Kenny Wax – Gentleman Producer: a profile by Anthony Field

Kenny Wax (from Kennywax.com website)

In looking back through the writings of my late colleague Anthony Field CBE, I came across this profile of one of the finest producers we have – and President of the Society of London Theatre from 2017-2020, Kenny Wax. Through a long acquaintance with Kenny, this affectionate portrait of a tenacious and committed producer who started at the bottom and worked his way up, rings with his genuine love of theatre, and highlights his biggest hit to date, the triple Olivier-winning TOP HAT (although his current production of SIX may well prove just as enduring). Enjoy this canter through Kenny’s career to date, which was written in September 2011.

The World Premiere musical TOP HAT now touring the UK is a highpoint in the career of one of our most successful young producers, Kenny Wax. Having assembled a superb team to realise the stage version of the iconic Astaire Rogers 1935 movie, he has succeeded in creating a Art Deco delight of a scale and quality not seen in recent times. As more people start to recognise his name above a production, it seems that now is a good time to relate the story of his career and how he came to stage this ambitious project.

Kenny Wax has spent the last 23 years working his way up the slippery slope of becoming a commercial theatre producer. When he entered the industry at 21 he had no stage management training and no practical experience. “I had taken a couple of parts in school productions, but never for a moment considered being an actor”.

At 18, he went to Central London Polytechnic to do a degree in Business Studies. “I found it terribly dull and couldn’t apply anything I’d learned to the real world. The only good thing about it was that it gave me time to  figure out what I wanted to do. I spent a tedious year at Dixons Head Office as part of my placement. Until then I had considered a career in Personnel for one of the big retail chains. It certainly wasn’t for me. During my time in London I had become rather obsessed with the London theatre scene. Everyone appears to remember one defining show which shaped their decision to become a producer and mine was possibly “Me and My Girl” when Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson charmed the whole Adelphi audience. Perhaps my decision was also influenced by my brother who at that time was a staff director at the National Theatre.

“As soon as I graduated, I started wandering the West End in search of a job. The theatre manager of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane had one remaining place for an usher on a big new show which started previewing the next day. Watching those first few performances of “Miss Saigon” I was smitten.

I had written to every producer for an opening in their office to no avail so I was presumptious enough to thrust a letter into Cameron Mackintosh’s hand one day when he was around the theatre. He invited me to tea at his office during which time  we spent 1½ hours talking about our fanatical love of musicals. What struck me as so incredible was that the producer with the biggest show just about to open was the only person who gave me the time of day when so many others had shut the door. Cameron advised me that if I was serious about producing then the most important thing was to learn all aspects of the industry.”

Kenny found a job by day as a foot messenger for Dewynters, the theatre advertising and design agency, and within weeks they offered him a position in the media department.

That year coincided with the first year of Cameron Mackintosh’s Oxford University Professorship. “I went along to some of the lectures and as chance would have it, met George Stiles who enthused about his new musical “Just So” which was shortly to go into rehearsal at the Tricycle Theatre”. Kenny got hold of the demo tapes and badgered Cameron into giving him a job on the show as a runner. It meant leaving Dewynters, having been there for eighteen months, and they wouldn’t hold the job open. He had to decide to leave a full-time salaried position in a leading agency for the gamble of a 6 week job as a runner which would be paying pocket money. “It was a no-brainer and that six weeks was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent working in this crazy industry. I look back now and can’t believe how outrageously precocious I was or how they put up with me. The late great Mike Ockrent said to me at one point, the only reason I wasn’t fired was because he hoped that one day I would offer him a directing job!” Sadly, that never got to happen as Mike passed away in 1999. Kenny did however form some wonderful friendships with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

“At the first night of ‘JUST SO’ at the Tricycle I met Sue Uings who was enormously helpful, giving me a chance to work at the New London where ‘CATS’ was running. There I worked in the box-office by day and as a follow-spot operator by night presenting the back-stage tours between the matinees and the evening performances. I got a real buzz from working at the New London and the strange, inexplicable magic of ‘CATS’ will remain with me for many years to come.”

Kenny left the New London to gain experience in a totally different environment working for the late Dan Crawford at the King’s Head Theatre Club.

“I produced some Sunday night shows at the King’s Head and I shall never forget the feeling at the first performance of ‘KICKING THE CLOUDS AWAY’. The opening of ‘Doors’ from ‘CLOSER THAN EVER’ brought a tumultous reception; the place went wild and at that moment all my years of work learning the business came into focus. I was lucky to have a fantastic cast with Clive Rowe, Hal Fowler, Claire Burt and Nick Holder – and the sheer elation convinced me that I was right in my determination to be a producer. And I have been very lucky because everyone I have worked with in the business has remained a good friend and faithful colleague. Perhaps I lack a ruthless streak. That sort of management is not really my style. I think things generally get done better with straight talking and level-headedness than with shouting and screaming.”

