INTERVIEW: Katy Lipson Talks Musicals, RAGS and Hope Aria Academy

2018 Season Hope Mill Theatre

Award-winning theatre producer Katy Lipson talks about her love for musical theatre, why RAGS means so much to her and what to expect from new drama school Hope Aria Academy

It’s fair to say that it’s been a whirlwind few years for Katy Lipson. After setting up her company Aria Entertainment in 2012, the award-winning theatre producer has been riding on a high, producing over 45 shows in the past seven years and making The Stage 100 in 2018 and 2019 with Joe Houston and William Whelton for their work at Hope Mill Theatre.

This year, things look to be even more chaotic for the Manchester-born producer, who alongside producing shows such as RAGS, HAIR and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, will also be launching a new drama school for rising musical stars.

To coincide with the opening of RAGS at Hope Mill Theatre, Lipson talks to Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK about her love for musical theatre, why RAGS means so much to her and what we can expect from new drama school Hope Aria Academy.

Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): For those who aren’t familiar with your work, can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your company Aria Entertainment?

Katy Lipson (KL): Aria is an entertainment company run by myself. We’ve been going since about 2012 and we’ve produced around 50 musical productions including our festival from Page to Stage which celebrates new writing. We’re very passionate about musical theatre and focus on revivals of older musicals as well as new writing. Every year we also do work spanning into larger commercial shows, as well as the smaller fringe shows we adore. We produce around 10 shows a year and we are actively involved in developing and commissioning new musicals as well.

FMD: Since you set up Aria Entertainment seven years ago, you have great success with a number of productions. What have been the highlights during this time and what shows are you most proud of?

KL: Right now I’m having one of the highlights of my career to date. Literally, as I speak we have Stephen Schwartz in the room on a new version of RAGS. That is incredible. Not only does the show mean a lot of me as a Jewish person, but also the fact that a forgotten or lost American musical will be given a new life in Manchester, that is incredible. This is definitely a highlight right now. Obviously my bigger shows like THE ADDAMS FAMILY that was a big step for me. I’d never really done anything on that scale so that was a big learning experience and thrilling to see something of such production value on stage. I’m also proud of the continued success of Hope Mill. I’ll get the same thrill when HAIR has its first night in Wimbledon in a few weeks’ time. To think that it started at Hope Mill, I brought it to London in the Vaults and now it’s coming again. Those three will be the ones that are most special because of their journey, their legacy and the work behind them.

FMD: You regularly produce in New York, London and Manchester. What are the challenges of producing multiple shows at the same time?

KL: The hardest thing is actually a lot of the smaller stuff that are passion projects. They are very time consuming and don’t really financially help the business much. Shows pretty much at Hope Mill don’t really pay me anything unless they go on and do well. So it’s just managing projects that are for passion with shows that I need to sustain my growth and earn money. I want to develop new musicals and for that to happen there needs to be a huge amount of financial investment. As I evolve now, I maybe need to step away from some of the shows I would have done for passion because I know in the long term, I need to spend my focus on potentially raising money to support a longer-term strategy which is to develop and invest in new work.

FMD: You’re obviously champion new musicals and over the past few years, it feels like there’s a new wave of support and interest in new musicals, is that the case from your perspective?

KL: It’s definitely changing but it’s going to take a long time. Where we are compared to the US is far behind. We don’t have a dedicated infrastructure for musicals in terms of a financial model. Getting audiences to say “oh, I’ll go and see a new musical” in the same they might go to see a new play at the Young Vic or the Almeida, there just isn’t that in the same volume. It’ll always be harder because even at Hope Mill, the audiences we get for RETURN OF THE SOLIDER are so much lower than the audiences we get for RAGS, which is understandable. But it’s sad because the shows are beautiful.

FMD: How did you get involved producing at Hope Mill Theatre and have you been surprised by the success that both you and the venue have enjoyed?

KL: I think I was surprised to get so much recognition together as a force when we began because I’d been doing it a long time in London and didn’t get the same profile but I understood that investing in the regions is a hugely positive thing. I knew Joe [Houston] because he was at one of my readings for Page to Stage and I’m from Manchester. I was already speaking to James Baker, an independent director about doing PARADE with him in Manchester and stepping into Hope Mill, we couldn’t find somewhere more perfect. After PARADE I sort of formed an official relationship with Joe and Will [Whelton]. I said you have a venue and a passion to do this but you need a producer, someone who can help put on shows, come up with titles, build creative teams, find the talent and understand the financial model, that’s how it all began. We sit down, we pick shows, we then try and put them on and move them to London. We know they are going to be beautiful shows and that they have a future. I’ve grown a lot in three years commercially so shows won’t just happen in Hope Mill, they’ll have to have some sort of future because it’s the only way we can financially sustain starting them in such a little space.

