Interview – producer Katy Lipson makes her mark by taking musicals from page to stage

Hailing from Manchester and now living in London, young musical theatre producer KATY LIPSON is making waves with her production company Aria Entertainment. 

Projects for 2017 include the From Page to Stage Summer Festival, Yank!, Hair, Toxic Avenger, Pippin, The Addams Family, and the year isn’t over yet. She also won producer of the year at the 2017 Offies.

Amidst continuous planning, rehearsals and opening nights, Musical Theatre Review contributor Susan Elkin managed to catch up with Lipson for an update on all her latest ventures.

Meet Katy Lipson – at 32, arguably the most successful young producer in the country.

Her company, Aria Entertainment, is currently presenting The Addams Family on tour; while in London, there is  the ambitious three-week From Page to Stage new writing festival running at London’s The Other Palace this month; Yank! – at the Charing Cross Theatre – and Hair, heading for The Vaults in October (both transfers from the Hope Mill Theatre in Lipson’s native Manchester); and The Toxic Avenger (currently at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but then moving on to the Arts Theatre this autumn).

Grass doesn’t get much chance to grow under Lipson’s feet and she talks with rapid fluency and warm enthusiasm.

She and I are chatting – or rather she’s talking at top speed and I’m taking notes – in the café at King’s Place near King’s Cross, just along the road from her “home office”.

Personable and persuasive with her long dark hair and Mancunian accent, she is sipping a skinny hot chocolate as she recalls what has brought her to this point in her career – which doesn’t, she admits, include much sleep or time off.

“I’m a grafter,” she says, adding that she has produced over 50 shows in a very few years. “For me music is the language, and for the moment my company is focusing entirely on musical theatre, although we’ve done a range of things in the recent past.”

So how did it all start? She chuckles: “It was all around me at home. My family was very keen on music and theatre. I played two instruments before I was 10 and a third when I got to secondary school. Passionate about it from a young age, I did local shows, performances with my brother, and lots more, and it seemed to be the way forward to me. But everything I did was focused on performing because I didn’t know about any other aspect of theatre.”

But Lipson, who I suspect is seriously bright, also had what she carefully calls “academic interests”, so she did A-levels in music, drama, biology and chemistry, and then came south to start a degree in human genetics at University College London.

By the time she was 19, a year later, theatre really had grabbed her. “A good friend I made at college and I decided to write and stage a show. I played the piano and MD’d it. He borrowed £1,000 from a family member and I did the same and we put in a thousand pounds from our savings. We put it on at a church in Camden with a band of three and four singers. We called the company A Stage Kindly which was an anagram of our names and I gave up university to do more shows.”

And that was, effectively, how Lipson developed a taste for the business. She ran A Stage Kindly for three years, focusing on American and European new musicals.

“We had lots of fun and always managed to pay our casts, sometimes by splitting the ticket sales.”

Meanwhile Lipson trained at London School of Musical Theatre and got some jobs both as a performer and as an MD. She also did a degree in classical music at Goldsmiths, graduating when she was 23. “I worked ridiculously hard during those years,” she recalls with a grin.

The turning point came in two forms. First there was a show in Southend. “I was MD. It was a new musical for Christmas and I desperately wanted to develop it. At about the same time I did a Stage One course for producers and realised that this was definitely what I wanted to do.”

Hair will open at London’s The Vaults. Picture: Roy Tan

So, having outgrown A Stage Kindly, in 2011 she had the idea for Aria Entertainment, and in 2012 she set up the company to give herself a fresh start as a solo producer.

“My aim was simply to produce the music that I love,” says Lipson, who doesn’t regard most jukebox musicals as real musical theatre. She wants a strong book and music which drives real storytelling.

“Approaching people and networking came next. I quite quickly got shows on at the Landor, the Finborough and the Union, which felt like a fantastic achievement. Then came the Arcola, the St James and the Southwark Playhouse.”

At the same time she was paying her bills by working as a voice coach at Trinity, Central and other schools. “I was able to do less and less teaching as time went on,” she says.

Her relationship with the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, where she is now co-artistic director is interesting too.  Joseph Houston and William Whelton, a couple who met on Sasha Regan’s The Pirates of Penzance, have developed the Fringe space which has a “warehouse feel”, a bit like the Menier Chocolate Factory in London.

A production of Parade was highly praised (Musical Theatre Review awarded the productions ★★★★) and then Hair – which is transferring to London’s The Vaults for a 16-week immersive season – was reviewed nationally.

She started From Page to Stage at the Landor in Clapham – it’s an annual festival which includes song showcases, readings of new work and one full-scale new musical. Later she moved it to the Tristan Bates Theatre at The Actors Centre in Covent Garden because it was much more central.

The touring production of The Addams Family. Picture: Matt Martin

Then came discussions with the Really Useful Group and a one-to one-meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber who is very supportive.

The upshot is that this year’s From Page to Stage is at The Other Palace, the new name for St James Theatre since its acquisition by RUG.

“I’m hoping we shall stay there now for future years and I see no reason why not,” says Lipson.

On the bill is Burt Bacharach and Steven Sater’s Some Lovers. She is also excited about  having commissioned The Queen’s Nose, based on a book by Dick King-Smith, which gets its first reading at From Page to Stage followed, all being well, by a tour next year.

This year Aria Entertainment received 302 submissions for From Page to Stage. “I have a team of six readers and they listen to three songs and read three scenes and the synopsis of each entry. The number is gradually whittled down to the 35 I look at myself,” says Lipson, expressing delight that so many creators are now interested. There will be a three-month slot for next year’s submissions from November to February.

Finance is the key to successful producing. Lipson got a £15k Arts Council England grant in 2013 which enabled her to pay “proper wages” for the first time. It puts her in a good position to option more new shows. She also did some crowdfunding.

Katy Lipson with Hope Mill Theatre’s William Whelton and Joseph Houston

Since then she has become more ambitious, has secured twice as much ACE money, and managed to coax other funders on board.

“And I want to do more co-producing with the NPOs such as Chichester, The Curve and Sheffield”. She adds interestingly that you get recognised and respected more readily in the industry if you can raise money. “But it’s still a huge jump to get from £50,000 for a Fringe show to £500,000 for a West End one.”

This year, for the first time, Lipson has been able to pay herself a salary and she has taken on a full-time assistant producer.

“Although the business has grown very quickly and we are very busy, he has been able to do some of the everyday stuff such as organising contacts which has helped.”

Next year she will employ and apprentice through the Stage One scheme which will give her, in effect, a second assistant.

“And I use freelance project managers – individuals to run specific shows – which works well for us at the moment,” she says.

Although she insists that she loves the business side of the work, she’d also like an accounts department to save her from having to spend three hours every Friday paying people and balancing the books. “But you have to have enough commercial work going to pay for it.”

Lipson’s future looks rosy and she’s hoping soon to carve out more time to talk to people, network and travel the world to see shows – she currently makes three trips a year to the USA.

Meanwhile, there are five shows at Hope Mill next year,  among many other projects. She says her ultimate ambition is to “champion a new musical all the way to Broadway” and I doubt that that will take very long. Sonia Friedman, watch out.

www.aria-entertainment.com

Tickets for Toxic Avenger are available HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

Full West End rep company for From Page to StageNews

Yank! at the Charing Cross Theatre – exclusive new images

Hair! at The Vaults extends until January 2018 – News

The Addams Family – New Wimbledon Theatre and Touring – Review

Toxic Avenger – full cast revealed for transfer – News

Hope Mill Theatre’s Pippin – cast revealed – News

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