As if the credit crunch isn’t going to affect the ever-burgeoning development departments of theatres up and down the land, who have been learning from the American way of supplementing their grant incomes by corporate and private donations but now may find many of these drying up, how can they begin to legislate against a fraudster?
The Royal Opera House, stung by the false promises of benefactor Alberto Vilar in whose honour they had designated the restored Floral Hall as the Alberto Vilar Hall in 2000, hastily renamed it when less than half of what had been pledged — £4.4m against £10m - was actually received.
On Wednesday, Villar was convicted with his former business partner Gary Tanaka on 12 counts, including money laundering, wire fraud and lying to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, following a scheme to steal some $20m (£13.5m) from clients. As The Independent reports today, “Vilar’s arrest in May 2005 shocked the arts world, because of the scale of money he had donated - or, more to the point, pledged. In 2002, Forbes ranked Vilar 256th on its US rich list, with a fortune of about £570m. The previous year, The Daily Telegraph hailed him as the biggest benefactor in the history of the arts, after he reputedly gave more than £140m in four years to opera, ballet and orchestras. Only he hadn’t.”
As well as the Royal Opera House, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Washington Opera are among other institutions which the story reports says Vilar had not honoured all his pledges to. But if they’ve been victims in the sense that money they were expecting has not arrived, worse off are investors, like Lily Cates - mother of one-time teen movie star Phoebe Cates - who has lost some £3.4m dollars she had entrusted to his company. She was robbed, according to the report, to pay off another investor, some of the firm’s bills, and to fulfil another charitable pledge that Vilar had made to his former university.
There’s a chastening lesson in all of this for theatres that rely on such donations, of course - not only if it doesn’t arrive, but if it does, where has it actually come from?
Last night I saw the opening of Eddie Izzard’s new show, Stripped, at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, while two doors away, at the Gielgud, Bill Bailey has also just begun a run of his stand-up show Tinselworm. The Avenue, once our premiere play strip in town, has clearly turned into something else; but who is to deny their immense popularity, or the theatre owners the chance to earn valuable rental income (not to mention, of course, bar revenue, these being comedy shows)? Izzard’s general manager Mark Rubenstein told me before the show that the entire run sold out before all the ads had even run for it (though they do have house “keeps” that are released daily).
But what’s interesting, too, is the perception that they’re ‘sizing down’ by playing such venues. Both men have played big arena tours that have included Wembley Arena; Bailey’s current show was also seen at the Newcastle Metro Arena which seats some 9,600 people, and as he says in an interview in today’s -Independent, “I actually got a bit freaked out at the beginning. The first 10 minutes I have no memory of, it was like some kind of out of body experience, and then I got a grip and it was fine. I don’t think some of the subjects translate in a big stadium like that, they just can’t. It took a while to get my head round it. I don’t know if I’d do it again.”
Instead, he talks about being “really pleased” to be doing the show in a theatre which, with a capacity of under 900, he calls “intimate”: “”You can hear what people are saying and if you’re engaging with the audience everyone has to hear what’s being said… I could focus on the detail, and that’s what I love, the twists and turns that you can get into. I think I’ve probably built up this need to do the show like this, in a small space, where there are things I want to get off my chest, and that’s part of stand-up, that’s what it should be.”
I guess that the Gielgud and Lyric are small compared to the arenas they have both played at, and Izzard’s command of the room is so magnificent that he seems to have the audience hanging on every single word, but these are a far cry from the comedy clubs that both began in. And the audience, too, isn’t necessarily your typical comedy audience, either: in the interval last night, I ran into Peter Hall - who directed him in Lenny in 1999, a play in which Izzard appeared nude and I was mentioning only the other day — and Sir Peter declared what a really good actor he is, too. Watching Izzard last night, not just telling jokes but also acting them, you knew exactly what he meant.
And if there’s a touch of the rock star about his stage entrance to a fanfare of lights being beamed over the audience, this is amplified by a programme that comprises a long interview essay on him, but otherwise contains a giveaway 2009 calendar and selection of five Christmas cards (complete with envelopes!).