FMD: In terms of Hope Mill, you have a number of shows coming up this year one of which is a new version of Stephen Schwartz’s RAGS, can you tell us a little bit about the show?

KL: RAGS was originally written by Joseph Stein, the book writer who wrote FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. It’s sort of a sequel to FIDDLER in terms of what happened when the Jews and the European immigrants had to escape persecution in their homeland. They came over on boats to Ellis Island with $20 in their pockets and started a new life. It’s about how they assimilate, how they take in the City, how they make a living for themselves and it obviously centres a lot on the garment making industry which is what a lot of immigrants had to do because that’s what they could learn. It centres on Rebecca Hershkowitz who is our female protagonist who is coming to set up a new life for her son. We follow her life and the struggles she has. It’s got wonderful epic musical theatre songs in it. It’s very special, it’s a fantastic score and it’s a very moving passionate story as well.

FMD: What made you want to produce this show?

KL: I’ve known RAGS for a long time. I’m one of those producers who has a lot of knowledge about musical theatre and I listen to a lot of shows. As a Jewish producer, I like my identity and I want to do things that celebrate that. When I went after it, I was told no because it’s not available or the writers are still looking at it. Eight years ago, Stephen Schwartz was so busy with other shows that he wasn’t necessarily revisiting RAGS again. Then, in the last few years, he did and I pursued as a concept. Obviously, we did PIPPIN and that was my opportunity to ask Stephen in person can I do RAGS? When you know you want to do something you know, it’s like an innate thing, you don’t think logically, you just know this is a show I’m going to do one day. As a Producer, you have a lot of eggs in your basket. I have 25 shows that I’m talking about at any one time and I’m trying to stay on top of them. Some might fall in 2020, some might be 2021. It’s crazy how far ahead you are planning but RAGS was always there and it just spoke to me. The music, the story, what it meant, how it sounded, I just loved it.

FMD: You also recently set up a Hope Aria Academy. What inspired you to found the academy and how is Hope Aria Academy different from other drama schools?

KL: A couple of reasons really. Will [Whelton] came up to London to choreograph HAIR and he stayed with me for a few weeks and he was always very passionate about having a drama school. I’m very lucky that I was a musician and did a classical music degree and I used my own piano skills and singing skills to teach at the BRIT school in Trinity. Even now I run master classes in different places. With real estate, it was much easier to do something in Manchester than in London. There was a place available near Hope Mill and we thought, why don’t we think about taking on the building as our rehearsal space and actually running a course for musical theatre? Obviously, the dream one day is to have a full-time school but the reality is we need to take baby steps. We thought we’d launch a part-time school focused on musical theatre with top class training and top class practitioners visiting from London. The big difference is that we are active producers, we are doing commercial shows around the world and the staff that will come in and teach them will be choreographers from the West End. We’re going to try and evolve the school as we see what people need, offering new modules, different courses and summer schools for kids as we grow.

FMD: What are you most excited about this year?

KL: Right now is a really exciting time. We’ve just closed ASPECTS OF LOVE, we’ve just opened RAGS, and we then do HAIR. We also have this crazy cult play based on a very famous horror film called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD which is a bit of a change for us but it’s a very clever piece and we really admire that genre and what they’ve done. It’s a very busy spring for us. We’ve just signed the rights and commissioned a new adaption of a very famous film and book of the 80s which we can’t reveal but we’re excited about its development. Then obviously we’re working towards May with Tracie Bennett and a new musical at the end of the year. We’re also working on a big national tour, a couple in fact for next year which hasn’t been announced, so all of that is going on at the same time. There is so much, it’s crazy. Right now I’m on a high but some days it’s really hard when people tell you that they are not going to invest and ticket sales aren’t moving and everything is costing more money. You’re worried if you’re even going to get to the end of something and it’s really hard but it’s full of these amazing highs so you’ve just got to keep remembering the days like today because they keep you focused on why you do the things you do.

RAGS runs at Hope Mill Theatre until 6 April 2019