BWW Interview: Paul Taylor-Mills Talks HEATHERS and The Other Palace

BWW Interview: Paul Taylor-Mills Talks HEATHERS and The Other Palace
Paul Taylor-Mills

Paul Taylor-Mills has recently stepped down as the Artistic Director of The Other Palace, though he will continue working there in the role of Affiliate Producer while also pursuing his own independent projects.

He has many producing credits to his name already, including the popular In the Heights at the Southwark Playhouse and King's Cross Theatre and Heathers - currently on at The Other Palace, and which will transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in September.

How did you first become interested in theatre?

I always had a curiosity to be involved in theatre and I never really thought I'd do anything else. I didn't want to be a vet or a lawyer. Theatre was my everything. I had to think if I could word that better because it makes me sound very sad, but it was my everything. For a boy from a very small, quite narrow-minded town, theatre was my opportunity to vent and express and be creative.

I was heavily involved in amateur dramatics as a kid. I did every show that I could. Then I went to university in Bath, and as I left Bath, I really wanted to be a director. When you're a pioneering director, you put on your own work. In producing my own work as a director, I realised I much preferred producing and leading on the casting or the marketing campaign or making sure the right people were around the creative team.

Along the way, I came across some shows that had various degrees of success, most notably In the Heights. It was really In the Heights that changed my life. That's how I met Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bill Kenwright. I'm really lucky that I've got these incredible legends in my life who've supported me relentlessly over the years.

Can you describe your career path from In the Heights to now?

In the Heights had a similar trajectory to Heathers. We ran at the Southwark Playhouse and it became a huge hit there. Again, it was a small theatre and a limited run, and it's very hard to ascertain if that success is real beyond its initial run. It took us a year and a half to finally make to the decision to move it to King's Cross Theatre.

We were having a lovely run there and then the Oliviers happened and we were the absolute underdog. We were the show that started in an off-West End theatre and we were nominated for four awards. We won three.

You know, 26-year-old me couldn't believe my luck. I was flabbergasted. It changed my life. I remember literally the following week, I was having meetings with everybody and it was that show that meant I met Andrew. I started off as Andrew's advisory producer and then from that, became the Artistic Director here.

I've served here for a year and a half, but three years in total with Andrew. After three years with him, I'm starting to think about what the next step for me is. It's brilliant that I'm still the Affiliate Producer, so I have the ability to do things here and elsewhere.

There's been some controversy around Heathers and whether or not this is a full production...

It was an opportunity to get the show right and to make sure we used its time at The Other Palace in the same way that you would an out-of-town tryout in America. Obviously, a year and a half ago, when I took over The Other Palace, the mantra or the vision was to have a space whereby the creative team can have the freedom and the opportunity to make choices about the show without the pressures of critics.

And it caused quite an interesting reaction to not let them in. I think the main reason for the reaction was probably because of the ticket price. In most of the articles written about the ticket price, what nearly every publication failed to do is mention that as well as £75 seats, there's also half of the house under £40 for the run.

The reality of the situation and the single only reason that a production would charge that amount in a venue like this isn't to get rich quick, it's to make the production wipe its face clean. The recoupment of a show that scale in a theatre of this size means that the show has to sell 90% of its tickets to be able to have the opportunity to make its money back, which is bonkers.

Sometimes, I think people have a reaction to something without knowing the full extent of why.

It's certainly been interesting to watch it all go down online.

The sad thing about it, I think, is that people have clearly and rather brilliantly acknowledged the heat around Heathers in the UK. Some of the smaller blogs have used the heat of the show for their own gain. The only publication to actually reach out and ask me for answers to some of the questions they might have is yourself. No one has asked me why we're not inviting critics or why the ticket prices are what they are.

I'm a very straightforward kind of producer, so if anybody was to ask, I'd tell them. The tickets are that price because it's the only way the show can make its money back. We're not inviting press because we want to have the opportunity to get the show right. Indeed, we've used the time at The Other Palace to rewrite parts of the show, and next week, we're starting to rewrite and restructure the whole of Act II.

