matthew Lawrence and Tamara Tojo

Shakespeare's tragic tale of star-crossed lovers: Queensland Ballet's production of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year, on hire from Birmingham Royal Ballet, seen here being danced by guest dancers former BRB principal Matthew Lawrence, who returned to his native Australia two years ago, and Tamara Rojo. The ballet was staged eight times, five of which were sold out, and had a 97 per cent capacity audience, taking in excess of $1.1 million (Australian - £550,000 sterling) at the box office and breaking the company's 54-year-old box office record standing from when Queensland Ballet started in 1960. Picture:David Kelly

Selling BRB to the world

Psst! Fancy a used ballet, one careful owner? Or how about a lovely piece of pre-loved Coppélia? No? Well, you seem a genuine sort, squire, so just between you and me, I have one for the ladies here, a beautiful little bit of Romeo and Juliet, the last on the van, I'll tell yoou what, I'll do it cost, squire, 'cos I need the space . . .

All right, perhaps it might not be exactly the patter Doug Nicholson uses but Doug, Head of Scenic Presentation at Birmingham Royal Ballet, is not only responsible for all the technical presentation of BRB shows from scenery, floor and props to lighting and effects, but he is also tasked with selling BRB, or more specifically, its huge repertoire of ballets around the world.

And ballet hire is a growing part of the company’s activities bringing in not only valuable income and international experience but also selling the name of BRB and the quality of its ballets around the world.

And for Doug, who has worked in theatre more than 40 years, it is a return to his beginnings. He said: “I used to be a salesman many, many years ago before I started in theatre and I was a door to door salesman in my time, selling Kleeneze. My dad was very successful at it and my sister carries on the family tradition. All the siblings have had a go at it, but then I became a sales rep . . .

“My first wife was a dancer and I used to Doug Nicholsonmeet her at the theatre, the Bristol Hippodrome. Then one day the stage manager said to me: ‘Are you busy tomorrow, because we are a bit short for the matinee?’. Because I was a sales rep I could work the hours that I wanted and that’s how I started in theatre.

“It was helping on props in pantomime. There was a lovely old chap called Reg and he was sort of the theatre maintenance man as well, lovely man, and I learned how to make slosh for the slosh scenes you get in pantomimes.

Still sloshing about - Head of Scenic Presentation, Doug Nicholson

“And that’s how I got into theatre and I have been sloshing about ever since!”

So from panto to ballet and one Hippodrome to another in one of life’s little twists, not that ballet was a particular passion; Doug’s is no tale of a backstage Billy Elliot.

He said: “As a kid I was never exposed to classical ballet or opera or anything like that. I lived in London and I remember going to Sadler’s Wells Theatre when I was about 10 and seeing Die Fledermaus and about the same time going to the Opera House and seeing Swan Lake and that was the only experience I had of anything classical, and then I end up working at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells theatre and working for a ballet company.”

He was at the Bristol Hippodrome when the Royal Ballet appeared there several times on tour, one of the varied art forms he worked with in Bristol’s touring theatre, and ended up heading back to London and getting a job at Covent Garden as a stage hand in 1976.

While he was there he transferred from the stage department to lighting department and then widened his experience even further. “I went on tour with Sadler’s Wells Royal ballet in 1979 for six weeks, swapping companies for a while, and eventually joined Sadler’s Wells in 1983; seven years later we moved here and became Birmingham Royal Ballet.”

He joined Sadler’s Wells as deputy carpenter – a stage hand again but in effect second in command to the head of stage, becoming carpenter, the head of stage in 1995, around the same time former dancer and choreographer David Bintley returned to the company as Artistic Director.

“As to the hires, I have been perfecting it over the years. We had a few inquiries and with my links to other companies expanding we have started to make more of a business of it and it is going very well.”

Not that he has returned entirely to being a salesman though, he is still a stage hand, albeit a rather superior one, in his day job.

He said: “I am ultimately responsible for setting productions on stage but we have a fantastic head of stage now, Ben Leveson, who has been in the job about three years.

“Head of scenic presentation is my title which describes what I do, I present the scenery for Birmingham Royal Ballet, but, for example, I didn’t travel to Plymouth with BRB earlier this year and left it to Ben and the technical team, so things are moving in the right direction freeing me up to make more of the hires.”

And hires are not to be sneezed at averaging around £100,000 a year over the past seven years or so, and, just as important, selling the name and quality of BRB around the world.doug with Nutcracker

Doug said: “It helps with the extra income and it helps to get the name around. We have a great reputation for the productions and the quality of productions we produce.

Doug working on the modelbox for The Nutcracker

"We have regular customers for certain productions which is some indication of the quality of the product.”

