Interview - Mr Sands Theatrical Promotion

Marking the launch of a theatre promotions company that promises to put the heat back into theatre, Steve Taylor-Bryant talks to Mr Sands... er... Daniel White....

Last year we had the pleasure of seeing friend of the site, Daniel White, wade into uncharted territory with just an iron will and a streak of stubbornness. He had become tired of the way films were marketed and the lack of affordable help for the independent scene so, instead of moaning, he threw his time and energy into the creation of WhiteScreen Promotions. No more lack of support for an artist trying to break through! We watched on with pleasure as he went from strength to strength and already we are seeing small but effective changes in the way the projects he's attached to are coming together. Fast forward a few months and Daniel's decided that other areas of the media need the same love and attention, this time theatre. So what can he do? How will it affect the film stuff? And just where did he get his company's name? Ladies and gentlemen Mr. Daniel White...

Thanks for joining us Daniel, or should we call you Mr Sands now? Where did the company name come from?

Ha ha, well I've been called worse in my time. When I was looking to set up a PR company that specialised with promoting Theatrical Productions I needed a name that showed that I place myself within the community I want to support. It needed to be a name that loudly shouted my fiery passion for ground breaking theatre but at the same also stood out from the crowd, something new and different. In professional Theatre, the term "Mr Sands" is used as code to warn of an outbreak of fire somewhere within the building. It means that Front of House and Backstage can communicate without fearing that they will cause distress to members of the public. So if you are ever in a theatre and hear the term "Mr Sands is in the foyer" my suggestion is to make a dignified and calm exit! As is the case with WhiteScreen I am always outspoken and loudly explosive when I speak on the outrageous ignorance surrounding creative brilliance and Mr Sands also stands as a name that is a call to arms. I intend to set a fire beneath the theatrical community and to passionately champion the diversity and brilliance that I feel is going unnoticed by audiences in this country. Revolution is needed and it’s time to show the public exactly what they are missing!

What's your own theatre background and where did your love of the theatre come from?

I have to say that I fell in love with Theatre from a really young age. Really, it began when I was a young boy and I was taken, as a birthday treat, to my first pantomime. I was sitting in the front row and trying not to fall into my tub of ice cream, the second act of Dick Whittington starts with a dramatic storm which threatens to sink the boat that our hero is in. I was totally enraptured by the scenes and that was it, I visited the theatre every year for the annual pantomime. Theatre became my passion and my obsession and if I couldn't get to see plays at my local Repertory theatre I would take any opportunity to enjoy amateur dramatic productions. The rush of excitement as the houselights dim and the cast take to the stage is addictive and exhilarating and still to this day is something that I never tire of feeling. To watch live theatre is something that everyone needs to experience as to view talented and creative people as they perform is an honour that I think is taken for granted. In an age where it’s easier to sit back at home and "be entertained" with little or no effort,  audiences have begun to dwindle and tragically repertory theatre has died. With arts budgets being reduced and more and more theatres forced to close the opportunities for actors to entertain have similarly shrunk. This simply should not have ever been allowed to happen and the fury that I feel engulfs me. Theatre and the arts are not optional investment areas they are essential for our society and us as individuals to better ourselves. Yet instead large swathes of our society opt for Game of Thrones or the latest Marvel TV adaptation. I’m not saying these programs are bad but they must not be allowed to be the only entertainment that we immerse ourselves in.

My love affair with the theatre deepened when I was 16 as I undertook two weeks of work experience at The Royal Theatre, Northampton. For the first time I got to experience the love and hours of work that go into putting a production onto the stage. I had found my true home! The theatre has often been seen as a place that provides a safe haven for those that don’t fit in, those who have a creative flair that is often seen as "odd" by normal society. Two weeks work experience turned into a part time job as I would lend my hands to the strikes and get outs (theatrical terms used when a production finishes and a set is taken down or struck) Often working into the early hours I relished ever second that I spent in the theatre and would regularly turn up just to watch a show from the stage managers desk or from the Lighting and Sound booth.

