Katy Lipson: 'If I'm raising millions in the next few years, I'll use it to champion new musicals'
Having written about a fair few season announcements at theatres across London over the past few years, it's almost expected that a programme full of 'new work' and 'world premieres' will be stuffed with plays - musicals often hardly get a look in. However, one producer has made it somewhat of a mission to bring as many new, fresh musicals to stages as humanly possible.
Katy Lipson and her company Aria Entertainment have been a recent success story over the last few years, mounting fringe productions like Promises, Promises and Pippin at Southwark Playhouse, The Toxic Avenger and Yank! in the West End, and national tours of The Addams Family and Hair, which is set to embark on a UK tour opening at the New Wimbledon Theatre later this year.
A rare example of a self-made, independent producer thriving in the capital and across the country, we spoke to Lipson about how to get started in the industry, taking her passion to the next level, and why it is important we begin to invest more time and money into new musicals.
Taking it right back to where it all began, what was the very first thing you worked on as a producer?
I came to London when I was 18 to study human genetics at University College London, and while I was there I got friendly with a boy in the Musical Theatre Society. We decided to write a musical together and when we finished it, we hired a church in Camden, cast some actors and put it on ourselves over two nights. After that, we set up a small organisation to promote new musicals around the world in the form of cabaret nights at cool venues across London. I left the human genetics course and went to drama school for a year and then on to do a classical music degree too. That's how it began: very small shows that were not commercial.
How does a venture like that become commercial?
I started out putting my own money in and hoping I would get it back at the end, working freelance alongside it. I had a lightbulb moment when I was 25 and enrolled on a three-day course with producers charity Stage One. I was also working as an assistant musical director on a Christmas show which had so much potential that I wanted to rework it. That's when the idea of Aria Entertainment was born.
Did creating that company seem like you were taking a big risk?
Ask any producer: you have to be a risk taker. I was risking the capital of the company to launch my career. Creative work took a backseat and I focussed on producing at venues like the Finborough, the Union, and the Arcola, which don't make producers much money - they certainly didn't make me much money, but I was building a brand. I look back and I think I must have been very brave, but at the time I didn't. I was just loving running my own business.
Was dropping the creative side of things something you did reluctantly?
I don't use the term 'creative producer' which implies that you're only involved in how a show looks rather than just the business, but I split my time equally between the two sides. I'm constantly working with new writing and new material, so I have to be quite creative to think about how that show is going to happen for the first time. When you do something new, the world's your oyster.
When you started looking for your first investors, how did you go about pitching to them?
I didn't really do that until some of my bigger shows like The Toxic Avenger, Hair, or Yank, because I was funding productions myself. I know they say never put your own money into a show, but watch Dragon's Den and see how many of those people running a business would fund their own idea. For me, it ticked along and people notice you're doing well on the fringe.
A lot of people start working with producing houses and work their way up, but I wanted to be an independent producer. I built the backbone of a brand by producing a high volume of high-quality musicals. So now when I sell myself, it's all about the show, but it's equally backed by my experience. If you're not born into a pool of millionaires who will invest in you, it's a waiting game; you have to start building a network of people.
As the business grows and you look to work on bigger productions, will you still be working on Fringe shows?
I'm already oscillating between raising £500,000+ for national tours like The Addams Family and Hair, and working at smaller venues like Southwark Playhouse or the Hope Mill Theatre. The long-term aim is to have enough commercial success, I'll be able to commission and develop new musicals, and take a risk on developing new talent. If I'm raising millions in a few years, it will be used to champion that work. The fringe will always be in my heart.
It's much rarer to see a new musical open in the West End than we see across the pond on Broadway. Why do you think that is, and what could we do differently here in Britain?
New plays get backing from theatres like the National, the Young Vic, the Royal Court, the Old Vic, and the Hampstead Theatre which all develop playwrights and could transfer their plays to the West End, but we haven't had that same investment in musicals. We're playing catch up; the subsidised sector isn't seeking musical theatre development in the volume it should be doing. It's starting to pick up at venues like Chichester, Leicester Curve, and the Old Vic, but it's one musical every year or two, and tonnes and tonnes of plays. We need to realise that a show could be like Phantom of the Opera, really take off and run for 30 years, but there's a whole other form to what a musical can be on the smaller scales. That could take a long time.
You've played your part in changing that with From Page to Stage, where you showcase new musicals in development. What have some of your biggest successes been there?
When we started it six years ago, it wasn't commercially-driven, so it's difficult because people will compare success against something like Everybody's Talking About Jamie. But we've given a platform to over 100 artists who are now being commissioned all across the country and shows picked up all across the world.
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