Stacking the odds in drama's favour

 

Four years and 10 shows after founding the hugely successful Landmark Productions, theatre producer Anne Clarke is getting a taste for risk-taking, she tells Peter Crawley

If you had wandered through the bright and airy lounge of the Westin Hotel in Dublin recently and were told to guess which person there might be a theatre producer, chances are you wouldn't immediately settle on Anne Clarke. It is hardly something that she broadcasts, but her level of activity gives her away. Perched on a sofa, working her phone, making notes, she exudes the telltale signs of organisation, energy and precise command.

A petite figure, she is dressed today in sombre colours but contemporary designs, finished with a discretely funky pair of Camper shoes - the business suit of a creative professional.

Now making her final preparations for Miss Julie, Frank McGuinness's adaptation of Strindberg's classic and the tenth show to emerge from her remarkably prolific and successful Landmark Productions in just four years, Clarke is as bona fide as producers come, but, until recently, this was not how she recognised herself.

Having spent almost 19 years at the Gate Theatre, which she joined as an administrative assistant in 1983 and where she worked her way steadily to the position of deputy director, she eventually chose to strike out on her own.

"In the Gate I had an enormous amount of responsibility," she says, "but the buck didn't actually stop with me. And there's something about actually going out and doing it yourself, as opposed to doing it with any sort of safety net. I loved being at the Gate. It was a hard enough decision to leave, but I knew if I didn't do it then, I wouldn't do it."

It was not an automatic choice to set up a company and produce, she says. In fact, she almost talked herself out of it, following standard career advice and constructing a list of options: "All the things you'd like to do, all the things you wouldn't. All the things you're good at, all the things you aren't."

She shudders at the memory. "I still have it lurking somewhere in a file in my computer," she says. "I'm quite sure if you looked at that profile you'd say this person should never be a producer."

If that is true, it is only because Clarke doesn't fit the cliche. A quietly confident, pleasant and unaffected figure who speaks uninhibitedly about a range of issues - from venue sizes to artists' rights - she doesn't identify with the classic model. As she puts it: "You think of a producer and you think of a risk-taker; the classic thing, the Hollywood mogul smoking cigars."

Or, as I put it, Michael Colgan. She laughs. "Well, let's face it, he was a role model. I learned a lot of really useful skills at the Gate, whether it was budgeting or casting or management skills - the hard skills - and I think I also learned about values and standards, the importance of aiming very high and not settling for less if you can. That whole ethos. I'm very much a product of the time I spent at the Gate."

That was conspicuous with Landmark's inaugural production of David Hare's play, Skylight, in 2004 and its follow-up, Edward Albee's The Goat, both of which were strong works that bore the familiar stamp of high production values and accomplished performances (Owen Roe and Cathy Belton in the former, Bryan Murray and Susan Fitzgerald in the latter) and could conceivably have been staged at Clarke's old home. Both were directed by Michael Barker-Caven and designed by Joe Vanek, each familiar with the Gate, and their creative partnership has extended through most of Landmark's productions to date, continuing with Miss Julie.

Skylight, however, was a white-knuckle ride for Clarke. She had applied for funding from the Arts Council for her first independent venture and learned at the last minute that she had failed to receive it.

"I had to find a way of underwriting it," she says, and her voice reaches a nervous pitch at the memory. "I had to borrow a lot of money. It was a month to go before the start of rehearsals. If I had pulled it, I would never have produced in this town again."

The show was a success, playing to a 98 per cent paying attendance, something that had never happened at Project before.

"I was extraordinarily lucky that my first show was such a success," says Clarke. "And it needed to be."

ALTHOUGH LANDMARK HAS received once-off project funding from the Arts Council several times since - availing of a relatively new scheme which supports individual projects - Clarke remains a uniquely independent operator, pursuing both subsidised and commercial models of production, on hugely different scales. Last year, for instance, the company staged four separate productions, beginning with Blackbird at the Project (the recipient of an Arts Council project grant) and the touring production of the one-man show, Underneath the Lintel (assisted as part of the Arts Council's Touring Experiment), together with the Christmas show, Alice in Wonderland (the company's third co-production with the Helix), and an unabashedly commercial undertaking, Paul Howard's The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger, for which Clarke raised €300,000 from numerous investors and which is due to return to the Olympia next spring. The commercial shows and management work that Landmark undertakes are important, Clarke has stated, because they "can pay Landmark overheads and my salary for the year and allow me to do those things that are very close to my heart".

