Peter Doran: Performing Rights or Performing wrongs? The Play’s the Thing

October 5, 2016 by

At the start of each new year, my first job is to decide which plays we will produce for the next season. What a wonderful position to be in, all those great plays waiting to be produced and the choice is all mine. Sounds great but not quite that simple.

The first thing we need to examine before making a choice are our finances – what can we afford to do? This narrows down our choice dramatically. We have to work to a budget (as our finance department keep drumming on about) and that budget can vary depending on the box office success of last season or how reckless the Artistic Director was in sticking to his production budget.

The cost of set construction, lighting design, set design, wardrobe, royalties are reasonably consistent year to year regardless of the choice of play and can’t really be cut back on; the only real saving can be made through ‘actor weeks’. (One actor employed for one week equals one actor week, six actors employed for six weeks equals thirty-six actor weeks etc. etc.) Once it is decided to cut back on actor weeks then suddenly the amazing choice at your disposal has shrunk even further.



For this year’s Autumn show I could only afford eighteen actor weeks; in our pattern of 3.5 weeks’ rehearsal and 2.5 weeks’ performance, this translates into a production with just three actors. Not a great number of three handers spring to mind or get me excited but fortunately I had always had a strong desire to direct Skylight by David Hare, a great play with just three actors and one that had proved very popular at The National Theatre in 2014 and also via the NT Live satellite broadcast so all being well, should also meet the required box office target – great! All sorted? Not quite. To produce a play professionally one has to apply for the performing rights; generally straightforward as long as the play is not currently on in the West End or on Broadway. However, you do get the odd surprise; and true to form, the rights for Skylight were not available. Why? Apparently somebody had bought the exclusive rights and yet nobody was prepared to tell me who and for how long. Maybe the National still hold them and if so, why? Apparently they have no further plans for it, and anyway, why would performing it for two weeks in Milford Haven affect a production anywhere else the UK? No answers are forthcoming, the big boys have it sewn up and we have to have a rethink – a quick rethink as the Marketing department are on my back. I need a three hander and one that will do reasonably well at the box office; well there’s The Woman in Black of course, 25 years in the West End and still running so no chance of getting the rights for that and anyway, every year it tours to either Cardiff or Swansea so they’ll think it’s far too close; a quick glance at their website just to confirm things and then I can move on; but hang on, what’s this? It’s not touring into Wales at all this year – then surely worth a shot!



As I suspected, a quick email to the current West End producers brought a negative response, the rights were not available whilst the play’s running in the West End. Back to the drawing board. No, hang on, this is ridiculous, why can’t we produce it at the Torch? What possible harm can we do to the West End Production? How many people will decide to come to Milford Haven rather than go to the West End production? I put this to the producers but once again got the standard reply. Instead of getting on with finding another play, I now had the bit between my teeth. The Woman in Black is a good play, a great adaptation of the novel, audiences love it, it’s a box office smash and I WANT TO DO IT AND I WON’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER!!!!

Now my staff here at the Torch feel that I need protecting, they won’t let any old Tom, Dick or Harry be put through to me on the phone, I’m far too busy and important and talented and handsome – they fob them off with an excuse, take their number and tell them I’ll get back to them if I’m interested. A lot of the time, I’d love to have somebody to talk to but they just won’t allow it. So the secret is to get past the person who answers the phone, once you’re past them you’re on the homeward straight; I managed this by trying to sound really important and in a hurry, he’d put me through to the personal assistant, so far so good; the PA was quickly side-stepped with a bright cheery attitude suggesting that I was an old mate and finally I’m chatting to the top dog. I explain where Milford Haven is on the map, I explain that we are seventy miles from Swansea and two hundred and fifty from London. I do the sob story of children in rural areas not getting to see the top shows due to distance and cost and how they always lose out. ‘I certainly don’t have any objection’ comes the reply. Oh my Goodness, I’ve cracked it, I’ve got the rights, the non-league team has beaten Manchester Utd!



And here we are about to open, I await news from The Stage regarding the sudden drop in audience figures for the West End production of the Woman in Black whilst coaches full of cockneys speed down the M4 towards Milford Haven. And I’m still looking for this mythical production of Skylight; does David Hare realise that’s he’s lost about two grand in royalties? Does he care?

I’m often asked ‘Do you get to choose all the plays?’ Well I do, but it’s never as exciting as it sounds and come January it starts all over again – Skylight?



Peter Doran

Artistic Director of The Torch Theatre and Director of The Woman in Black

Images of The Woman in Black: Drew Buckley

The Woman in Black runs at The Torch Theatre 5-22 October. For tickets and further information, visit



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