Hires of sets and costumes are common with, occasionally with large scale productions, wigs and shoes, all shipped around the globe in containers, which is not as expensive as you might imagine. A container to Japan is around $5,000 says Doug, who probably gets to sleep by counting containers instead of sheep.

“With a full length production, the reason companies hire, even though they are spending an awful lot of money to put it on for a short time, is that the other option is to make it yourself which would cost you a lot more and also then you have to store it, and that is the other cost you have to build in. You have to have somewhere to put these productions – which we have.”

BRB’s Cinderella, for example, David Bintley’s 2010 dark take on the children’s fairy tale, cost around £1.5 million to stage, to hire the complete kit and caboodle, scenery, costumes, the lot, comes in“within a couple of hundred thousand”.

Doug said: “And I am talking everything, the cost of fees for the production, the cost of the various people necessary to put the production on, the cost of bringing people out, the transport and everything. It can be good value for money.”

BRB has two 20,000 square feet storage facilities, one at Dudley, shared with the lighting department, and another, much with much higher headroom, at Minworth, which is the citadel of staging and scenery with a clear working space for building new scenery and repairing and refurbishing the old – and some are surprisingly old, with both Swan Lake (1981) and Sleeping Beauty (1984) in their fourth decade.

The fact both are still so fresh and popular after more than 30 years is a tribute to both  the choreography of Sir Peter Wright, the former BRB and Royal Ballet artistic director and now BRB Director Laureate, and, of course, the refurbishing and maintenance of Doug and his staff over the years to keep everything appearing new and pristine to the people who really matter, the audience.

BRB has a hire catalogue with all the productions, a staggering 110 on offer, ranging from short pieces to full length ballets and hires this year have included Twilight, which has been hired by Compania Nacional de Bailado in Lisbon, Portugal and Apollo, Jazz Calendar and Petrushka which have been hired by the Sarasota Ballet in Florida, where the Jazz Callendarartistic director is Ian Webb, a former principal dancer with BRB, along with his wife Maggie Barbieri.

Full length ballet Coppélia will be heading out to Star Dancers Ballet in Tokyo, a company who have been hiring the light hearted Peter Wright production regularly since 1998.

Ricardo Graziano and Victoria Hulland of Sarasota Ballet, Florida in Frederick Ashton's Jazz Calendar. Photo: Frank Atura  

Doug said: “They are very much a Peter Wright fan for the things he has produced and put on for them and Romeo and Juliet is going back to Tokyo next year.

Doug then reeled off a list of current inquiries he is dealing with, as far apart as the USA and Australia, including repeat orders, but it is not just a selling operation. “We give companies who hire from us full support for a production. I place the sets on their stage and send them all the relevant information and we make sure the production is reproduced as we would reproduce it and then I go out to help with the fit up, help with the running of the show back-stage and generally stop to see it out.

“If a company has hired from us before and are running it over a three week period, then once it is up and running, if we trusted them, then I would not necessarily stay till the end to see the pack up. If it is a new company, for example, we would make sure we would be there at the end.”

Doug says the advantage of a hired ballet is that it gives companies an opportunity to add new pieces to their repertoire without the considerable cost, and associated risk, of staging their own productions . . .  and the hires can create events in their own right.

Last year Queensland Ballet in Australia staged Romeo and Juliet. Doug said: “They did eight performances in all and it was huge thing for them. It was the first time Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet had been performed in Australia and they had guest artists including Carlos Acosta, Steven McRae, Tamara Rojo plus guests from Australian ballet and the buzz and receipts. . . it was seen by 15,000 people. It was a fantastic experience from top to bottom.”

Hires bring their own problems though and Doug is responsible for ensuring that every production can be broken down not just to transport to and from Minworth and Dudley, but will pack easily in containers to all corners of the world, flat pack ballet.

“It has been fantastic meeting new people and working with different companies. We don’t tour as much as we used to, we used to be away six months of the year on tour but now it is a real mixture. I will probably still be away for four months over the year.

“Last year was very busy with hires and co-productions with Houston Ballet that I was involved with”. This year, so far, has been quiet - out to Sarasota with hires and he is just back from Japan where he has been touring with BRB and, for now, he is at home at the Hippodrome with three David Bintley creations, Sylvia, Carmina Burana and his latest work, The King Dances.

So Made in Birmingham is becoming a kitemark of quality in the international world of ballet and although BRB’s works might not yet be quite like Friends, showing somewhere in the world at any moment in time . . . Doug is working on it . . .

How about animals, Squire? I can do you a nice Swan Lake . . .  and I’ll throw in a Penguin Café half price . . .

Roger Clarke

BRB's production of The King Dances / Carmina burana runs from Wednesday 17 June to Saturday 20 June at Birmingham Hippodrome BOOK NOW  and Jun 16-10 and Sylvia runs the following week from Wednesday June 24 to Saturday, June 27. BOOK NOW

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