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Nov 13 / Simon

What’s in a name?

The Stage, 7/11/2013
As the Ambassador Theatre Group plans to sell off the naming rights to several of its venues, Simon Tait analyses the thorny issue of rechristening historic theatres. Is the outrage from soe quarters and over-reaction, or does such branding stamp all over buildings’ heritage?

There is something about naming rights that is lividly controversial in the theatre in a way that it isn’t elsewhere in our cultural life. No-one bats an eyelid at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, Arsenal’s Emirates or Newcastle’s Sports Direct Arena. In the arts, museums and galleries positively tout their new developments among potential funders, so that the British Museum has its Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries, the V&A its Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art and the National Maritime Museum its Sammy Ofer Wing; the north-east’s finest concert hall is called simply Sage Gateshead after the electronics company that gave what was then the biggest single capital arts sponsorship.

But theatre is another category. When the Jerwood Foundation stepped in to save the Royal Court’s tottering redevelopment it was accused of trying to buy immortality by having the theatre renamed the Jerwood Royal Court, and it was even suggested the Queen herself had intervened to ensure it didn’t happen: nothing could supersede the word “royal”. Jerwood’s chairman Alan Grieve angrily refuted the story: “Look,” he said, “the Royal Court was going bust, John Mortimer (the Court’s chairman) and Stephen Daldry (its then artistic director) came to us to save it, and we were happy to do so with the biggest grant we had ever given, £3 million. We agreed on Jerwood Theatre Upstairs and Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, and we have established the name Jerwood as a brand of quality”.

The Royal Opera House was almost badly burned when the American investment advisor Albert Vilar pledged £10m to pay for the conversion of the Floral Hall, with naming as the quid pro quo – iroinically, he said he hoped it would encourage other philanthropic businessmen to support arts projects. But the money never arrived, and Vilar was eventually convicted of, among other things, money laundering, and for a while the Vilar Floral Hall was just the Floral Hall. The Paul Hamlyn estate came to rescue, and undeterred by the Vilar experience the hall has Paul Hamlyn’s name.

But those are subsidised theatres. In the commercial sector it is somehow different. In 1995 when Janet Holmes à Court wanted to rename the Globe in Shaftesbury Avenue after our then greatest living actor, there was a long public tussle which was only resolved by the fact that there was to be another Globe in London, Sam Wanamaker’s creation on Bankside, due to open in 1997, and so the Gielgud came into being.

Now the Ambassdor’s Theatre Group has announced that it is putting naming rights for some of its most iconic London theatres – they include the Duke of York’s, the Piccadilly and the Lyceum – on the market as it casts around for sponsorship, just as museums and football clubs have done. Even though ATG are unspecific about what kind of money they are looking for or what they would spend it on, in those terms it seems a fairly innocuous business decision.

Not when you put it to some of the non-ATG theatres around the country, though. “There seems to be absolutely nothing that the money people won’t stoop to, to increase shareholder return,” raged one, who asked not to be named. “Over the last few years the West End and associated theatres have initiated a colossal growth in extra income – transaction fees, pp seats, individual booking fees, group booking fees, unspent restoration levies, as well as ice cream tubs for £4.50 and glasses of wine for £6.50. We’ve had the Labatt Apollo – thank goodness it’s too late to have the London Rubber Gielgud Theatre!”

ATG are keen to confirm that the group being sold to a new majority share holder, Providence Equity, has nothing to do with the management of its theatres. The conversations about selling theatre naming rights are “a scoping exercise”, so that we probably won’t be going to the Providence Equity Lyceum. But the ATG high command, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, are ruling nothing in or out.

Some theatres simply can’t do it. Peter Wilson, CEO of the Theatre Royal Norwich, says it would be impossible within the legal framework of a Theatre Royal to attach a second name that compromises the royal warrant. “However,” he adds, “if the Cottesloe can be renamed the Dorfman in recognition of significant financial support, perhaps the dam has already been breached.”

Which is the though ot Nica Burns, half of one of ATG’s major rivals in the West End, Nimax. She has been lobbied for a name change to one of the company’s six West End houses and turned them down – not because she disapproved of the principle but because it was not appropriate for the theatre in question. She believes the stable door of naming rights has been flung open by the subsidised sector: “Whatever you call it, Jerwood, Dorfman, it is a result of money having changed hands”. And she has happily named the bars in her theatres for American Airlines, generous sponsors of her operation for many years.

The concern of the heritage element of the theatre business, embodied in the Theatres Trust, is that the name of oa theatre reflects the ownership. There is a rapport with audience and with location that wouldn’t be served by a short-term name change as part of a purely commercial deal.

And then, as Philip Spedding, director of Arts & Business says, it’s all right for playhouses to forsake their names for the sake of an actor’s memory, but the GlaxoSmithKline Drury Lane sits less comfortably.

He sees another problem, though – for the sponsor. Such deals are usually long-term to be financially worthwhile, perhaps ten years, and as we saw in the Nineties and Noughties, theatres and theatre chains can change hands quite suddenly. What if the Coliseum becomes the Barclays Bank Opera House in a long-term arrangement, then ENO sells it to move to a purpose built house and an anarcho-circus company funded by a Russian oligarch is the new owner, bringing a reputation for raves and unruly audiences? Could Barclays legitimately require ENO not to sell for the term of the agreement? Probably not, and venerable Barclays will be stuck with something its shareholders would not want to be associated with.