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Mark Shenton: Theatre names tell us histories of creation, culture and commerce

Gillian Lynne, seated, with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, and cast members of Cats. Photo: Craig Sugden Gillian Lynne, seated, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh with cast members of Cats at the renaming of the New London Theatre in Lynne's honour. Photo: Craig Sugden
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In America, naming rights for theatres and concert halls aren’t just an honour, but something to be bought, sold and traded. In 1973, Avery Fisher, an electronics magnate, made a $10.5 million donation to have the largest concert hall at Lincoln Center named after him in perpetuity. But in 2015, his heirs were bought off for $15 million to enable the venue to accept a $100 million donation from David Geffen to have the name swapped over to his. Hey presto! It is now the David Geffen Hall.

We’ve seen something similar here when the National’s Cottesloe Theatre – named after a former chairman of the theatre – was redubbed the Dorfman in 2014, after Travelex boss and philanthropist Lloyd Dorfman donated some £10 million towards the NT’s redevelopment, which included an overhaul of the Cottesloe.

As Michael Billington wrote in the Guardian at the time of Dorfman’s gift: “It’s an extremely generous gesture and one that fully deserves recognition. I just wonder whether re-christening an established theatre is a good idea and whether it may not set a dubious precedent. If philanthropy becomes a criterion for the renaming of theatres, we may be going down a very rocky path. If someone caps Lloyd Dorfman’s gift, does that mean the NT may rebrand the Olivier or the Lyttelton?”

Money talks and some philanthropists and businesses like branding opportunities. When impresario Garth Drabinksy created a new venue on the site of Broadway’s former Apollo and Lyric theatres, it opened in 1998 as the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts. It subsequently became the Hilton and then the Foxwoods Theatre, before finally reverting to one of its original names, the Lyric, in 2014 after ATG bought the theatre.

But corporate branding hasn’t disappeared from 42nd Street: further along the same street, the Selwyn long ago became the American Airlines Theatre.

In London, the Royal Court’s two theatres were both renamed for the Jerwood Foundation that donated to the theatre’s 1990s refurbishment. The Hammersmith Apollo has, over the last 20 years or so, variously been named the Labatt’s Apollo, the Carling Apollo and the HMV Apollo, and is now the Eventim Apollo.

But we’ve also seen, in the West End and on Broadway, a flurry of theatres being renamed to honour personalities. The Globe on Shaftesbury Avenue long ago became the Gielgud, which resolved a potential confusion for tourists after the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe opened on the South Bank.

Cameron Mackintosh renamed the Strand and Albery Theatres for Ivor Novello and Noel Coward respectively. Last week, Andrew Lloyd Webber formally changed the name of the New London on Drury Lane to honour Gillian Lynne, the first choreographer to be thus celebrated, at a theatre where her most famous work, Cats, had a 21-year run. It was a gracious gesture, though slightly undermined by a film company announcing a new screen version of Cats the day before that would be newly choreographed by Wayne McGregor.

The renaming frenzy isn’t limited to showcase venues here and in New York. Recently Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre announced that it is to become the Kiln when it reopens following its refurbishment – a move the theatre’s original architect Tim Foster has criticised, saying: “Having destroyed the old auditorium, which was admired around the world, to reject the proud legacy of the theatre’s many achievements over the last 38 years is distinctly ungracious. The Tricycle or ‘Trike’ stood for something, whereas ‘Kiln’ simply sounds overcooked.”

More than 450 people call for Kiln Theatre to revert to Tricycle

Theatre is, of course, constantly being remade and reinvented; but there’s also something in holding on to tradition and honouring the links to the past of its founders (the Tricycle was named after the Wakefield Tricycle Company, a London touring company that originally set it up). But it is also about holding on to a collective sense of memory that attaches around a particular name. As David Lister once wrote in the Independent: “The names of theatres have emotional and sentimental resonance. They have history. They bring back memories of performances and great evenings out.”

Theatre is not just about the future but also the past. Sometimes theatres invoke it again: last week West Yorkshire Playhouse announced it will be known again as the Leeds Playhouse, the name under which it originally opened as a temporary space in 1970, following a £15.8 million capital redevelopment project.

It’s also about clarity. As artistic director James Brining commented: “We’re not in West Yorkshire, we’re in Leeds. When I go around places, people don’t realise that, and while we’re not stepping away from our commitment to our artists and audiences from across West Yorkshire, we are proud to be from Leeds.”

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