Producer Mark Goucher on taking over Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre: ‘I’d heard a lot of this job was about unblocking toilets’
West End producer Mark Goucher brought his best pair of Marigolds with him when he changed scene to take on the role of running Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. He tells Mark Shenton about being prepared to muck in
The best theatre producers are skilled at wearing many different hats, from creative to administrative, but the key to operating successfully is that most remain largely independent of theatre buildings. They run their businesses in their image, according to their own taste. They have no board telling them what they can and can’t do.
As a theatre producer for more than 30 years, Mark Goucher employed many hundreds of actors and creative personnel. But, apart from a short stint in the Daily Telegraph’s advertising department after graduating from Leeds University, he himself has never been employed.
All that changed nearly a year ago when he became chief executive at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been employed,” he says now. “No one was foolish enough.”
So what changed? “I have, for quite a long time, split my life between London and Gloucestershire,” he replies, as we sit in a meeting room at his London office, not far from the Garrick Club in Covent Garden.
He has lived in the county for almost two decades, and been working from there on Fridays in recent years. That extended to Mondays too.
“Whenever any of my touring shows went to the Everyman in Cheltenham, my office knew that it would be a given that I wouldn’t be in at all that week,” he says.
“I got to know the theatre very well, and I’d always insist that my shows went there, so that people in the village where I was living would be able to see them. Matthew Byam Shaw [a fellow London producer, at Playful Productions] always joked to me, ‘You’ll be running that theatre in your dotage.’ ”
A few years ago, Goucher took Geoffrey Rowe, the theatre’s then chief executive, to lunch, to sound him out on his future plans. “I said: ‘I really hope you don’t mind me asking when you are leaving.’ ”
Rowe didn’t mind. “I was no threat, as I’d never run a theatre. He assured me that if and when he decided to go, I’d be the second person he’d tell – after the chairman of the board.”
In November 2016, the call came. Goucher says, “I told him, ‘No, no, no, Geoffrey, you’ve got it all wrong. You’re supposed to stay for at least another five years. I’m not ready.’ ”
He quickly changed his mind: “If someone else took it, they could be there for 10 years, and in 10 years’ time I’d probably not be interested anymore.” He applied.
But he had to tell the Everyman chairman, Clive Thomas, he would carry on running his London business as a producer too. “He embraced the idea, as they wanted the theatre to go to another level,” Goucher says. “I guess I gave them that opportunity, to be able to expand on what they do.”
Goucher realised he might need references, so he called Philip Bernays, who used to run the Everyman before Rowe – and now runs Newcastle Theatre Royal. He responded in forthright fashion. “Why the fuck do you want to do that? It’s all about blocked toilets,” Goucher remembers with a smile.
He responded mischievously by turning up on his first day with a pair of Marigold gloves. “I pinned them to the board behind my desk,” he says. “One of the management team came in and asked me what they were doing there. I said, ‘I’d been told a lot of this job was about unblocking toilets, and I want you to know that I’m ready, willing and able.’ ”
Two weeks later it was put to the test during Cheltenham race week, when he spotted a plumber at the stage door with a plunger. Someone had come in, a little worse for wear, and, after they had used the toilet, it had started to overflow. “When we looked, we found he’d managed to leave his underpants in the toilet. I said, ‘The Marigolds are ready’.”
Q&A: Mark Goucher
What was your first non-theatre job? I was a very good gardener, so did landscape gardening in my summers when I was at university. But ever since then, apart from working in the advertising department at the Daily Telegraph, I’ve always worked for myself.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Not to produce a three- week season over Easter in the West End as my first show there.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Sitting in a theatre and realising how emotional the experience can be when you get it right. I remember seeing Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of George III at the National and being moved to tears more than I ever thought I could be. That’s heightened when its something you have actually commissioned or helped develop, like Yes, Prime Minister, Jeeves and Wooster or Taken at Midnight.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been? When this business got really tough, I used to think, ‘What else could I do?’ But as I’ve got older, I’ve got to the point where I absolutely know there is nothing else I could or would do.
It’s not the only thing you need to be prepared for as a theatre manager. As a national portfolio organisation, which receives £1.7 million over four years, the theatre is committed to offering a community and outreach programme.
“One of the fears people had was that I’d be uninterested in that work, but in fact my absolute mantra is that the theatre is a charitable trust. Therefore, it has to run itself very efficiently but cannot technically make too much profit. I have it in my blood, though, that if there’s an empty seat, you have to try to fill it and sell it,” he says.
“My first question when I arrived was: ‘When is the weekly marketing meeting?’ They didn’t have them. But it’s the engine of the theatre, and unless it is functioning properly, the thing will wind down. We are there to sell tickets to enable us to get better shows, so we can do all the outreach work we want to do.”
It has already paid dividends. He took over last March and sales are up almost a quarter over the year before. “I know all the producers, so I can call them up and convince them that they can take nearly as much money coming here as they could going to Malvern,” Goucher says.
“The problem we have is that we only have 680 seats, but Malvern is an old cinema and the upper circle is horrible.” His eyes light up mischievously again: “Whereas the Everyman is a beautiful Frank Matcham chocolate box theatre that was refurbished in 2011, and it’s stunning. Companies love coming to us.”
He’s launching his latest touring show there: a new production of Ronald Harwood’s Quartet. “We’ll be doing what I call ‘the Harvey Nichols tour’ – we kick off in Cheltenham, and also visit Brighton, Bath, Cambridge and more.”
It follows a West End revival of Harwood’s The Dresser, which he brought to the Duke of York’s last year. It was, he admits, a tough sell – “it reviewed very well and both Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith were wonderful. But it was very, very hard, and for a lot of other reasons too.”
On the same day the tour of Quartet opened in Cheltenham last week, Goucher launched another new touring production of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy. “This year we’ve also got Hairspray on the road again, and are about to announce a new tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert for next year – as well as Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm coming to the West End.”
He’s watched the theatre scene change a lot. “I genuinely think it was easier when I started than it is now. In the early 1990s, it was much easier to get a West End theatre – so many were dark, so when I picked up Shopping and Fucking and Trainspotting, the theatres were genuinely glad to have us. Now you can’t get a theatre for love nor money – the theatre owners have never had it so good and are laughing all the way to the bank.”
CV: Mark Goucher
Born: 1965, Redhill, Surrey
Training: Leeds University, 1983-86
Landmark productions: Shopping and Fucking, Gielgud, London and Queen’s Theatre (1997), Trainspotting, Queen’s and Whitehall Theatres (1997), Fame – the Musical, Cambridge Theatre (1995), Victoria Palace (1997) and Aldwych Theatre (2002), The Vagina Monologues, New Ambassadors (2001), Arts Theatre (2002) and Wyndham’s (2005), Footloose, Novello Theatre and tour (2006), Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Duke of York’s and tour (2013), Taken at Midnight, Haymarket (2015)
Awards: Olivier for best comedy for Perfect Nonsense (2014)