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Youth must be served

Two twentysomething producers in the West End target their peers with rotating casts of starry young Americans in 'This Is Our Youth.'

January 12, 2003|David Gritten | Special to The Times

London — LITTLE about the Garrick Theatre suggests its current status as the epicenter of West End cool. A stately, ornate 1889 building on Charing Cross Road, it for years has attracted typical West End theatergoers, which is to say out-of-town bus parties and middle-age suburbanite couples. But nine months ago this all changed; now there's not a perm, a blue rinse or a man-made fiber in sight. These days there's a rock-concert buzz about the Garrick foyer, which is filled with the chatter of fashionable, upscale young audiences, overwhelmingly under 30.

They are drawn by the 1996 play "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, best known as screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated "You Can Count on Me." Dramatic, poignant and often funny, "This Is Our Youth," set in a one-room Manhattan apartment in 1982, revolves around a trio of inept twentysomething slackers, preoccupied with sex and dealing drugs.

But the real attraction is the shrewd casting (in threes) of young American movie stars, who stay for eight weeks. Anna Paquin, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hayden Christensen inaugurated the play's London run, before giving way to Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix. The third reincarnation featured Kieran Culkin, Alison Lohman and Colin Hanks; the new cast, who take over on Thursday, are Freddie Prinze Jr., Heather Burns and Chris Klein.

The magnetism of these young stars has turned the Garrick into what one observer calls "an educated Club Med."

Luring such young audiences into a West End show is, for London theater management, the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Remarkably, the two female producers who achieved this are only fractionally older than the audiences. It's equally notable that "This Is Our Youth" is the first major production for Clare Lawrence, 27, and Anna Waterhouse, 28.

They raised $560,000 in pre-production costs, then cajoled stars like Damon to come to London and appear on stage for a fraction of the fees they earn in films. "The actors aren't on Equity minimum, but they're not on fantastic wages either," Lawrence notes. "We told them modest wages are the only way we can do this, and they all agreed."

Now Lawrence and Waterhouse are credited with creating a whole new West End audience. Their rise is dizzying; five years ago, both were Cambridge University students.

"When they secured Matt Damon, jaws dropped all over theaterland," says Nica Burns, head of production at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group. "Here's an actor who earns $10 million a film. He's won an Oscar. And Anna and Clare landed him. They're not just smart, bright, young women. They have incredible balls too."

Certainly both women are articulate and eloquent. Waterhouse, outgoing, chatty, with a shock of wavy auburn hair, is the effervescent one; Lawrence, dark-haired and analytical, seems more reserved. They run their production company Out of the Blue from a tiny, cramped office in central London.

"We each have a different focus," Lawrence says, "and that's allowed the company to develop quite quickly." She runs the theater side, while Waterhouse is located largely in New York and Los Angeles, concentrating on film production. Their breakthrough success flouts several conventions.

"We're finding that lots of people buy tickets on the day or just before the show, as if they were going to a movie," she says. "And there's a high percentage of Americans, maybe 30%. They walk past the theater and say, 'My God, I can't believe those people are on stage!' "

Feeling their way

Most modern American plays fail in the West End. The three demanding roles in "This Is Our Youth" are the kind that usually go to older stage actors. But Lawrence and Waterhouse stuck to their guns: Except for Damon, all 12 actors employed to date are under 30.

All around, youth attracted youth. "Here are two very young producers, choosing to speak to their own generation," Nica Burns says. "That's why they're so successful, and what makes them so impressive."

How did they do it? "We had to feel our way," Waterhouse admits. "No one had really gone after younger audiences, so we had no one to say, 'This is how you do it.' "

Bypassing traditional marketing routes, they relied on word of mouth, targeted schools and colleges for early previews, and offer $16 tickets to people under 26. "I love the idea that people are discovering theater through this production," Lawrence says. "If they have a good experience, they come back."

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