Exploring the Mayflower – An Interview with CEO Michael Ockwell

With a shared passion for theatre Arts Ambassadors Ben McQuigg and Doria Wang sat down together with Michael Ockwell, Chief Executive (CEO) of Mayflower Theatre, Southampton to find out more about the industry in the UK.

Ben: Michael tell us a bit about yourself, how you ended up as CEO at the Mayflower?

Michael: I started out life as an actor, I trained at Mountview Theatre School in London in 1990. I worked at Waitrose firstly for five years and then decided that I wanted to become an actor, so I trained slightly later on aged 23.

I trained for three years and then worked for five years as an actor. My first job was the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I did Tamburlaine and Travesties as the RSC, did bits and pieces on TV but when I wasn’t acting (I was living in London), I spent a lot of time working ‘front of house’ in theatres, as I needed a job to keep me when I wasn’t acting. I started to realise I wasn’t enjoying the acting as much as I wanted to and actually it’s difficult to make a living.

In 1997, I become an assistant house manager in a London theatre and worked for Stoll Moss Theatres. At that time, they ran ten theatres in the West End, but have since been sold out to Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ Really Useful [Theatre Company]. So for two years I was assistant house manager, where I trained first at the Gielgud Theatre and then the London Palladium. I left in 1999 to work in regional theatre as I wanted to learn how to programme theatres.

When you work in the West End all of the programming is done by a central office. I left to become the general manager at Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe and then went onto run the Grand Opera House in Belfast for three years before coming here to Mayflower Theatre in 2012. I’ve now been CEO here for five years.

Here I am responsible for developing the organisation’s strategy. We’re an independent and a charitable trust so the Council own the building and we have a 125-year lease to run the theatre. Its great because as it means any money we make just goes straight back into the theatre. My job is looking at the business strategy of Mayflower and I programme the theatre and choose all the shows that come on stage.

Doria: So what is your favourite production since you have been at the Mayflower Theatre?

M: When I first came here, we didn’t do much dance and or young people’s theatre, so I tried to develop international dance, for example, we will have Yang Liping, Chinese choreographer and dance star here in 2020. My ‘most’ favourite production since I’ve been here has been Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, who we presented in 2017. Their main piece of work Revelations is absolutely beautiful, a very high energy contemporary dance piece. Followed by War Horse, which we had in 2014 and is back in 2018. We do a lot of musicals, but to be honest I’m not a great musical lover – dance is what I’m most passionate about.

B: One of the things you said you wanted to do is programme a theatre, so what contributes to the decisions you make when programming a year at the Mayflower?

 M: The most important thing is balance. Making sure there is a diverse offer on stage, because of our size we could easily just do 52 weeks of musicals, but it would be really unrewarding and it wouldn’t develop audiences. I look at doing 50% of the programme as musicals, drama is something we look to put in but it’s difficult as we have a very big auditorium.

Then it’s about youth productions, this is one of the elements I’ve been developing in the programme as it’s really important to get young people into the theatre early because your audiences are dying, they are literally dying because they are getting older. If you did 50 weeks of Opera, you’re going to be bringing in a very affluent audience but not a young audience. American Idiot is a classic example, I’ve programmed this show as it will bring in a younger under-25s audience, and with it being [the music of] Green Day, it also kicks that older group who will remember the album and love it too.

I look at the financial risk too, making sure that you can balance the books at the end of the day. If I put on a load of contemporary dance all the way through we would lose a lot of money, as its expensive to put on stage and doesn’t have large audiences. I’m constantly looking at that management of ‘risk and return’.

D: Can you tell us more about the Titanic production that’s currently on at the moment?

M: Originally it was performed on Broadway in 1997 and it won five Tony awards, including Best Musical, but it’s never really had a successful life in the UK. The Broadway production was massive, cast of 45 big orchestration, they lost about $12 million on the show. It won all the Tonys, ran for two and a half years but still lost money. I saw this production in 2013 at the Southwark Playhouse and Thom Southerland, the director had scaled it down to put into a 200-seat theatre, reduce the orchestra to six players, make the cast ‘double’ (play two or three different parts) and it was just brilliant, a really accessible piece.

I was concerned because the Mayflower is 2,171 seats that the piece would look too small on our stage. A producer that I knew well picked the show up with Danielle, the producer of this version of the show now and took it to Toronto and put it into a 1500 seat theatre. I went to Toronto to see the production there and explore whether it would work on a bigger scale. Thankfully it did, then two years ago it went back into London at the Charing Cross Theatre. I met with the producers of that show and said I’d like to do this together, so Mayflower Theatre came on as associate producers.

We launched the production here specifically to mark the anniversary week when the Titanic sailed from Southampton 106 years ago, so there was a programming opportunity and now the show has gone on a fourteen week UK and Ireland Tour.

B: You’ve mentioned the massive size of the theatre here, is it the biggest one in the south?

 M: Yes that’s right, it’s the third largest in the UK regional theatre wise. It’s massive.

B: Have you ever noticed with touring productions, it can become a problem as their sets sometimes need to be built for theatres that are smaller than yours?

M: It is sometimes a real challenge. The way we benefit from it is because of those big musicals, there are only certain theatres that can take the Lion King, Wicked, Les Miserables so where we benefit from is because we’ve got the scale and the number of tickets we can sell we get all of the big shows, but as I say from the balance of programme you can’t just keep doing those big musicals because they are expensive from a ticket price point of view and if you want to develop audiences you’ve got to make sure you’ve got accessible pricing at all ranges.

