The Ferryman co-producer Caro Newling: ‘I’ve made some terrible mistakes just by falling in love with things’
The theatrical impresario Caro Newling’s production company Neal Street, which she founded with Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris, boasts a vast portfolio of film, stage and TV hits – but she prefers to stay out of the limelight. She talks to Matt Trueman about Neal Street’s impressive and growing roll call of successes and why new work is the real thrill for her…
The offices of Neal Street Productions, in Covent Garden, are heaving with posters. It’s an industry standard – big images in black frames – but it is rare they are stacked quite so deep as they are here. They lean against walls, three deep, on the floor of reception, and jostle for space on shelves running around the room. The American Beauty torso takes up an entire wall. Call the Midwife stills hide behind Hollow Crown portraits. Shots of Shrek the Musical fight to be seen against Penny Dreadful posters. Eddie Redmayne in Red. Jude Law in Hamlet. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Ferryman.
That they’ve run out of office space tells you a lot: all this comes from a tiny team in a cosy first-floor office. Neal Street has produced more than it knows what to do with, and its productions occupy more space than the producers themselves. On one picture shelf, just off centre, there’s a small Daily Mail cartoon of Neal Street’s head honchos: Sam Mendes with dreamy squiggles for eyes, television execs Pippa Harris and Nicolas Brown and, top right, seeming to hide under her hair, Caro Newling – Mendes’ producer for the past 30 years.
After getting the Donmar Warehouse going in the 1990s, then building this independent outfit from the ground up before selling it in 2015 – asking price £40 million – the two of them are as tight a team as you’ll find in British theatre.
Not that its apparent from the outside. Newling tends to stay out of the limelight. Even when they left the Donmar together, Mendes announced the news on his own. “She never makes it all about her,” one major West End producer told me. “That’s how you get the best results.” Producing is not a me, me, me role.
In person, Newling is a bit of a paradox. She makes her presence felt without ever pushing herself forwards. She’s short – just over 5ft, I’d guess – with a ruffled black bob and dressed in a denim blue smock that’s probably designer, but determinedly unshowy. Her manner is quietly commanding, and things happen around her with no need to ask. Water appears, still and sparkling, double doors are shut and she segues from intros to interview before there’s even a chance to put the dictaphone on, striding into a sincere shout-out to the Society of London Theatre’s new scheme to widen access to jobs in the industry.
Typical, those that know her might say: Caro Newling throwing focus on those that tend not to attract it. For example, on Twitter she has been celebrating the work of scenic artists on Neal Street’s latest production, David Hare’s Glyndebourne play The Moderate Soprano. “She’s the best dressing-room producer in the business,” says its director Jeremy Herrin. “Most producers keep an eye on daily sales and move on. Caro’s always interested in the vibe backstage. She’s a Rolls Royce service: all in.”
Enabler by stealth
Producing, for Newling, is about building something well, not about being flash. “If you earn a lot of money, great, but it’s probably once in a lifetime.” In fact, she says, “producers are the last people to earn anything” – profiting only once investors are paid – and “that money generally comes round again; it gets poured back in”. Producers make things happen.
Newling does that. She’s an enabler, a co-producer as often as a lead; one of the reasons she flies under the radar. She concocted This House’s West End run with Nica Burns while bored at the Tonys and helped get shows such as Red, Enron and Sunday in the Park With George to Broadway. As in horse-racing, she believes spread-betting is more sensible than going all-in. At this Sunday’s Oliviers, she’ll be crossing her fingers for The Ferryman – through her co-producer Sonia Friedman tends to take the plaudits.
In Newling’s world, things need doing, problems need solving and people need pulling together. “Everybody’s on the same mission at the same time. I think that’s why people love it.” For her, theatre’s appeal was always as a team sport.
