Getting into Musical Theatre with Paul Taylor-Mills

Paul Taylor-Mills talks to Spotlight about his connection with Andrew Lloyd Webber, his time at the Other Palace and setting up the MT Fest...

Spotlight spoke with producer, former Artistic Director of The Other Palace and founder of the MT Fest, Paul Taylor-Mills about working in the world of musicals. Paul gives us his insights into getting more involved in the community, encouraging creativity, supporting fellow artists and making important connections. Take a read! 

People laugh at me because they say my catchphrase is “Yes, darling.” I try and be as upbeat as I can.
Paul Taylor-Mills

Hey Paul! What made you want to work in theatre in the first place?

I ask myself that every single day. I think it’s because it’s in my bones - it’s not in my DNA, none of my family are from a theatre background - but as a young child growing up in a small town, I got lost in the world of amateur dramatics in a really wonderful way.

I would do all those classic shows - Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story… it became my life. I think for a young boy, it was a world that was very aspirational.

I think you get to a point where you ask yourself, “Are we in this for the long run?” And I think, fortunately, I am! But I also feel, at the same time, very very blessed to be a part of the theatre community. It’s a special family. I think that’s the reason why I’m here.

And how did you go from being in Fiddler on the Roof in a small town to producing?

What’s really interesting is that we had a conversation about this yesterday in the festival - we have this event called ‘Tea for Two’ which are conversations with industry specialists... I think for a young person growing up, the only people you really see are the actors. They are the shopfront of theatre. They play - and rightly so - a very visible role. The talk yesterday was a whole host of people talking about marketing from a variety of organisations, but interestingly, all of them, in some way, started thinking off that they were an actor. And went through, in some cases, formal training, like I did…

I was always the person in the room who probably had too much to say for himself, and a great man called Gunduz Kalic took me aside and said to me, “I don’t think you’re an actor, I think you’re a director,” and I thought, “Oh, that sounds wonderful!” The idea of going into a room and telling people what to do! And then I got into the rehearsal room and I enjoyed directing, but I realised I was looking forward to getting home and jumping on my laptop and looking at how the box office had done or how the marketing was working… I found the casting process really interesting. Then I suddenly realised, “I’m a producer.” It wasn’t a straightforward ‘that’s what I want to do’...

I knew I had this passion and zest for being in theatre, but I wasn’t sure where I would land. I realised it was being a control freak and being in the centre of it all, trying to keep tabs on the mayhem, really!

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to also direct or produce?

I would say, say ‘yes’ as much as you can. There’s no secret to success in this industry, there’s no one trajectory. In the same way as there’s not one trajectory for what makes a good show. Each show has a different journey. I think it’s the same for careers…

My top tips would be to say yes to as many opportunities as you can. I did loads of amateur theatre. I don’t advocate [it] because you’re not always getting paid, but I learned a huge amount being a director in a room and just being able to play.

I just tried to say yes to as much as I dared to, and ensure that I had other jobs and other things happening at the same time. It’s surprising, the cross-pollination from being in the room from being in a rehearsal setting, and the people that you meet - some of the projects I’m now engaged in at the old age of 31 were seeds that I sowed when I was 21 and at the Edinburgh festival… those relationships, presuming that you are honourable, that you are good, reliable and passionate, will come to fruition one day.

What then characterises the stories that interest you? The scripts you’re attracted to?

I ask myself first of all: what does it say about the current climate? About the world we live in? That doesn’t mean it has to be about themes in 2019, things that are on the news - for instance, I’m about to embark on a revival of Ain’t Misbehavin', but interestingly it’s one of the oldest reviews ever written. There’s a moment in it - and I won’t give away any secrets - that is as poignant now as it was when it was first written. And it hasn't been done for 25 years. I've put a new team of creatives on it, so I’m interested in going back and looking at doing work in a new way. But really it’s this: does the story really speak to now, does it move me?

That doesn't mean that I have to feel like an emotional wreck at the end of the show. Does it make me giggle? Some of the shows in the [MT festival] are there because I spent half the show belly laughing, and I think that’s important - it’s good for the soul to laugh! I laugh at myself everyday. But does it move me in some way, be it cathartic, humorous, thoughtful - it has got to hit me in some way.

And then to be really honest it goes back to an earlier point: Do I want to work with these people? Life’s too short, you know. I never underestimate the value of good working relationships and just being that person in the room that is always positive. It’s hard because we’re in an industry that’s very competitive, with a huge amount of risk, and your instinct and reactions when - I call it ‘squeaky bum’ - but when you’re tense, is to get defensive. I still have to check myself… remind myself to be as positive as I can be, because we’re in a creative environment. Those ideas can only happen when you create the right environment.

How do you form good connections in this industry?

There is no hidden route or one way of doing it… I’m very honest, I try to manage expectation. I try not to over or under deliver. I try to be as clear as I can be. But again, I try to say yes as much as I can do. People laugh at me because they say my catchphrase is “Yes, darling.” I try and be as upbeat as I can. Therefore if I can’t do something I try and contextualise why I can't do it. And 95% of the time the creative person will understand why.

I met Andrew [Lloyd Webber] through his musical The Beautiful Game… we’d just meet every so often for lunch and chat, share stories, and we realised that we had this wonderful kinship and were both on the same page when it came to the development of new work and emerging artists, which is something that is important to him and me. And that’s when the Other Palace happened.

