In an area of London dominated by entrepreneurs and corporations, Greenwich Theatre could have been seen as a surprise winner in the Best Small Business category at The Wharf Innovation In Business Awards 2016.
But the recent story of this pre-war dance hall , a fixture of London’s Docklands since 1855, is hard to ignore.
A perennial survivor and winner of an Arts Council England grant in 2000, the theatre’s fortunes have since been as mixed as the fringe theatre performances it hosts.
When the venue’s current management took the reins a little over a decade ago, it was saddled with £250,000 of debt, turned over around £1million with audience numbers waning.
The question was, how could the books be balanced without opening the doors to easy money events that might draw specific audiences while undermining the theatre’s reputation for valuable artistic output?
Part of the venue’s appeal has always been that it fills a gap between large West End establishments seating 1,000 to 1,200, staging expensive shows fronted by household names, and the stages found at the back of large pubs and taverns. Greenwich Theatre has 400 seats and occupies the fringe of London’s theatre scene.
“There are high points in terms of finance, such as pantomime, but success is not just measured by money,” said commercial director Simon Francis.
“Success is about delivering good shows – that is one thing that has not shifted. We set out to sell tickets, sometimes for shows that may not be huge, but ones that deliver what we expect, as well as a huge amount of audience satisfaction.”
Satisfaction, as Simon points out, means the customers are more likely to come back, possibly with their friends. And a returning audience is a sustainable one.
He said: “Our goal was to make the audience feel the theatre is an extension of their homes. We wanted to offer enough variety of shows built on a strong reputation that people would simply pick a night and turn up to watch what’s on.”
In addition to this, the new management set out to make the company leaner and more risk-averse.
Theatre is a fundamentally risky business. If no-one buys a ticket, and you’ve made all the investment, then a company will struggle.
Simon and the theatre’s artistic and executive director James Haddrell looked for partners to produce shows in such a way that the risk did not lay solely with the venue.
“One of the things we started doing 10 years ago was finding partners to put shows on with,” said James. “We launched a partnership with The Theatre in Chipping Norton that produced The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, which split the cost of producing the show between both of us.”
And, given the season, what better example for this than the expensive to stage art of pantomime.
“Panto is the biggest example of this,” said James. “There are many routes we could have taken to achieve financial stability and, while panto may be seen as frivolous and silly, it isn’t cheap.
“If you spend £250,000 to stage a panto, you may well make £450,000. However, your risk is still £250,0000.”
While the turmoil of 2016 raged outside, things have been far from quiet at the venue.
The theatre closed in June for three months to enable the fitting of a new roof, re-wiring throughout the building and, crucial to the theatre’s new output plans, the creation of a smaller studio theatre that seats 70.
This posed a not insignificant commercial gamble. The previous two summers saw much of the theatre’s revenue generated by big name shows such as the anniversary revival of Tommy, and the US musical version of Pinocchio.
To take the theatre offline for this traditionally lucrative period was to turn away paying customers.
However, the gamble appears to have paid off. The smaller studio space can house events that may sell only 50 seats a night, but still deliver quality. This enables the theatre’s artistic reputation to be maintained while releasing the main auditorium for bigger yield shows.
The performance moves out of the theatre entirely in 2017 with the 10th anniversary of Greenwich Children’s Theatre Festival.
During this event Greenwich Theatre will present shows at a number of the borough’s publicly available spaces, such as Charlton house and Greenwich Park.
But how is the business shaping up following all these changes? Under new management the company’s debts have been reduced to almost nothing and the company shifted its reliance on grants from around 60% of the total to just 10%.
“To summarise what we’ve achieved, we’ve dug ourselves out of debt and reduced the funding we take in,” said Simon.
“To do that at the same time as improving the artistic output is really something.
“There were two other paths we could have gone down. To give up and go home, or to have gone completely commercial – hire the theatre out, book tribute bands and fill the programme with populist nonsense.
“We might have got ourselves out of debt that way, but at what cost? A damaged reputation and no more rationale for public funding.”
Today Simon says the company is less about survival and more about growth. The journey over the last five years has been “incredibly tough” in his words, but to press on and arrive at the situation where the venue can do well financially, while avoiding the temptation to become a supermarket for cheap thrills, has made it worthwhile.
“That’s what gets us to work in the morning,” he said. “It’s hard work, but when we believe in it, and infect our staff with that drive, it makes the more difficult days more bearable.
“To be able to look back and see how far we’ve come, to listen in to people leaving a show and hearing a happy crowd, makes it all worthwhile.”
And while it may be true to say of theatre’s financial troubles “ it’s behind you” there’s still a chance for readers to utter those words in a more appropriate setting with panto Peter Pan running until January 8 .
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