As a seasoned touring Company Manager, Neil White has been a part of shows as diverse as Flashdance and, taking them to audiences across the UK and visiting many of the country’s fantastic theatres and venues.
WithUK tour kicking off in Cardiff this week, Neil told us what it’s like to manage the touring production of such a well-loved show – and one with such a large cast…
What does your role involve? What do you do?
What do I do? Paperwork! (laughs). No, I’m Company Manger so I’m management’s representative of the show on tour. So basically I’m there to make sure everyone is in the right place to make sure the show happens each night. I liaise with the theatres and I liaise with our press and marketing department to make sure interviews happen. And I am there for the company if they need my support.
Do you have support yourself?
On tour I have a stage management team that work with me, there’s Eddie our Stage Manager, a Deputy Stage Manager and two Assistant Stage Managers. A tour becomes like a big family, with all the problems big families have – I always say the show is a bit like Christmas day, for those few hours of the show it’s Christmas day and everyone has to get on, so it does become like a big touring family.
What did you do before joining
I toured as company manager with Flashdance, before that I did Equus with Alfie Allen and Simon Callow, and before that I did for 2 ½ years on tour.
There appears to be a theme there – do you always work on touring productions?
That is what it looks like, yes! To a certain extent that has been where the work has been, but also I enjoy it. I like the challenge of touring and I like taking these shows that have previously been in the West End out of London and actually reaching people in other parts of the country who would otherwise not be able to see it. Especially with a show like Starlight – we took Starlight to theatres you wouldn’t ever expect Starlight Express to go to, and there was a whole new audience out there. I find more and more now that theatre isn’t just about the West End, provincial theatre is getting so important and so busy, the challenge of taking big shows out is great.
Do you think that this growing appreciation of theatre is due to any extent to the phenomenon of casting by TV and the wider audience that medium reaches?
The whole casting by TV has had a phenomenal affect on theatre, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria was obviously the first one and the continuing interest in The Sound of Music because of it is huge. But also that whole thing of putting musical theatre out there as prime time Saturday night TV is just incredible.
It’s very much reaching people who have never been to the theatre before isn’t it?
In theatre there has always been a tendency towards a bit of snobbery. There has been the view that people in the provinces will go and see panto possibly but that traditional theatre didn’t seem that accessible. But casting by TV put theatre into people’s living rooms. Also by supporting and voting for their favourites people had more of a connection with the shows and those appearing in it. It became accessible again, which it should be.
Is this a particularly large touring production?
It is, but also because we have the children touring with us as well there are extra elements involved like chaperones and tutors so a lot of our job is scheduling and coordinating.
And also The Sound of Music is a very big production to tour. I think normally we have 71 of our staff in the building with cast, children and orchestra. We have up to 86 on our payroll plus the theatre staff as well so we have well over 100 people working on the show every night.
And you have a full orchestra?
Yes. We’ve probably got the largest touring orchestra of any musical currently on the road.
How many lorries does it take to transport the show?
Ten. Ten 45ft lorries. That’s 450ft of scenery! Which has to fit into each of the venues.
Does someone in your team have to make the accommodation arrangements for everyone in each of the venues?
Yes they do for the children. The rest of the company have to find their own accommodation. Every regional theatre has a digs list and they vary from very luxury flats to old ladies’ box rooms. People who have toured before know the good places to stay. A lot of the time it’s pot luck. You arrive on a Monday in a new town and it could be wonderful – or it could be hell on earth!
And the choice of accommodation is important as you could be staying there for some weeks…
Yes. We’re in Cardiff for seven weeks to start with, then we do four weeks in Bradford, four weeks in Southampton, three weeks Milton Keynes, three weeks Sunderland, five weeks Manchester, five weeks Edinburgh…. So if you get accommodation you are not particularly happy with it’s horrible!
When do you get to go home?
Well actually I live in Bradford so I’m quite lucky really, the second venue of the tour I’m home for a month which is good. When you do a long sit-down on a tour, you actually do get the weekends off, which is nice. Especially with our Cardiff schedule, because we do a matinee on a Sunday and then we don’t have a show until Tuesday evening, so you actually get a bit more time on that. But touring – you sort of put your life a little bit on hold and you do live out of a suitcase. Although the first thing I do at every venue is unpack – unpack completely!
It can’t be that bad if you keep doing it…!
If you do a show in London people arrive, do their job and go home. With a tour, you know that every three or four weeks you’ll have a press night. Also when you do these bigger shows it’s like the circus coming to town, you’ve got a massive company.
The tour is creating a lot of excitement throughout the UK…
Yes, for a lot of venues we’re going to it’s such a major event. It’s the sort of show that people really want to see at the moment – it’s got really good messages in, it’s got the feelgood factor, also it’s family-oriented, the whole price structure for the tour is based round families as well. I think with the economic climate it’s the sort of thing people want to spend a little bit of money on and know they are going to have a good time.
It sounds exciting…
The reaction you get is so different to being in London. Often you find the further North you go, or the further East or West, the reaction gets bigger. I was telling Connie (Fisher) who, like many of our cast members, has never toured before, that the audience you will get at a show in Sunderland or Bradford or Scotland is just that much more responsive
And the venues themselves must vary considerably from one to another?
Yes. Our first venue is amazing. The Wales Millennium Centre is such an iconic building – you can see it for about a mile and a half before you get there and at night it’s the most beautiful building as well. It’s just an incredible place to work. And for a modern theatre – it actually feels like a classic theatre, it’s got so much atmosphere, because the whole building is copper and slate – so you’ve got a copper roof on the theatre, the auditorium’s beautiful wood – it is an amazing place to work.
Do most touring shows do 8 performances a week?
If your producers are nice to you, you get away with doing 8 shows a week, but for other shows because it costs so much money to put a show into a venue and take it out again, you have to do as many shows a week as possible. A lot of shows have to do 3 performances on a Saturday but with a show like The Sound of Musicwe just couldn’t do 3 shows, it’s not fair on the children.
With shows coming out of venues and the next one going in do you find you meet up with the same people from other shows all the time?
Not often. One show finishes their “get out” at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and you’ll go in at 12 o’clock so you don’t get much crossover. But the great thing is for venues like Manchester, at Christmas when we’re there, because White Christmas is at the Lowry, there’s pantomime at the Opera House, so there’s a massive theatre community up there and everyone will know each other – so it will become like Manchester’s own West End up there at Christmas!
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