Whoever heard of a theatre company that consistently made a profit? Why, the drama industry is littered with tales of productions that ran millions into the red before anyone bothered to check the accounts.
And if you speak to your average thespian too harshly about the need to be commercially aware, chances are you’ll get a sneering look as they mutter something about great art being sacrificed for Mammon. But actually theatre companies that make a profit are not as uncommon as some might presume.
PEEL (Partnership Entertainment Events Ltd) has been making profit every year since it started in the late 1990s presenting theatrical events in Yorkshire’s museums.
It’s grown too, to the point where it is now organising educational and inspiring theatre events for cruise lines including Fred Olsen and Thomson, which is interesting for a company based in the landlocked towns of Skipton and Keighley.
“You could be walking along the high street in Keighley between Marks & Spencer and the Co-op and have no idea that above you are 60 or 70 singers, dancers and actors learning their lines,” says founder and managing director Susannah Daley. She thinks not being based by the sea is actually an advantage when it comes to deciding how people might like to be entertained on board.
“You certainly don’t get many cruise ships on the Leeds to Liverpool Canal,” she says. “But maybe if you were in Southampton you would be too focused on the mechanics of the ship.” Sitting in the café in the Dan Pearson-designed garden at Broughton Hall where PEEL has its head office, and where it recently put on a promenade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Daley says the need to make a decent return – something she also managed to do the first time she took a show as a student theatre producer to the Edinburgh Festival – was part of the business ethic first drilled into her at the age of nine when she joined a youth theatre group in her native Keighley.
“I was very well disciplined in teamwork and being on time,” she says. “And on seeing a project through and committing to it. It’s not just your theatre group, it’s a way of life.
It had a real effect on me.” They may sound like the words of a travelling minstrel were it not for the fact that we are talking about a £4.5m turnover company; one that employs more than 200 people throughout the year, and takes what it produces very seriously indeed. Each show is meticulously researched, and nothing is left to the improvisational skills of the actors. Everything is scripted and tested back home in Skipton.
“What we do is above all truthful,” Susannah says. “If we do Moulin Rouge, we do it properly and go back to the Degas paintings.” There’s clearly careful consideration of the audience too: one recent show about Africa and European settlers’ reaction to it – the kind of thought-provoking piece Daley is pleased Thomson allows them to do – included the song Zambesi.
This song, that any child could easily pick up, was a hit for the Piranhas back in 1982, so it could be recognised by all those parents on board who might want to forget their New Romantic days. And before that it was a hit for both Lou Busch and Eddie Calvert in the 1950s, so grandparents wouldn’t feel left out either.
It’s not surprising, then, that the company has impressed its clients over the years. First Choice, which was the first cruise company to take them on, put all its cruise operations into a joint venture with Royal Caribbean called Island Cruises two years later, and they initially decided to opt for another provider for entertainment, partly because that company could offer other services PEEL couldn’t at the time.
But they were asking for PEEL to come back less than a year later when the new provider failed to come up to scratch. “In the meantime, we had got a much better offer from Thomson Cruises,” says Daley.
“Though the irony is that Thomson and Island have now merged.” The entertainment PEEL currently provides for Thomson regularly comes top in polls of on-board entertainment carried out by trade magazine Travel Trade Gazette.
Daley first got into what she calls ‘museum theatre’ when she chased up an advert for actors to do special shows at what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT) while she was at drama college.
It was something she followed up very much on her own initiative, she says, as the tutors at the college seemed more interested in their lunchtime pints. The then head of the museum, Colin Ford, only agreed to see her after she badgered him persistently.
But at the interview they discovered they shared a passion for the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Ford is a world expert on her, and Daley had studied her for her photography A-level, though she admits that she “never bothered to see who had written the books”. But the shared interest led to a strong friendship and Ford is now chairman of PEEL.
“We started a company called Action Replay Theatre in my last year at college,” says Daley, “and as soon as I finished college I went there full time. I was there for about eight years. It was brilliant. I remember a show we did about Perestroika because an exhibition came called Mother Russia. We had all these amazing photographs. We did a big one on death too.” Daley, who had won a BBC young playwright competition for a comedy about children dying and going to Heaven admits with a chuckle that that makes her sound rather morbid.
“But the show was about how death is treated in different cultures and being in Bradford that was really important.” Towards the end of her time at the museum she organised a weekend for similar groups which ran theatre productions in museums, and the requests she had from museums that did not have such a group persuaded her that the time had come to branch out and offer her services elsewhere.
And so the Daley Partnership, later renamed PEEL, was born. Early clients included the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, and then Tetley’s Brewery in Leeds.
There they provided educational performances in the morning, but in a new departure for the company, and because of the clientele, were asked to put on song and dance shows in the evening.
“They said, ‘surely you can do that?’,” says Daley. “We couldn’t then. But I thought, ‘well, we’ll find out if we can’.” And they did, and once again impressed the client.
