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Theatre tycoon Nica Burns still looking to Edinburgh for emerging talent


Summary of story from the Guardian, August 26, 2011

From actor to writer, and director to commercial producer, owner of a number of London theatres, Nica Burns has had a career trajectory that spans the length and breadth of theatreland.

Clearly passionate about young talent, she believes that now is an apposite time for new players to make names for themselves and do something truly exciting:

“It’s an amazing time right now…You’ve got Tim Minchin, who won best newcomer award (in Edinburgh) in 2005, writing a musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda for the RSC. And Daniel Kitson [2002’s overall winner] is performing at the National.”

However now as a co-owner of five highprofile West End theatres, is she as commited to young talent as she once was?

It would appear so, as her conviction and commitment to theatre, combined with an undeniable entrepreneurial drive, has seen her put her money where her mouth is, professionally speaking, on several occasions.

Her most recent pledge was to the Comedy Awards, bankrolling them with £150,000 of her own money when former backer Perrier pulled out of sponsorship, and a subsequent sponsor folded as a result of the credit crunch. Last year, she announced a new deal, with Foster’s lager.

Her career began in this manner, when as a fledgling drama school graduate, she and a friend brought a show to the 1982 Edinburgh festival. An adaptation of the novel Dulcima, by HE Bates, it cost a mere £600 and the set had to be transported on the roofrack of Burns’s Ford Escort.

“My life savings from rep,” she says. “That was the first risk I took in terms of money, investing everything I’d ever earned in a production.”

Dulcima was to become one of those sought after Edinburgh success stories, selling out and then transferring to the London stage.

Burns’ first job, as artistic director of the Donmar, saw her redress out-moded theatre habits, (‘The box office used to be a girl sat on a stool at the top of the stairs with a petty cash tin and some cloakroom tickets. There was nothing”) and herald in a new era; she encouraged touring companies such as Cheek by Jowl and the Irish troupe Druid to perform, pushing late-night comedy to the fore.

This passion for emerging talent did not dwindle despite landing a job selecting productions for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theatres in 1992.

She continued to develop pet projects and still remembers affectionately her 2004 Edinburgh production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which took the then scandalous step of casting comedians such as Mackenzie Crook and Phil Nichol opposite so-called “serious” actors.

“The establishment thought I was insane. They’d say, ‘oh, it’s one of your things, darling,’ all that. I had to put a lot more money into it than I expected, so I made a lot more money than I expected.”

But what does she make of the commerciality of the current West End scene? And what effect is the influx of famous faces from film and television popping up on stage having on aspiring actors?

“It was ever thus,” she says. “You go back, whether it’s Broadway or London, there were always stars.”

And what of musicals that rely on a popular repository of tried and tested songs – the Michael Jackson show Thriller Live is playing in one of Burns’ own theatres – one might wonder how she reconciles this with promoting young and emerging talent?

“That’s not my personal taste as a theatregoer. But I genuinely feel it’s our job to provide something for everyone. I get really annoyed when some critics take the attitude that theatre shouldn’t cater for a certain type of person…I think that’s outrageous.

“Thriller Live gives a lot of people the most fantastic experience. And the best thing is it’s family audiences. I’m proud to have a show where men take sons to their first theatre experience.”

Throughout the interview Burns seems a bundle of contradictions: an inveterate storyteller who keeps her private life to herself, a born leader who admits to bouts of loneliness.

She is as passionate about the state of toilets in theatreland (“my moment of epiphany was when Cameron Mackintosh said my loos were better than his”) as about the current state of playwriting; a ferocious defender of subsidy who is one of theatre’s most powerful businesspeople.

She has survived the shark tank of commercial theatre, earned a lot, lost a lot (her company still owes about £8m), yet somehow clung on to her charm.

I ask if she has any regrets. She answers, perhaps typically, with a story about theatre – a show she was talked into doing but didn’t really believe in.

At the close of the interview, she asks: “Do you think I’d make it as a mogul? What do you reckon? That doesn’t feel like my sort of thing.”

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