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Caro Newling: Long-running West End shows are like universities

A scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Photo: Matt Crockett
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Last month, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory finished the first chapter of its stage life with its 1,527th performance at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End. Having also produced Shrek the Musical there, I am now, after a tenancy of six and half years, re-routing my daily commute to avoid seeing another show’s signage on that iconic portico.

The end of this long and lucky tenure at Drury Lane has given me pause to reflect on a hidden and undervalued legacy of these big-beast shows: just how much opportunity they have created for emerging theatre practitioners across the industry. Their scale – few are bigger than Charlie and Shrek – can obscure the impact on the professional lives of the 200 people employed on each production.

Over six years, I have seen the resident creative teams graduate to become associates, and go on to make their own productions. Assistant stage managers have become company managers and starters in automation departments have graduated to captain of the ship. There is nothing like seeing a production coordinator join our ranks as a fully fledged producer. And there is certainly nothing like seeing a member of the ensemble take command of a principal role they have always known they could, and should, lay claim to.

Some of this development is, quite rightly, formalised. All producers have a responsibility to make training and experience part of the team mix when making theatre at any scale. The extraordinary Creative Talent programme that our co-producer Warner Bros runs out of its Leavesden base embraced Charlie with five stage management work placements annually, culminating in a unique, paid, three-month work experience.

This chimed with one of my passions as president of the Society of London Theatre, embodied by the development of TheatreCraft in the past three years, and now by our industry-wide survey to assess where technical training will be crucial to our collective future. Most notably, I have been humbled by how the culture of learning and opportunity is prompted not just by obligation or good leadership but by the generosity of production and senior stage management teams, which actively promote development of their successors.

Our long-running shows of scale are like universities where skills can be developed over time, limits tested, disasters averted and the thrill of “technically clean show” on the show report can be shared by many.

Being a part of this culture promotes good, collegiate producing – the kind of shared understanding that prompted me to say “yes” without hesitation when Nigel Harman, Olivier award-winning actor in Shrek the Musical, asked to direct the tour.

This kind of development can easily be overlooked, so it’s important to fly the flag for the big West End productions that quietly refresh and renew the collective talent pool that makes our industry great.

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