Then, a director from Tetley’s went to work for a branding agency whose major client was First Choice. PEEL was duly recommended when First Choice was looking for an entertainment provider for its new venture in cruising.
“He phoned to say we should put our name forward,” says Daley, “and I said I couldn’t think why he would think of us. I had never even been on a boat. But he said First Choice wanted something different because they were new to the market. There were 10 on the shortlist from all over the world, and reluctantly - very reluctantly - and only because of this guy, they put us as number 11.” Notwithstanding her misgivings about the contract on offer, she knew she might be onto a good thing.
The NMPFT was in the process of being renamed and rebranded as the National Media Museum, and its new head had ideas about what it should include - and that didn’t necessarily include live theatre.
A special Spotlight Gallery that had been specially created for the company was subsequently demolished during the museum’s expansion.
“The National Lottery had given lots of grants to new museums too,” she says, “but at the time no one had any revenue to run them, Daley realised that the cruise contract was a make or break opportunity. So when PEEL got down to a shortlist of four, contending against some industry leaders, she knew they would have to put everything into it.
“That was a challenge,” she says, “because we had to put on a show and we hadn’t actually been on a ship by then. But at the time we were running an education programme with Blackpool Tower, and they had a sailor’s bar. We hired dancers from Pleasure Beach and we already had singers; though only because they happened to be actors who could sing. We put our heads together and spent just about every last penny we had at the bank at the time. We felt we had got to show we could do it. We had £18,000 left and threw it on the stage. I remember it seemed an awful lot of money then.”
Above all, knowing that First Choice was looking for something completely different from the usual onboard cabaret shows, she wanted to demonstrate the company’s educational side. So they imagined they were doing a show on ship bound for Corsica, and came up with a scenario where you got to meet that island’s most famous son, Napoleon.
“First Choice thought that was a really good idea,” she says, “so against all the odds, we got through.” PEEL now organises all the entertainment – not just theatre, but children’s activities and so on – on four of Thomson’s ships.
It now also has a contract with Fred Olsen cruises – although to ensure that they are not duplicating what they offer Thomson they only provide a set number of shows for them.
“If we did what we do with Thomson with anyone else it would be a bit like committing adultery,” says Daley.
Earlier this year the company also won a contract to provide entertainment for Warner Hotels’ Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. But although another contract win looks imminent, Daley says she is not necessarily looking to take the company further into the hotel sector.
“The reason we took up the Warner contract was the unique nature of the hotels and the historic houses,” she says.
“I couldn’t see that translating to anywhere that didn’t have a story to tell. You would then become an agency, and I’m not interested in being that at all.
“But I am interested in how we might work on the web.
Video has been a difficult part of the web, but now video streaming is becoming so easy, people want videos but they want people who can do the research, and that’s us.” Such projects mean there is little time for her to enjoy the writing she used to - though Colin Ford, now Dr Colin Ford after he took a doctorate in museum theatre – does some for them.
Daley says she doesn’t mind because she is just as happy helping to create a great business.
She gets irritated, in fact, by people who find a combination of theatricality and commerciality odd.
“One of my big bugbears is that in this country we are separated into either creative or business,” she says.
“There is this idea that if you want to be a good actor you have to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
If I had any desire to go into there it would be to show people that you do not have to feel you’re only legitimate if someone is giving you a grant.
“There is a terrible fear that the other kind of more commercial theatre is awful unless you are Cameron Mackintosh. But think what he must have had to go through, with plenty of failures. Most young actors need to earn a living.
What we offer is a beautiful mix.” She does concede, however, that there is a need for subsidised theatre as a core of the industry – and admits that there are facets to that side of theatrical life she would find intimidating – not least getting people to come to the show in the first place. After all, what PEEL works with on ships is largely a captive audience.
“At the moment our business is business-tobusiness,” she says, “whereas a West End show is very much business-to-consumer.
I would be quite green about that.” Nevertheless, there are ways in which she says the work PEEL does benefits theatre as a whole in this country.
“If you said to someone, ‘would you like to see a play about the history of Thoresby Hall?’, they would say no,” she says.
“But if you showed them the history while they were there, they would say, ‘that’s fantastic, I didn’t know that’. We’re bringing people to theatre who may not realise that theatre is actually where they are being brought.
“On ships particularly, the number of people who have said, ‘I’d never been to the theatre before, but I think I’m going to go now’, is phenomenal. We get that from hundreds of people.” And it is more than likely that were she to put her mind to it, she would probably be able to devise a perfectly respectable West End show, as she has had such ideas before. A show by her might even be phenomenal. Some 12 years ago, for example, she came up with an idea for a musical based around Abba songs. Sounds familiar? Daley laughs.
“A friend actually said, ‘I can’t believe you did that before that lady who wrote Mamma Mia’. I said, ‘I can’t believe she thought to write to Benny and Bjorn, and I didn’t!’ That’s the kind of thing I would have done if the business hadn’t been taking up so much of my time.” But with a business that in the height of the season is entertaining over 8,000 people a week, there is still a lot to be contented about.