerly the St James Theatre. In addition to maintaining and developing the buildings, she will oversee programming and ticketing, and generate sponsorship deals, reporting to Mark Wordsworth, executive chairman across the two Really Useful companies.
She came to the job in September 2016 not from a theatre background, but as general manager of the O2 and, before that, managing director of Alexandra Palace. “She walked away from the O2 at its peak because she wanted another challenge,” says music agent and friend John Giddings.
Kane Burton herself has a slightly different take on her departure. “I’d have been happy to carry on at the O2, but this job came up [she was headhunted] and it was one I simply couldn’t turn down.”
Though she does not say it explicitly, there seems to be a sense of destiny in Kane Burton’s career trajectory. From an early age, she loved performing and putting on shows – being the one in charge. “I was the youngest of three girls, so you had to fight for air space,” she says “We were an outgoing family. I’ve never been afraid of getting up on stage and giving a presentation. I was the one who organised the May Ball at university. I’m assertive and I like to organise things.”
From English Heritage to Ally Pally
Kane Burton’s first career choice was journalism, but on leaving Cambridge in 1997 with a history degree, she walked straight into a job with English Heritage, aged 21, as operational planning manager for London. She was responsible for reopening Eltham Palace and Downe House, once the home of Charles Darwin. She recalls, “With hindsight it should have been daunting, but as a naive 21-year-old I cracked on and kept my head down. I look back at my younger self and think, ‘Wow, how did I do that?’ ”
Kane Burton remained with English Heritage on and off for 10 years, finishing up as director of the London region, one of the organisation’s key jobs.
In 2009, she moved to Alexandra Palace as managing director, wanting a new challenge but at the same time somewhat ambivalent about the move. “Even though I lived quite nearby, I’d never visited Ally Pally because it didn’t appeal to me,” Kane Burton says. “When the job came up, I was intrigued to see what it was about the building that didn’t resonate with me. I did wonder what on earth I was going to do with this beautiful building that was falling down in the middle of a recession.”
One of the things that attracted her to the job was that she knew it had a gem of a theatre in the East Wing that had fallen into disrepair. The whole East Wing, including the theatre, is currently undergoing a £27 million restoration and is expected to reopen next spring.
“I can’t take any credit for its renaissance because it all happened since I left,” Kane Burton says. “But now I’m back in contact with the people running Ally Pally and asking questions about its future. When I joined, the obvious answer was to go back to Ally Pally’s music roots. We went from two gigs a year when I started to 28 when I left. Its Gothic atmosphere and capacity is perfect for large-scale gigs and musicians seem to love it.”
Moving to the O2 – Olympics and ticketing
Kane Burton made a career move after researchers from the O2 came to Ally Pally to check out her music programming. They returned to North Greenwich with plenty of ideas and a new general manager.
“It was a massive job and I was completely gobsmacked to get it,” she says. “From day one, my to-do list included delivering the Olympic Games [events], masterminding a new ticketing system and launching a roof-walk attraction, as well as the day-to-day running of what is effectively a mini city.
“The biggest challenge was the size, scale and sheer relentlessness of the building. It never stops. I had a leadership team of 10, then another couple of hundred working in the offices, then hundreds more staffing the venues for each event. Obviously you get to meet a lot of amazing people, but it was an incredibly stressful job. You had to enjoy it or it would kill you.”
Giddings, whose Solo Agency represents some of the world’s biggest music acts, saw Kane Burton in action at close hand on many occasions. “I found her brilliant to work with because she’d bend over backwards to help you,” he says. “Being in the music business, you get stupid requests from artists all the time, but Rebecca never said, ‘Go away.’ She would always go the extra mile to try to make it happen.
“I’d say she was upfront without being stroppy. She has a steely nature that makes things happen and gets things done. She’ll charm you, then reel you in. That’s good business. A good deal is when you both walk away feeling you’ve done well out of it.”
One of the things she learned from the O2 experience that she has brought to the Really Useful job is that it pays to look outside your own sector and learn from what other people are doing – Kane Burton cites airlines and retail as examples. She feels it was that ability to think outside the box, along with her understanding of what it takes to run a grade-I listed building such Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and her experience of programming from Ally Pally and the O2, that made her a good fit for the job.
“In some ways I’ve reverted back to my English Heritage days, juggling individual projects and making sure the teams at all our venues feel united in that sense of vision we’re trying to achieve as a group.”
How do the two companies – Really Useful Theatres and the Really Useful Group – work together?
“There is a lot of desire and will to work together, even though we are separate companies,” she says. “It is important for me to understand what RUG is doing, and how productions are put together because that gives me an insight into how I can best accommodate and look after the producers at our venues. My equivalent at RUG is Max Alexander, who was an outside appointment like me.”
Q&A: Rebecca Kane Burton
What was your first non-theatre job?