‘With new work, you’re sailing into unknown territory and your judgement is going to be tested’
As a teenager in Lewes, “a slightly druggy, hippy town” in East Sussex, she was on the cusp of falling off the rails. “Extremely happily adopted” in infancy and raised by a working single mum, Evelyn Newling, she describes her childhood as “very conventional: loved riding ponies, all that stuff; hit 15, discovered boys and drugs – the usual story”. Spotting the warning signs, her mother made her switch schools and, thanks to a decent drama department, Newling was hooked. “It was about joining a team of people, finding your place and your peer group and working out that actually you can bring something to the party.”
Throughout school and university, she brought rather a lot: variously acting, writing, running, stage-managing, operating sound and lights, even learning the basics of counterweight flying. “I knew how it all worked. If you do a theatre studies course now, do you get all that? I suspect not.”
Neal Street’s beginnings
Newling met Mendes when he was still in his early 20s. She was working in press at the Royal Shakespeare Company, just as Terry Hands opened the organisation up to young talent: Deborah Warner, Katie Mitchell, and the tryo Mendes. She remembers him, more than anyone, hanging around the admin offices, soaking everything in. “You could just tell he was earwigging all the time,” she smiles. “Sam tracked all of it. He was always around – not in the way, but across everything.”
Within two years, he was being tapped up to run the refurbished, renamed Donmar Warehouse and he talked Newling into joining him. “He said, ‘If you hang around at the RSC much longer, you’ll be one of those people in floral dresses that never leaves.’” Newling rolls her eyes. “Thanks, Sam.”
At that stage, not only had she never run a theatre, she’d never even produced a show. That, Mendes explained, was precisely the point. “We’re going to have to do stuff that hasn’t been done before. People who know what they’re doing will tell me why we can’t do it.” Not knowing better, Newling asked for new terms – new union rates, cut-price deals – and, against the odds, she tended to get it. She’s best, she says, when fighting for something.
Caro Newling’s top three tips
• Pay attention to everyone from day one.
• Be useful. If something needs doing, then do it or help it get done. Don’t pull focus. It’s neither necessary nor endearing.
• Don’t be dazzled by figures. Identify what they relate to. As you would with your shopping basket, be clear on the givens and what the elements are that will make a fabulous dinner. Then juggle the competing claims.
The Donmar as it was isn’t the Donmar we think of today. Architecturally, it is – Mendes pushed against plans to install a petite proscenium – but organisationally, it was something else altogether. This was 1992, before New Labour’s big arts funding drive, and the Donmar operated without subsidy. Its artistic team stretched to four: Mendes and Newling, casting director Anne McNulty and general manager Nick Frankfort. They all pitched in. “We had four desks in the green room, everything going on around us,” Newling remembers. “It was sort of madness.”
Their Donmar is largely defined by a string of successes: legendary productions of Cabaret and Company, the “theatrical viagra” of Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room, Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof. It opened with the UK premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, and the venture never looked back.
“We were luckier than we realised at the time,” she says modestly. “There was the old Warehouse audience waiting to come back, but there was also an audience looking for glamour, looking for buzz, which wasn’t really that prevalent at the time.” Ever the showman, Mendes supplied it in spades.
However, Newling is quick to stress that it was far from plain sailing. “We had some big failures as well as some big successes, and we were living like the commercial theatre, literally judging whether we had enough money coming in to start rehearsals on the next show.” They got lucky on more than one occasion: an anonymous £15,000 donation dug them out of one hole. The Donmar operated “hand-to-mouth, bounce-to-bounce,” she says. “When I look back, I think, ‘Bloody hell.’ We must have had nerves of steel.”
By the time the pair stepped down in 2002, the Donmar had secured regular Arts Council funding; a way of cementing its longevity and allowing the theatre to exist without their address books. Mendes had identified Michael Grandage as a potential successor and they handed the theatre over with a £1 million surplus. “You can’t sit around at a theatre like that for 30 years,” she stresses. “It should always go to the next generation, so that it’s constantly being refreshed and renewed.” With the Donmar directorship vacant once more, she’s optimistic about its future. “It’s the perfect moment. There are plenty of people around. Whatever happens, it’s going to be very exciting.”