Thus, perhaps like Michael Redington, Kenny remains a gentleman producer, laid back, patient and determined. Whilst at the King’s Head he remained in contact with some of the students from the Sondheim Master Classes, one of whom was Ed Hardy who came to him to ask him to administrate a new writers’ organisation. Kenny politely declined but came up with a plan to produce a collaborative musical to launch the writers’ organisation which would become known as The Mercury Workshop. 

They produced ‘THE CHALLENGE’ at the Shaw Theatre, a retelling of the Daedalus/Icarus legend. “Book writer Stephen Clark constructed a storyline and we allocated each writing team a section to suit their own particular style. Contributors included George Stiles, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Jason Carr, Stephen Keeling, Charles Hart, Howard Goodall, Anthony Drewe; indeed, the cream of British creative talent. Sacha Brooks co-produced the show which was directed by Steven Dexter. It attracted a great deal of attention, with Stephen Sondheim coming from New York to see it with Cameron Mackintosh.

“The success of ‘THE CHALLENGE’ led to Gary Withers offering me a job in the new Entertainments division of Imagination on the basis that anyone crazy enough to produce that show deserved to work for Imagination. I worked there for three years, developing such musicals as ‘TUTANKHAMEN’ and ‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’ which was transferred from Birmingham Rep. to the West-End, co-directed by the late, great David Toguri and Gwenda Hughes. The show was nominated for four Olivier awards and won the one for Best Musical.”

In 1995 Kenny Wax formed his own Company and produced ‘MADDIE’ at Salisbury Playhouse which received great reviews in the local and all the National press and a rave from the Daily Telegraph. As so often happens, the production transferred to the Lyric Theatre where it was met with a divided press. Kenny acknowledges that with more experience and a bigger budget he might have nursed the show into success but he chose to close it to ensure he could pay off all his creditors.

 As one door closed another opened and Andrew Empson invited him to join Peter Wilson and himself at PW Productions as Tour Booker and then General Manager. Kenny now produces his own shows which have included tours of Gerald Moon’s comedy thriller ‘CORPSE’, the RNT’s Olivier-Award winning musical ‘HONK’, “THE SHELL SEEKERS’ with Stephanie Cole, ‘MY BOY JACK’ with David Haig and Belinda Lang and Neil LaBute’s ‘THE SHAPE OF THINGS’ in the West End. He managed a gala at the Bristol Old Vic for Cameron Mackintosh to honour Julian Slade marking 50 years since the first performance of ‘SALAD DAYS’. Kenny now co-produces with Nick Brooke a number of young people’s successes such as ‘THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA’ and ‘THE GRUFFALO’ But the really exciting leap forward for Kenny is his production of the classic musical ‘TOP HAT’ starring Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen, currently touring the regions to great acclaim. It is daring move to stage a large-scale, really lavish musical at a time when many producers are drawing in their budgets, but audience response is enthusiastic and the show has a wide fan base across the generations.

So what does Kenny think are the two most difficult problems to crack at this moment of time? “Well, raising the money and raising the money. There is now some valuable support from Stage One who particularly try to encourage younger producers and I have also had some financial help over the years from Arts Council England for touring work. I still rely heavily on private investors but there are only a finite number of times you can ask the same person if you haven’t been able to return their money.”


                                                                                               

Take a look inside the V&A’s Theatre and Performance archive which is under threat

Since the appalling decision to greatly reduce access to the V&A’s Theatre and Performance collection and fire two-thirds of the specialist staff and curators, there has been a justifiable outcry from academic institutions and the general public.

While this is to be expected, many of this blog’s readers have contacted me to ask about the archive as they have never personally visited it themselves, and so find it hard to fully appreciate what treasure lies within its parameters.

And so now you can go inside the collection, thanks to a short film called ENCOUNTERS IN THE ARCHIVE which takes you inside the collection, to look at some of the costumes, with expert curators discussing the works and their significance.

The film lasts 17 minutes. ENCOUNTERS IN THE ARCHIVE was conceived and produced by Donatella Barbieri and filmed and edited by filmmaker Netia Jones.

I am confident that after just a few minutes of this fascinating viewing, you’ll want to ask all your friends and colleagues to sign the petition to save the collection from being locked away from public sight potentially forever.

Watch ENCOUNTERS IN THE ARCHIVE here

Please sign the petition to save the V&A collection and its staff here


LATE ADDITION – Lord Smith has tabled a question in the House of Lords, which you can find here . While useful for drawing attention to this attempted cultural vandalism, if you share my wary opinion of our corrupt parliamentary system you may well agree with me that this has very little real value.


UPDATE

Statement upon the proposed restructuring & job losses at the V&A Theatre & Performance Department. 30 March

Statement

The V&A internal consultation process with its staff is concluding at the end of March.  To my knowledge there has been no consultation with the industry or related bodies in the SIBMAS community. This is very disappointing for a museum with the reputation of the V&A, who say they value their performing arts collections, which are internationally so important.
 