So when I am looking, I go and see a lot of theatre because I’ve got to be sure 100% that what I see will work on our stage. There are times when I’ll look at it and I’ll think, that looks very small. I took a show a couple of years back, The Importance of Being Earnest, very small production but it was David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell, so there was a real star in the casting in the role. It did really good business but it looked small on our stage, to be honest. But the audiences, because they were seeing David Suchet forgave it. It is a challenge, I’ve got it wrong at times and certain shows which I’ve put in and I thought would work brilliantly and then didn’t look right on our stage. Hopefully I get it right more times than I get it wrong!

D: How do you construct the seasons?

 M: The big thing obviously is availability of product, what is actually touring. We are not a producing theatre, we present work so we don’t create anything here apart from our youth summer project so it’s about the availability but it’s also about looking at what will work in different periods.

We’re fortunate as we’ve got such a big theatre and lots of people want to play us so 90% of the programme is people approaching me and asking to put the show on. In that context, I’m fortunate in that I can choose the weeks that I want to present, within the timescale of the tour.

I’ll give you an example of a programming conundrum, where someone wanted to put a ghost story on and it was touring in the spring, and I felt that we were too big to really effectively have a ghost story but also in my head I don’t see a ghost story touring in the spring, I think it is an autumn show. You never do a pantomime in the summer, well actually it’s funny because some theatres are now doing summer pantomimes but they don’t work in the same way. When I look at the big shows I make sure that I have three, four week shows in the year. One in the February/March period, one in the May/June period and one in the autumn. So that I’m not asking the audiences to buy a big ticket three times in the spring but they can do that throughout the year. So this year, we had Miss Saigon in February/March, War Horse in May and then Wicked in the Autumn so that’s how I plan to put a season together.

B: Mayflower Theatre isn’t a producing theatre, but is this something you would ever consider?

Backstage at Mayflower Theatre

 M: The short answer is yes but I would have to be really careful what we actually get involved in. We have been associate producers which means we have helped financially the production to get on the stage but we haven’t taken the risk ourselves. We have toured small scale actor/musician pieces for young people into small theatres to develop a younger audience. We are not Nuffield Southampton Theatres and we will never produce at the scale they do but we are looking at opportunities where we can be creatively involved. Something that we do produce ourselves is Mayflower’s large-scale summer youth project. Last year we did Guys and Dolls with 180 young people.

This summer as we’re closed for the refurbishment, we are doing a scaled down production in Thornden Hall whilst the theatre is closed. For that we take the complete risk on and I direct those shows as well.  Dance is a passion for me but young people, getting them involved in theatre, giving them the opportunity to appear on the biggest stage on the south coast is really important to me.

B: Talking about youth being a big passion of yours, do you know what the demographic of under 25s is who are coming to your theatre?

 M: Now we’ve changed the programme, as you’d imagine it’s kind of peaked up. On percentage-terms it’s still below 10%. The challenge of course is when you do the programme for young people, it’s the parents that buy the tickets for the kids so you can’t capture that data at source. All you can do is assume at the profile the demographic. We went from 360 people that did our community activities, then we established a community and education team called Engage and now we’ve had just over 100,000 people in four years that have come through, with last year being 28,000 people.

B: The refurbishment is something you’ve mentioned. It’s Mayflower Theatre 90 this year so what are you doing during the refurbishment period?

Ben and Michael on the fly floor where set and lights are raised and lowered – by hand!

 M: The theatre is closed for 15 weeks from 9 June. We’re stripping out all the stalls and circle seats, to be replaced with brand new seating. The balcony seating will be refurbished and we’re repainting the whole auditorium. It’s going from green to red and gold, so really classy and the orchestra pit will move a bit further underneath the stage to bring the audience a little closer to the stage. There will be a lot of work backstage, we’re strengthening the grid, which is the area above the stage where you suspend the lights and set.

B: What would you say is the most challenging production you’ve put on here?

 M: I would say probably, from a logistical point of the view, the Lion King was challenging because it was just massive. The show came on 22 fortyfive-foot trucks, took three days to load the show in, even before you start the technical work. There are 120 people in the company, actors plus wardrobe, makeup, wigs, the masks. It cost us a lot of money and was one of the biggest risks I’ve taken financially. Thankfully it sold really well. The most challenging, from an artistic point of view, was probably Cape Town Opera, we did The Mandela Trilogy. It was contemporary opera, it was three acts, the first and second act were interesting pieces, but the third act was really contemporary. It was brilliant and I’m pleased we did it, but it was a challenge for us as an organisation.

B: Finally, what advice do you have for any aspiring arts professionals that want to get into the theatre?

 M: Just get as wide an experience as you possible can at every single level. I did a little bit of technical work, of stage work, I wasn’t particularly good at that and I realised that wasn’t for me. I was probably the worst follow-spot operator ever in the history of follow-spot operators! It’s also really important to go and see stuff and the main problem there is price, it is cost, I accept that completely but a lot of places now do student standby tickets. See as much theatre as you possibly can, but importantly, go see other art forms. I didn’t see contemporary dance until I was in my early 30s. You learn as much from what you don’t like as what you do like, because you analyse ‘why does that not work for me’ in the same way it works for someone else. You have to eat, there are life essentials that you can’t do without and whilst you don’t have to go to the theatre and that’s the great thing about our business – life is so much richer if you do!

Mayflower Theatre presents the National Theatre’s production of War Horse (16 May – 9 June 2018) prior to its summer refurbishment. For full details of what’s on, ticket information and how to get involved, visit https://www.mayflower.org.uk/

Arts Ambassadors is a paid opportunity, supported by the Careers and Employability Service’s Excel Southampton Internship programme, University of Southampton.

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