Sometimes you can make money by giving away money.
British theater director Michael Grandage and his executive producing partner James Bierman have just started a 14-month commercial season of five plays in the West End. The opener is a glorious production of the dark musical comedy “Privates on Parade,” starring Simon Russell Beale.
Some 100,000 seats are available at just 10 pounds ($16.21) through the whole season, which will later include performances from Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe and Jude Law. There will also be extra seats at the same low price released every morning.
When Grandage, 50, and Bierman, 41, initially announced the series in June, they didn’t have a penny of funding in place. They were still adamant about their ticket plan, and that there should be educational and training opportunities at the heart of the project.
Both had come from the subsidized Donmar Warehouse, a powerhouse studio theater in Covent Garden.
Grandage was the artistic director behind successes like the Tony-winning play “Red” and an unforgettable “King Lear” with Derek Jacobi. Bierman was executive producer. They built programs for better access, training and education.
“In the old days, people used to describe these schemes as box-ticking,” says Grandage when we meet at the London offices of the new Michael Grandage Company.
“Producers would offer half-hearted access and education projects just to ensure their government subsidy,” he says. “Not us. They’re the things that excited me most, even if they’re not traditionally at the heart of a commercial theatrical model. We needed to make our season work with those schemes very high up on the list of priorities.”
A stalls ticket at 10 pounds means a potential loss of 47.50 pounds profit from top price seats. Grandage and Bierman have effectively given that money away as a subsidy.
Did the cut-price seats put potential investors off backing the season?
“Not at all,” Bierman says. “We went out to find backers who understood the importance of cheap tickets, and opening doors for people, and training young designers.”
With stars like Dench and Law already in place, they raised the necessary 2 million pounds in a short space of time.
“One investor said to me that although he might be able to make more money elsewhere, we had given him the strongest opportunity to make his money back,” says Bierman. “That’s an important element in a high-risk environment like the West End.”
Grandage, who will direct all five shows in the season, says that he wanted to find like-minded backers for the long term and not just a quick buck.
“They had to understand why the other parts of the equation mattered so much,” he says. “We might not have an actor of the level of Dench or Law again, but it will still be someone whom we believe in with as much passion and excitement. I hope our investors would still come on that journey with us in the future.”
There are still tickets left, even at the 10 pound price.
Future productions include the world premiere of “Peter and Alice” by John Logan (author of “Red”), starring Dench and Ben Whishaw. The play recounts the meeting as adults between Alice Liddell and Peter Llewellyn Davies, the people upon whom “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” were based.
Radcliffe appears in “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonagh.
“Daniel told me he wanted to do an Irish play, because both of his parents are Irish,” says Grandage.
Sheridan Smith is Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Law cries God for Harry, England and Saint George as the hero of “Henry V.”
It’s a dream season, with a dream team behind it, and it seems hard to imagine that the box office won’t do well. Bierman still likes to put the excitement in perspective.
“You can’t enter any artistic endeavor with the goal of making money as your primary objective” he says. “There’s got to be a love of it.”
He recounts a salutary piece of advice he was given by his mentor, the legendary West End producer Michael Codron.
“He said you’ll sometimes sit across a desk from an investor whose money you’ve lost. Don’t be sat there if you didn’t believe in the play. It’s very useful advice. I adore these plays, and I’ve signed the best director in town. Whatever happens, I can put my hand up and say I believe in them.”
For information about the whole season, which runs at the Noel Coward Theatre: http://michaelgrandagecompany.com or +44-844-482-5141
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was adapted from a longer conversation.)
To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.