BWW Interview: Paul Taylor-Mills Discusses HIGH FIDELITY at Turbine Theatre
Former Artistic Director of The Other Palace and full-time producer Paul Taylor-Mills opened a new theatre back in August. Well known for his productions of cult musicals, he's now brought a new version of High Fidelity to his own Turbine Theatre.
We jumped on the phone to have a chat with him right after press night to hear about his job as a producer and the noise that surrounds his shows.
There's always a lot of buzz around the shows you're producing - why do you think that happens?
I don't know, people say this. I guess producers are good at different things, and there's lots that I'm not good at, but also lots I am. The marketing and PR around my shows, the people I work with, is something that I take really seriously. I think I've been really lucky that over the years - I'm quite old now and I've done a few of them [laughs] - I've managed to create a brand around me and my work and the kind of shows that I do.
I was in New York last week watching this mad show based on a very, very cult-y film. It was hilarious, people were running around this workshop saying "Oh, this is one for you!". The show is based on a woman who's got a vagina with teeth. Some people get sent these really classy musicals that change the world, but when there's a musical about a vagina with teeth, they say it's a Paul show.
People have created a narrative around the shows that I want to make and the kind of people I want to work with, and I'm thrilled that they get excited when I announce I have something new coming. It's really flattering and I'm really grateful for the support. Of course, that comes with the other side of coin too, and sometimes it's met by people who aren't as kind and as nice. As I get older, that part of it bothers me much less.
What do you think it takes to be a good producer?
I think it takes the understanding that you need to realise if this is something you should be doing, because it's going to be hard. You have to be really, really, really good with people. As I said earlier, different people have different strengths - they have different things that excite them and make them passionate for the work they do.
My big thing is I like people and I like talking to people - well, most of them. I think that as a producer you have to wear many different hats, sometimes all at the same time. But the most important thing is that you need to be able to listen and to understand people and their needs. And to be able to negotiate a balance with all those things.
You seem to be constantly busy - how do you juggle everything?
I don't! I'm currently eating my Nando's while talking to you. I'm actually really terrible at it. It does sometimes feel like you're spending your life putting out fires. The way I juggle it is that I have the best team around me. Everybody I work with is much better at their job than I am, and I'm just hoping that they won't find me out...but now I've just told you!
For instance, my marketing team at Dewynters are incredible, and Emma Holland, my PR, is exceptional. I've got two right-hand people, Gareth and Claire, who look after me and make sure that I'm in the right place. I'm really lucky that over the years I've had people like Bill Kenwright, who's been my guardian angel, my theatre dad - he's looked after me. That's allowed me to be me and make mistakes and make sure I never make them again. I feel like I'm always supported, which is really lovely.
What's your favourite thing about your job and what's your least favourite?
My favourite thing is when I find a show that terrifies me - working out how I put that show into the marketplace, how it's branded, how it's cast. When you find a piece that perhaps hasn't had an easy life or that you know is going to be a challenge, that's a thing that fires me and wakes me up in the morning, because it's a challenge.
The least favourite part of it is probably the lack of awareness about what a producer does - the mystery around what people think it is. Sometimes, that creates problems. In the age of social media, people are very vocal with their problems - that's hard sometimes and not completely helpful.
Your shows sometimes happen to have big pre-existing fanbases - how do you manage expectations?
I've learnt over the years - with things like Heathers or In the Heights - I have a zero tolerance policy to any negativity. I literally block and move on. I just don't deal with it, and that's for my own health, my own sanity. And then, when people are positive, I applaud that. That kind of the playground mentality, that's not part of my job and I don't have to deal with that.
If someone wants to have a chat about why certain decisions are being made, or why I thought it would be best to do things a certain way, then talk to me in the appropriate manner and don't tell me with 140 characters on Twitter. The way I manage it is that I listen to the cast, always. We work in theatre, so there are always going to be problems, obstacles, mishaps.
