Ambassador's empire: ATG expands global reach

It operates 40 venues in Britain and presents more than 10,000 shows each year. Now ATG is coming to a theatre near you, thanks to an ambitious global expansion plan. Clare Wiley reports

When Ambassador Theatre Group launched in 1992, it had just two theatres – the Duke of York’s in the West End and the New Victoria Theatre in Woking. Twenty-two years later, ATG’s tenacious founders Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire oversee a veritable empire of 40 British venues, from the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse to the 2,000-seat Sunderland Empire.

Now the world’s biggest theatre group, ATG presents more than 10,000 performances across the world each year, as producer and operator. Around 25 per cent of shows staged at ATG venues are produced by the company. The institution also manages a vast ticketing website, serving 19 million customers, and the UK’s largest paid-for theatre membership scheme, ATG Theatre Card.

ATG has been behind some of the most successful big-name shows in recent years, including The Misanthrope starring Damian Lewis and Keira Knightley; Guys and Dolls featuring Ewan McGregor; Broadway hit Exit the King with Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon; and this summer’s Richard III featuring Sherlock star Martin Freeman.

Martin Freeman in Richard III © Marc Brenner

Martin Freeman in Richard III © Marc Brenner

The theatrical powerhouse is now pushing into overseas markets, hoping to reproduce what has proved a hugely successful business model in Britain. 2007 saw the opening of a New York office, producing several London to Broadway transfers; last year ATG acquired Broadway’s largest theatre, The Lyric (formerly Foxwoods); and the team also have their sights set on the Asia-Pacific region, with a recently opened Sydney office.

In June ATG created the new role of international business development director, and appointed Karin Gartzke. Why does she think the company has been so successful? ‘I sometimes say, we’ve got the hardware (the venues) and we’ve got the software (the productions) to go in them. We also have two joint chief executives who are very visionary, and who believe this model could be attractive to other countries.’

Gartzke will head up an ambitious expansion plan that aims to roll out the format of venue management, content production and ticketing to the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific. As part of the strategy, ATG is considering opportunities to build, manage or lease theatres in cities across Australia, Hong Kong and Korea.

Karin Gartzke

Karin Gartzke

‘The plan is to replicate our model internationally, obviously taking account of other cultures and ways of working,’ says Gartzke. ‘I’m really working as part of a team to look at opportunities around the world. Most of our initial steps into those territories have been through taking productions over there, or producing shows in Australia. It’s confidential at the moment, but we’re developing four projects where there’s the possibility of us managing a venue in that particular territory. We are hoping within the next 18 months that we’ll have our first theatre in the Asia-Pacific region, perhaps even earlier. One bid could come off in the next three months. Our focus right now is to set up a distribution network, and have venues to which we can take productions or present shows by the other producers with whom we are partnered.’

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The central challenges for ATG’s international expansion are cost and bureaucracy. But recognising cultural differences is also a key factor in both exporting plays and producing works abroad. ‘You can’t just take a UK production over there; you can only take the star – and the star has to be known there. You have to find local actors, and there’s a lot of red tape involved in exporting shows.’

Take the Rocky Horror Show, currently touring Australia. A variation on the 40th anniversary version which toured the UK in 2013, the Australian show saw ATG partner with producer John Frost of The Gordon Frost Organisation. The cast is Australian, including Craig McLachlan, whose scandalous turn as the notorious Dr Frank N Furter earned him a Helpmann nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Legendary creator Richard O’Brien narrated the Adelaide shows.

Craig McLachlan in Rocky Horror Show Australia © Jeff Busby

Craig McLachlan in Rocky Horror Show Australia © Jeff Busby

‘We decided to produce it there with an Australian cast because of cost, but also because the culture is different to the UK,’ Gartzke says. ‘Although they also speak English, there’s a slightly different emphasis you have to be aware of; the dialogue, for instance, and the points where people laugh, are different.’

Gartzke is also investigating the market in continental Europe. ‘I’m looking at individual countries, assessing the market for musicals in particular, and seeing where there might be opportunities. The French, German, Italian and Spanish markets are all very different. The strongest market for musicals is in Germany, where we have a long-term partner and a potential opportunity to operate a venue. My role is to do a lot of that research and groundwork, talking to venues and identifying possible partners.’

Cast of Rocky Horror Show in Australia © Jeff Busby

Cast of Rocky Horror Show in Australia © Jeff Busby

German-born Gartzke has held administrator roles at a number of small and mid-scale touring companies, as well as being acting deputy director of performing arts at Southbank Centre and drama officer / deputy drama director at Arts Council England. She joined ATG in 1996 as head of new projects, responsible for regional acquisitions. She was also chief executive of Richmond Theatre from 1999 to 2011 and from 2004 to 2008 she oversaw New Wimbledon Theatre.

‘I’ve always been interested in international work and other cultures,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been interested to see how venues operate and how different they are in each country. UK theatre is almost unique in respect to touring; it’s flexible, it can move around much more easily than most theatres in the rest of Europe. I think that’s down to the different tradi- tions – in France, Germany and Italy you find repertory theatres in almost each town. So there’s a limited tradition of touring, which is something we’ve always majored in.’

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