With its latest offering a raunchy, late-night blend of cabaret and circus, Spiegelworld’s founder tells Tim Bano why Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the perfect place to launch a show bound for the US gambling and entertainment hotspot
Everything producer Ross Mollison does is shot through with a sense of fun. There’s the 21,000kg tree made of 120,000 LED lights erected in a square in Las Vegas (“that was a brain fart”). There’s the Hallucinator, a 50-year-old RV bus kitted out with a marble cocktail bar and stained glass, painted with psychedelic murals to transport those looking for a portable Vegas adventure. Then there was the time he was producing Puppetry of the Penis in New York and sold the entire 350-seat house to naturists (“they were really unimpressed”).
Maybe that’s why the Australian’s company Spiegelworld has been such a success in Las Vegas, where the collision of fun and money is the city’s fuel. At the moment, Spiegelworld’s show Absinthe is running in a purpose-built venue at Caesar’s Palace, Opium at the Cosmopolitan, another to be announced next year, and then their latest, Atomic Saloon, will open at the Venetian Resort, a venue Mollison describes as: “Enormous, middle-market, 8,000 hotel rooms, massive convention centre, but not a lot of entertainment.”
But Atomic Saloon Show isn’t hitting Vegas sight unseen. Mollison has made the bold choice of premiering the late-night circus and cabaret show at the Edinburgh Fringe, with a budget of £5 million, before it heads to the Venetian in September to play, with any luck, forever.
The fringe run is not going to make money. “Our takings will just about cover the opening night party,” Mollison says with a huge laugh. Tickets at the fringe are £16 – in Vegas they’ll average about $150. On top of that, it has exactly the same get-in and get-out times as every other show at the venue, which is to say: not much. When everything runs smoothly it’s 20 to 30 minutes, but this is the fringe, and when we meet it’s the first week, so things are very much not running smoothly.
“We’ve been going up an hour late, but last night it was down to about 20 minutes. The show ahead of us is Cruel Intentions, and their intention is to be cruel to us,” he quips. Although he adds that it’s not just Cruel Intentions’ fault – if anything gets delayed during the day, it has a knock-on effect for every subsequent show.
Mollison insists that the audience “don’t give a shit” about technical effects, which is handy because the technical capabilities of Assembly’s Palais du Variété Spiegeltent are limited, but he’s excited to move the show into the beautiful, purpose-built saloon theatre that’s being erected in Las Vegas.
He pulls up some pictures on his phone: old-fashioned carved wood fixings all around the auditorium, contrasting with the piles of wires and machinery backstage. “It’s like a saloon bar fucked an Elizabethan theatre.”
Atomic Saloon is a late-night, adult-oriented circus show directed by Cal McCrystal, who was behind the physical comedy in One Man, Two Guvnors, and builds on Spiegelworld’s brand of high-quality circus and cabaret threaded together by a theme or setting, in this case a bastardised version of the Wild West.
So why is it premiering in Edinburgh with such tight technical and time restraints? It’s because Mollison loves the fringe, and because it’s fun. He was so committed to the idea that he decided to bring the company to Edinburgh from across the world and rehearse the show here for a month before it opened.
Bringing Atomic Saloon “was a compromise”. The original idea was to find a site for a venue, and to run it. “But I’m not really interested in programming 500 other things and becoming a Pleasance or an Underbelly,” Mollison says. “I want it to be about small, and quality, and brand. Ultimately it got to the point where I thought: ‘I just want to do a show here’.”
That meant accepting the short load-in, the technical limits, the reduced running time, the lack of revenue from not running the bar. Nevertheless, he saw similarities between Vegas and Edinburgh audiences. “When people come to Vegas, they want to go crazy: ‘We’re here for three days, let’s go nuts, let’s have some fun.’ They don’t want to see some musical they can see in the West End. And people in Edinburgh have the same look in their eye.”
The show’s budget of £5 million is a huge amount, especially in fringe terms, and Mollison’s strategy for the next five years was to bring a show to Edinburgh each year with a similar budget. But he made headlines a couple of days before the festival started saying that he was strongly considering relocating those shows to Paris or Berlin, not because of audiences – “we’re not having any trouble finding an audience, everything’s basically selling out” – but because of Brexit.
“There’s no contract signed to say I have to turn up for five years, but it’s a strategic plan. Okay, we’re going to invest a ton of money this year. But for us to have a five or 10-year trajectory obviously it has to make money. We are negotiating in Paris and Berlin to do something there. Do I want to?” He pauses. “I want to have success. That’s what’s fun. In terms of growing a European footprint for our company, maybe Paris or Berlin would be easier.” Already this year, he explained to The Stage last week, the collapsing pound against the dollar means a revenue loss of 20% or 30%.
Despite his success in Vegas, there have been disasters too. A circus show in a car park off Times Square in New York lost him $1.5 million in three months. He reckons it’s because he didn’t have “the marketing sophistication to take on Broadway”. It’s important, he says, to tailor each show to its area especially when it comes to marketing. In Edinburgh that means posters, something he’d never use anywhere else in the world, “but when you come to Edinburgh you do posters”.
Other failures, though, are nothing to do with marketing. Instead, it’s about what Mollison calls “his greatest fear”: externality. “We opened Puppetry of the Penis in New York two weeks after 9/11. It was a disaster for us. Externality gets burnt into your mind. So when you see these people playing lightly with serious issues, you go: ‘Well this is how it affects my piss-ant little producing theatre business.’ My circus company is affected by you playing with Brexit, playing with white nationalism. It’s just wrong. And if it affects me, imagine what it does to others.
“I’ve seen years when Edinburgh is empty. But at the moment tourism is booming because it totally conflicts with these political notions of nationalistic pride. Younger generations don’t care. Scotland is such a diverse community, it’s fantastic.”
Getting involved in theatre while studying economics at university, Mollison quickly became a prominent producer in Australia, working for big commercial brands and the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, for whom he launched Sunset Boulevard in Australia – “total disaster” – and produced an Australian production of Cats. He has opinions on that trailer: “Oh my God.”
That experience in theatre of all sorts means Spiegelworld shows are stuffed with the brightest talents from across the world. Nile Rodgers and Frantic Assembly co-founder Steven Hoggett created a show about disco called We Are Here for Spiegelworld, while Enda Walsh has been involved in previous work.
All the acts in Spiegelworld shows are handpicked by Mollison from his extensive worldwide travels, his voracious appetite for circus, and his love of seeking out, above all, what’s fun. But it may well be a slice of fun, and a load of money, that Edinburgh will be missing in the years to come.
Atomic Saloon Show runs at the Spiegeltent Palais du Variété in Assembly George Square Gardens, Edinburgh, until August 25. Details: bit.ly/edfringe-atomicsaloonshow. Details of Spiegelworld’s other shows: spiegelworld.com