Fantastic Mr Fox, Nuffield Southampton Theatres (co-production with Curve, Leicester & in association with Lyric Hammersmith). Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Each year we invite UK Theatre members to apply for several UK Theatre Awards categories, one of which is the Renee Stepham Award for Best Presentation for Touring Theatre. In 2017 this Award was won by Nuffield Southampton Theatres for the world-premiere, touring musical production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox (a co-production with Curve Leicester, in association with Lyric Hammersmith). In this blog Sam Hodges (Director, Nuffield Southampton Theatres) tells how, in order fulfil their commitment to produce and tour the highest quality family work, they developed a new hybrid subsidised-commercial model which made this award-winning show possible.
When I became director of Nuffield Southampton Theatres five years ago, the first production I had to programme at very short notice was our Christmas show. It was a baptism of fire and I was instantly struck by how this particular slot married two important but potentially conflicting roles.
Being the moment in the year with the greatest potential attendance, usually in the shape of excitable nine-year-olds, the Christmas slot was clearly a chance to make money. But while the commercial driver might encourage a producer to drive costs down, I was also struck by what a defining moment a Christmas show can be in the cultural development of a young person – potentially, you hold an entire lifetime’s relationship with theatre in your hands.
It became clear very quickly that I wasn’t interested in scrimping on the budget – if anything, I wanted to increase production budgets to ensure the requisite level of design, wonder and spectacle.
However, the reality is we have limited resources compared with the regional and London theatres that we now regularly partner: our government funding is fundamentally precarious, given we can’t be sure how things will pan out in the future, and audience levels are fast-growing, but not yet high enough to rely on to offset cost. Consequently, one thing we’re constantly doing is exploring the potential for new models, for doing things differently, and not accepting that the scale of our operation should define us.
When it comes to this scale of work, the typical model is that the subsidised theatre develops, shapes and nurtures the piece and when it is ready to see the world, the commercial producer steps in and exploits the work further afield. Of course, increasingly, much more partnership working now exists from the inception of a project. But, at this stage in NST’s evolution, we felt that it was important to find a new way for NST and our co-producers, Curve, to recover our subsidy and raise investment ourselves and so we devised a hybrid model between the two sectors.
We successfully raised the money as well as producing and general managing a number 1 tour including a short run in Abu Dhabi and Dubai which ran for 265 shows and played to over 140,000 people , grossing over £2,000,000. But to echo the words of Lorne Campbell, the Artistic Director of previous winners Northern Stage, touring is hard. And particularly touring at this scale for an organisation of our size when also managing a season where we place huge onus on originating and opening the majority of our work. All this took place at the same time as we were preparing to open our new building NST City.
The latter part of the tour also coincided with a national downturn in box office sales, which caused a couple of other touring musicals to close early, which put tremendous pressure on a model we’d built to ensure that quality of production values was maintained. The tour swallowed whole a few members of our staff for its six month duration leaving little room for other work. Every week presents a new set of challenges, looking after what is effectively a family of artists, thrown together into an intense and intensive routine.
So why do it? I believe that the best way to make the most investment sense of public funding is to get the work seen by as many people as possible - especially given the well-documented dearth of good quality drama on the mid-scale touring circuit. With the amount of excellent work being produced around the country, which doesn’t then go anywhere, it still feels like a trick is being missed.
As I’ve said, in part, if we don’t explore new ways of working as opposed to relying on the way that things have always been done, theatre won’t survive. It’s already being required to make a more urgent case for itself than ever before, to potential audience, to stakeholders, to the communities it serves. Yes, this will be hard and will be a learning curve, but I believe that in the long run, it will be worth it. Winning the Renee Stepham Award for Best Presentation of Touring Theatre at the 2017 UK Theatre Awards was wonderful recognition of all the hard work on Fantastic Mr Fox carried out by the NST team, our partners Curve and Lyric, and the tireless company.
by Sam Hodges, Director, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
Submissions are now open for the 2018 UK Theatre Awards. The deadline to submit your nominations is 31 August 2018.
The awards are open to UK Theatre members working in both the commercial and subsidised sectors of the performing arts.
UK Theatre members can apply for 4 award categories, including the Renee Stepham Award for Best Presentation for Touring Theatre.
Find out more here.