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Ask a Theatre Producer

Creative Careers

three people on a stage, one wears boxing gloves and screams
20 Feb 2017
3 min read

What does it mean to be a theatre producer? We look at some of the key lessons and challenges from the many facets of a career in producing. 

A theatre producer has a wide range of responsibilities, from securing funding, overseeing ticket sales and coordinating a marketing strategy, to helping artists shape their vision, and hiring directors, composers and choreographers to bring a production to life.

We spoke to Georgina Bednar, founder of producing organisation No Ordinary Experience, and a panel of leading producers from both commercial theatres and independent companies, to shed some light on the intricacies of this varied and exciting role.

The nature of producing
On the nature of producing, David Sabel, Director of Creative Development at London Theatre Company, commented that, ‘Producer can be a really brilliant title but it can be a really terrible title because it actually doesn’t say what somebody really does. There are so many different kinds of producing and there are lots of different aspects of the job.’

David noted that your role as a producer often depends on the ‘kind of organisation and culture you’re in.’ Having previously worked as Director of Broadcast and Digital at the National Theatre, David explained that his experience of a ‘big and institutional’ commercial theatre was the complete opposite to his current role at London Theatre Company, where he is part of a team of six in which ‘everyone has to do a bit of everything.’

Stella Kanu, Executive Producer at London-based theatre and arts centre Ovalhouse, adds that the broad scope of producing means you can often tailor your position to your personal strengths. ‘You have to know who you are, how you work and what works best for you because when you’re producing your best, the thing is going to be the best.’

She added: ‘Learn to manage yourself. If you know you’ve got issues with time management, what works for you? If you’re into visual, don’t hold so many meetings and create a world that allows you to work at your best. You can do that at every level, you don’t have to be the CEO to do that.’

Working with artists
Working with artists is an integral part of producing and Louise Blackwell, Co-Director of independent producing outfit Fuel, commented that it’s important to be open and transparent. ‘Lots of the time, we’re listening but we’re also having to introduce the boundaries such as when the brochure is due and all that kind of stuff, which you have to be totally on top of.’

Louise added: ‘You have to be really brilliant at knowing the framework within which the artists are making work and making it possible for the ideas to flow and develop at their own speed.’

David said that it’s vital to be straight with artists and share information although he commented that sharing information needs to be well-timed, stating, ‘You do need to know when you don’t need to burden someone with information they don’t need.’ David highlighted that the best artists to work with are ‘the ones who understand that an art decision is a money decision and a money decision is an art decision and that’s good producing.’

Greatest lessons about producing
Considering your audience and not just producing work that appeals to your own taste is key, according to Stella. She said she made the mistake early on in her career of programming things she liked, until she noticed people weren’t coming. ‘You’ve got to be thinking, who is our audience?’ Stella insisted. ‘How will this piece reach them? Have we got enough time to build an audience if we haven’t already got it? Being objective is essential,’ she said.

David noted the perils of the leadership aspect of producing. ‘You are overseeing things and yet, you also have to be really humble and admit what you don’t know.’ He commented, ‘Sometimes really good authority is the confidence to know that someone else actually needs to help you and to bring in the expertise when you need it. You might think, ‘I do have an instinct on how this should be marketed but actually there may be someone who has a better expertise’.’

The importance of contacts
Producing might seem like the kind of career you need contacts and money to access, but the panellists insist this is not the case. Stella got started in producing by organising community arts events despite having very little access to funds, but said the experience equipped her with a sense of resourcefulness and economy.

She explained: ‘You learnt to do things low tech, you learnt to do things by bartering, you learnt to do things by getting people to buy in really early on so that they would give things.’

Louise commented that she doesn’t have a ‘little black book’ but that making contacts and finding sourcing of funding is essential. She said that her role is ‘about creating partnerships - having conversations with people who get excited by the project and finding partners who have money to bring to the table. Money for me is a major part of a project and it’s my job to find it.’

Training and internships
Stage One, an organisation that offers apprenticeships for aspiring producers.
Battersea Arts Centre runs a three-month producing internship, concentrating on the producer as initiator and programmer.
Birkbeck for creative producers and Central School of Speech and Drama hold a course in creative producing.
 

Takeaways

  • The role of producer can mean many different things, depending on what kind of organisation you work in
  • The broad scope of a producer means you can often tailor your position to your personal strengths
  • Learn to manage yourself
  • Get to know the framework within which the artists are making work - this will help the ideas to flow and develop at their own speed
  • 'An art decision is a money decision and a money decision is an art decision'
  • Consider your audience and don't just produce work that appeals to your own taste - always ask yourself who your audience are?
  • You might not need a 'little black book' of contacts yet, but making contacts and finding funding sources is essential
  • Have conversations with people who get excited by your work

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