That's why you use a theatre like this to try the show. If we thought it was ready and perfect, we would've gone straight to the West End. I think people might have forgotten that was the very core of what The Other Palace was here to do - to develop musicals and get them right. Andrew and I always said, right at the beginning, that sometimes we might invite press and sometimes we wouldn't and that's fine. We decided based on the show and where it is in its development and what it needs.

What's the reaction been like from the people coming to see the show?

Absolutely insane. There's something about the alchemy of Heathers and Carrie Hope Fletcher, which has meant that the audiences are going mad for it. I think it's hit the zeitgeist. There's a crossover between the audience who wanted to come see Carrie and those who wanted to come see Heathers. The workshop last year at The Other Palace also created quite a lot of curiosity. All of those things together have meant it's become a very hot ticket.

The insane thing about the audiences actually coming to see the show is at least a third of the house are dressed up. They know all the songs, they know the lyrics, they know the script. The incredible thing is seeing an audience that's so young.

We did some box office analysis and 70% of the tickets bought for the show have been purchased by people under 30, which actually should be celebrated. In the transfer, we've thought about that by making sure that 15,000 seats are available for under £25. You don't have to be under 25 to have those seats; you can be any age. But we wanted to make sure there were various price points.

It seems like people either really love Carrie as Veronica or are very against her being cast. What are your thoughts on that?

The magic around Carrie is that the online persona she has and the success she has is for one very simple reason: she is one of the nicest human beings you are likely to meet. She's gracious and she leads a company as a leading actress should.

For me, when there was controversy about her, as her employer essentially, I felt like I had a duty of care to protect her. Now, Carrie needs no protecting. She is a force of nature and one of the strongest people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.

That said, I never believe that anybody under any circumstances, just because they are in the public consciousness, has to ever be subjected to anyone who has thoughts on their size or their performing ability. As for people then tagging her or me in that, I think it's horrendous. I was not afraid to call people out when they did that.

The most satisfying part of this whole thing has been seeing people come to see her who are both her fans and also just fans of the show. She's not a revelation for me because I always knew she could do it, but for some people it's been a revelation. I have to say, she's turned into a dear friend. She has wisdom beyond her years.

I'll admit, I stayed up late last night to finish reading her new book.

The magic around her is that she is genuinely that person. She is so kind, so humble, a delight to work with, and bloody talented. She's funny and has an exceptional voice. That's why the Carrie Hope Fletcher brand works, because she's nice.

Was the goal always for the show to transfer to the West End?

Obviously, every time you engage in a project, you have an aspiration that something will happen with it, but I think it's important you make sure the project is tailor-made for the theatre it's going to at that moment in time. The design at The Other Palace, for instance, is for the stage here. It will definitely need alterations for when we move to the Haymarket. This afternoon, I go to a design meeting for that.

You always obviously have an aspiration, but you wait and see what happens. Clearly, opening here to a sold-out run meant that once we focused on getting the show right, we could focus on what the next part of the trajectory for the show was.

You're soon to end your run at The Other Palace as its Artistic Director. Can you tell us what your goals were when you took on the role and if you feel you accomplished them?

My goal in starting the venue with Andrew was to establish a venue and a brand for it that became a centre of excellence for the development of new musicals. I think the notion of doing that in this country is a marathon and we're probably at mile five of that marathon at the moment. But to have gotten there is a miraculous achievement. I put that down to the support of the team here and at RUG and RUT and all of the people who've joined us on the journey along the way.

I think the exceptional thing is if you mention The Other Palace now to anyone in the London theatre community, they know what it is and what we do. So looking back on my time here so far, I'm really proud to know The Other Palace means something and people know what they do there.

You're staying on though as an Affiliate Producer. What will that look like?

Basically, it's of no surprise to anybody that the last three years of my life have been brilliant but exhausting. There's no other way to say it. I'm truly humbled and lucky to have been given this opportunity, but I only ever wanted to do a year [as Artistic Director]. No one believed me; everyone said I'd want to stay. But I think it's important as a creative person that you keep pushing yourself and give yourself the ability to stay open to change and new things can happen.