Neal Street was set up to run along the same lines: a small team, all self-starters, producing on the hop. Working across stage and screen, it was ahead of its time and, partly as a result, it took a while to find its footing. Instead of relying on general management – Newling is “not really interested in the organisational stuff” – Neal Street determined to build productions from scratch: a few big hits to support the work they wanted to do. It took time. Call the Midwife, developed by Harris, hit screens in 2012; its large-scale, long-running musicals, Shrek and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both turned bumpy beginnings into slow-burning success.
That’s largely down to Newling’s modus operandi: make the thing, make it work, then work out how to make it make money. Shrek floundered on Broadway, failing to recoup its $25 million investment, but it was reworked for an American tour and again for the West End. “It’s developed and developed and developed,” Newling says. Even now, its original creative team is chopping and changing for a new UK tour.
Likewise, Charlie survived sceptical reviews to run for four years in the West End and transfer to Broadway. “We did quite a lot to it over that time,” she says. “If you’re confident that you’ve got something worth working on and you’re tight with your creative team, you can be honest and go back to the drawing board: What have we got and what can we do? Most people want to have another go.”
‘We tend to treat theatre as something that needs to earn its way. It shouldn’t be carried, but it’s not our big earner’
Patience, in other words, is a producer’s prime virtue – one Newling learned the hard way. Neal Street kicked off with a big flop: David Lindsay-Abaire’s debut, Fuddy Meers, closed after three weeks in the West End. “It was a disaster,” she recalls. “Everybody hated it. I was slap happy and it was my first real wake-up call.” So it goes, she says now. “I’ve made some terrible mistakes just by falling in love with things,” Newling says ruefully – Merrily We Roll Along was one, Enron another. “You fall in love with something so deeply that you can’t see the wood for the trees.”
Q&A: Caro Newling
What was your first non-theatre job?
Mucking and riding out at a stables in Lewes and waitressing.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant stage manager at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Absolutely everything you do in this industry counts and leads on to something else. Enjoy it all. There’s no rush.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Those who are alive to spotting the best in others: Sam Mendes, Genista McIntosh, Terry Hands, Nick Starr, Nick Salmon, Anne McNulty, Pippa Harris.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Nothing is predestined. Producers are as much on a quest to find the perfect fit as you are; there is always everything to play for.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
A team player somewhere. Pretty much all of my family are teachers.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I check my effing phone is off at stage door, but I’m not a thrower of salt.
It’s why new work’s the real thrill for her. “You’re on your mettle straight away,” she says, “because you’re sailing into unknown territory and your judgement is going to be tested.”
That’s always been the driver and, after 15 years, Neal Street’s in a position to do as it pleases. In 2015, it was bought out by All3Media for an undisclosed sum, leaving its theatre arm to produce without pressure. “The TV is the bread and butter,” she explains. “We tend to treat theatre as something that needs to earn its way. It shouldn’t be carried, but it’s not our big earner.”
It enables risks: “There are some projects we just want to do without the pressure of saying: ‘This has got to be commercial from day one.’ We want to play the longer game and if it isn’t, in the end, a commercial success, that doesn’t matter.”
Its forthcoming Lehman Trilogy is a case in point. Having read reviews of the Italian premiere, Mendes flew to Milan to see Stefano Massini’s Piccolo Theatre production. “He came back absolutely whizzing about it,” Newling says animatedly. Over nine hours, it charted the foundation of a family business in 1844 and the collapse of a global bank 163 year later. Adapted by Ben Power, who shaped the Hollow Crown scripts, and developed at the National Theatre Studio, Massini’s trilogy has been remade as a massive, four-hour three-hander.
It opens at the National in June – a huge project, three years in the making – and at this stage, its future is uncertain. A New York transfer is in the offing – Newling’s address book reaping rewards once again – taking it “to the Upper East Side of Manhattan – exactly where it should play”. Beyond that? “We don’t know.” There’s the real possibility of reshaping it for television: a collaboration between Neal Street and an Italian production company, Domenico Fandango.
