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Against all odds: the secrets of how a fringe show makes it to the stage

Olivia Rose Smith and Misha Butler  in The Amber Trap at Theatre503, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Olivia Rose Smith and Misha Butler in The Amber Trap at Theatre503, London Photo: Tristram Kenton

Just how hard is it to have a play picked up, staged and made profitable on the fringe? Lyn Gardner goes behind the scenes of The Amber Trap from its announcement to press night and got an exclusive look at putting on a show in a part of the industry where all creatives need to make miracles happen

1. The idea: April, 2016

The journey of the play to its press night is a long one. In April 2016, Tabitha Mortiboy and director Hannah Hauer-King meet to discuss the ideas for what will become The Amber Trap and began exchanging drafts.

Mortiboy’s previous plays include Beacons, which was staged at London’s Park Theatre and Bare Skin on Briny Waters, which she co-wrote for the Edinburgh Fringe. The Amber Trap, which is set in a small northern corner shop, focuses on the relationship between two young women workers, Hope and Katie, and how this is disrupted by the arrival of 18-year-old Michael, who develops a crush on Katie. It’s an emotionally delicate drama and unusual in putting a gay female relationship centre stage.

Hannah Hauer-King and Kitty Wordsworth. Photo: The Other Richard
Hannah Hauer-King and Kitty Wordsworth. Photo: The Other Richard

Damsel Productions, an all-female theatre company, was founded by Hauer-King and producer Kitty Wordsworth and has come a long way in a short time. Its first production, Dry Land at Jermyn Street in November 2015, was widely admired. Since then the company has co-produced two shows, Fury and Brute, both with Soho Theatre, and staged Fabric at Soho and Grotty at the Bunker Theatre. It’s already an impressive track record for such a young company.

2. Finding a theatre: January to April, 2017

In January 2017, the play was sent to a number of new writing theatres. Silence.

Three months later, Mortiboy and Hauer-King sent the play to Steve Harper, literary manager at Theatre503. It was one of about 2,000 scripts that Theatre503’s staff read every year. That October, Theatre503 expressed an interest in putting the play on and arranged a meeting to talk through costs. But then in February 2018 came an email saying it didn’t think the play was ready and would give notes.

Tabitha Mortiboy. Photo: Emma Croman
Tabitha Mortiboy. Photo: Emma Croman

The creatives sent a new draft to the theatre that April and two months later they received the news they had been hoping for: Theatre503 wanted to move forward with programming.

Theatre503 never produces the same playwright twice. It sees itself as a launchpad. Other new writing theatres come to every show, as do the TV and film industry. A play at Theatre503 can transform careers. This is Mortiboy’s one shot at the venue.

3. The announcement: November 22, 2018

This is when I first become aware of the production. I’m in the Bridge Theatre foyer, which is buzzing with people, waiting for the announcement of the winner of the 503 Playwriting Award, run by the small but influential Theatre503 that sits above the Latchmere pub in Battersea. The artistic director, Lisa Spirling, is also using this opportunity to reveal the theatre’s spring season in front of the assembled industry and press.

The headliner is Ross Willis’ Wolfie, an in-house production that Spirling will direct, but it’s the play that follows, which catches my interest. Running from April 24 to May 18, it’s called The Amber Trap. It is written by Mortiboy and will be produced by Damsel Productions.

Lisa Spurling. Photo: Karla Gowlett
Lisa Spurling. Photo: Karla Gowlett

Spirling talks enthusiastically about The Amber Trap as a play about “crossing the line”. Later, she tells me that it “landed on my desk at a time when there was a raised awareness about consent. I thought it was strong, with an increasing tension to it and real nuance.”

Wordsworth and Hauer-King see The Amber Trap as the next step, a chance to raise the company’s profile. But it’s a risk. Putting on a play at Theatre503 is expensive and means they will need to raise more money than ever before. “Of course, I’m nervous,” Wordsworth tells me, “but I know we can do this.”

By the time the production is up and running it will be more than three years since Mortiboy and Hauer-King talked and more than two years since the play was sent to theatres.

4. Budgeting: January, 2019

The Amber Trap’s run at Theatre503 is essentially a curated hire. Theatre503 has no core funding and cannot afford to produce more than three shows a year. It offers the chance for carefully selected companies to take over the space for a four-week period producing a script by a rising writer that the theatre rate and giving it high production values. Theatre503’s executive director, Andrew Shepherd, likens it to the old advert for the George Foreman Grill: “I liked it so much, I put my name on it.”

His job is to sit down and “terrify” companies about the costs of putting on a play there, he says. “We know we are asking a lot. The financial relationship has to be completely transparent. But it is a chance for a company to advance and develop, not just artistically but as a business.” Companies pay a flat hire fee of £1,500 per week plus 30% of box-office takings. The company must pay a deposit of £500 and the remaining hire fee can be taken out of box office.