SIBMAS continues to have concerns about what is going on as suddenly the Theatre & Performance Department, which are part of a distinct unit/department are now tied into the National Art Library review, when there is no obvious connection between National Art Library and Theatre & Performance Department.  Indeed, National Art Library does not collect performing arts library materials. It is the Theatre & Performance team of experts that cover it within their remit in a different location & departmental structure. This is evident through V&A annual reports and museum’s collection policy. SIBMAS finds this confusing, and we ask for clarification, over potential jobs losses or furloughing of Theatre & Performance staff.  We continue to ask for the V&A to have a consultation with SIBMAS & the industry it serves. In such a consultation we would emphasize once again that the V&A should make sure the Theatre & Performance Department is saved as an actual specialist entity within its restructuring.
 
The V&A management and Board of Trustees have been appointed well after the Theatre Museum closure in 2007 to save money.  They may not be aware of the great uproar at that time. It was seen then that the Theatre Museum closure was the sacrificial cow to save the V&A money. Theatre & Performance should not take disproportionate cuts in any reorganisation.  I believe that they have forgotten that performing arts collections needs a different approach to the decorative arts and crafts, to keep their unique character, as recognised by UNESCO.

Alan R. Jones ( President of SIBMAS )


National Theatre’s Drama Teacher Conference draws 500 teachers!

Over the half term holiday, almost 500 drama teachers from across the UK gave up their half-term to attend the National’s first-ever digital Drama Teacher Conference. As this was the first time the conference was held online, the benefit was that they were able to welcome more than triple the number of teachers they can normally host at the NT.

Attendees were able to join over 30 masterclasses led by leading theatre makers including director Marianne Elliott (Angels in America), actor Maxine Peake, and theatre critic Lyn Gardner.  

During the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, drama teachers have faced significantly more than their fair share of disruption, with drama being such a practical subject, and so the flexibility, ingenuity and sheer dedication of drama teachers across the UK is to be applauded. On top of that, how amazing that so many dedicated teachers voluntarily gave up their own half term break! 

It’s teachers who inspire the next generation of theatre-makers, and I am sure that we are all grateful for their dedication and love for not only their subject, but also for their students.


Bring back the Solotoria!

With the pandemic curtailing most theatre as we have previously experienced it, producers and entrepreneurs have been spurred into creative overdrive in considering new and unusual forms of theatre spaces.

Brilliant independent producer Katy Lipson is part of a consortium engaged in design and construction of Vertical Theatre, a space for a variety of theatre forms in an in-the-round configuration with a majority of the audience seated in vertically tiered boxes. This space is designed to be portable so that it can be constructed, run and then struck and toured around the country, rather in the way we are used to seeing circuses sweep across the country’s parks and green spaces. Its an interesting idea.

Then there is the group who are planning drive-in theatre at one of the big London exhibition centres. Not sure how this one will rate, especially with all those emisssions (from the cars!).

In all of this creative flurry, one recent innovation sprang to mind whose time has perhaps finally come.

Of what do I speak, dear reader?

The Solotoria, of course!

What do you mean you’ve never heard of it!

As described on its website, Solotoria is ” a spectacular theatrical experience……one person at a time.”

Created by LIPA graduates Ashley Shairp and Sam Heath, Solotoria offers one person a 3-minute show in the plush surroundings that we have all missed this last year.

Audients can choose from attending the “Mini Blackpool Grand Theatre” for a comedy or a magic show. Those with higher-brow tastes can attend the “Mini Royal Opera House, Covent Garden” for a programme of either ballet or opera.

As the website describes, “the individual (solo) audience member wears a pair of headphones and places their head inside the space – the experience is immersive: each show has its own soundscape, the auditorium lights dim and the show begins…

The Solotoria toured the UK in 2014/5 to great interest and public acclaim for its ingenuity and care in its detailing of both auditoria models, as well as the mini-shows themselves.

You can watch a video of audients at a Mini Royal Opera House preview show here

And you can view the Solotoria at their website here

And here, at last, is the view of the Solotoria’s Mini Royal Opera House. Just for you!

(With thanks to Dr Maria Barrett for reminding me of this item)


Fascinating evolution of London’s West End explored in online talk – now available to watch

On the evening of Monday March 1st, the Streatham Society hosted a very interesting online talk by Professor Rohan McWilliams entitled “London’s West End: Creating the Pleasure District, 1800-1914” 

Detailing the evolution of the area as a shopping and entertainment destination, there were a number of fascinating changes which the area went through in the nineteenth century to become an early version of what we still recognise today as the West End.

I was surprised to hear that one of the most important developments were the provision of ladies’ lavatories. Something that the West End theatres could certainly still do with a lot more of, over a century later!

We also learned where the colonnades which originally lined Regent Street were removed to – and why they had to be removed in the first place!

Fascinating glimpses of an evolution which embraced panoramas, music halls, and so much more, this was an enlightening way to spend an hour.

You can enjoy a recording of the talk which is now available here  

Thanks to the Streatham Society for yet another interesting talk.