If someone doesn't understand why I'm making a certain decision, I tell them. I give them the context and I explain it to them. Now, that doesn't mean they're going to like what you say, but I think that if they're smart and you give them the opportunity to understand all of the various situations that you're helicoptering over, perhaps they'll begin to learn that it's not as seemingly straightforward to be a producer as some people might think that it is.
How do you choose your projects?
There are a few things: does it move me in a way, in any way? And by that I mean, does it make me laugh? Does it make me cry? Does it make me think? That doesn't mean that every project I do has to end in tears, but it has to speak to me and move me in some way. That's one thing. Second thing: what does it say about 2019 and the world we live in? Does anyone care?
We forget sometimes that theatre is a business and we have to treat it this way, and I'm always interested in how the content of the show and the people involved in the show, the storytellers, connect with 2019. I ask myself, will anybody care? Something like High Fidelity, it's a really interesting time to do a story like this after the #MeToo movement, because people are talking about the way men behave - or misbehave. It felt like the right time.
This is the second show of your new theatre, the Turbine Theatre - what trajectory do you envision for it? What's the ultimate dream?
This is a small theatre. Already, I'm so, so relieved and flattered with the reception that we've had for it. We made a big bang because it was me. And I wanted to make a big bang, but I also wanted people to take me seriously. I want it to be a place where creative teams and actors can play and make mistakes, where they can feel supported by the people around them.
The biggest, biggest honour and compliment for me is the actors wanting to come to work, walking into that building and going "You know what, it's rough around the edges, but it's a good place to work". One of the actors, I won't embarrass him saying who it is, left me a thank you card and it said that you walk into the building and it feels like a family - you feel loved and looked after. That's really important to me.
Hopefully, within the next year or two we'll have a show that starts off at the Turbine, like Heathers did at The Other Palace, and goes on to have a brilliant life and a future, and a West End transfer and a tour. That's the ultimate goal, isn't it? And then I'll retire and I'll go live on a boat somewhere with my dogs.
What is High Fidelity about?
High Fidelity is about a guy called Rob, who's a bit of a mess. It's really interesting because quite a lot of the reviews have spoken about the fact that he's not likeable because he's a bit of a mess and his treatment of women isn't always fair. You kind of want to punch him in the face. I said to myself, Macbeth isn't very likeable either. For some reason, when it's a play, it's OK to have these kinds of antiheroes. Although Macbeth isn't actually an antihero, he's just a bit of a dick.
In a play we allow ourselves to have those kinds of characters, but when there's music involved we're not allowed to see difficult characters on stage. It's a really, really strange thing. The show is basically about his relationship with women, his inability to communicate, his inability to be objective to situations - which, in my opinion, happens to quite a lot of people.
It's a very human quality. That's what attracted me to the show. Where's the rulebook in musical theatre that says that all the leading characters have to be completely likeable and warm? That's not life, that's not people. That's why I was attracted to it.
You've made some changes to the material - why?
The major change that we made was to relocate it. They relocated the film to Chicago and then they relocated the musical to Brooklyn, but this is a quintessentially British story. It's set in Holloway Road, in Camden - we've all seen those record stores. It just felt very odd to keep it set in America when it's based on a British book.
It's right to bring it back home, because we're in London. The characters are quintessentially British; it's a domestic story about a guy and his relationship with women. It could be set anywhere, but since we're doing it in London, it should be where it's originally set.
How would you describe the show?
Imagine a rock concert meets The Great British Bake Off meets Acorn Antiques meets Hairspray. People leave the auditorium beaming, in most cases. It's probably one of the most complicated shows I've ever done tonally. It's this curious mixture of genres, and that's why I love it. People find that hard to absorb sometimes.
Why should people come and see it?
If you're a fan of musical theatre, and a fan of - or intrigued by - real people on stage in a musical theatre scenario, they should come and see it. An 11-strong cast at the top of their game in an intimate setting.