Selladoor founders on humble beginnings: ‘I would drive the van and Phil would get up the ladders’
From humble beginnings, Phillip Rowntree and David Hutchinson’s company is now a global enterprise, with hit shows in China, New York and Bangkok – and with Kelsey Grammer starring in Big Fish the Musical in London. They tell Catherine Jones how they still abide by their founding aim to ‘put something together from scratch’
College digs can often leave friendships in tatters, from passive-aggressive arguments over the remote control to disagreements born of food missing from the communal fridge.
Not so for David Hutchinson and Phillip Rowntree. The pair not only became best friends at college, but they shared a vision that has seen them, in less than a decade, become one of the most dynamic partnerships on the UK theatre scene.
Selladoor Worldwide, formerly Sell A Door Theatre, the company the pair formed as students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, is now a multimillion-pound operation with a staff of 20, a rapidly expanding UK empire, and global aspirations. It all started in a tiny shared apartment in Liverpool.
Hutchinson explains: “We were both in the same class, doing the acting course and we lived together. I arrived and the first person I saw when I opened the flat door was Phillip. That was 2006.”
Within a couple of years, both realised acting wasn’t their calling, and what they wanted was control of their own destiny. Support from a tutor, the late Paul Iles, was instrumental in giving them the knowledge and confidence to start their own company.
They had a management class of an hour a week, Hutchinson says. “Phil and I were at the front, lapping it all up. Paul was instrumental in the development of how you put a theatre company together – mission statements, things around being able to define your demographic and the style of work you create.”
It was then that Selladoor was born, although they could only dream of reaching its current success. Hutchinson says: “We were man-and-van touring and we used to do one-nighters all over the country. I would drive the van and Phil would get up the ladders, really mucking in, working on very small budgets.”
Hutchinson wrote and directed some early shows, such as Planning Permission and Where the Solitary Eagle Flies, before the team produced its breakthrough production, a first UK tour of rock musical Spring Awakening in 2011.
“That got us into theatres we otherwise had no connection with and got people starting to really talk,” says Hutchinson. “On the back of that, one of the theatres offered us a residency.That led on to our longest-running show and the one that is closest to my heart, Avenue Q, which in the end toured for three years. Which is crazy, because it started with a month-long run in Greenwich. That really taught us how to tour a show.”
From its modest beginnings the company rose rapidly to national success, particularly in the last three years – Selladoor has successfully toured shows including The History Boys, Little Shop of Horrors, American Idiot, The Crucible and Spamalot.
Now, increasingly global ambitions are also being realised. Selladoor Worldwide has productions of Jersey Boys and The Producers in China, and new offices in New York and Bangkok.
5 things you need to know about Selladoor
1. Selladoor Worldwide’s London headquarters are on the border of Deptford and Greenwich at the company’s rehearsal space in the Deptford Mission.
2. Over the past two years Selladoor has commissioned three new theatre pieces: The Broons for a Scottish tour, an adaptation of Eric Idle’s The Owl and the Pussycat, and an adaptation of Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You.
3. The company is preparing to take the first UK tour of Madagascar the Musical on the road.
4. Key partners include Coventry Belgrade Theatre, Grimsby Auditorium, Darlington Hippodrome, Greenwich Theatre and New Wolsey Ipswich.
5. Selladoor has visited seven countries during 2017 – the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Luxembourg, Belgium and South Korea.
Peevara Kitchumnongpan was mentored by Hutchinson during an MA in creative producing at Mountview Academy, and so impressed the Selladoor producer he hired him.
“Bangkok is a developing market,” says Hutchinson. “It’s going to be massive in five or 10 years. As of January, we’ll have our first Asia office, which is cool. We want to be in there first and develop those relationships.”
Kitchumnongpan, Selladoor’s man on the ground, is full of enthusiasm for his home market and what the company can bring to it – particularly in attracting a new, young audience.
He says the Thai theatregoing tradition is growing. “It’s nowhere near as established as the Western world, and that’s the challenge. But the exciting thing is we have a blank slate we can work with.”
At present in Thailand, it’s all about big spectacles and star-driven shows. Kitchumnongpan describes the “end goal mission” as persuading audiences to “come and see the title more than they come and see other elements of it”.
Meanwhile looking west, not east, Selladoor has recently put down roots in Midtown Manhattan – thanks to an offer of office space from its Chinese partners in Jersey Boys, and help from Carl Vorwerk, another friend from the producers’ LIPA days.
Vorwerk recently opened The Very Hungry Caterpillar for Selladoor at the DR2 Theater in Union Square.
Hutchinson says: “Having an office gives us access to the really exciting work being made there, and allows me to ask: ‘What we’re making here, is that something for the market in the US or not?’ And, also, ‘Who are the exciting artists over there?’”
Selladoor recently landed a sizeable catch when Frasier star Kelsey Grammer signed up to appear in Big Fish the Musical at London’s Other Palace theatre.
Hutchinson, who credits co-producer Richard Darbourne with securing the US actor, saw the original Susan Stroman-directed production on Broadway. He then saw an amateur show in Boston, and realised the more intimate space brought out the heartfelt nature of composer Andrew Lippa’s music better.
“The whole time I was saying to Andrew, ‘We’ve got to do it,” he smiles. “Ambassador Theatre Group had the rights, and Richard asked: ‘Do you want to come on the journey with us?’
“Again, it’s finally being able to originate work in the UK, bringing a new title, it’s putting it together from scratch. It’s all the things we started Selladoor to do.”
While it has audience favourites such as Footloose, Flashdance and Spamalot on tour, developing new work is still the company’s aim.
There were showcase nights and new-writing festivals during early days at Selladoor’s Greenwich base. And last year it launched a young writers’ programme, working with 10 aspiring playwrights and assisted by award-winning young director Roy Alexander Weise.
One of those young writers has now joined the company as a creative intern, himself reading new plays sent to Selladoor.
Anna Fox, the new-writing and development manager, says: “We hope to expand the programme, and look at musical writing in the future – cementing the legacy of finding and nourishing new talent, and helping people get into the industry.”
There are two commissions in the pipeline; a musical adaptation, by Julien Salva and Ludovic Vidal, of Foreign Field, a story set in First World War France, and a “new and exciting take” on Frankenstein, in collaboration with Rona Munro.
“Next year is looking very busy,” says Fox. “Selladoor has always aimed to do exciting, existing texts and bring new ideas for existing musicals, but now we’re delighted we’re finally in a position where we can commission new pieces we think are relevant and important.”
It’s been a decade since Selladoor was born. So, what stands out for Hutchinson from everything it has achieved this far?
He smiles: “Probably the biggest achievement is that after 13 years of friendship, 10 years of co-owning a business, and sometimes in high-stress or heated circumstances – as we both lead on very different departments with sometimes opposing demands – there isn’t a day Phil and I can’t turn off from being producers and have a nice glass of wine as best mates.”
Executive creative producer: David Hutchinson
Executive commercial producer: Phillip Rowntree
Number of performances: 967 (2016)
Audience figures: 409,109 (2016)
Number of employees: 20
Turnover: £11.8 million (2016)
Key contacts: Casting director Victoria Roe, email@example.com