Year of the Producer: Meet the ProducersDate: 26 September 2011
Inspired by our adoption of Stage One as the charity for the 2012 Whatsonstage.com Awards, we’re declaring this the “Year of the Producer” on Whatsonstage.com, and will be running a 12-month editorial series of interviews, blogs and other features to give theatregoers a greater understanding of the crucial role of the producer and an insight into the people who put on the shows they love.
To get things started, we’ve asked six leading commercial theatre producers - Edward Snape, Matthew Byam Shaw, Carole Winter, Paul Elliott, Tobias Round and Michael Harrison - about the nature of their work, the effect of recent funding cuts and their reasons for doing the job in the first place.
What is the producer’s job?
Edward Snape (right): A producer is someone who makes things happen. They need to be both creative and financially literate, and ultimately, the balance between the two skills is what makes each individual producer unique.
Matthew Byam Shaw: To be the creative guardian of an idea, to gather as many friends in support of the idea and to wield a big stick against enemies of the idea.
Carole Winter: The producer is the person in charge. The person who carries the risk, who hires and fires the staff, and who tries to make the play a viable commercial proposition - to the investors, the creative team, theatre owners and ultimately the audience.
Michael Harrison: The producer brings all of the elements associated with presenting a show together. Whether they have had the initial idea and commissioned a writer or have been inspired by an existing piece of work or someone else's idea, the producer assembles the creative team, raises the money and makes it all happen.
Tobias Round (right): To make it happen. Whatever 'it' might be. To create or identify an idea or product, and see it through to the end.
Paul Elliott: The producer's job is to co-ordinate all aspects of a production - to nuture the idea and form a team that is right to stage the show and raise money to put it on, and keep a close eye on the budget. There is far more detail in dealing with the personalities involved but the producer must be the leader.
How important are producers to the future of the theatre industry?
Matthew Byam Shaw (right): Vital if theatre is to take chances and continue to reinvent itself.
Paul Elliott: Producers are vital to the industry. They are the key to the future and that is why Stage One is an important organisation in helping the new talent and giving them an insight and the tools to progress.
Tobias Round: There is no industry without producers, all the parts of a production are bound together through them, and rely upon them to synchronize their steps, and guide the process forward.
Carole Winter (right): Producers are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs fashion the society in which we exist. It is important to nurture new independent producers, who have the hunger to challenge theatregoing habits, and seek new audiences. We are forever trying to find a more diverse audience and dynamic range of work in the West End so as to provide healthy choice and competition, chasing the ever diminishing leisure pound.
How will funding cuts affect commercial theatre in the short & long term?
Michael Harrison (right): Commercial and subsidised theatre have always been linked. Actors, directors, writers, designers and musicians work between the two and each sector benefits from the experience of these professionals in both worlds. The subsidised world allows risks and chances to be taken - Les Miserables and War Horse are two obvious examples. These productions have made a huge impact on the commercial world. In both the short and long term, fewer risks might be taken.
Tobias Round: I worry that there will be less risk taken in terms of product development in the short term, as non for profits look to minimise their exposure to potential loss of earned income (as the cut will potentially diminish their revenue). In the long term, I worry less, as I think ideas and good people eventually find a level to work from and thrive.
Edward Snape: I think the cuts present us with both negative and potentially positive outcomes. The positive change being that it will encourage more collaboration between the commercial and subsidised sectors, which can only be a good thing.
Carole Winter: Producers cannot exist without writers, directors, actors, creatives, many of whom cut their teeth in the subsidised sector. New writers are the lifeblood of theatre, and without subsidy, new plays will be a thing of the past on the West End stage. Subsidised theatre nurtures talent and allows the right to fail. Commercial theatre has no such luxury and will therefore offer a much more mediocre, safe diet of bland plays.
Why did you want to become a producer?
Matthew Byam Shaw: I was an actor in a very bad sitcom and I really thought that life must be better than this.
Paul Elliott (right): I wanted to be a producer because it gave me a chance to be creative and lead a team of talented people. I was an actor and saw he production side from that angle and thought that it was a very exciting job and one that would keep me interested seven days a week and has done for over 40 years! It is a dangerous but fulfilling occupation.
Edward Snape: I have not known anything else; my parents were both in the theatre business and I have been involved in theatre since I was five years old.
THE ROLE OF THE PRODUCER
The following is an edited extract of the opening chapter, “The Role of the Producer”, from producer James Seabright's (right) book So You Want to Be a Theatre Producer?, published by Nick Hern Books.
The producer's role can appear confusing and indefinable. The briefest of definitions would be that the producer is responsible for delivering a good show, on time and in budget. The producer also typically defines what is 'on time' and 'in budget' for the show, as well as raising the money required to fund the production.
