We spoke to Executive Producer Tracey Childs about the joys and challenges of programming at the Mercury Theatre
Maybe the first thing to explain about programming is there is a difference between the work we produce ourselves, here in Colchester, which we call Made in Colchester, and the work we receive from outside – from other visiting companies and promoters, and that divides into different areas – such as week-long dramas or comedies, or one-nighters – something like ‘an audience with’ or a tribute band or comedian. We roughly do 26 weeks of Made in Colchester work in a normal year, and probably about 18 weeks of visiting drama or one-nighters, and that’s been our balance for quite some time.
2019 is very different. Because we are going to be ‘decanting’ the Mercury Theatre at the end of June, moving to a temporary pop-up venue for our Autumn/Winter off-site season, we were expecting to leave the building at the end of March and therefore had programmed in Ain’t Misbehavin’ for the spring slot and a co-production of Noughts & Crosses, but we had not programmed anything else for us to produce ourselves because we knew we were going to have to move out of the building. Now as it’s happened, because of various things to do with fundraising, archaeology and so on, the building work started 3 months later than we were expecting. Therefore, we have added an additional 8 weeks of programming in the main auditorium without being able to add another Made in Colchester production because we’re preparing for the offsite season. Ordinarily, across that whole 5 months, there would normally have been three Made in Colchester shows, with the summer family show on the way, and therefore probably a good 4 weeks fewer of visiting work – this is a very unusual year!
One major problem we have is that we are a small theatre – we have fewer than 500 seats currently – and therefore our gross potential in terms of our box office (the amount of money a visiting company can take with us in a week) is a great deal less than if, for instance, the touring company go to Nottingham or Coventry where they have far more seats and so can make far more money. Therefore, if a theatre company is juggling tour dates, they’re very happy to come and see us when they have a week they can’t fill elsewhere, but the honest answer is if Plymouth or Newcastle offer them a week at their theatre, they are going to accept that theatre over us. Sometimes, sadly, they’re going to do that at the last minute; programming is always a tricky thing, a bit like doing the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world where you’re holding lots of different pieces in your hand and you kind of know where they’re going to fit but you daren’t put them in until the last minute. On top of that, for professional tours going out on the road, those tour companies will be juggling every single theatre around the country to try to get the most geographically logical tour that they can get – so again if there is another venue that works better for them than the Mercury, they will drop us at a moment’s notice. We understand that – it’s just that’s the way the game works.
Added to this, there is a real dearth of mid-scale touring – anything up to 850 seats counts as mid-scale in theatre. One of the things I’m doing to address this is taking part in round table discussions with the Arts Council to see what can be done to improve the quality particularly, and the quantity, of mid-scale touring. In fact, the Mercury taking out tours of Spamalot, Turn of the Screw, The Weir, Clybourne Park – either as co-productions with other companies or, as in the case of Clybourne Park, our own tour – has really helped boost the quality and quantity of midscale theatre around the UK. Plus, of course, those shows have started here at the Mercury, so our Colchester audience get to see them first before we then open them up to the rest of the UK!
When it comes to Shakespeare and classical drama, sadly there are very few companies prepared to take those shows out on the road for mid-scale venues, partially because they tend to have quite large casts, and therefore large weekly running costs versus a small box office here at the Mercury. As a result, we tend not to get offered those shows – again they tend to try to go to much larger theatres. It’s a source of great frustration for us because, if we are planning a full year of Made in Colchester productions, then obviously what we will try to balance for our own produced work is one musical, one classic play, one piece of new writing, our panto, a family summer show, then something interesting and quirky in the studio, and another play which could be a comedy or a farce. As such, we’re really reliant on visiting companies across the UK like Frantic Assembly, Cheek By Jowl or Complicité bringing us really good quality work, and sadly in the last few years this has declined and there is not so much work coming round. We’re hoping that our building project will help that slightly – it’s not going to make a huge difference, but in the first place we will have an additional 47 seats so actually that additional box office may just be enough to swing the balance when companies are deciding which theatres to visit. Also, our really rather tired facilities that are on their last legs are in need of refurbishment which is what the whole Mercury Rising project is about. When we move back into our gorgeous new building, there will be well-equipped dressing rooms, a proper rehearsal room with a dance floor, and new equipment that will make us far more attractive to visiting companies – because if they have the choice of going to a rather more dilapidated theatre or one with very modern facilities and a loyal audience they are certainly going to choose that one.
A Broad Mix
We certainly do have a really loyal audience here at the Mercury which we’re incredibly delighted to have, and we really want to make the brochure work for everyone. It’s really tricky finding something for everybody – and certainly when we’ve got out weeklong shows and our own produced in house work sorted, we then slot in the one-nighter things around it. Again, it depends what’s on offer – sometimes there will be a real glut of really good comedians and sometimes, like this last brochure, it’s really hard to find anyone who’s going out on the road who’s prepared to play a theatre with fewer than 500 seats. So it’s always a balancing act, always to the very last week and I’m sure is incredibly frustrating for Marketing as they’re waiting for us to sign off all the acts so they can finally get the brochure together!
We have also chosen to open the theatre more, so actually there is a great deal more programming, whereas in the past we would have been dark slightly more, or had the theatre open on fewer nights. We do try to keep the theatre open at least 5 nights a week, so there is something most nights when you want to see something.
We used to of course have a Rep Company here who would work on different productions throughout the year, and I know they were incredibly popular and indeed quite a few members of the Rep Company still come and work with us now. When Daniel Buckroyd was Artistic Director here, he decided to take the theatre in a different direction which to be honest most theatres around the country have now done, and an awful lot of them have disbanded their rep companies. It’s no longer sadly financially viable, but also it does allow us to cast absolutely the right person for each show. For every show we produce in house, we audition actors both locally and in London – we always do local auditions here in Colchester each year so that we can work out who is new to the county and where the local talent is – but we will also audition in London where people can come from all over the country. As such, we think and hope we are getting you the best possible cast for each production, casting an actor just for that role and not someone who has to be a slight compromise for 3 different roles. There are arguments for and against, but we hope you are rather enjoying the fabulous companies you’ve had coming in and the amazing shows that we have been giving you.
When we’re out of the building there will not be a huge amount of work going on – we will we hope be doing a rather large and exciting collaboration which we’ll tell you about soon, and obviously our pantomime which is always incredibly popular and very important to us because it’s often the first time that children go into a theatre or see a piece of theatre, and it’s absolutely essential that they are enchanted by what we put on for them and they see the magic, so we will of course be doing our pantomime season. When we come back into the building in autumn 2020, we will have a new Artistic Director in place and a full new season on offer, and I’m pretty sure that will include a real mixture of good classical drama, new work and a mixture of musicals and family shows as well. I’m hoping we will have something for everyone, but at the same time we always welcome suggestions! If someone has something they’d particularly like to see – either a play that they would like us to put on or a visiting company that they’ve seen elsewhere that they would love us to programme then please do let us know. Please do bear in mind our size! An awful lot of people come through and say they’d love Matthew Bourne to bring his ballet company to us – yes, we’d love that too, but I’m afraid we’re just not big enough! Do send us your suggestions though – we love hearing them – and you may find that the next season has that very company programmed!