Avenue Q is a big deal. The naughty show opened on Broadway in 2003. It won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It’s been performed around the world. It’s earned a huge amount of money. Now there’s a new UK tour, which will be visiting Sunderland, and it’s being produced by Phillip Rowntree, a 27-year-old with a lot of responsibility to shoulder.
Phillip grew up in Ashington and his love of theatre started with his membership of several local amateur dramatics organisations, as well as the drama he did at The King Edward VI School in Morpeth. He loved acting primarily, and after leaving school he enrolled in drama school at the Liverpool Institute for Performance Arts.
‘At drama school I realised I had a slight knack for putting things together,’ he explains. ‘Not necessarily producing, but organising the various elements and putting on my own shows, but it wasn’t until I graduated and tried to be an actor and a producer that I realised I enjoyed producing a lot more than I enjoyed being an actor.’
He graduated in 2009 and moved to London to chase his dream, where he ended up doing card tricks in Harrods to flog magic kits – not so abracadabra. After a few months he got his first acting job and spent six months performing in Austria, before concentrating on his own company, the Sell A Door Theatre Company, producing theatre around the country – ‘I’m now a full-time producer,’ he says with an understandable amount of pride.
Since starting the company Phillip and his business partner have produced theatre ranging from small studio pieces to big famous shows, like Avenue Q. The process of putting together a production is far from easy, and it begins with finding a show in the first place.
‘You have to work out who owns the copyright to these pieces, who their agent is, and then you approach them and ask to do it,’ Phillip explains. ‘There are various steps, but ultimately if they like you and they want you to do it, they say you can do it.’
Sometimes the owners of the copyright say no, but usually they say yes. Once a show has been found, Phillip sits down with his business partner to create a budget.
‘We have an idea now of how much it will cost from experience,’ he continues. ‘You then see what the show needs and how much that’s going to cost, and you see how much you can potentially achieve from the venues that you’ve been able to book or that you need to book, and then you go from there.’
Going from there means finding money. A big part of Phillip’s job is wrangling a pool of investors to fund the production – usually they are people who have been successful in life and who love the theatre, and who want to contribute to it and support it.
‘You meet people from a conversation here and a drink there, bumping into someone in the theatre or inviting someone to see the show,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to actively find these people. No one rocks up at your door and says, “Hi there, here’s some money,” but that’s all part of the job.’
Finally, he has to put together a cast and crew. On Avenue Q there were 35 people on the books at its peak. Now that it’s on the road there are 23 employees. The show will be visiting 29 venues (Sunderland is in the middle of the tour), which means considerable expense that Phillip keeps an eye on from the company’s office in Greenwich. It seems like a daunting undertaking, especially for a 27-year-old.
‘It is scary when a show’s not doing well,’ admits Phillip. ‘That’s when it’s scary. But I think you’ve got to be of a certain disposition to do this job, and I certainly am. I’m very calm. I suppose it is daunting but we didn’t jump into doing productions like Avenue Q. You begin to expand to the point where you think that it’s second nature.’
Avenue Q is one of the biggest productions Phillip has done so far. He describes it as having ‘just the right amount of naughty’ and ‘a lot of heart’. It’s certainly got a reputation for being funny and a bit cheeky – ‘I think people will find it a breath of fresh air compared to the standard touring show, and I think people will be blown away,’ he says.
After this tour Phillip is eyeing the next logical career step for a theatre producer: the West End. He’s already dipped his toe in the West End with Seussical (a musical based on the books of Dr Seuss), which was at the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square, one of the West End’s small theatres. The plan is to find something to put on in a bigger venue.
‘You’ve just got to bide your time,’ he cautions, ‘Because if you do one and you do it wrong, and you lose a lot of money, then you are scuppered for the future. Certainly if you’ve lost a lot of money from your investors they’re not going to give it to you again. So you have to be really careful. That’s why we’re going to bide our time.’
And surely the ultimate aim is to end up producing shows on Broadway?
‘Broadway is a different kettle of fish altogether,’ he laughs. ‘Let’s do the West End first.’
Avenue Q will be at the Sunderland Empire 14th to 16th July. To book tickets go to www.atgtickets.com