Youth must be served

Special to The Times

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."

This is literally true. Some theatergoers have seen all the different cast versions of "This Is Our Youth." Such loyalty has helped the show into profit, surprisingly so, for despite its small cast, its running costs are high: All the American actors need accommodation and receive per diems, which would not be so with a British cast. Waterhouse, who started playing classical guitar at 5 and cello at 7, first met Lawrence, the daughter of a scriptwriter and a TV director, when they were 13 and child actors at London's Guild Hall School of Drama. In their late teens, they drifted apart and separately began producing plays; they were studying in Cambridge for almost a year before they reunited.

"At a lecture one day I sat down, put my bag on the table and noticed someone next to me had exactly the same bag," Waterhouse says. "I got out my Filofax, notepad and cell phone, and she got out her Filofax, notepad and cell phone. That's odd, I thought. And it was Clare."

Both were already driven producers who had turned their college rooms into offices, with fax facilities and answering machines. Lawrence had booked a play in which she was acting, a Scottish production of "Three Sisters," into a West End theater, while Waterhouse was producing her first university play.

"I'd walk into lectures and my phone would ring," Lawrence recalls. "I'd say, 'I'm out of the office, can I call you when I'm back at my desk?' No one would have dealt with me if they'd thought I was some little Cambridge student. So I never really told them."

They joined forces, taking a play called "Strip Show" to the Edinburgh Festival. "In 1997, we left our last exam, drank a bottle of champagne with friends, got on a train and went to London," Waterhouse says. "We were producing our second play together, Anthony Minghella's 'Whale Music.' And we needed to be in technical rehearsals."

Bicoastal operation

For a year in London, they worked in theater box offices. "We really used that time," Waterhouse muses. "You talk to people paying for tickets. We'd ask what made them pick up the phone or go to the box office." The work also provided cover for their real career.

"One gradually became aware they were running their business out of our box office. Fax machines and photocopiers were being used. They had a lot of chutzpah," recalls Michael Lynas, who was then running Richmond Theatre. "But they were also doing their job, and they were so enthusiastic and keen on theater that I didn't care."

The couple kept producing for fringe theaters. But in 1998, Waterhouse moved to New York to get Out of the Blue into films, while Lawrence stayed in London to concentrate on theater production. "It had to happen," Waterhouse says. "The more time we spent going to meetings together, doubling up, we were wasting opportunities." She arrived in New York knowing hardly anyone: "I just knocked on agents' doors, set up meetings, told people who we were."

Today she has apartments and office space on both U.S. coasts. "It takes most British producers 10 years before they even summon up the nerve to go to New York," Lynas says admiringly. This nerve -- and tireless networking -- paid off in casting "This Is Our Youth." Waterhouse already knew the L.A.-based agents for Gyllenhaal, Affleck and Christensen before she made her approaches.

"Clare and Anna are young, and they're very nice, but they really know what they're doing," said an impressed Gyllenhaal, who received the most glowing reviews of any actor in the first three casts.

When it came to raising money for the play's initial capitalization, the pair's Filofaxes again came in handy. "We'd made a note over the years of people we'd heard might want to invest," Waterhouse says. "So we'd go out and meet them. It helped that we had a play we believed in. They could see it in our eyes." They finally raised the sum from eight investors. "Not bad," says Really Useful's Burns. "Most producers this young are tapping up their friends and family for money."

Still, the two will not rest on their laurels. Waterhouse will produce a film, "Daughters of Venice," that she co-wrote; she calls it "an anachronistic romp," set in 1728, about the life of the composer Vivaldi. David Schwimmer is attached to direct early next year as soon as his commitments with "Friends" are complete. Lawrence is working with distinguished Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman ("Death and the Maiden"); Out of the Blue will produce the world premiere of his new play "Purgatorio" in London this fall.

As for "This Is Our Youth," it seems set to continue. "It will last as long as all these incredible young actors want to do it," Lawrence says. She and Waterhouse hope to see it staged on Broadway and in a small Los Angeles theater, maybe later this year. "This Is Our Youth" has never been performed professionally in Los Angeles. Clearly, they have tapped not just into new audiences, but also a group of actors who long to do rewarding work.

"I meet so many young actors in L.A., who seem to crave the same thing," Waterhouse says. "There's a creative, thoughtful, young generation out there."

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