Start-up spirit

Britain’s leading theatre entrepreneurs rediscover their roots at Trafalgar Studios

Sitting in a tiny room high above Trafalgar Studios, the two theatres they are about to buy, Sir Howard Panter and his wife Rosemary Squire exude a mix of pride, relief and infectious excitement. Pride, because together they spent 25 years building the Ambassador Theatre Group from nothing into the largest company of its kind in the world, with 46 theatres in London, the regions, New York and Australia. But also relief, because they are no longer joint CEOs of the dauntingly large conglomerate now owned by America’s Providence Equity Partners.

And, yes, excitement too. Now Howard and Rosemary can concentrate their know-how – expertise that saw The Stage name them as the most important people in British theatre for a record-breaking seven years running, and Rosemary become Britain’s first woman Entrepreneur of the Year – on the twin theatres they’ve acquired from ATG: the 420-seat Trafalgar Studio 1 and 100-seat Studio 2.

Co-founders of Ambassador Theatre Group

By 2016 ATG was employing several thousand people, needed to fill 12 West End theatres, and had to ensure that the scores of productions they sent on tour suited a variety of regional venues from Brighton to Sunderland to Edinburgh. “Such a huge responsibility and so many mouths to feed,” sighs Rosemary. Indeed, she and Howard sometimes felt like strangers, unrecognised backstage because they were so far from frontline work, in the behemoth they had created. “So we’re going back to our roots,” says Rosemary, remembering how they bought the Duke of York’s in 1992, successfully programmed that theatre, and began to plan their quarter-century journey from its offices.

A start-up spirit at Trafalgar Studios

Expect what they call the same “start-up, innovative spirit” at their new headquarters. There’ll be adventurous drama in the Trafalgar Studios and an equally adventurous redevelopment of the building. Already the bars are filling with craft beers and organic wines, as Howard and Rosemary seek to make their public areas “places you want to be in, spend time, hang out”. So expect a more appealing front of house, maybe rehearsal rooms at the top of the building and, above all, radical alterations to the main theatre.

Transforming theatre buildings

It won’t be the first time they have completely transformed what was once called the Whitehall. In 2004, this cavernous place was remodelled into Trafalgar Studio One, complete with a steep rake which meant that no necks needed to crane to see the stage below. That was accomplished after consultation with a class of person often ignored when playhouses are developed or built: theatre practitioners themselves. Then the likes of David Lan, the pioneering artistic director of the Young Vic, walked through the Whitehall with Howard and Rosemary, suggesting changes. Now they plan to import writers, directors and designers to help their architects reinvent a theatre they think insufficiently flexible.

Trafalgar Studios – notable work

There has been a variety of notable work here in the last 13 years: Antony Sher as Iago in Othello, Lenny Henry as Othello himself, Lee Evans in Pinter’s Dumb Waiter, James McAvoy as Macbeth, Ed Harris in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, a terrifying updating of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a brilliantly simple revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. But what Rosemary and Howard now envisage is a Trafalgar Studio that could switch to being the only in-the-round theatre in the West End, one that will be “epic yet intimate” and suit pretty well every sort of show.

Trafalgar Entertainment Group – the future

Meanwhile the newly formed Trafalgar Entertainment Group, plus subsidiaries that include Howard Panter Productions, are busy planning future work. After Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist – a play its author wrote for a young cast when he himself was 23 and has the youthful energy Rosemary and Howard hope is characteristic of Trafalgar Studios – comes Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell. That great American actress Stockard Channing will play the protagonist, an art historian with more time for her politics than for her family.

Trafalgar Entertainment Group won’t present all its productions at the Trafalgar Studios themselves. Shows in the offing include Richard Bean and Dominic Cooke’s adaptation of  The Erpingham Camp, the anarchic comedy Joe Orton left unrevised when he was murdered, and John Malkovich’s – yes, the Malkovich, a man Howard  calls “a wonderful director who is brilliant with actors because he understands them so well” – production of Zach Helm’s black comedy about addiction, Good Canary. And Neil LaBute is adapting Ibsen’s Doll’s House, which should be fascinating.

Spotting potential

There will be co-productions, perhaps with Sonia Friedman, the producer of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a long-time ally who once said that Howard and Rosemary’s ATG “supported me from the very beginning when I was a fledging producer”. Perhaps also with fringe theatres, like the Bunker and the Bush, whose directors Howard recently met and encouraged to join him in mounting the new musicals they thought unaffordable. “And classics with a twist,” says Rosemary. “Freshness to Shakespeare,” adds Howard. “There are always new things to discover there.”

Nor are they forgetting Trafalgar Studio 2, which has already presented plenty of striking work. The plan there is to open it to productions by the assistant and associate directors who seldom get chances to show their abilities. “It’ll be a shop window for independent writers, producers and directors,” says Howard. “It’ll give them the chances they don’t now get in the West End.”

An overall policy? Canny old birds that they are, Howard and Rosemary won’t commit to a manifesto that practice may contradict, insisting that they simply want to bring their long experience in spotting potential to mounting interesting and innovative work with the best people. So how to sum up their hopes? I suggest the word “frisky” – and, gratifyingly, they both laugh and agree.

Howard and Rosemary were talking to Benedict Nightingale, former chief theatre critic of The Times and New York Times columnist.