Nica Burns: risk-taker who worked to reopen London’s theatreland
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Women in business news every morning.
Nica Burns is celebrating small wins. “We made £65,000!” she says, speaking in the boardroom of Nimax, the theatre group she co-founded and oversees as chief executive.
The figure is the contribution from her Rising Stars festival, which ran from May 2021 for six months. That 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 next year’s figure was 752,445, and in 2020-21, it was just 417,823. In 2019 it had made profits of £8.5mn on sales of £30mn, before Covid-19 shut London’s West End, then reopened it, and then shut it again. Nimax will be posting a loss for the financial year ending September, 2021.
“It’s a pittance, right?” says Burns, about the Rising Stars money. “But it made me very happy — the only financial goal was that we would not lose more money than being closed,” she explains, full of cheerful enthusiasm, and surrounded by theatrical posters in her Covent Garden offices.
“Reopening the theatres was a confident, positive initiative,” she says, reeling off everyone involved, from audiences and performers to stage management and the workers in wardrobe, props and wigs. “We had a huge amount of mental health problems in the industry, with people not being able to do a vocational job that they loved.”
Alongside three mainstream shows (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and Constellations, which opened later), the festival meant she could open all her theatres (Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess) where big shows such as Harry Potter and The Cursed Child could not afford to play to half an audience.
Some 20-plus Rising Stars producers made their West End debuts and had a small taste of the challenges Burns faces when staging and marketing a big production. “It was a huge learning curve for these young producers.”
For Burns herself, the pandemic proved a protracted crash course in managing complexity and uncertainty.
When UK prime minister Boris Johnson told audiences to stay away from theatres on March 16 2020, before full lockdown a week later, she gathered actors and production staff to drink alcohol and eat pizza in a giddy haze of confusion.
“Everyone was saying ‘See you in three weeks’ time’,” she recalls. “We didn’t know that our world — as it was — was ended for two years. Nobody anywhere knew what was to come.”
What came was vanished income, mothballed productions, most of the 350-plus staff put on furlough, pay cuts and, in August 2020, redundancies. Then, when theatres did reopen, there was social distancing to contend with.
Nimax has been helped by a state-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan of £5mn, £860,000 from the Culture Recovery Fund, which enabled its swift reopening, a business rates holiday, and a revolving credit facility from the bank.
To say this has been the hardest period of Nimax’s 17 years would be some understatement. “There were setbacks and there were [more] setbacks,” Burns says. But she never contemplated giving up. “I would never have thrown in the towel . . . I never ever wavered in my determination to open, and open well, and get the industry back going again. And I’m proud to play [my] part in doing that with everyone else.”
Aside from an interlude studying law at university, Burns has spent her entire career in the theatre: first as an actor, before going into writing and producing, and a stint as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse. “There hasn’t been any part of this business that I haven’t done,” she says. “It’s been hands-on learning every step of the way.”
When four theatres came up for sale in 2005, a conversation with Bill Kenwright — theatre and film producer, and chair of Everton Football Club — seeded 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 talk.
Could they remortgage their Hampstead home, she asked. To her surprise, he agreed.
Why did she want to buy them? “I just thought I could do it,” she says. As a producer, she found that she “couldn’t just do what I wanted”. Her business partner is Oklahoma-based Max Weitzenhoffer, a Broadway producer who has 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 sensibilities, same ethics,” she says.
She describes herself as a risk-taker — but “the type that does their work very thoroughly before they take [the risk]”.
Compared with impresario Cameron Mackintosh’s theatres, or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, or the Ambassador Theatre Group, the Nimax theatres are relatively small — which has advantages.
“We can be quick-footed,” Burns explains. “If you’ve got a huge theatre [with] big, big musicals [which] are massive machines, you can’t restart those shows overnight. In our case, we opened every time that we were able.”
In September 2020, she announced the opening of theatres under social distancing rules, “which meant reconfiguring stalls seats and using an algorithm to put buffer space around social bubbles . . . The algorithm actually worked, which meant we [could] maximise the number of seats to sell”.
Nimax trialled Covid mitigation measures with an invited audience to watch comedian Paul Zerdin, and then the one-man show This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, the hospital doctor turned writer, including a performance free to NHS staff. In December, theatres opened at 50 per cent capacity, before another lockdown on December 16. They would not reopen until May 2021.
There were tough times for staff but working with unions helped to create a sense of loyalty, Burns says.
Originally, [government-backed] furlough had been “a lifesaver” but, by May 2020, she had given redundancy notices to a third of the staff. “I know a lot of the ushers and the additional backstage crew that become show staff; it was very difficult,” she says. Retaining the rest of the staff, prior to furlough’s extension, was another example of risk taking.
It meant she was able to reopen theatres quickly and start earning. It was the “best result financially and the human benefit was incalculable”.
Now, as public spaces open up further, audiences want “joy and celebration and humour”, and Burns is thinking up ways to draw audiences back to live performance.
Social media will have a role, for instance, because it lets public opinion make a show a hit even when it has been ignored or dismissed by critics. “It was much harder to do that 10 years ago,” she notes.
However, one innovation she is not tempted to try is delivering food to the audience in their seats.
“We’re a nation that needs to have something in our mouths,” she comments. But Nimax is “very careful with food and the crackle-crinkle factor . . . We won’t have any hot food, nothing that smells. And also, it’s messy. If you’re going to present gourmet meals to the rodent population and invite them in, they’ll come.”
The missing part of the puzzle is tourism, she says. “I’m really, really hoping that the [Queen’s] Jubilee is going to turn that around. The soft power of theatre to the economy in London and across the country is huge.”
Most of all, though, she hopes that post-Covid there will be a renewed appreciation of live experiences. “We have reasons to be positive.”