Compared to other companies from either the subsidised or the commercial sector, Landmark's rate of production is impressive, but it comes at the expense of a coherent artistic policy.

"Every single play I've done, I've wanted to do, and every single play I've done, I think, was worth doing," she says, when asked what guides her choices. "And every single play, so far, has found its audience.

"I think there's a very strong line through the plays in Project. Skylight was a play about a man and a woman, and so was The Goat, and so was Blackbird, and so is Miss Julie. It allows for this really intense exploration of the relationships between not necessarily men and women, but between two people. And it allows you, as a member of the audience, to experience that intimacy. But also there's a certain epic quality. They're all big plays with small casts."

When explaining the calculated risks of being a producer, Clarke reaches for one phrase more than once: "All you can do is stack the odds in your favour."

There was no guarantee that Skylight would play to nearly full capacity, but Clarke was aware that the play had proven itself in the choppy commercial waters of Broadway and the West End. Commissioning journalist Fiona Looney to write her first play, Dandelions, and then opening it in the 1,200-seat Olympia Theatre seemed considerably less surefire, but it was buttressed by the marketing push of MCD and the in-built appeal of a star cast. (On the other hand, persuading Paul Howard to tap the Ross O'Carroll Kelly phenomenon for his first play seems safe as houses.)

All have proven shrewd manoeuvres, and when it is pointed out that Miss Julie has secured the longest run Project has ever allowed (five weeks), Clarke adds, almost under her breath, that "we're charging the highest prices". So they are, although 42 per cent of the tickets are available at a concessionary rate and the top price of €30 doesn't come into effect until the last week of performance, to encourage early sales. But Clarke does not conceal a broader philosophy on ticket prices.

"It's not a fashionable point of view," she concedes, "but I actually think ticket prices in this country are too low. And I think it sort of undervalues the work that people do."

It also undermines a production's chances of recouping its budget, particularly in a 200-seat theatre.

"Without substantial grant aid it simply doesn't make sense," Clarke says. "Even with five weeks, even with a reasonable top ticket price, the pre-production costs are just such that you can't hope to bridge that gap at the box office."

SUCH HARD-NOSED REASONING and canny decisions are the prerogative of a producer, but Clarke, who chooses or commissions each play for Landmark, could just as easily be considered the company's artistic director.

"I think people think of producers as being the 'money men' and that's their sole function. It's not," she says. "It's far broader and more creative than that. It can encompass everything from having the initial idea, to bringing together the creative team, to raising the money, to making sure the conditions are right to do the best work."

So far, that approach has almost made Landmark more productive than the company can bear, organising and mounting back-to-back productions from its headquarters ("half of my spare room at home").

As Clarke considers the company's future plans, which include the return of The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger and productions of David Harrower's Knives in Hens and Fiona Looney's new play, October (a sequel to Dandelions), it is clear the company is at full stretch. She seems anxious not to expand, yet determined not to scale back either.

"Part of the reason Landmark has worked, too, is because it has been kept very small until now," she says. "It sort of means I know everything that's happening. Now, that's not sustainable."

No longer averse to risk-taking - "No, I'm getting frighteningly eager to do more of it" - Clarke seems surprised by this side to her character. "Yeah. I would think I'm fairly cautious. But there's always the thrill of finding a new project and starting out on that journey."

That may be why, with productions lined up for the next 12 months, taking on anything else could seem a bit compulsive. "I don't actually have a gap," says Clarke. "But then, at the same time, you get an idea and you can't let it go . . . So I wrote to somebody three days ago and said, 'please write a play'."

Miss Julie opens at Project Arts Centre tonight and continues until Mar 1