I was very fortunate that a family friend had a brother who was the Chief Electrician at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and he arranged for me to spend the day in London's Theatre Land. Wide eyed and very much like a child in a sweet shop I watched Cats from the Stage Manager's desk and an evening performance of the chilling Woman in Black. I knew that I wanted to work in this amazing world where theatrical magic seemed to be as common as pixie dust in NeverLand. For one reason or another my life didn’t turn out as I had imagined but, nearly 40 years on from that night at the panto, I return to my first love to add some much needed passion and belief. It feels like I will get the opportunity to add my voice to the talented chorus that needs, no deserves, a larger audience. Theatre is not just about big expensive sets and lavish productions. The magic happens in a pub back room where a handful of actors are performing, it happens wherever people are striving to bring to life words on a page and the characters that utter those words.

You've been making waves as a promoter of indie films with WhiteScreen PR for a while now. What prompted the move to promoting live theatre and why now? Was it a long term plan to expand into theatre or a spontaneous thing?

Oh trust me that was just me warming up! WhiteScreen has been running for just under a year and I have already had the pleasure of working with people whose talent simply renders me speechless. It became very obvious to me, fairly early on, that there was a very clear path between theatre and independent film. With actors often working in both areas at the same time and there also seemed to be a common problem with audience engagement and promotion. Putting it simply, both lower budget theatre productions and independent films do not have the marketing money at their disposal. I can trace the origins of Mr Sands back to my first ever experience of Pub Theatre and a brilliant theatrical production called NightFlyer. Performed by an astonishingly talented young cast who had recently graduated from Bath Spa Performing School and written by Martin Malcolm, the play was tightly scripted and just took my breath away both with the sheer quality and also its simplicity. This was theatre that brought me back to what is at the heart of it all! The audience engagement, entertainment but also theatre that challenged and broke new ground. I wrote a passionate review but also an accompanying article where I challenged people to stop playing it safe with theatre. To stop only viewing productions that star A-listers or are safe bets, it was challenge to live more dangerously and to cast your theatrical net a little further afield. Yet, I hadn’t heard of the venue and as I researched I found that pub theatre was an exciting and growing area for theatre. 

My frustration with the lack of choice in regards to theatre then was focused on the advertising that just focuses on the mass market, the big, bold and brash shows that live in the West End. If you were a newcomer to this country you would be forgiven in thinking that your choice was either Les Mis, Phantom, Wicked or Book Of Mormon. They are the shows you see advertised as you exit the Tube or plastered on the sides of buses. There is nothing wrong with these shows at all and I am a huge fan of musicals but there is more, so much more to choose from. It should not be the case that a production has no voice because it hasn’t got an obscenely large budget. I was determined that I should do something to correct the balance and use my skills to give brilliant and innovative theatre a wider audience. A fire had been lit and I began to work on how this would sit with my existing film work. The more theatre I reviewed the more angry I was getting that the audiences didn’t seem to know about productions that were being staged away from the brighter West End lights. I am not one to complain endlessly and was determined that I would be part of the solution and that if change was needed I was going to shout about it until people listened. Why now? Because I am fed up with attending amazing theatrical productions and sitting in venues that should be full instead of three quarters empty. I am sick of people only paying the inflated West End prices when they could have a more intimate and revelatory experience at a fraction of the price. Theatre needs new blood just as much as Independent Film does and I will not stand by whilst talent is wasted or ignored. Enough!

Does this mean that WhiteScreen and your work with indie film takes a back seat now?

No way is that ever going to happen, not on my watch! Passion breeds passion and I am just as enthusiastic and annoyingly loud about championing independent films that refuse to fit into a box and want to smash through barriers. The relatively fast turnaround for theatrical shows means that I can run both companies at the same time and still provide the level of quality that I demand of myself. Better diary management may be required and a slightly stronger coffee blend but if the result of my hard work is that innovation is applauded by larger audiences then I will be honoured to put the hours in. I don’t stop until I succeed and I am now on a mission to see change in both the film and theatrical industries. It's funny actually, everyone I’ve mentioned this to has not been the slightest bit surprised! It seems as natural to them as it does to me that this is a direction that I would go in.

Are there any parallels that can be drawn between film and theatre? And are you only going to cover independent theatre since the big West End shows seem to be doing very well?

As I mentioned earlier there are clear similarities both in creative talent that move between film and theatre and also the challenges that are to be met. Theatre is big business and the small number of people that are earning the big money also seem to hold the power. There also seems to be a lazy streak a mile wide! Want a sure fire theatrical hit? Aladdin, Frozen for your Disney audience or let’s turn a well known and popular film into a theatrical money spinner (Trainspotting and American Psycho). Whilst they may entertain audiences it’s not exactly innovative or ground breaking is it? Sound familiar? It does to me and audiences will soon tire of the same old, same old. Whilst audiences continue to pay high prices for the big musicals, and there is something to be said for both Les Mis and Phantom still playing to full houses three decades on, there needs to be more choice. 

