LAUGHING ALL THE WAY FROM THE BANK
06.10.2010 / AI Profile / 0 Comments
Nica Burns, theatre producer and owner; director and producer, Edinburgh Comedy Awards
The West End is shark-infested waters stained crimson by the gore of plays, musicals, actors, directors and producers that have fallen victim to its predatory critics. Yet some, a handful perhaps, have found the way to navigate this hostile sea.
Many of them are women, the likes of Thelma Holt and Carole Winter, who trust to their eye and their instinct to create successful shows. One, Nica Burns, has found another quotient to add to those qualities: she owns five of the Square Mile’s most beautiful playhouses, as half of the Nimax Theatres and the partnership’s chief executive.
Nica Burns does not confine her enthusiasm to London, though. It is 30 years since she, barely out of her teens, made a deal with Perrier to bring the best of the Edinburgh Fringe comedy to a London showcase – the first winners of the “Perrier Pick of the Fringe” were the Cambridge Footlights with Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson.
Perrier went the way of all sponsors, banks crashed, but Burns kept the Comedy Awards going, and in May announced a new and besotted partner who will ensure the awards continue for as long as men drink lager…
Nica Burns was not born to the theatre, but she discovered it in her DNA while she was doing a law degree at University College, London – where, incidentally, she met her lawyer husband, Marc Hutchinson – and on graduation she trained as an actress at the Webber Douglas. She adapted and starred in H E Bates’s Dulcima on the Fringe, and back in London ran a comedy club at the Finborough Arms in Earls Court, compering the show herself.
But serious theatre beckoned and in 1983 she became artistic director of the Donmar, and under her aegis it won 21 awards, presenting drama all week and late night comedy on Fridays and Saturdays. She left when the theatre closed for redevelopment in 1989.
Meanwhile, she was also associate director of the Assembly Rooms, one of the three nodes then of the Fringe, and programming for the Festival of Sydney. In 1993 she was drawn back into the West End by Janet Holmes à Court, owner of the Stoll Moss Theatres, as production director, and continued in the role when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful bought the group. It was Burns who lured Christian Slater, the Hollywood roustabout celeb, to London to star in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
She also continued to produce independently, eventually leaving Really Useful in 2005 when Nimax was set up. She has made a trademark of marrying TV and movie gloss with serious drama, and you’ll know some of the shows she brought into London, if you don’t automatically associate her with them: My Brilliant Divorce with Dawn French; Deborah Warner’s production of Medea with Fiona Shaw (which won the Evening Standard Awards for best actress and best director in 2001); Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Kathleen Turner; Some Girls with David Schwimmer; A Moon for the Mesbegotten with Kevin Spacey (which transferred to Broadway); and more recently James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain.
But in 2005 Lord Lloyd-Webber, as he had become, decided to sell five of his West End theatres, and Burns went into partnership with a 65-year-old oil heir, Max Weitzenhoffer, who had fallen in love with theatre and been one of the original bidders for Stoll Moss when Lloyd Webber bought the group in 2001. He is also an Anglophile, having forsaken Oklahoma for Winchelsea.
They now have to fill the Apollo and the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue, the Duchess in St Martin’s Lane, the Garrick in Charing Cross Road and the Vaudeville in The Strand. With the extraordinary timing of fate, the deal was sealed in the week London won the Olympics and the bombers struck on the Underground.
The partnership came as a surprise to West End watchers, who were aware of Weitzenhoffer’s interest but not Burns’s. “It just sort of came up” Burns said. “There was a conversation some time when Max said ‘We could do this’ and then we both went quiet for a hell of a long time, then we both said ‘OK’ and hung up”. And they are equal partners, “Just me, Nic and the bank” Weitzenhoffer said. “And my husband” she added. “I’m deeply fond of Marc, he’s deeply fond of our house, and we intend to stay living in it.”
The partnership (with Weitzenhoffer) has prospered and consolidated. A couple of months after Nimax was set up she was named 40th most important in the arts in the United Kingdom by The Times, and in January 2006 The Stage identified her as "the fifth most important person in British theatre", and Burns is the current president of the Society of West End Theatre.
But Fringe comedy is her abiding passion, and Burns has fought to keep the comedy awards going. In 2006 Perrier gave up their support, and Burns found a new sponsor in a banking concern called Intelligent Finance – so the Perrier became the IF awards.
The recession struck, and IF, a subsidiary of HBOS, was a casualty which struggled to the end of its three years deal and the comedy awards could have ended there, in the ash and rubble of the recession. Instead, Burns decided to sponsor the awards herself, pro tem. “When IF went I said that the right sponsor was a rare and precious thing – I didn’t expect that right sponsor to be me!”
She was, and is, undeterred - “I will never let it go!” she texted - and set about finding a new sponsor for 2010, without toning down her conditions on who might be considered potential sponsors: “A sense of humour, a long term commitment to comedy, owned by a company with an ethical track record, a history of long term sponsorships, a stable company, unlikely to be taken over and with a great product that continues to grow and grow in popularity. Not a lot to ask for, is it?”
Surprisingly, perhaps, she didn’t have to look far, because Heineken UK is now based in Edinburgh since acquiring Scottish and Newcastle Breweries. And one of Heineken’s leading brands is Foster’s, which has a track record in comedy while other beer brands go for sport.
“It seems so right” said Heineken’s PR manager, Dave Jones. “Comedy has been in Foster’s bloodstream since we did the famous ads with Barry Humphries, and then Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame.
“We thought, ‘What do lager drinkers like most alongside football?’, and the answer was comedy”. The deal is for three years with an assumption, said the Heineken brands director Mark Given, of developing the awards thereafter. “We know comedy plays an important role in the lives of our target market” he said. “It’s our major marketing platform for Foster’s for 2010 – ‘Foster’s is serious about comedy’.”
And Nica Burns? “I’m a theatre person, that’s just who I am, but it’s comedy that makes me more than that. It makes me smile.”
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