But the theatre only seats 63, which limits the potential income that can be generated. A full-price ticket is sold at £17, but concessions are £12 and the theatre has other schemes that involve writers and first-time local residents getting tickets for £5. Saturday matinees are pay what you can. Theatre503 admits that to some degree the costs of its audience development are borne by incoming companies.


Budget in detail

• Cast and stage manager rehearsal £5,400

• Cast and stage manager performance £7,200
• Creative/production fees £8,895
• Production costs £4,000
• Press and marketing spend £4,800
• Theatre costs £7,200
• Playtext purchase £375
• Sub-total expenditure £37,870
• Contingency 5% £1,894
Total expenditure: £39,764

• Box office income estimated at 60% £9,979 (Theatre503 Split at 30% £2,994; cost of sales at 5% £499: Subtotal £3,493) Net at 60% £6,486
Money raised:

• Arts Council England £15,000
• Individual giving £7,500
• Gift Aid on individual giving £1,875
• Damsel’s past Theatre Tax Relief contribution £6,000
• Theatre Tax Relief estimate £2,775
Total income: £39,636

Shortfall on May 17, 2019: £128

Wordsworth’s budget for the show is almost £39,000. The costs escalate because it is a four-hander, and everyone is being paid, though if the production fails to hit its targets Wordsworth and Hauer-King will forego their fee. If the company does not get the £15,000 ACE funding that it applies for, it is going to be in a tough spot. But in the third week of February relief comes: they hear they have secured funding. “I can’t relax,” says Wordsworth, “but I’m less worried than I was.”

5. The casting: late February, 2019

There is talk of whether Damsel might be able to entice Sophie Melville and Erin Docherty to play Hope and Katie, followed by a slightly deflating moment when Theatre503 announces the casting for Wolfie, which opens in March and will star Melville and Docherty. Damsel hopes that Meera Syal will play Jo, the shop’s older manager, and send the play to her agent. The offer is declined. Not being able to afford a casting director is tricky.

Misha Butler and Olivia Rose Smith in rehearsals
Misha Butler and Olivia Rose Smith in rehearsals

But Hauer-King is excited by the actors she has seen. Auditions took place over several weeks, with agents sending clients they thought were suitable. All the actors were new to Damsel. Olivia Rose Smith will make her theatre debut as Katie and Fanta Barrie will be Hope. The 19-year-old Misha Butler is cast as Michael and Jenny Bolt joins the cast as Jo. The poster and flyer can now be shot.

5. On-sale: March, 2019

There is good news: the company is getting £6,000 back in Theatre Tax Relief from its last production, which will go into this one. But there is still a long way to go. Kitty has budgeted for box office at 60%. Theatre503’s Spirling says 96% is the highest 503 has ever achieved and 34% the lowest. But there are reasons to feel encouraged. When I speak to Kitty on March 7, before any serious marketing has begun, they have already sold 110 tickets, about two nights’ worth and she is buoyed. “We might hit 80% box office. That’s the dream,” she says.

“We are a bridge between the ‘beg, borrow and steal’ culture of the fringe and professionalism,” says Spirling. “We know it’s not cheap to put a play on at 503. But we help companies step up, help them be more professional and ensure the production will be seen by the industry.”

Fanta Barrie in rehearsals
Fanta Barrie in rehearsals

For Wordsworth it is about Damsel keeping its momentum and trajectory. For Hauer-King – who recently directed the hit play The Funeral Director and whose reputation in the industry is on the rise – it is an opportunity for her directing to be more widely noticed.

The Amber Trap will have the longest preview period Damsel has ever had – four performances. When Spirling arrived at the theatre she fought for those preview performances because, she says, “it’s during those previews that a play can really change and get better”.

The Theatre503 team will see the play every night during previews and Spirling will give daily notes. “But of course,” she says, “it depends on the director’s willingness to make changes. Some do, and some don’t. In the end, it is their production.”

But for all the talk of professionalisation, everything is being done on a shoestring. Wordsworth is working three jobs, which limits the time she can spend on the production. In the run-up to the rehearsals, Hauer-King is busy directing the tour revival of The Funeral Director and Mark Ravenhill’s Pool (No Water) at Oxford School of Drama.

The creative and production team – designer Jasmine Swan, lighting designer Lucy Adams, sound designer Annie May Fletcher, stage manager Katie Bachtler and production manager Zara Janmohamed – are also juggling other productions. Not just because they want to develop their careers, but because, like Wordsworth and Hauer-King, they need to eat. It ups the stakes, the feeling that The Amber Trap needs to be a success.

7. Rehearsals and tech: April 1, 2019

It’s the first read-through at the Cobb Gallery in Camden Town, an exhibition space co-founded by playwright Polly Stenham, which Wordsworth has managed to wangle for free.