More importantly, I think a trip to the theatre shouldn’t be just a special occasion. As cinema ticket prices rocket there is an alternative and one that will entertain much more effectively and in a more intimate way. Pub Theatre or independent theatre can provide an evening of sublime entertainment that will also set alight your imagination. As the sets are normally minimal the responsibility for actors to connect with audiences lies at the heart of a production. The bar is set so much higher and let me tell you there are scores of awesomely talented creatives that will leave you hungry for more! West End Shows are lazy in their advertising in the same way that main stream film is and will often just throw posters at the public or buy advertising space on social media and bombard you with horrendously bland click bait. I am absolutely sick of hearing about Prince Ali and his nauseating genie because the marketing arm of the production company just paid a fortune to Twitter. YAWN!!! Where’s the passion? It shows all the subtlety of a drunken lout trying his luck with a stylish lady. It's time to show the big boys how it should be done. Connect with audience and seduce them away from the West End, delivering a performance that will ensure they never pay over the odds for theatre again! I'd also say that measuring whether West End is doing well really does depend on what you view success looks like. If it's audience numbers or popularity then no as audiences are getting smaller by the month with more and more people choosing to stay at home. Equally financial success is normally seen as being met with a show breaking even rather than making a profit. Operating costs in the West End are so insanely high that the requirement for full houses is a constant or else shows will, and they do, shut early.

So what can you offer both theatre shows and the venues? Certainly your theatre reviews for AlbieMedia are different to a lot of reviewing styles - I assume your clients can expect something different from you with promotion?

Publicity with hooks and a fiery passion that will draw an audience. It’s essential that the general public don't just get excited about the production but about the venue as well. Whets the point in really getting people fired up if they have absolutely no clue as to how to find where it’s being staged. Pub Theatre venues are notoriously more of a challenge to locate as they are just pubs! The most successful Pub Theatre venues are the ones that don't just promote their shows but they also promote themselves. We need to get the public excited about theatre again, it’s a relationship that’s lost its spark and I want to reignite it! My clients can expect the same levels of passion that I demonstrate with my reviews as I always write them with an intention to inspire others to go and see for themselves. I think the difference when writing press release or promotional articles is that I can really up the ante in terms of language and challenge. I choose very carefully who I work with as I need to be engaged before I can engage others. There is an honesty and integrity with everything that I write that I think is essential. I also enjoy delivering the unexpected and I believe that we have to be different with promoting theatre. It’s always got to stand out otherwise it’s just going to get ignored! I think the other difference between reviewing and promoting is that I can really get into the heads of the creatives both behind the production and those that are delivering the show. Providing a clear and accessible point of entry for audiences is really going to make them want to put the effort in to buying a ticket. We have all been at the point in an evening when you have tickets for a show but question whether you can really be bothered. If I have done my job properly there really shouldn't be a moment when this thought is engaged with. Must see theatre is also unmissable.

Finally, if there's one thing you could change about the public's attitude to theatre, what would it be?

I think that there is popular belief that theatre is only for the intelligent or higher echelons of our society. This is and has always been wholly untrue but regular theatre goers have often assisted in the prevalence of this view. I attended a press night recently for Madam Butterfly at the London Coliseum and I deliberately wore jeans and t shirt. I wanted to see whether I felt awkward and whether I stood out and, sadly, I did. I don't think people should feel that they shouldn't dress up to go and see a show but neither should they feel that they have to. We need to challenge this misconception in a passionate but unrelenting way. The only way to woo people back to theatre is to make them see that it is entertaining and it is for them. Whether they wish to attend a show that will entertain, to provide a welcome distraction from the mundanity of life or to provide an evening full of laughter there is something for everyone. But I also want to see theatrical productions flourish outside of London and believe that pub theatre has every chance of being popular if we can reignite the passion for theatre again. Mr Sands Theatrical Promotions shares a common origin to WhiteScreen, it’s a fiery and hotly passionate birthplace that refuses to compromise and will not be stopped. Join me and let’s get those embers burning red hot again.

Images - courtesy of Daniel White

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