Friday 28 November 2014

Gaiety panto still cream of the crop -- oh yes it is!

The grand old dame of South King Street has been putting on the traditional show since 1874 but as the downturn hits other opportunities in theatre can't be ignored. By John Mulligan

Published 29/12/2011 | 05:00

John Costigan: 'Some of the shows that both ourselves and the Olympia would have got in the past is now heading to the Grand Canal. So we have to be more strategic in our approach to programming.' Photo: Mark Condren
John Costigan: 'Some of the shows that both ourselves and the Olympia would have got in the past is now heading to the Grand Canal. So we have to be more strategic in our approach to programming.' Photo: Mark Condren

Forget 2011, John Costigan is already piecing together next year's panto for the Gaiety. Even as cast members including Samantha Mumba tread the boards in this year's production of 'Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates', eager punters are already -- but somewhat unbelievably -- snapping up tickets for next year's 'Cinderella'.

As he settles into his office and fiddles with his new iPhone, Mr Costigan drags up sales data on his desktop.

Even in just the few hours that he's being interviewed, 13 tickets were sold for next year's panto, and a total of 150 have been sold since they went on sale just a week earlier.

Nearly 40pc of the tickets are typically sold just a month before a performance. But another 29pc or so are sold three months in advance. By the end of last January, the Gaiety had already sold €40,000 worth of tickets for this year's show.

The annual panto -- the first was held at the Gaiety back in 1874 -- is the golden egg laid by the middle class for the Gaiety.

It needs to be.

The estimated cost of staging this year's show, which runs from early December until the end of January, is a meaty €1.4m -- that includes marketing and all the rest. But to make it back and more on top, Mr Costigan and his team have to try to fill the theatre's more than 1,100 seats for each show -- 93 of them over almost eight weeks. In the past few years it has accounted for about a third of the theatre's annual turnover.

"I love it. It's great fun," says Mr Costigan, who's been running the theatre since 1996 and does so now for its current owner, music promoter Denis Desmond. Mr Costigan also produces the panto.

"I have to decide on everything from the title to the casting, to the scriptwriter and director -- the whole gamut."

But there's plenty of competition these days, especially at Christmas.

Pop duo Jedward are on the Olympia's payroll doing 'Jack and the Beanstalk' (that theatre is also owned by Mr Desmond), while the Helix at Dublin City University is staging 'Aladdin'.

"The Gaiety has one advantage over its competitors in terms of having to cast well-known names for pantos," Mr Costigan explains. "The star of the pantomime is the Gaiety itself. There's a generational thing and it's part of the Dublin seasonal fare."

But in recessionary times, a trip to the panto doesn't come cheap.

A family of four can avail of a €100 deal, but individual seats can cost as much as €35. Throw in sweets and other treats and parents face a fairly hefty bill. But even that hasn't acted as a deterrent in austere times.

"I haven't increased ticket prices in four years," counters Mr Costigan. "The last time I put them up I added a euro on to the price. It was just as things were starting to turn. I was doing up the ticket order in November 2007 for the following year," he recalls.

"I'd been in Gozo on holidays (a map of the Maltese island hangs on the wall) and was coming home and I just remember thinking there was something going wrong in the economy."

He says there hasn't been any resistance yet to the current prices.

"The Gaiety still holds its place as the grand old dame of South King Street," says Mr Costigan. "It's in the centre of town, it's a day out and people will spend that little bit extra."

About €13m has been invested in upgrading the Gaiety over the past 13 years.

That's included everything from having an electricity sub-station installed to put a halt to blackouts, making a bigger orchestra pit, forking out €1m on a counter-weight system for the stage, and a big facelift to the exterior facade.

The interior is redolent of a Victorian-era theatre in its heyday. A massive Waterford Crystal chandelier hangs from an elaborately decorated ceiling and a grandly illustrated stage curtain perfectly fits the bill. Even when empty, you can almost hear the catcalls as the dastardly panto baddie sneaks on to the stage.

One of the big earners is the 'front of house' -- where drinks, sweets, brochures and other paraphernalia are sold. When Mr Costigan joined, that front of house was operated as a concession by a woman who was paying just £5,000 (€6,350) a year to the Gaiety for the privilege. Almost immediately, he paid her off and brought it back under the Gaiety's own wing.

"After that and within the first year I was there, the front of house had a turnover of £150,000 (€190,000).

"I really capitalised on that when I came in and made sure that side of the business was maximised," he says.

Mr Costigan also introduced late night clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, capitalising on the Gaiety's theatre licence to offer a live venue until 4am. It was a major breakthrough in the capital at the time, when such late night venues were rare. Indeed, it was so successful at its peak that each weekend was generating revenue of between €1.2m and €1.3m.

"That was for a 10-hour bar operation over the course of a weekend," he explains. "It was money for old rope. Labour costs were only around 12pc of the bar revenue. People paid an admission of €15 at the door and spend per head on the bar was between €12 and €15."

But that particular cash cow went to the abattoir as licensing laws caught up and competition increased. A recent effort was made by a third party to whom the Gaiety granted a concession to operate the late nights again, but it didn't work out.

Still, excluding the effect of the late nights and the panto, revenue over the past six years is still up about 4pc, adds Mr Costigan.

But it's the panto that remains the big money maker.

The Gaiety's market research provides a fascinating insight into the panto's middle-class customer base -- something which Mr Costigan freely admits is the core audience for the show.

Accountants, IT specialists, doctors and other professionals all feature as patrons, while the main adult age group attending the panto with their kids is between 35 and 49. Just over half -- 55pc -- visit from Dublin, but counties from across the country are represented.

Without the panto, Mr Costigan says the theatre would still make money, but he concedes that it would be more of a challenge. He also embraces the commercial nature of the theatre, which doesn't receive an arts grant. Having one would effectively dictate the type of plays and events it could host, he argues.

But the capital's Grand Canal Theatre, which is owned by businessman and O2 owner Harry Crosbie and operated by Live Nation, has upped the ante for rivals since it opened nearly two years ago.

That's led to an even closer decision-making process with Gaiety owner Mr Desmond.

"In the beginning I was left very much to my own devices," explains Mr Costigan. "Denis's wife (Caroline) became very much involved in the theatre and she was very supportive to me in terms of the programmes of works we carried out over the years," he adds.

Mr Costigan says that in more recent times, particularly since the downturn took a grip, he's worked "more closely" with Mr Desmond with regards to deciding on the annual programme -- most of which is already mapped out for 2012.

"Some of the product that both ourselves and the Olympia would have got in the past is now heading to the Grand Canal. So we have to be more strategic in our approach to programming."

That strategic approach, adds Mr Costigan, includes trying to snag as many as possible of the musicals that come to Dublin, but the Grand Canal Theatre has proved a draw for some of those.

"We're looking a bit more towards the actual playhouse and bringing a combination of domestic production and either high quality touring international drama or invitations to certain groups," he says.

But at this time of year the rafters are filled with the sounds of giddy children and adults. A near 150-year-old tradition shows no signs of slowing down, no matter how many PlayStations or Xboxes might be under the Christmas tree.

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