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Royal Shakespeare Company wants benefactors in on the act

Royal Shakespeare Company wants benefactors in on the act

June 19
04:43 2017

You can adopt a tree at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, an antiquarian book at the British Library or a musician at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). There are similar adoption schemes for Old Master paintings and sculptures.

Now there is another creative approach to arts sponsorship: why not sponsor a single character in a play?

The initiative is being introduced by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). In return, sponsors get the chance to meet the actor and director, discuss the role’s interpretation and sit in on rehearsals. They also get privileged access to tickets.

Businesswoman Miranda Curtis, a 61-year-old Londoner and the RSC’s joint deputy chair, jumped at the chance to try it out for the first time. She wanted to explore exactly how it could work in the theatre.

It proved to be utterly rewarding, she says. “It’s an opportunity for people who have a passionate interest in a particular play — or are passionate supporters of an individual actor or have personal reasons to want to associate themselves with a particular role — to support the company in producing fantastic work.”

Curtis was given the pick of roles in artistic director Gregory Doran’s acclaimed production of The Tempest, which will be coming to London this summer. Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, may not be the play’s biggest role, but it was a character that Curtis knew immediately was a perfect match for her.

Miranda Curtis, RSC’s deputy chair

She has always felt a special affinity with Miranda because her mother, Barbara Gough, named her after the character, having played her as a young woman in an amateur dramatics company. That was in Norwich in the 1930s. Her mother never pursued her dream of becoming a professional actress, but she passed on her passion for live performance to her daughter, having regularly taken her as a child to the theatre.

Curtis has found more time for the arts since retiring from a high-profile career in the global media telecoms industry. She worked for more than 20 years in the broadband cable industry with John Malone at Liberty Global, overseeing ventures across Europe and Asia-Pacific, particularly in Japan. Having handled a multibillion-dollar sale of Liberty’s Japanese interests in 2010, she retired from her executive role and was invited to join the board of Liberty Global as a non-executive director.

She joined the RSC board about five years ago, becoming joint deputy chair earlier this year.

The idea of introducing “role support”, as it has become known, was inspired partly by Curtis’s involvement with Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Stokenchurch. There, potential sponsors have long been offered the chance to support an individual singer or a performer in the orchestra, among other roles.

“At Garsington, and some of the other opera companies, it’s a well-established way of fundraising,” Curtis explains. “Either you can be an individual production supporter or you can join a production consortium and people can support individual performers. So, for example, at Garsington last summer I supported Caitlin Hulcup, who is a fantastic Australian soprano. She was singing Idamante in Tim Albery’s production of [Mozart’s] Idomeneo.

“It occurred to me that that was something that could be very interesting and relevant [for the RSC]. So I volunteered to be the pioneer of role support,” she adds.

Louise Alder as IIia with Caitlin Hulcup as Idamante in Garsington Opera’s production of ‘Idomeneo’ © Getty

Curtis prefers not to reveal the amount she paid for Miranda, but mentions that, at Garsington, support for an orchestral member is “single thousands” and for a principal singer, “might be £15,000-£25,000”. The equivalent cost at the RSC, obviously a higher-profile company, is “still work in progress”, she says, pointing out that a lead character will differ from a lesser role.

In backing Miranda, she recalled her mother’s frustration at being asked to play the character as “a wimp”. So Curtis’s “only request” of Doran was that his Miranda “should not be a wimp”, she jokes. “There are one or two moments where she demonstrates conclusively that she’s not a wimp.”

The Tempest transfers to the Barbican, London, on June 30, following rave reviews last November at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Prospero, the magician, is played by Simon Russell Beale, widely regarded as the greatest classical actor of his generation.

Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero in the RSC’s latest version of ‘The Tempest’ © Topher McGrillis/RSC

Rebecca Preston, the RSC’s director of development, describes the initial experience of “role support” as “a really interesting experiment”. The company will now introduce it to the wider public.

“In working our way through the First Folio [of Shakespeare plays], obviously there are some really recognisable characters. So I think role support, in the way that it’s worked for orchestras and opera, is something that can work for the RSC,” she says.

The desperation to woo new sponsors means that arts organisations and charities have to be all the more creative about their approach.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra inspires members of its audience to support a musician, whether section players, soloists or a conductor for between £750 and £10,000.

Huw Davies, its deputy managing director and head of development, describes the scheme as a “more meaningful way” of engaging benefactors with the orchestra.

Pinchas Zukerman conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in a joint performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2014 © Getty

“Rather than just giving a donation,” he adds, “this is actually bringing them into the family, into the fold, so they feel part of the orchestra. As much as they are adopting a musician, we are adopting them as well.”

Individuals, families and corporates are among such supporters, each making an annual donation in return for benefits such as the chance to go backstage or introduce their children to musicians. As Davies explains: “You can do things you can’t do if you just buy a ticket.”

The RPO wants to make sponsors feel “extra special, so that they’re not just a number on a database”, he adds. “Musicians are fascinating because they’ve got such tales to tell about touring and things that have gone wrong. Supporters just love it.”

He dismisses the suggestion that some instruments are more popular than others: “People ask ‘what’s the hardest instrument to home [adopt]?’ Lots of people imagine that the viola, for example, might be one of those.” Not so, he says.

The adopt-a-musician supporters include Anne Fergusson, a business development director of Mattioli Woods, a wealth management business. As a music lover, she jumped at the chance to adopt an individual player. She had no particular instrument preference when she was linked up with Adam Wright, a trumpeter, about five years ago. Each year, she increases her donation. She is now planning an annual £2,000.

She says: “It’s not to do with the instrument. I was happy to support anyone . . . I don’t play an instrument — other than triangle at school.”

In return, she goes backstage, invites Wright and other musicians to Sunday lunch, having struck up a friendship. “I love listening to classical music and taking friends and family to the concerts. It’s just a gift at the end of the day.”

At the British Library, a bespoke scheme allows potential sponsors to adopt any book from its vast holdings. In return for a one-off payment of £1,000, supporters receive a personalised certificate, a customised bookplate placed inside the book’s conservation box and tours of the library.

Helen Bowen, fundraising co-ordinator, says: “People come to us if they have a favourite author or a subject they’re really interested in. Then conservation boxes are made to house the book . . . It protects the book. Inside that, we put a customised bookplate [saying] ‘this book has been adopted by…’ ” Sponsors can add a personal message, perhaps in memory of someone and their favourite author or a special birthday, which will remain forever.

Sponsors include Chris and Eddie Dapré, a retired teacher and electronics engineer respectively, who have been married for 47 years and live in Hampton, Middlesex.

They have used the bespoke scheme seven times so far, saying: “[It] allows us to choose a relevant book and dedicate it to a special friend or relation — a lovely way for them to be remembered always.”

They add: “This is a wonderful scheme and everyone to whom we have given a present or whose family member has a dedicated book are amazed and delighted.”

Whether RSC sponsors will want to back an actor rather than a character remains to be seen. But, once a decision about a play has been taken, characters will in theory be available for adoption before casting has even taken place.

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