After setting up The Other Palace, I want the ability to work elsewhere. I was an independent producer before I got here. Having something like Heathers has reminded me that I'm actually all right at that. When you run a venue, quite a lot of your time gets taken up by programming and dealing with venue-specific things. The new role is going to allow me to produce, which is the very thing that I think I'm all right at.

Do you have any plans for what you're doing next after Heathers?

Yes, but I can't share. I'm booked up until the end of 2019 with shows. Surprises come along the way, such as Heathers going into the West End. A producer generally works at least a year and a half ahead. So keep an eye out...

Would you like to be Artistic Director of another theatre if the opportunity arose?

I've had the time of my life being the Artistic Director of The Other Palace. I'm so proud of what I've achieved here. There's no denying it comes with its highs and its lows and everything in between. I'm always open to change.

I'm very lucky that I'm at a point in my career where I get to work with the best artists and writers in the world, and if the right opportunity came along, I would be open to it again. As you get older and you've been around the block like I have, you find that life is at its best when it's balanced. I had to realign the balance when I changed my role here.

Have you learned lessons at The Other Palace that you can apply to future work?

I learn things every day. I want this to sound as modest as possible, but I hope that one of the best qualities I have is that I'm very self-aware. There are some things in my job that I'm very, very good at and, quite openly, there are some things in my job that I'm absolutely horrendous at.

I think the key to a fruitful career is knowing the things you're good at and harnessing those, but then also acknowledging the things you're bad at and making sure the people around you are the right people to support those things.

Is there anything in particular that you look for in a new musical to produce?

"Is it relevant?" is a big one. I always try to have an open mind. When you look at some of the longest-running shows, on paper, some of them look like they aren't good ideas for musicals, but they somehow work. There is no real formula, as we know. Andrew has said himself that there's no golden rules.

Andrew always shares a quote with me which is that, "A good story can carry bad music, but good songs can't carry a bad story". Essentially, it's all about the story. Does it feel different? Does it feel new? Does it feel like it's moving the genre forward?

Are there any names we should be looking out for in terms of developing writers, composers, directors...?

Drew McOnie is one of my dear best friends, but also one of the most formidable, exciting artist practitioners we have in this country as far as I'm concerned. Tasha Taylor Johnson is a composer I'm currently working with and adore. She's brilliant. Tom Jackson Greaves is a choreographer who I adore. Miriam-Teak Lee, who is in Hamilton at the moment, is going to be a superstar and everyone needs to know her.

Are we getting closer to having a good system of development for musicals here, like there is in the States, and if not, what more needs to be done?

Oh gosh, how long do you have? I think we are getting closer. I think the key to it is organisations' openness to work with each other and remember that it's not a race. It's got to be a collaborative effort. The whole notion of making shows is a collaboration. That has to filter into the way we support and develop new musicals.

There's some incredible work happening out there. Now, we need to ensure that we keep moving forward and that when we do have a new musical, our press and the way that we speak about new musicals is positive, constructive, and forward-thinking, so that producers and writers are more inclined to make them.

Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved in the business side of the theatre industry?

People talk a lot about actors needing resilience and a thick skin. I think that filters through to anybody working in theatre. In some ways, you need even more resilience to be a producer because the amount of rejection you get as an actor, I probably get on an hourly basis. The difference between a producer and an actor perhaps it that you are firefighting all of the time and you're not, or you shouldn't be, a visible figure, so you deal with the problems in a silent way.

Therefore, for anyone thinking of going into the industry, it has to be in your bones - that you could never do anything else. The reality of the industry, without being doom and gloom about it, is that it's really hard. There's a huge amount of rejection, of having to fight. When it's brilliant, it's brilliant, and when it's terrible, it's horrific. Unless you have that fire in your belly, it becomes a very long road. Unfortunately, I've now got the bug and I won't be able to do anything else ever.

Heathers is on at The Other Palace to 4 August before transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket with performances beginning 3 September

Photo Credit: Craig Sugden

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