Since leaving his job running the King’s and Festival Theatres, John Stalker has worked as a producer of touring shows. His latest is creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky – and at the EFT until the end of the month
This weekend, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, the curtain rises on the first performances of a brand new UK touring production of The Addams Family: The Musical Comedy, co-produced by Aria Entertainment and Music & Lyrics, and featuring Samantha Womack as Morticia, with Les Dennis as the inimitable Uncle Fester. And for John Stalker – the founder of Music & Lyrics – these performances feel like a homecoming, as well as a new beginning; for it’s just six years, now, since Stalker gave up the job of running the King’s and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh, handed over the reins to the present director, Duncan Hendry, and set about launching his own production company, to create the kinds of UK-wide touring shows he had previously been programming and presenting, on two of Edinburgh’s most important stages.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t love all the management and programming jobs I had done,” says Stalker, who had run major theatres including Liverpool Playhouse and Birmingham Rep before he took the Edinburgh job, “but for me, the real thrill of theatre has always been in the creation of shows, and I felt that the time had come to focus on that. It is a high-risk business, of course, but so far I’ve been lucky both in finding backers that I can persuade to invest, and in working with terrific creative teams; on The Addams Family, for example, it’s great to be working with Aria Entertainment, which is run by two people in their twenties who bring a completely different perspective to the business of music theatre.”
Since 2011, Stalker’s productions have ranged across a wide spectrum of musical theatre, from postwar classics like The King And I and Oklahoma – which Stalker finds now tend to attract a slightly older audience – to the perennial children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which took more than £17 million at the box office on a huge 70-week tour of Stage 1 theatres – that is, theatres with 1,500 seats or more. “I know that sounds like a huge amount of money,” says Stalker, “but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a colossally expensive show, and you need that kind of box office income, just to keep it on the road.”
When it comes to attracting audiences, though, Stalker has nothing but praise for the big beasts of British touring production, notably Cameron Mackintosh and Bill Kenwright, who over the last 30 years have transformed British commercial theatre beyond all recognition. “Cameron Mackintosh, in particular, was the first to imagine that you could tour a show to a theatre outside London and expect it to run for more than two weeks. He would put The Phantom Of The Opera or Miss Saigon down in the Playhouse in Edinburgh, and leave it there for six weeks, even 12; and because of superb marketing, it would find an audience from all over central Scotland, many of them completely new to theatre.
“So in a sense, those of us who have come into touring production in the last 20 years are benefiting from the work that’s already been done, and not so much competing with those big producers, as providing more entertainment for the audience they’ve created.”
Despite his success, though, Stalker is conscious of the need to keep developing his company’s range. Although he has focused on musicals so far, he remains intrigued by the possibilities of touring “straight” theatre to slightly smaller venues; and he’s also delighted to be moving into that branch of music theatre that attracts a slightly younger generation, and depends for its audience appeal on show titles – Ghost, Sister Act – that are already familiar from film or television.
“I must say that until I started talking to Katy Lipson at Aria Entertainment, I had no idea that The Addams Family films had become such a cult hit with a big demographic of younger women,” says Stalker. “And one thing I am enjoying hugely about this project is the chance to work with living writers. The Addams Family was first seen in Chicago in 2009, so it’s relatively new; and we’ve had the composer, Andrew Lippa, in rehearsal with us for five weeks, so it’s not only possible to suggest changes that seem to work for us, but also to hear straight from Andy about the thinking behind certain songs and scenes. I love that aspect of the work, and I do like to spend time in rehearsals, whenever I can.
“There are so many other aspects of this job, though, and I enjoy every part of it, even though it is very demanding. You do feel entirely responsible for this big team of 30 or 40 people out on tour, and my wife knows that even when I’m not with them, I can’t really switch off at night until I’ve read the show report from wherever they are, and I know that everything’s OK.
“And of course, one of the most interesting aspects is trying to pick a show that seems right for the moment we’re in. The Addams Family is about ideas of America, after all, and about a very conventional image of American family life, represented by young Wednesday Addams’s boyfriend, coming up against something much more weird.
“So it has its topical moments as well as being very funny, particularly when he starts talking about ‘going back to the real America.’ I know it’s a cliché to say that the project you’re working on is always your favourite, but for me, in this case, it’s true. I’ve never enjoyed myself more, not least because we’re back in this beautiful theatre that I love so much; and we just hope that when they see the show, our audiences will enjoy the same laughs, and feel the same thrill.”
The Addams Family is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 29 April, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 17-21 October.