It’s the first time the whole team has been together. Hauer-King and sound designer Fletcher are talking about the ‘90s indie rock they plan to use. “It’s cool,” Mortiboy tells me afterwards, “but not what I would have imagined for it.”

On Good Friday, 19 days later, I sit in the Jerwood Space and watch a run-through. The play has a quiet power in the way it creates the rhythms of everyday life, rising tension and the final shocks.

Olivia Rose Smith and Fanta Barrie in The Amber Trap. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The get-in takes place over the Easter weekend and takes its toll. If there was one thing Damsel underestimated, it was the costs and time involved in trying to create a corner shop on stage. Most of the shop’s stock has been scavenged from recycling bins. Swan, the show’s designer, says every time she works on the fringe she feels she “has to make a miracle happen – it’s hard to have high production values when resources are so limited”. Wordsworth agrees: “In retrospect, I should have realised that a naturalistic set would be so much more expensive and budgeted differently.”

By the dress rehearsal on the Wednesday afternoon, everyone is running on adrenaline. Wordsworth is excited because the previews are sold out apart from a couple of tickets on the Saturday night.

Late afternoon before the first preview, Spirling gives notes from the dress rehearsal, asking questions around the logic of the space and picking up in particular on the final scene. She’s very positive. “There is loads to do, but it’s all doable,” she says.

It’s a new experience for Hauer-King to be given notes by an outside eye. Some of what Spirling suggests is different from what others on the team have told her. She’s winded. But in minutes she is back supporting the actors in the run-up to the first preview. It’s a good show with an audience made up mostly of writers who laugh and gasp in all the right places. But when I speak to Mortiboy the following day, she is anxious about how Michael is being portrayed. She doesn’t want the audience to think Michael’s behaviour results from neurodivergency. “That would be offensive. He acts in the way he does because of patriarchy and entitlement.”

8. Press night: April 29, 2019

The push is all towards the press night on Monday. By then Mortiboy is much happier. The creative team are really tight, the actors are surprisingly relaxed, clearly excited by the play and the boost it can potentially give their careers.

The press drinks have been purchased from Lidl. Shepherd has brought in the leftover snacks from his child’s birthday party. There is still a £3,000 budget shortfall but the feeling is that because the pre-show sales are so unusually good for Theatre503, the production will hit its budget targets. They just need some good reviews. Shepherd points out that even once the show has opened, Wordsworth can go on fundraising.

Spirling feels they are in a good place too. “This is a production that has momentum and this is a company that has worked hard. I feel they are really fighting for this play and trying to make sure it reaches its potential.”

The show does goes well. But Wordsworth is cautious. “It’s possible for a production to be good, and this is good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a success.”

9. The full run: until May 19, 2019

Wordsworth’s caution is justified. The reviews appear. They are positive but not amazing. The problem is that you can’t plaster three stars across marketing material. It’s going to make selling tickets trickier. Inevitably, there is disappointment. As the week goes on, there is the drop in audience numbers that almost always follows press night. But audiences are clearly enjoying the show. Mortiboy says she was initially saddened by some of the reviews but for her as a writer the response of the audience and the industry is more important than that of the critics.

The Amber Trap review at Theatre503, London – ‘intriguing but underdeveloped’

“It’s been hard,” admits Hauer-King. “But I’m very proud of what we did and of the team and the actors.” She has reason to be – like so much work on the fringe The Amber Trap has been made with the financial odds stacked against it, everyone involved has gone above and beyond, Damsel has showcased a new writer and told an interesting story through an LGBT+ lens.

Following this production through also made me think about the sustainability of small companies such as Damsel, which are so essential to theatre’s ecology but are precarious because of the funding structures of British theatre – the deals that it necessitates and the way success is measured.

Almost a week after press night, Wordsworth is down but definitely not out. “I am waking up at 2am and looking at the box office reports. I can’t help myself. Of course, it’s tough. But our pre-sales were really good so that helps. I’m just going to carry on trying to raise money and sell tickets. If we could sell another 20 a day it would make all the difference. I think we can do it. It’s not over. There’s still another two weeks to go.”

Word of mouth grows and tickets sales rise, meaning Wordsworth’s targets are within grasp. Industry response has been good too, there have been some thoughtful responses on social media and audiences are responsive. The mood is upbeat. It turns out that neither my optimism nor Wordsworth’s are misplaced.

On Friday May 17, the day before the show closes, Wordsworth sends me the box office report. Her faith in the show’s potential box office take is justified. A late surge in sales during the final week means The Amber Trap has exceeded her original box office estimate.

There is more good news. Wordsworth has continued her fundraising and managed to get another significant donation. In the space of two weeks the production has gone from being a potential financial drain on Damsel to one that secures its future.

The Amber Trap has been a challenge, but the creative team has told a story that would otherwise have been unheard. The all-female team has proved Damsel’s guts and resilience. There is much to be optimistic about.

theatre503.com; damselproductions.co.uk

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