Tom O'Connell, a young producer who trained as an apprentice on the Stage One scheme (a former adopted charity of the Whatsonstage.com Awards) is producing the 20th anniversary revival of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, which runs at London's Arts Theatre from 13 April to 25 May 2013, before a regional tour.
Why did you want to produce this revival of Beautiful Thing?
Jonathan and I were having a drink and during our conversation Beautiful Thing cropped up; he mentioned that 2013 was the 20th anniversary year of the play. When producing I have to feel that the project has an audience who loves it or will love it and the timing of when to 'stage' it is right. I also like to work with quality pieces of theatre - and Jonathan's script is not only award-winning but loved by theatre audiences. It just made sense.
Tell us about the play, for those who don't know it.
It's set in the 90's, during a hot summer on a London council estate: Sandra is a local barmaid and has big ambitions, her son, Jamie, is bullied at school and has feelings for his best friend, Ste - who is having a rough time at home. One night Sandra lets Ste sleep over in Jamie's bed and love blossoms... The comedy comes from their next-door neighbour, Leah, who is obsessed with Mama Cass and also from Sandra's neo hippy toy-boy, Tony, who tries to act cool, but fails. It's a glorious love story about coming out and coming of age. Full of comedy, with a true-to-life script and it exquisitely depicts what it is like to be 16, in the first flush of love.
You're the same age (24) as Jonathan Harvey was when he wrote the play. How does that feel?
I have been producing since I was 17, so about seven years now; I still get asked for ID and people always say "you're a bit young to be a producer aren't you?" this doesn't phase me though. I'm a big believer in having ambition, being realistic, working hard and working as a team by surrounding myself with the best in the industry to support me on my career path. I am very lucky to be able to produce Jonathan's baby - when I asked him why he said yes he simply said "someone gave me a chance at age 24, so why can't I give you one?"
What made you want to be a producer in the first place?
I think true producers have always been producers since they were young and without truly knowing it. I like quality, class, I like to know all areas of the job (technical, marketing, press, sales, box office, ticketing, law, accounting, acting, creative etc) and I am a little OCD about perfection. When I was a child I was obsessed with circuses and my parents bought me a mini circus tent and I used to put it in the village green and charge all the neighbours to come see it, and perform in it with my sister, and advertise it. The circus way of working links to producing - they run a business, put posters up around the town and create a buzz, make the venue and show and then they perform. I also love sales, marketing and money - I have a huge drive for success. Perhaps that helps?
How did you go about starting your career?
I performed in shows for years, I was lucky enough to be a jobbing actor/singer even before the age of 17 but it just didn't satisfy me and I felt like something was missing. At 17 I produced a musical revue that toured to a few venues in the midlands and we sold out the tour - this show had Lucy May Barker in (before her Spring Awakening days) and her parents were my first ever investors. Without investors support, the hard work of the team we wouldn't have had the great product we did in the end. The rest is history...
What's the most valuable lesson you've learned to date?
Plan for the worst; if it doesn't make money, don't do it; negotiation is key; look after your investors; honesty is always the best policy.
Any dream shows you'd like to produce in the future?
Not as such. QNQ Ltd has a few still to announce for 2014 which are with Fiery Angel - they're first-class productions. My 'dream show' would be a musical that has a three-piece jazz band and a very funny, inspiring and uplifting script - simple and classy. But I won't tackle musicals until I'm at least age 30 I think...
What advice would you give to other budding producers?
Don't do it. I jest. It is a tough job - someone said to me at age 17, "you're too young to produce and you'll never be a producer" - well I think my passion and drive to prove him wrong has got me where I am today. You need money and investors behind you - I look after all of my investors and they see the rewards with the money and the other benefits. Most of the West End is involved with this show - without their kind support we wouldn't have a production. You need to be the kind of person who will fight to be the last one standing, be friendly, open minded and honest and have a good sense of business in general as well as how theatre works. I would also say check out Stage One - it's a great charity for commercial producers; they helped me train to become a better producer.
Finally, why should people come and see Beautiful Thing?
It is a great night out, it is just under two hours with an interval, so you have time to grab a meal first and head to the pub afterwards, you'll have a really good laugh - there's some great jokes in it, but it is also moving and will uplift and inspire you hopefully. Plus it has Suranne Jones in it, who is just outstanding; supported by a first-rate cast and creative team led by Nikolai Foster whose direction is funny, gentle and engaging. What more could you want?!
Beautiful Thing runs at the Arts Theatre from 13April to 25 May 2013.
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