SUMMER THEATRE: AI Profile - New Arts, old values

Peter Wilson, CEO, Theatre Royal, Norwich

 

The extraordinary career of Peter Wilson, theatre producer, theatre administrator and shortly to become a West End theatre operator, is bewil- dering. Almost in the same breath as announcing his departure from the Theatre Royal Norwich at the end of this year, after 25 years in which he transformed it from a redundant, closed, civic problem into a vibrant centre of the community, he revealed that he plans to move back into the West End. At 65 he is to create a new Arts Theatre in the footprint of the old one in Great Newport Street.

“We want somewhere where we can programme ambitiously, which at 440 seats could be fringe or main- stream, new plays, classic plays, plays we just like, somewhere where you can eat and drink” he says. “We want the kind of cultural place central Lon- don doesn’t really have”. Theatres like the Young Vic and the Minerva, Chichester, are his models.

The new Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street will replace the old 350-seat venue that started as a members-only refuge from the Lord Chamberlain’s censors – though the most controversial element of its first major production in 1928, John Van Druten’s Young Woodley, was that it was over-critical of the public school system. Ronnie Barker made his West End debut at the Arts in Morn- ing Becomes Electra, directed by Peter Hall who also directed the first Eng- lish language production of Becket’s Waiting for Godot there. Later it was the home for the Unicorn children’s theatre, with adult performances in the evening.

Its existence was never assured, and a consortium took it over in 2000 after which, for instance, The Vagina Monologues had its first airing. In 2006 it was bought by the property developer Laurence Kirschel and his Consolidated Developments, and in 2011 it was leased to J J Goodman and artistic director Mig Kimpton, with Louis Hartshorn taking over from Kimpton in 2014. That tenancy will end later this year.

Now, after eight years of negoti- ating for Wesminster Council’s ap- proval, the developer Kirschel has announced plans for the site which include a 66-room hotel with a rooftop swimming pool, bars and a restaurant, but maintaining the street façade, some of which is listed. A new theatre, larger than its predecessor, is to be built on the ground floor to be reached beyond a street-level restau- rant, which Kirschel sees as a solution to an eternal West End problem: “The concept of being able to eat before or after the show without having to rush or it being too late is important” he told the Evening Standard. “We’re trying to address all the problems that occur with going to the theatre in central London, and if we do it correctly we will show an example to other theatres”.

Which fits perfectly with Wilson’s philosophy, and it is his PW Productions that will run the theatre on a 24 year lease. Only the façade will remain, and the new theatre’s architects will be the Ian Chalk Partnership – “Ian’s never done a theatre before but he couldn’t be more interesting, more open, more accommodating, more flexible, more eager to learn what’s needed” he says.

Peter Stafford Wilson’s middle name was in honour of Stafford Cripps, Attlee’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had been the mentor of Peter’s father, Sir Geoffrey Wilson. Sir Geoffrey was at Cripps’s elbow as he criss-crossed the world during the Second World War to make alliances with the likes of Stalin, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-sheck. Peter went to school in Washington DC and West- minster School, and at Oxford he read English. After being an assistant at the Welsh National Drama Company and then co-director of the Bush, he was associate director at the Lyric Hammersmith.

In 1983 he set up PWP whose big triumphs were The Woman in Black and An Inspector Calls, and for two years he ran the producers H M Tennant. Then in 1992 he became chief executive of the Theatre Royal Norwich, whose status as a producing house was at that point academic since it had been closed for two years and whose future looked bleak.

But there was already a rescue plan with the Labour county authority and Conservative city council coalescing on the need for a good theatre in England’s most remote county capital, and Wilson arrived with a major refurbishment completed and no debt to have to deal with. Wil- son turned the Theatre Royal into the heart of the city’s cultural offer, operating 18 hours a day and sell- ing tickets not only for it is own presentations but for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, concerts in St Andrew’s Hall and the Assembly House and events in the cathedral. He also rescued Norwich’s now successful Playhouse Theatre. The difference, he says, between regional theatres and the West End is that the priorities in London are sales before customers, while in the regions it’s the other way around.

He changed the status of the theatre so that instead of it being a municipal operation it is now in- dependent. It has 12,000 members and sells 400,000 tickets a year, in a county with a population of 880,000.

“Audiences want red meat” Wil- son says “and you get more red meat in regional theatres than in London because London is the home of film adaptations and pop musicals. Our audiences wouldn’t put up with that” and that is an aspect of regional theatre life he intends to trans- plant into Great Newport Street. The programming at Norwich has been adventurous, trusting the audiences, and a recent gamble on the National Theatre of Scotland’s history series, Rona Munro’s The James Plays worked. “It was a tough serve, history that no-one much cares about out- side Scotland. We just about broke even and I’m really proud of that”. He says that his legacy to Norwich will be that he trebled the number of ladies’ toilets.

He has also been part of the founding of the Touring Partnership, in which a group of regional theatre, including the Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Marlowe Canterbury, combine to tour productions sharing the costs, and it was this organisation that in the 90s discovered Matthew Bourne after putting faith in contemporary dance as an audience pleaser, and Edward Hall’s Propeller Theatre Company of which Wilson is a board member.

PWP continues to prosper, with An Inspector Calls coming back in to the West End this autumn almost 25 years after it first graced the National Theatre, and a new play about Tennessee Williams and the casting of Marlon Brando in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Wilson’s son Tim has joined PWP to be involved in the Arts Theatre project – a project whose existence he credits the steadfastness of West- minster Council’s deputy leader and chair of planning Robert Davis in being prepared to wait for the right scheme to be offered for planning permission, which has now been granted.

There are still details to be con- firmed about the scheme, including how much PWP will be expected to invest and the final configuration of the auditorium, but those being sat- isfactory the new Arts Theatre will open in December 2018.

“The logistics of regional theatre are plain” Wilson says. “It’s about partnerships outside the theatre; it’s keeping faith with customers – including our staff, absolutely eve- ryone we come into contact with which includes teachers, children, politicians, local authority execu- tives; it’s commitment to the audience; and it’s diversity in your programming.

“At the Arts we want to reverse the London practice, put audiences before sales. We have to do a lot of things in appealing to 25 or 26 au- diences – you might be a member of three or four of them – and they represent different moods. We made the Theatre Royal into a theatre representing the audience. Can we do it with Arts? I’ve no idea, but we will try.”

 

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