The problem with limited runs

Rowan Atkinson and Felicity Montague in Quartermaine's Terms, which played a limited engagement at Wyndham's Theatre earlier this year. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Jordan
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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More than ever before, West End theatres are programming and announcing a number of shows at the same time, almost in the way a rep or subsidised house might operate.

Take as a recent example London's Wyndham’s Theatre where, at the same time as Quartermaine's Terms starring Rowan Atkinson was announced, so were subsequent productions of a revival of Relatively Speaking and a new play, Barking in Essex.

This has generally become more the case with drama than musicals. For these plays, a lead actor will generally commit for 12 or 16 weeks, but theatre landlords are no longer considering the prospect that if successful, the production could extend or receive a cast change.

This same model is also being adopted on Broadway. Earlier this year, my co-production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang had the good fortune to win the 2013 best play Tony award and enjoyed a successful Broadway run at the Golden Theater.

Despite decent weekly box office returns, the play could not extend beyond the end of August because the theatre was already booked for another production to open in the autumn. The option was therefore to either close or move to another theatre. However, with the additional recast and transfer costs involved and the prospect of re-opening in September - a notoriously difficult month in the Broadway economy - having recouped the production costs, we all opted to play it safe and end its Broadway season. Had the theatre not already committed to another play before ours had opened, we may well have felt confident in deciding to stay.

[pullquote]The widespread use of limited runs for plays is a relatively recent phenomenon[/pullquote]

This change to the presenting model is very significant and could ultimately prove challenging for producers raising theatre investment for drama in the future. If the producer is having to base their budget on limited West End or Broadway runs, then the chance to recoup becomes harder. In the first instance, if the option to extend is a possibility, then it becomes immediately more attractive as a business proposition to investors.

The widespread use of limited runs for plays is a relatively recent phenomenon. If you look back to the West End in the nineties and before, productions such as Alan Ayckbourn's Man of the Moment, Alan Bennett's Single Spies and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen are examples of plays which still saw creditable extended runs and cast changes. I am sceptical they would be programmed in the same way today.

It is also important to consider the damaging public perception in all this. If you announce a new show before the previous one has opened it can both overshadow the immediate pending production while also providing an impression that what is currently playing is not selling well as another show is already booked in its place.

Of course, it is valuable to any theatre landlord having productions lined up, meaning they are not faced with dark periods if a production closes prematurely. However, how these engagements are presented is also crucial alongside retaining a strong degree of fluidity in a business that you can rarely predict.