Nica Burns celebrates small victories. “We won £65,000!” she said, speaking in the boardroom of Nimax, the theater troupe she co-founded and oversees as chief executive.
The figure is the contribution of its Rising Stars festival, which ran from May 2021 for six months. This is a fraction of Nimax’s trade in recent years. The number of tickets sold tells the story, she explains: “In the last full year pre-Covid 2018-19, we sold a total of 1,644,290 tickets.” The following year’s figure was 752,445, and in 2020-21 it was just 417,823. In 2019 it made a profit of £8.5m on sales of £30m. pounds, before Covid-19 closed London’s West End, then reopened it, then closed it again. Nimax will post a loss for the fiscal year ending September 2021.
“It’s misery, isn’t it?” said Burns, about the Rising Stars money. “But it made me very happy – the only financial goal was that we didn’t lose more money than being closed,” she explains, full of joyful enthusiasm, and surrounded by theatrical posters in its offices in Covent Garden.
“The reopening of theaters has been a confident and positive initiative,” she says, shaking everyone involved, from audiences and performers to stage management and wardrobe, prop and wig workers. “We had a lot of mental health issues in the industry, people not being able to do professional work that they loved.”
Alongside three mainstream shows (Everybody’s talking about Jamie, Six and Constellationswhich opened later), the festival allowed him to open all his theaters (Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess) where great shows such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child couldn’t afford to play in front of half an audience.
More than 20 Rising Stars producers made their West End debuts and got a little taste of the challenges Burns faces when directing and marketing a big production. “It was a huge learning curve for these young producers.”
For Burns herself, the pandemic has proven to be an extended crash course in managing complexity and uncertainty.
When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the public to stay away from theaters on March 16, 2020, before the full lockdown a week later, she gathered actors and production staff to drink alcohol and eating pizza in a dizzying fog of confusion.
“Everyone said ‘see you in three weeks’,” she recalls. “We had no idea that our world – as it was – had ended for two years. No one, anywhere knew what was going to happen.
What happened was revenue gone, productions shelved, most of the more than 350 employees furloughed, pay cuts and, in August 2020, layoffs. Then, when theaters reopened, there was social distancing to contend with.
Nimax has been helped by a £5m state-backed coronavirus business interruption loan, £860,000 from the Culture Recovery Fund, which has enabled its rapid reopening, a suspension of activity rate and a revolving credit facility from the bank.
To say this has been the most difficult time in Nimax’s 17 years would be an understatement. “There have been setbacks and there have been [more] setback,” Burns says. But she never considered giving up. “I would never have thrown in the towel…I have never wavered in my determination to open, and open well, and revive the industry. And I am proud to play [my] do this with everyone.
Aside from a hiatus to study law at university, Burns has spent her entire career in theatre: first as an actress, before moving into writing and producing, and a stint as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse. . “There’s no part of this business that I haven’t done,” she says. “It’s been hands-on learning every step of the way.”
When four theaters went up for sale in 2005, a conversation with Bill Kenwright, theater and film producer and chairman of Everton Football Club, led to the idea of buying them. The next day, she sat down her husband – then a “very, very, very risk averse” lawyer at Slaughter and May, the magic circle law firm – for a serious conversation.
Could they remortgage their Hampstead home, she asked. To his surprise, he accepted.
Why did she want to buy them? “I just thought I could do it,” she says. As a producer, she found that she “just couldn’t do what I wanted”. His business partner is Oklahoma-based Max Weitzenhoffer, a Broadway producer who co-produced with Burns on Medea and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. “We are absolutely on the same page for everything; we have the same sensitivities, the same ethics,” she says.
She describes herself as a risk taker – but “the type who does his job very carefully before taking [the risk]”.
Compared to the theaters of impresario Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group or the Ambassador Theater Group, Nimax theaters are relatively small, which has its advantages.
“We can be fast,” Burns explained. “If you have a huge theater [with] big, big musicals [which] are massive machines, you can’t restart these shows overnight. In our case, we opened whenever we could.
In September 2020, it announced the opening of cinemas under social distancing rules, “which involved reconfiguring stall seats and using an algorithm to put buffer space around social bubbles. . . The algorithm actually worked, which means we [could] maximize the number of seats for sale”.
Nimax tested Covid mitigations with an invited audience to watch comedian Paul Zerdin, then the one-man show This is going to hurt by Adam Kay, the hospital doctor turned writer, including a free performance for NHS staff. In December, cinemas opened at 50% capacity, before another lockdown on December 16. They will not reopen until May 2021.
Staff have fallen on hard times, but working with unions has helped build a sense of loyalty, Burns says.
Initially, [government-backed] the furlough had been “a lifesaver” but, in May 2020, she had given redundancy notices to a third of the staff. “I know a lot of ushers and the extra backstage crew who become show staff; it was very difficult,” she says. Retaining the rest of the staff, before the furlough was extended, was another example of risk-taking.
This meant she could reopen cinemas quickly and start making money. It was the “best financial result and the human benefit was incalculable”.
Today, as public spaces open up more, audiences want “joy, celebration, and humor,” and Burns is thinking of ways to bring audiences back to live performance.
Social media will have a role, for example, as it enables public opinion to make a show a success even when it has been ignored or dismissed by critics. “It was a lot harder to do that 10 years ago,” she notes.
However, one innovation she is not tempted to try is delivering food to the audience seated in her place.
“We are a nation that needs to have something in our mouths,” she comments. But Nimax is “very careful with food and the crunch-crinkle factor. . . We won’t have hot meals, nothing smelly. And also, it’s messy. If you are going to present gourmet meals to the rodent population and invite them, they will come.
The missing piece of the puzzle is tourism, she says. “I really, really hope that the [Queen’s] Jubilee will turn the tide. The soft power of theater on the economy in London and across the country is enormous.
But above all, she hopes that after Covid there will be a renewed appreciation for live experiences. “We have reason to be positive.”