Paris Smith sets the stage for Southampton’s theatrical future

    As Paris Smith’s 200th anniversary celebrations come to a close, The Business Magazine completes its profiles of some of the law firm’s clients by treading the boards at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre.

    As well as Paris Smith’s notable anniversary, the Mayflower Theatre is marking 30 years being run by a not-for-profit trust. Paris Smith has been both its main sponsor and legal adviser throughout that time. Without a spirited public campaign to save the iconic Grade II listed venue in the 1980s, the theatre’s fate might have been to become a bingo hall like so many other regional theatres.

    Saving a city landmark

    The 2,300-seater Mayflower is the UK’s third largest regional theatre by capacity. In September, after a brief closure for a spectacular £7.5 million refurbishment, it re-opened with a special gala show followed by a run of the award-winning West End hit musical Wicked.

    Michael Ockwell and Nick Vaughan

    Paris Smith’s relationship with the Mayflower began with the fight to save it. Malcolm Le Bas, the firm’s senior partner at the time, got involved with a determined group of local dignitaries, city councillors and the public. The firm provided legal advice on fundraising and setting up the not-for-profit Mayflower Theatre trust.

    The city council decided that an arm’s length operation was the best option to safeguard the theatre. The trust manages the building and pays a peppercorn rent on a 125-year lease to the council. Once the theatre had been saved, Le Bas became the trust’s first company secretary and is now the chair of it’s board of trustees.

    Michael Ockwell, the Mayflower’s chief executive since 2012, pointed out that the advantage of placing management of the theatre in a not-for-profit trust enables the council to focus its resources on providing other services to the city. A sign of the theatre’s success was being able to use its own reserves, plus around £300,000 in public fundraising, for the refurbishment.

    The Mayflower is a major community asset. “We have a large community education programme that has involved over 100,000 people in the past four years,” said Ockwell. “Our research shows that the theatre brings in about £75m of economic benefit to the city.”

    Nick Vaughan, senior partner at Paris Smith, observed: “There was a strong feeling that if it became something other than a theatre then the arts generally in Southampton would suffer because there wasn’t any other venue of its size. We are delighted to support the theatre and believe ours is probably the longest business arts sponsorship in the UK.”

    Business sense

    Ockwell’s predecessor, Dennis Hall, was instrumental in shaping popular entertainment programmes that brought in the crowds. “At the time, it was a leap of faith that the Mayflower would survive. In the late 1980s, there were not really any big touring musicals or shows. Dennis convinced promoters to bring them to Southampton – the first was Cats,” said Ockwell.

    The transformation of the Mayflower has seen audience numbers rise to an average half a million a year. The Lion King in 2014 boosted annual audience numbers above 600,000, helping make the Mayflower the most well attended theatre outside London in 2014/15. The theatre’s target audience is up to a 45-minute drive away, along the coast and up the M3 corridor.

    “Our ticket prices are lower than London and we encourage people in towns like Basingstoke and Wokingham to come to us,” said Ockwell. “People tend to think you need to go to London’s West End to see big shows. In fact, more people attend regional theatres every night than all of the capital’s theatres. Touring companies put on shows as good as you’d see in London, if not better a lot of the time.”

    Firm support

    Vaughan leads the relationship with the Mayflower. Partner Clive Dobbin provides employment advice for the theatre’s 230 staff. Cliff Morris focuses on licensing, with James Snaith on property and construction work, and Laura Trapnell advises on intellectual property.

    “Licensing has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, especially for live music and health and safety. We also get a lot of great input from the firm on the employment side, while protecting the Mayflower brand name is increasingly important,” said Ockwell.

    Vaughan now sits on the trust’s board, so the firm’s involvement continues. He is also a member of the trust’s committee responsible for a bursary fund that helps young people in Hampshire to pursue careers in the arts.

    Shared values

    Ockwell cites a shared ethos based on integrity and respect as a key reason why the theatre and Paris Smith work so well together. “They don’t just provide us with great advice. We share the same values – for us it’s about serving the local community and Paris Smith has always been absolutely committed to working in the city.

    “What Paris Smith does so well is to spread its support across the whole community – in the arts, sport and leisure. The success of all these sectors brings inward investment to the city.”    

    As well as the Mayflower, the firm advises Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre. “Our involvement with arts organisations goes back a long way. It’s great for Paris Smith to be able to help a charity like the Mayflower that, in turn, provides such important support to the local community,” said Vaughan.

    Looking ahead

    The theatre’s future is about putting on the right shows at the right time across the year, but for Ockwell it extends beyond what you see on stage. His passion for theatre – both acting and managing – began at an early age and he is determined the Mayflower continues to attract young audiences. The refurbishment was billed as a ‘regeneration for the future generation’.

    “The arts give people of all ages brilliant life experiences that can set them up for the future. That’s what we want to achieve. The great thing about our relationship with Paris Smith is that they put their money where their mouth is in supporting our community activities,” he said.

    Paris Smith’s sponsorship was recently confirmed for a further two years. The firm’s logo on the stage’s fire curtain leaves audiences in no doubt how entwined it is in the Mayflower’s past and future.

    Vaughan noted that the theatre makes an exceptional venue for corporate hospitality and hosting charity events. “Going to the theatre as part of a corporate event is a very inclusive experience that both guests and their partners always enjoy. We had around 60 guests dancing in the aisles at the musical Hairspray.” he said.

    Mayflower 400

    Paris Smith’s story in Southampton began 200 years ago. Step back another 200 years to 1620 and the city was the initial departure port for the pilgrim fathers on their journey to the ‘new world’ in America. For history buffs, the Mayflower, along with the Speedwell, left Southampton but problems with the Speedwell forced the pioneers to stop in Plymouth before venturing across the Atlantic in just the Mayflower. Mayflower 400 is a dynamic programme of commemorative events to mark the 400th anniversary of that voyage.

    The theatre and Paris Smith are working hand-in-hand on this. The firm is a headline sponsor of Mayflower 400 and partner Janet May sits on the Southampton Cultural Development Trust, which is co-ordinating the project. Ockwell chairs the city-wide steering group on the commemorations. The firm’s marketing director Helen Freeston is providing organisers with support during the build-up and throughout the year of activities planned for 2020.

    “We see Mayflower 400 as an opportunity for the city to curate a programme of events that will stand us in good stead to apply to be a UK City of Culture in the future,” said Ockwell, who is also involved in Mayflower 400. “Having Paris Smith on board is a great benefit to the theatre and to Southampton.”