MUMBAI: With more than 40 years of experience, Sir Howard Hugh Panter is among the most influential people in British theatre. The 69-year-old theatre impresario is the co-founder of Trafalgar Entertainment, which he set up with his wife Dame Rosemary Squire in 2017. The Trafalgar banner is expansive, looking practically into major aspects of theatre and entertainment; there’s Trafalgar Studios located in London’s West End, production arm Trafalgar Theatre Productions, live-streaming and event cinema from Trafalgar Releasing, and an education wing called Stagecoach Performing Arts (with alumni such as Harry Potter’s heroine Emma Watson).
The couple’s footing in the scene goes beyond Trafalgar. Previously, Panter and Squire founded Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), running it for 25 years and establishing it as a top player in the UK entertainment business. Productions and co-productions from ATG, which has 50 venues worldwide, include Richard III starring Martin Freeman, Macbeth starring James McAvoy, and John Doyle’s award-winning production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
With Trafalgar, too, Panter and Squire have brought forth high-end, quality productions, including The Rocky Horror Show and Killer Joe starring Orlando Bloom. The show that stole the headlines, however, was their London revival of The King and I, the Tony Award-winner and critically acclaimed production from the Lincoln Center Theater in New York. Starring Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe, the musical was jointly produced by Trafalgar and BookMyShow, marking the ticketing platform’s foray outside India. The King and I is now on its UK and Asia tour, and set to come to India in 2020.
Panter was in Mumbai last week for further talks with BookMyShow. In an interview, Panter speaks about his India plans, and the impact that theatre and live-streaming have on cultures and economies.
Tell us more about your visit to Mumbai.
We have created a new partnership with BookMyShow on our big musical, The King And I, which played very successfully, becoming the biggest selling show in London last year. The show is touring the UK and we are also taking it to parts of Europe, Australia, Taiwan and Manila. We are discussing bringing the show to Mumbai and potentially to other Indian cities as well.
Do live-streaming and theatre screenings have great business potential?
Trafalgar has a live-streaming broadcast company called Trafalgar Releasing (formerly Picturehouse Entertainment). We stream everything from The Royal Opera House to (South Korean boy band) BTS to Coldplay to Muse. Germany, Australia and Japan are looking good, but we haven’t really broken into India yet. We are hoping to work out a way through which BTS can be brought to Indian screens and Indian devices.
We captured The King and I as a film, doing so for over a week, with half live and half not live, so that we can zoom in and capture it cinematically. It was the biggest grossing theatre streaming in the world in 2018, and we will release it in Asia in the fall of 2019.
Cinemas often have low or relatively low occupancy. I believe in India it is 27-28% on average, which means you have 70% seats that are not filled. The response to live-streaming is growing in the UK. The average cinema occupancy in the UK—depends of course on if it’s The Avengers or Star Wars, but if you take those out—runs at about 20% occupancy. Our average attendance for live-streaming in theatres across UK was 56%.
On a Thursday or a Sunday, we can show BTS or the Royal Shakespeare Company—whatever it is. If we want Pink Floyd fans we make a film on David Gilmore and his dog, and his rehearsal, and then show it in Mumbai. It brings more people to the cinemas, whether they are Korean boy band fans or opera fans.
Live-streaming and theatre screenings can be shown in places where people can’t get to a musical and they are at a lower price point as well. Maybe someone in Scotland can’t get to a place in London, but can see the opera once a month at their local cinema. It will take time, but it will happen in Mumbai, too, with excellent marketing and events.
Why did Trafalgar choose to bring The King and I to theatres in London and now across the world?
It’s one of the greatest. I have been lucky enough in my life to have worked with some of the greatest musicals ever written and this one is right up there–at the top. It’s a great story about a woman’s strength and how she changes the culture of a kingdom, about an almost-love affair, and how, in a particular culture, the king was totally dominant and he changes to become more tolerant and more thoughtful about women and people who are less advantaged.
It has great humanity and some of the best songs and music written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. I loved working on it with the Lincoln Center, a great New York institution that originally produced it. It is probably one of the best theatres in the world and certainly the best in New York.
The King and I, when it comes to India, will be of the highest level. It will be the show that really comes from the West End, not one that says it comes from the West End.
It has great humanity in it, and humanity crosses all cultures, in this case two cultures—an Eastern and a Western. So, one hopes that there may be some resonances with India.
How important is theatre’s contribution to an economy?
What’s interesting is that every time a big accountancy company does an independent audit of theatre in a city, it usually comes down to this—for every dollar you put in, you get seven or eight back. The general economy gets seven times of what it puts into theatre.
That’s a really interesting statistic. The other interesting statistic—if you take London as an example where theatre is well-established—when visitors come to London, among the 10 top reasons why they visit, theatre is always the third. After royalty and heritage, theatre is third. So, it’s an important driver of economic benefit.
Theatre is a magnet to the people and it’s unlike digital. You have to go see it. So, our business can’t be digitized. You have to be there. Which means, people take taxis and hotel rooms and meals; they put money in the rest of the economy. So, theatre impacts an economy positively.
How have you and Dame Squire attempted to improve the theatre experience?
We want to make venues comfortable for the consumer. The big thing is that there must be lots of women’s bathroom. Queuing—it’s very uncivilized. It’s true and it’s about economics because women are often the ones who choose where to go to and, if they are queuing for the bathroom, then excuse me, they don’t buy a glass of wine.
It’s everything that makes theatre more comfortable and more civilized and takes the experience higher. We expect higher service now in hotels and cinemas. We are building club cinemas in London that have got clubs, restaurants and bars and are very luxurious. So, the experience of going to those places is exciting for you and your friends, or partner, or whoever it might be. You make the customers feel special and give a rounded, high-level experience so that they come back.
What are Trafalgar’s plans for India? How do you see India as a market for theatre production?
Well, there are two or three elements. One, India is very underserved with theatre at the moment. I think plays (work quite) differently here, so our focus is on musicals.
In Japan, we use subtitles, but in India there is a common language, English, which is perhaps the unifying language in India.
India also has a great culture of song and dance, movement and performance. India has an appetite and connection with performance culture and we think there is a lot of talent here, for which we are talking to people about and finding new ways of working with Indian creative minds.
We are also finding great Indian stories and great classics to turn into musicals. It is an interesting idea—that you have a great culture in India and you put it together with our culture so that a new culture can emerge.