Meet the women who choose Ipswich shows

FROM Daniel O'Donnell to Petula Clark from cutting edge dance productions to drawing room dramas - what's your favourite? Today entertainments reporter JAMES MARSTON speaks to two women whose job it is to decide what entertains Ipswich.

FROM Daniel O'Donnell to Petula Clark from cutting edge dance productions to drawing room dramas - what's your favourite?

Today entertainments reporter JAMES MARSTON speaks to two women whose job it is to decide what entertains Ipswich.

THERE'S a lot coming up to entertain us this autumn.

At The Regent theatre there's The Proclaimers, Beverley Knight, East 17, and tonight Billy Connolly. At the New Wolsey we've got the play of Northanger Abbey, rock and roll panto Beauty and the Beast, and a physical theatre production called Throat.

At both venues it's a mixed bag.

But have you ever wondered how these shows and productions chosen?

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Have you ever though what criteria need to be met which decide what appears on the town's stages?

And have you ever asked who decides what we're going to see?

The New Wolsey

SARAH Holmes has been chief executive at the New Wolsey for the last seven years.

It is her job, a long with her team, to decide the programme of productions for each season.

You might think she is dictated to by the organisations that fund the theatre.

The money - about £1.4million a year - that the New Wolsey, including numerous community projects, costs to run comes from subsidy and ticket sales. Funding sources include the Arts Council, Suffolk County Council and Ipswich Borough Council

She said: “The first thing to realise is we are not funding lead - our programme is not influenced by where the money comes from.

“Compared to other theatres in other towns we are a fairly small. We have 400 seats while most would have about 600.

“Before the Wolsey was closed it concentrated on traditional reparatory productions. When it reopened in 2002 it opened with a new remit to broaden the audience.”

Run as a business the New Wolsey is now one of East Anglia's best known venues attracting visitors from across the region.

Sarah said: “We work with a policy with three main watchwords. To make sure the programme is of high quality. To make sure the programme is accessible and to make sure the programme is diverse.”

Sarah said the New Wolsey is determined to encourage as many people to the theatre as possible.

She added: “We have a mixture of musical theatre, dance, physical theatre, comedy and plays. From this autumns programme you can already see it is diverse, there are productions of different types, for different ages and for different audiences and in fact it's a reflection on the make up of the town. The majority of our customers live in a five mile radius of the theatre so it's very much an Ipswich audience.”

Sarah said the programme attempts to encourage a number of different audiences to the theatre.

She said: “There isn't just one theatre crowd in Suffolk. To say that the same people come and see all the productions would be inaccurate. We have different audiences.”

But how and why are certain shows chosen for the New Wolsey?

Sarah said the venue itself often dictates what productions will work and what won't.

She said: “We aren't a concert venue, we can't really handle big set operas but we have a great space for interesting physical theatre and dance. We can also put on the traditional plays as well as musicals.”

Sarah said that touring companies often approach the New Wolsey to put on their productions. She said reputation, knowledge of the industry and going to see productions are all used to ensure high quality productions.

She added: “Obviously we can't go to see everything but we do try to go and have a look, certainly with the shows that will run for some time.”

Sarah said to ensure a show is accessible it needs to be enjoyable without a pre knowledge of the theatre or intellectual background.

She said: “What you might call high brow can be accessible. Good theatre will always be entertaining and that is its essential role. Finding different intellectual levels in the production is not its primary role.”

Sarah said the theatre itself needs to be welcoming.

She said: “We make a point of putting people at their ease as they walk through the door. It is crucial we welcome people and we are friendly.

“If the theatre feels like it is only for a few or not welcoming in any way it is very easy to put people off from ever coming again.”

Making the productions accessible by being relevant to people's lives is also important.

Sarah said: “That's why we will have children's shows on during the school holidays. There's no point having a show for kids if they can't come to see it.”

What the theatre can afford, what the theatre needs to fulfil audience demand and what the theatre needs to ensure its programme remains fresh and exciting are factors that all determine what comes to the venue.

Sarah added: “Of course you don't always get it right but experience has taught me some of the things that won't sell in Ipswich. We have to be selective, we can't have just one genre of dance or theatre all the time. But we also like to try new things. We work hard to ensure people have a good time when they come here so they go away and want to come back.”

The Regent

THEATRE manager Hazel Clover has been at the Regent for seven years.

She said: “Our job is clear “To provide a cost effective and varied programme of live entertainment for the people of Ipswich and beyond.”

It's a job she clearly enjoys. As I ask her how she and her team decide what comes to The Regent she quickly warms to her subject.

Hazel said: “We hope we provide the acts and performers the people of Ipswich want to see.”

Hazel said the capacity of the newly refurbished auditorium determines what works and what doesn't at venue.

She said: “One man shows, big set operas, bands and singers work in the venue so that is what we concentrate on.

“The size of the venue can also dictate the programme we present. as in most walks of life it comes down to money.

“The popularity of an artist dictates where they perform. If Robbie Williams can sell out an arena tour he isn't going to come to The Regent although we'd love to have him. And also groups like McFly do both arena and theatre tours. We are the largest auditorium in East Anglia with 1,600 seats but we aren't likely to get the likes of Madonna and U2 simply because they command much bigger audiences.”

Hazel said the Regent also benefits from its size.

She added: “The advantage is we are big enough to attract some big name artists like Billy Connolly, Foo Fighters, status quo and Katie Melua. We can also take some, not all, West End touring musicals.”

Hazel said the programme has to consider cost and profit margins to keep public subsidy low.

She said: “We run this as a business and the success of what we put on here offsets the running costs.”

Hazel said the venue makes bids for various artists.

She said: “It is very much about keeping your ear to the ground and getting the best shows and artists we can. It all depends on the deal you get. We bid for artists we think will sell well or fit well into our programme. And agents and promoters also pencil in dates they might want to play here. It's a bit of a juggling act. You build up knowledge off what is likely to be popular and what might not sell here.

Hazel said big band swing just doesn't work in Ipswich - audiences are not keen - though she is keen to hear from customers what they would like to see.

She added: “For example Ipswich audiences are very fond of folk music, both Irish and American folk and those acts that sell out here just don't sell in other places. Ipswich is also keen on classic acts like Status Quo and Thin Lizzy, I think that harks back to the town's music scene.

“You get to know the reputation of promoters as well and you also have to bear in mind our reputation. We don't want to put on things that no one wants to see. We do want to put on things that cater for all the varied tastes of our customers.

“We have experimented by putting on drama and it has been well received but because of the nature of the auditorium the spoken word doesn't work so well because of the acoustics. The place is just a bit too big.”

Hazel said groups like the Ipswich Operatic and Dramatic Society (IODS) also hire the theatre.

She said: “Because they are a community group they get a discounted rate. As well as hiring out the venue we also buy shows where we pay a fee.

“The pantomime is crucial to our autumn season we co-produce it and it's our biggest source off income in the season.”

Hazel said each artist and each show is scrutinised before she and her team decide to give it the go-ahead to perform.

She added: “Obviously you don't get all the ones you want to get but sometimes you do. The test is whether people come to see what we are putting on or not. Hopefully we get it right more than we get it wrong.”

The Regent theatre has an annual turnover of £3.8 million a year and an annual attendance of 160,000.