Caro Newling on…
… The Ferryman
There’s nothing compromised about it. Jez [Butterworth] is not afraid to be a traditional storyteller. He’s not afraid to use poetic references or to imagine an audience will keep up and respond. It’s authentic, it’s not rushed, but we’ve never had any comments like, “Oh it’s long, it’s hot”, because it’s so magnificent.
… ticket prices
People still bang on about how expensive the West End is – usually actors – but it’s no longer true to say shows are only discounted if they’re not selling. The truth is that there are people who want to pay £200 to sit in those seats because they’re called premium, but kids with rucksacks are turning up on Drury Lane and getting a good deal. It happens on a daily basis. Our job is to sell every last ticket. I don’t know why we can’t get that message over.
… commercial producers
People imagine that if there’s a long-running show, producers are making tons of money. Actually, producers are the last people to earn anything. Mainly you’re giving your profit to your investors. If you do earn a lot of money, great, but it’s probably once in a lifetime. That money then comes round again; it gets poured back in.
… the next Donmar artistic director
There’s one golden rule: it should always go to the next generation. It should be constantly refreshed and renewed. There are plenty of people around, so whatever happens next, it’s going to be very exciting. It’s a difficult job. When you take on a landmark, named theatre – which the Donmar now is – there’s a lot of expectation. It does need to be someone who can handle that and, if necessary, enjoy it. You have to be tough.
“Sam’s very, very clear – and it’s absolutely the right way to go – ‘Let’s not run ahead of ourselves. Let’s just do it and see what it is.’ The joy of it is to do the darn thing without going ‘Christ, we’re looking for a theatre.’ It’s an important piece of work, but it’s not going to be judged on whether it recoups or not.”
There are other irons in the fire – clearly more room will need to be made for the posters in Neal Street’s offices. Director Thea Sharrock’s down for a new American play, Chiara Atik’s Five Times in One Night, with a Game of Thrones star (reportedly Emilia Clarke), while Nigel Harman is workshopping a stage version of Paul Auster’s Mr Vertigo. David Greig’s take on the film Local Hero is at the Lyceum and the Old Vic later this year.
Newling reckons the West End is in the best state it’s been for years – largely down to the link between commercial and subsidised sectors. “It’s a much longer game,” she says, but it makes a lot possible.
New work is proving itself profitable – The Ferryman is an example – but partnership “gives momentum to projects and comfort to artists”. She’s currently developing an adaptation of a new novel with Chichester Festival Theatre. “I’m not sure I’d have commissioned it if I didn’t know how it was going to begin life,” she says, adamant the dynamic benefits both parties. “No artistic director worth their salt is going to do a project they don’t want. They turn down loads of stuff. No one wants to compromise.”
Producing, for Newling, is about partnerships. It’s why she thinks SOLT so important, having served three years as its president. “It gets misunderstood as this old gentleman’s club, but it’s modernised,” she says – and, in her view, taken the West End with it. The Oliviers are at the very heart of that – a communal celebration (and advert) for the entire West End. “It makes theatre accessible,” she believes. “It heightens the awareness of what the West End does, what it means and what we tell the rest of the world about it.”
Beyond The Ferryman and its chances in seven categories, Newling is most impassioned about this year’s Be Inspired campaign – celebrating Theatreland’s unsung heroes. “It’s about saying this isn’t some elite activity, and it’s got something for everybody. There’s an element of red carpet gowns and glamour, of course, but it’s a celebration of what the whole industry contributes.”
Visit nealstreetproductions.com for details on its show
CV: Caro Newling
Born: London, 1957
Training: Warwick University, Webber Douglas
For the Donmar Warehouse:
• Cabaret (1993)
• Company (1995)
• The Blue Room (1998)
• The Real Thing (1999)
For Neal Street Productions:
• Shrek the Musical (2008)
• The Bridge Project (2009)
• Three Days of Rain (2009)
• Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2013)
• The Ferryman (2017)
Donmar and Neal Street Productions shows have won multiple Olivier and Tony awards