Michael Ockwell, chief executive of the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, marks his first two years at the venue on the back of remarkable success.
The Lion King played at the Mayflower for two and a half months this summer to an astonishing 93 per cent of its approx 2,200 capacity.
And so it goes on. He is currently in negotiations for the return to the venue in summer 2018 of a major show likely to achieve similar success.
Post Lion King and barring Shrek next year, after two years in post, Michael has finally reached the point where the programme is entirely his in a business where shows tended to get booked months in advance – a fact which means he is ideally positioned to build on all his successes at the venue so far.
So far, he has presided over a major capital project (extension of foyer and improvement of disabled access); the creation of the theatre’s own theatre; and a major rebranding of the venue. The three strands have merged to entice in younger audiences, heighten awareness and develop audiences from further afield.
“We didn’t want to lose our core audience, but we wanted to make sure that as many people as possible were aware of just want a significant theatre the Mayflower is.”
The venue is the third largest regional theatre after Edinburgh and Liverpool; as for London, it is bigger than the Palladium, than Drury Lane and the Lyceum.
“Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes people aren’t so aware of it just because it is there. But we have been trying to rebrand and rethink our group marketing policy so that we are engaging with our audiences more creatively.”
The results were evident during The Lion King run when 40 per cent of the audience were new attendees at the venue. Michael and the team capitalised on the fact by not holding back on the announcements for next year’s big shows. Normally, a couple would be held back until the autumn. This year, playing at a time when the Mayflower would normally be closed, Michael made sure Lion King audiences could book for 2015’s major events.
Michael will also be ensuring it’s a busy summer again next year – again at a time when it’s been downtime for the venue in the past: “In August next year, we have got two weeks of The Jersey Boys and three weeks of Shrek in July.”
Underlining the scale of it all is the fact that the Mayflower was the only venue south of London capable of taking The Lion King, and Michael is determined to build on the momentum.
“People come a long way to the Mayflower. We talk in terms of 40-minutes’ drive time which puts us into south-west London. We get audiences down from Oxford, and we get people coming in from Dorset.”
Put it all together and within those 40 minutes’ driving, that’s a potential audience of around 1.7 million the venue is keen to serve. Michael is expecting Wicked (October 21 - November 15) to achieve success on a par with The Lion King.
In between times, he has been able to ring the changes.
“Straight after The Lion King, it was important that we had something very, very different. We had Rock of Ages, which was 16-plus. In September, after holidays, mums and dads and children aren’t really focusing so much on entertainment. We had to get something for a different market, which we sometimes haven’t done in the past.”
He’s helped by the fact that there is a lot of good product out there at the moment, with producers much more confident than they were 18 months to two years ago.
“Back then we were getting the same old, same old Blood Brothers and Joseph, not that there is anything wrong with them, but now things are more varied.”
And now that we are moving into a programme that is very much Michael’s own, we can expect to see more theatre coming into the venue – a genre that has been problematic for the Mayflower in the past.
“I have now insisted that every play that we bring in is miked. For every drama, they have to agree to audio enhancement. Some of it had been a little bit hit and miss.”
There will always be actors that will object, insisting that they will be heard without, but Michael has the perfect response, pointing out that they are playing a venue bigger than the Palladium – a riposte to which they don’t have an answer.
“And so we will always try to find four-to-five weeks good-quality drama a year.”