CEO of Just For Laughs, Adam Blanshay (who won a Tony Award as co-producer on the Broadway musical Kinky Boots) has teamed up with Gareth Lake – Wall Street banker, theatre angel and chairman of the board of New York’s Active Theater Company – to ‘produce some of the best quality theatre on both sides of the Atlantic’.
Individually both Blanshay and Lake have years of experience in financing and co-producing unique work in the UK and US, but the plan for the future with London-based Glass Half Full Productions is to not only finance projects, but to develop new projects of their own.
Current productions for the company include the Broadway transfer of the Shakespeare’s Globe’s Richard III and Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance, as well as co-producing credits for the current US Tour of Evita directed by Michael Grandage, the UK and Ireland tour of Dreamworks’ Shrek the Musical (opening in July 2014), Jez Butterworth’s Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre (first night is 12 November) and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) at St James Theatre, London, this Christmas.
Musical Theatre Review’s Lisa Martland met up with Adam and Gareth to hear all about the background to Glass Half Full Productions and what the team’s game-plan is for the future:
You come from very different backgrounds. Adam, you are a West End/Broadway producer and CEO of Just For Laughs Theatricals (the theatre division of the world’s largest comedy festival created in your native Montreal), while Gareth, you have spent the majority of your working life as a money-man. What’s the advantage of combining these different sets of skills?
Gareth Lake: I had become one of the biggest investors in Adam’s productions in the US during the last three or four years. I have been an investment banker for 20 years, but during that time I also became the chairman of New York’s Active Theater Company and donated lots of money to theatre, investing in various shows on a theatre angel basis. Back in London, I knew that theatre was still my passion, and decided it was a good time to make the jump to doing what I really loved.
I have a wide network in finance, while Adam also has fantastic connections and is an up-and-coming star as a producer. I have watched with pleasure and pride as his career has grown. My background is finance, so I suppose I could be described as the hard-nosed, skeptical one, while Adam is probably a little more positive [hence the name of the company].
Adam Blanshay: Glass Half Full Productions is part of my effort to expand my personal journey as a producer and to develop my own work. There is now the support to enable and sustain the next stage of producing I am looking to explore, and be less passive in the process.
There are a number of enhancement deals on the table and we are developing relationships with writers and musicians. Thankfully, through previous and current co-productions, we really have a great base of colleagues. Several of the projects Gareth and I are now involved in came out of fruitful, prior relationships with Just For Laughs Theatricals. In my career thus far, I have always gone out of my way to work with those I have a genuine respect and admiration for. This often leads to having strong allies in this industry.
Gareth, having had a career in international finance, you are used to risk, but isn’t commercial theatre the ultimate business risk?
GL: When you go in to theatre investing, I think it’s incredibly important to have a portfolio. It’s such an unpredictable industry, it doesn’t work just dabbling in one or two shows. You’d be better going to a casino. When one builds a portfolio, with a number of different shows, the returns are very good. It’s akin to venture capital investment where high risk can bring high return. The network of people I know after 20 years in finance understand the risk and reward.
But it really isn’t all about that side of things for me. It is also about a love of theatre, about producing great work and giving well-deserved exposure to great theatre. That is a pleasure for investors.
Adam, risk-taking also plays its part in sourcing the right projects to produce…
Sourcing work in the US and UK is quite different, mainly because of the geography. It is far easier to source work in the UK because there are so many transfers within the greater London area [both Adam and Gareth played a part in Merrily We Roll Along transferring to the West End). In the US a new commercial work often begins its life as far away from New York as possible, which means travelling far and wide in search of a possible major transfer.
It can never be cut and dry on either side of the pond though, so it is important to be involved in a portfolio of productions. There are lots of things we cannot yet talk about in relation to Glass Half Full Productions, but already we are co-producing in a range of major markets – a UK tour, a national US tour, a transfer to Broadway, a West End production.
We are aware there are always highs and lows, five stars one week, and then the next something is struggling to succeed. It’s the unpredictability that makes it so thrilling.
What initially sparked your passion for theatre? Adam, I believe you still have a double cassette of The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack on your desk next to your Tony Award.
AB: When I was growing up in Montreal, musical theatre was a real passion and also a form of escapism. I would listen to songs from shows that were part of the then British invasion and that would cheer me up. It means so much to me that I am making a career of something that has helped me so much personally and therapeutically.
GL: I was a great reader and when I went to university I read every play that you could imagine. Then more recently I became chairman of the board of New York’s Active Theater Company and was involved in helping contemporary playwrights during a period of global financial crisis. It was an incredibly hard process, but these people were the lifeblood of theatre and it was so important to allow their work to thrive and flourish.
And now I still have so many highs to come as I begin a whole new journey with Glass Half Full Productions.