Staging picnic concerts at Kenwood House in London.
What was your first theatre job?
This one, working for Really Useful Theatres.
Who or what was your greatest influence?
Richard Branson got me thinking about what it takes to create something from nothing.
What do you wish you’d been told when you started out?
Somebody gave me a very good piece of advice just before I started my job at English Heritage that has stayed with me: “Just remember everyone pretends they know what they’re talking about.” The other thing to remember is that there is no obvious career path – follow your instincts.
If you hadn’t been an entertainment executive, what would you have done?
Definitely a journalist or writer of some kind. I love writing.
Do you have any rituals or superstitions?
My former PA gave me a lovely silver bracelet, which I always wear to a board meeting or a presentation.
Kane Burton will also be working closely with another new appointee, Dave Gaydon, former head of music at
London’s Roundhouse, who will be head of programming at the Palladium.
“We feel it’s really important to put the Palladium back on the map,” says Kane Burton. “There is some confusion about what the Palladium is, what its role is. We know there is more we can do with it. The programme needs to be broad and varied and eclectic. There is no reason why the Palladium can’t play a role in London Fashion Week or the London Jazz Festival, for example.”
In terms of musical bookings, Kane Burton and Gaydon are looking at younger, up-and-coming artists as well as the big, arena-filling stars.
“Everything we do in these buildings should be driven by what our customers want of them,” she says. “One of the reasons I took the job was that Really Useful wants to build its own ticketing platform now that the 10-year contract with See Tickets has come to an end. You can’t beat that sort of direct relationship with your customers. Mark Guymer, who set up Sky Tickets and has an acute understanding of digital ticketing, is joining us to oversee our ticketing strategy.”
Wordsworth says: “Rebecca oversaw the launch of the O2’s own ticketing platform. To find a person who has the heritage background, the sponsorship and business partnership background, as well as ticketing background, is quite extraordinary.”
Refurbishing Theatre Royal Drury Lane
One of Kane Burton’s biggest challenges will be Haworth Tompkins’ £35 million refurbishment of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the other jewel in Really Useful’s crown. The company will submit planning permission for “substantial work” to Westminster Council this September, with the expectation of work starting another 12 to 18 months after that, assuming Westminster approves the proposals.
RUT is in the process of buying the building next door to the Theatre Royal, which will become the new headquarters for the Really Useful Group, currently based in Slingsby Place, also in the West End. When the time comes, the theatre will have to close for an extended period of time. But what is the company proposing to do to this most iconic of London venues?
“I can’t talk about the details but there is an opportunity here to open it up more,” Kane Burton says. “While these old theatre buildings are undoubtedly grand and imposing, that can sometimes make it difficult for people to want to cross the threshold. The job of their present-day custodians is to make them as accessible as possible. There are lots of different ways of doing that, such as the terrace we’ve made at the Theatre Royal, overlooking Catherine Street, where you can sit outside on a nice evening and have a glass of champagne without even seeing the show.
“I think one of the problems with the West End has been the perception that theatres open half an hour before the show, you rush in to see the show, then you rush out again at the end. The challenge for us is to make these old buildings more inviting and open for longer periods of time. It’s all about making everyone feel comfortable in that environment.”
Of course, the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester have not helped make audiences feel comfortable or safe. Kane Burton and her colleagues have made security in the Really Useful venues a top priority, bringing in extra security personnel and urging staff to be super-vigilant. “We’ve also met up with other West End theatre groups and shared intelligence,” she says.
A dedicated theatregoer – “I love that sense of anticipation before the show starts” – Kane Burton anticipates that she will be seeing a lot more child-friendly shows in future as she is about to become a mother for the first time. Presumably she will also be taking maternity leave?
“I’m not planning on taking a long time off,” she says. “It will obviously be different but I’ve always been incredibly focused on my work. I can’t imagine that I’m going to be any less passionate about the job all of a sudden. The O2 job was relentless, but the Really Useful job allows me time to think and breathe a bit more. I’m not great at switching off when I get home, as my husband [ex-footballer Sagi Burton] will tell you, but weekends are terribly important for recharging the batteries and taking stock.”
Does she believe the old Noel Coward adage about work being more fun than fun?
“Well, I’ve met some phenomenal people through work and inevitably that spills over into your social life and your private life. I think when your work life and your social life collide in a good way that’s the best outcome. When I think back to the huge impact seeing Joseph had on me all those years ago, I feel privileged to be in a role now where I can help to create life-defining moments for people. Who wouldn’t want to do that?”
CV: Rebecca Kane Burton
Born: 1975, Shoreham-by-Sea
Training: University of Cambridge
Career highlights: English Heritage, 1997-2009; managing director, Alexandra Palace, 2009-2012; ; general manager, O2, 2012-2016; managing director, Really Useful Theatres, 2016-present