I had the best time at the Other Palace, and have been with Andrew for 3 years as his advisory producer. My new role as Affiliate Producer here essentially means I can do more work… where I get really excited is when I'm in the room and I'm working with actors, dramaturgs, with the playwright or composer, and obviously when you’re running a building, that’s hard!

A more succinct answer to your question is, it’s through doing good work. And if it is good, it’s of quality and you are nice, trust that people will hear about it. My mum always says, “Cream always rises to the top” and I think that’s an important thing that’s stayed with me.

I think it was Andrew who said to me there are very few brilliant musicals that are lying in a drawer. If they are that good, someone somewhere will have cottoned onto it and will be pursuing it…

Any advice for actors - what for you makes an actor stand out to you?

The casting process is so complex. You’re dealing with the complexities of whether it’s a pre-existing show, in which case there’s a precedent set about what ‘type’ plays that role. You’re dealing with people making assumptions on you straight away. And I think for your soul and health and mindset you just have to be your authentic self.

In terms of combating nerves, you’ve kinda just got to get on with it. And I know that sounds kind of blunt, and I don’t know how actors deal with it, because I would be a mess!

We talk a lot about the resilience of actors but we have to remember that producers, directors, have to be just as resilient. Again, because actors are the shopfront of theatre, we hear about the challenges of being an actor, [but even] at the point I’m at in my career, I still get told no.

There are certain things you can do to help yourself. [An actor] said to me once that every time he had an opening night, he made sure he started something the following day. Straight away, whether the reviews were good or bad, so he had something to go to. I think there’s something to be said about that, about after an audition, making sure you have got somewhere to go to…

Tell us a bit about this festival - where did the idea come from?

I get sent scripts and scores all the time. I just had this absolute guilt that I wasn’t able to do more for these writers. It’s such a precarious journey for writers - they clearly feel passionate about their work, and they are precious creatures I think we need to take care of. I felt guilty that I couldn’t do anything for them. I thought I’d do this tiny festival… it snowballed, and became this massive thing.

I think the development of new musicals in this country is a bit of a mystery, there’s no clear route into how you make the perfect musical… we are a tiny bit behind the American musical, because perhaps there’s a greater understanding [there], and what I wanted to demystify all of that.

So we have 45 minute taster sessions of new musicals. It gives an audience a taste of what it could be like. There’s nothing like being with an audience and watching work for the first time - you can feel in the room if it’s a thing. You can feel which parts are working, which parts aren’t working… The audience is the last character to join the piece. It’s important to acknowledge what they feel.

Alongside this, I thought wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could have a safe environment in which [industry experts] can talk about past situations - how a new musical has been marketed, or the negotiation that happens between an actor, casting director, an agent, and a producer… [that’s how we started] the Tea for Two sessions.

I want to know more about your view of casting - in particular, you cast Carrie Hope Fletcher in Heathers…

I saw her in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [and] said to my friend, “Who are all these people waiting for?” And it was Carrie. I knew I was doing Heathers and I just thought wouldn’t she be wonderful… It’s amazing, I think, that she has such a loyal following. The magic around Carrie is that people are following someone who is honourable, authentic and a really good role model. We’re so blessed that she’s also one of the most beautiful, talented actresses and leads a company so well.

It opened my eyes to that world of social media and influencers, and I didn’t know a lot about it. I think it’s a really interesting time for actors... people want more insight into rehearsals. Traditionally those are private spaces for actors to get it right, but now theatre marketing organisations want to be allowed in… that helps sell tickets, that’s the reality, and we get bogged down in the details but we have to remember that this is a business. It has to work. If it doesn’t, the consequences are a lot worse than letting people into rehearsals…! But it’s a really interesting one.

If people want to get more involved in the musical scene, what should they do?

See as much as you can [because] it helps to develop what your taste is. I’m always inspired and interested to know what people like… make sure you have a taste, an opinion.

Figure out the repeat offenders - whose work you often like - and write to them. If someone emails me and says “I saw your work and I really liked it”, it’s nice. We’re all human and it’s nice to hear that - that the hard work you’ve put in is of value to people. Write to those people and 99 times out of 100 people want to get back to you and be supportive.

When you get the opportunity and get into the room… [whatever role you’re interested in] make yourself the best at that as you can be. It will honestly pay dividends later on.

Make it your priority to see [new work]. If a producer is trying to do something, support them… I’d say 90% of producers are really passionate wonderful human beings that just want it to work. For the same reason an actor has a dream and gets involved in a work, a producer also has that same dream. They care as ferociously as the actor does.

Who inspires you?

It’s a corny thing to say but it’s my mum. I’ve had the ups the downs, the lefts, the rights… hopefully, I’ve kept my feet on the ground… I want to make [my mum] proud. It’s interesting because she’s not in theatre… but she fought so hard when I was growing up to make sure I went to dance lessons, that I got picked up from amateur dramatics at whatever time of night… I think she’s happy there’s something that I’m passionate about.

What would you like to work on next?

I’ve been so lucky. I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in theatre, I’ve run a building, I’ve won really wonderful awards. I’ve had shows that have been financial hits and shows that have been financial misses so, I’ve kind of been through the mill a little bit… I’d like to create new stuff. I know everyone wants to do that but I’ve taken lots of shows and [helped] move them on to the next phase in their journey. But next, I’d like to start from scratch.

I think that’s the next stop for me, something original - I want it to be of quality, with people I care about and enjoy working with.

Thanks to Paul for giving us his time. If you want to book tickets for the remainder of the MT Fest, you can do so here