To the casual observer, it’s been business as usual at the Kings Theatre in Southsea. But behind the scenes there have been some big changes.
It was announced at the end of last year that, after a decade in charge, CEO David Cooper was leaving the theatre.
He has been replaced by a board of directors, which now oversees the running of the Edwardian venue.
Bringing a wealth of experience with him, Paul Woolf is chairman of that operating board. A non-practising lawyer and business advisor specialising in entertainment, Paul has produced theatre, TV and film, and is CEO and co-owner of the Air and Strongroom Studios, frequented by the likes of megastars Coldplay, Adele, Emile Sande and many more.
He was invited to join the trustees last September to help advise on the £13m Big Project to bring the venue up to scratch for the 21st century.
Paul is bullish about his role at the Kings and tells The News: ‘Having looked at the way the theatre was operated, the group of trustees who helped save the theatre did a fantastic job. But it’s the same as all things, you have a team who can do one thing well, but they may not be the same team that can do another thing.
‘The next phase for the theatre was to really get the whole business in shape, to tackle the challenges of live theatre going forward. You’ve got all kinds of competing media coming at you, so you can’t just, say, rely on the panto, for example, and say: “That does well and everyone knows the Kings does a great job with the panto, so hip, hip, hooray”.
‘We’ve started looking at how business was done and what type of business was being done, and that’s led to what we’ve been going through, a complete restructure of how the business is set up.’
While fulsome in his praise of the trustees and the previous management, Paul envisioned an overhaul of the management structure to put things on a more business-minded footing, going through everything ‘from top to bottom’ and putting in place ‘more direct, conventional management’.
Paul admits he has been ‘relentless’ in pushing the change of pace and that it has at times been difficult, with the trustees and staff requiring to take a leap of faith. But he adds: ‘People have taken deep breaths here and I think everyone’s all right now.’
One aspect the board is keen to pursue is working closely with other venues and bodies. They have already been talking with the New Theatre Royal and Portsmouth City Council’s cultural services team.
Paul says: ‘It became clear very quickly that we were operating a bit in isolation from the other venues. I was keen to change that.
‘We’ve started a dialogue with the NTR in particular – our two venues lend themselves to be collaborative. We each have resources that the other can work with, so I’m hopeful that we can develop that, and with the support of the city council we can create this collaboration.
‘We are now also reaching out to other theatres, so we’re not just chucking things on to our schedule and being just “the Kings in Portsmouth.”
‘We’re an important theatre, an important national theatre, and we need to start acting like a grown-up national theatre, not just some theatre stuck on the end of Albert Road.
‘It’s easy to get like that, you can become terribly insular, and that’s not what we want. We’re a national theatre and that’s how we have to behave.’
He also paid tribute to the volunteers who are key to the theatre’s ongoing survival and the place it holds in the people of Portsmouth’s affections.
‘We’re still very reliant on the volunteer process. It’s incredible, all round the theatre from the front of house, to backstage, everywhere they’re working here and it’s truly amazing - they love the theatre.
‘My wife is from Portsmouth. She said ever since she was a little girl it’s always been here under various owners and it’s, in her words, “bumbled along”, and always survived even if people aren’t sure how, and it carries huge fondness in the wider diaspora of Portsmouth.
‘But the theatre world isn’t like IT, you’re not paying people vast amounts of money, they’re not doing it for the wages, which is why we have such a responsibility to get it right because there are so many people doing things for nothing or not a lot, that it’s incumbent on the people running the business to give it a good whack to make sure it works.
‘There’s a huge responsibility here with this theatre and I know I feel it, and I know the other board members feel it. There is a responsibilty to get it right and give it the best chance for the future.’
Ironically, given that he was initially brought in to look over the Kings’ Big Project, Paul Woolf admits ‘in the nicest possible way’ he has since banned the expression.
‘When the operations board started looking at the business we thought “hold on, we’ve got to be realistic here”. The idea of going out and raising £13m is a lot of money, and bizarrely, it’s a little bit theatrical – waking up one morning and going, “I’m going to raise £13m today!”
‘I think it was well-intentioned. There was a well thought-out process, but I don’t think they tagged that well thought-out process to the actual business we’re in. You had this thing going on over here,’ he gestures to one side, ‘called the Big Project and this thing over here,’ he gestures in the opposite direction, ‘called the theatre, and I don’t honestly think there was a joined-up bit of thinking.
‘We’ve rewritten the business plan to provide for what they called The Big Project, which is now a sequence of projects over a series of time, matching to where the theatre is – we’re going to keep growing and keep changing, keep going through the development stages we’ve talked about, increase our community staff, increase schools, increase all that, change our programming, getting everything organised.’
He talks of making sure the financial side is ‘rock solid’, which will enable them to also tackle the various aspects of The Big Project.
‘I think the previous team were very occupied about saving the building, so a lot of the thinking was around the building, not the business of the theatre. They were thinking about physical things - the light switches, stairwells, and so on. We’ve now rewritten the plan to spread across the business – what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, how we’re reaching out into the community, how we’re part of the cultural enterprise in this part of the world.
‘We’ve given ourself a position in the whole thing, and that gives it a fantastic chance of success because then we can go: “Now let’s start with that,” and we’re taking little baby steps towards that.’
One of Paul Woolf’s key appointments was to bring in his long-term associate Armand Gerrard, initially as a consultant and now as the full-time artistic director.
It is his job to shake up the theatre’s programming.
Armand says: ‘I initially trained as a stage manager and then I went on to company and general theatre management.
‘I’ve done an awful lot of producing, from one-person shows to children’s shows, musicals, straight plays, London, West End, on tour, overseas. I’ve been very fortunate to have a wide range of experience.
‘Coming to this role has been fascinating, bringing all of that experience with me to this role and looking at the programming and how we might diversify that and probably increase the dynamic of it a bit. I have certain contacts that have been very useful in helping to enhance the programming.’
And he shares Paul’s ambitions for the Kings.
‘We need to raise awareness of the theatre. I want it to be the go-to venue for the right scale of touring show and we do have good resources here, we’re a very supportive venue for any touring shows, and we also see a role in actually launching shows here if producers want to have a technical week on stage. That’s something we can offer.
“The one-nighters are a good staple diet and I would like to diversify those a bit – I’ve brought in a magic show this year for the first time, and the improvised show, The Showstopper musical, Cirque Berserk, which is something a bit different, and then I’d like to increase the number of week-long shows.
‘We’ve got Son Of A Preacher Man confirmed, which is a show about Dusty Springfield directed by Craig Revel Horwood, we’ve got Flashdance coming, and we’ve got others lined up.
‘We’ve got 1,200 regular seats, plus 400 in the gallery. For the right show we can do stonking business and it is the most wonderful building.
‘It’s a 1907 building by Frank Matcham, the leading theatre architect, and probably one of his best in terms of the ambience in the auditorium.’