One of the UK’s top theatre producers Ashley Herman told students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) that he didn’t believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) posed a threat to live entertainment.
Ashley is director of Playing Field (Theatre) Ltd., which was set up in 2019 and is involved in the investment, development and production of West End, touring and Broadway productions.
During a Q&A with students in May, Ashley – who over his career has produced or co-produced nearly 40 West End productions - said he didn’t agree with the scaremongering around AI and thought it should be treated as just another tool. “People want live entertainment that they can see, feel and touch. AI can’t do that.
“Now, it might be used by writers, and it might help them write plays, and if it makes better plays it will mean more employment, so I say bring it on. You must be prepared to use new technology and embrace it.”
The Q&A was attended by Management and Theatre & Performance Design and Technology students. Ashley was asked if they could feel confident about a career in theatre. “You can feel positive. You are training for a business that really needs you. If you’re good, you’ll be employed, full stop.
“There will always be a need for theatre because people need shared live entertainment. And it’s not just theatre. We’ve recently had a Coronation. That was a massively stage managed event. All those soldiers drumming in unison, they were doing that to a click track. Technicians and stage managers made that happen. The opening of the Olympics, all these big events, organisers always turn to theatre.”
Beginning his career at Wimbledon Theatre as a 17-year-old, Ashley went on to work in Theatre in Education, stage management and production management before becoming a producer. In 1982 he founded Applause: the UK’s first travel trade dedicated ticket seller and was closely involved with the marketing and ticketing strategies of many international productions from the outset, including The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Mamma Mia!
In 1989 he set up Theatre Direct Inc on behalf of Cameron Mackintosh (now known as Broadway.com) and in 2000 co-founded Encore Tickets which went on to become the UK’s largest independent theatre ticket distribution company before it was sold in 2020. He credited his longevity to adaptability. “The key thing about working in the theatre industry and the entertainment business is the ability to reinvent yourself. You have to reinvent constantly.”
The session lasted over 90 mins with Ashley discussing marketing, relating it to a production’s budget and financial structure, the impact of COVID on ticket buying habits and how Playing Field decides whether to back a project.
He also told students that if they did pursue a career in theatre, they’d become part of a special group of people. “You’re going into a real community. We are all competitors but we’re also all colleagues. I haven’t met anyone who wouldn't lend me a helping hand if I needed it. And that’s because we’re a community. We operate outside what people call the ‘real world,’ and I really love that.”
Image: L-to-r Dave Wibberley, Head of Management, LIPA and Ashley Herman, Director and Founder, Playing Field (Theatre) Ltd. Photography Brian Roberts