At one end of the scale is the 'do-it-all' producer who is involved in every aspect of a show: creatively, financially, administratively, technically and promotionally. At the other extreme is the producer who either specialises in a particular area for one production, or for all the work they produce.
Taking those five main areas of the 'do-it-all' producer's job description one by one is a useful way of looking at things.
The artistic figurehead of a production is its director, but that doesn’t mean the director is the creative force behind it. Often the concept for a show will come from someone else, and that person may well be the producer. Even in a scenario where the overall idea or energy for a show comes from the writer or director, the producer is often integral to the creative direction the show goes in, through the choice of cast and the creative team, an involvement in the design process, and being the person who determines the way the show is marketed to the public and pitched to the press.
For this reason I dislike the recent trend for some producers, particularly those working in the subsided sector, to give themselves the moniker ‘Creative Producer’ or ‘Artistic Producer’. It is somewhat tautological for starters, like a cast member deciding they are to be known as a ‘Performing Actor’. But it also suggests that other aspects of the production are not their problem: If the show goes way over budget, doesn’t attract an audience, and makes the theatre burn down, presumably that’s not the concern of the Creative Producer – because those areas aren’t in their brief.
Producers are often thought of as the ‘money people’ – they are portrayed as having prime responsibility for and chief interest in the raising of finance and the making of profit. For starters, anyone who gets into theatre producing to make money is in the wrong business. Sure, there are some millionaire producers out there, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Easier money can be made quicker and easier in almost any other industry you can mention. So, when a lucrative show does come along, the producer shouldn’t feel bad about that success – as long as they’ve dealt fairly with everyone involved in making the show. By contrast, in the subsidised sector – where shows rely on funding and donations rather than investment – there is no profit motive at play. The producer still has to raise the money in the first place, albeit from different sources.
Sometimes an individual will be credited as a producer in recognition of their having raised a chunk of money for a production, but they are unlikely to be the lead producer on the show. It is a particularly American trait to give people a producer credit just for raising money, but it increasingly has a place in big commercial shows here in the UK, given the desire to reduce risk through spreading it between more investors. One negative consequence of having so many producers can be that the money-raisers then expect to be involved in every major decision on the show, in the belief that it will enhance the production and protect their investment. Such producing by committee can lead to a ‘lowest common denominator’ outcome, which is rarely a sure-fire way to make a hit show.
… Aside from actually raising funds for a production, the producer is responsible more generally for the budget: both setting it in the first place, and overseeing its management as the production goes ahead. Areas of this responsibility are often delegated to others in the team, but to coin a phrase: the buck always stops with the producer.
There is always a lot of paperwork to handle with any business matter, and putting on a show is no exception. Budgets, insurances, play licences, performer contracts, creative-team arrangements, invoices, settlements and remittances all have to be handled and managed along the way, plus any number of other organisational tasks such as the booking of rehearsal rooms, the payment of expenses claims, and the drawing-up of schedules. For touring productions, all of this has to be replaced for each and every venue. With larger shows, particularly in the commercial sector, a producer will often delegate this area of their responsibility to the general manager; in the subsidised sector this person might be called an administrator or production coordinator instead. But whoever is doing the work, the producer is in charge of making sure the administration of a show hangs together, thus oiling the wheels of a production for smooth running.
Lighting, sound, set, props, costumes, health and safety, risk assessments… they all have their role to play in a show, and they are generally looked after by a dedicated team of stage managers, technical crew and designers that the producer recruits and manages. In better resourced shows, the technical side of things is headed up by a production manager on behalf of the producers – although they report to the general manager, when there is one. Production managers take day-to-day control of certain areas of the budget and work closely with the design team to ensure that the creative vision of the show can be delivered onstage through the smooth running of all things technical. With small-scale or low-budget shows, the producer may have to be their own production manager.
The business of finding an audience for a show through the astute management of both paid-for marketing and press coverage has to be a prime concern. To a large degree, a producer has to understand the mechanics of promotion to understand what the difference is between a good idea for a show and a bad one, at least in terms of the show having a hope of selling a ticket. Clearly, not all good shows are popular, and not all poor shows are unpopular, but to some extent any such reversals of fortune and fairness can be attributed to the success or failure of a production’s approach to marketing and PR (public relations).
In many ways, a good producer is someone who knows what an audience wants before they do – which places a canny sense of public demand at the centre of a producer’s skill set. Indeed, the very earliest decisions made when putting a show together – where and when to do it – are intrinsically linked with an understanding of the audience that a show is reaching out to, and how they are best reached.