After developing an early love of theatre – including running a puppet theatre at the age of five - Phil Cameron became involved in the nuts and bolts of productions, initially on the technical and design side, while still a teenager.
Since finishing university, Cameron has worked his way through nearly every backstage element of putting on shows in the UK, France and Norway, from crewing to stage, company, production and general management.
In 1998, Cameron formed his own company, Background Production to tour a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which then transferred to the West End, followed closely by a production of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country, which reopened the West End’s Arts Theatre.
Background is currently represented in the West End by David Grindley’s revival of RC Sheriff’s First World War drama, Journey's End, which has just extended again at the Playhouse with its third cast. Background’s new Bollywood-style production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night will open later this month at the Albery Theatre.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Paddington, London on 14 November 1972.
Lives now in…
I live in Butler’s Wharf, near Tower Bridge, in London. I’ve lived there for six years.
I read English and Drama at the University of Exeter. Nothing trains you to be a producer - you just become one. The only route is through experience, and I got mine through production. I started off by doing stage management. My first job was at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, and I got the job by asking for it!
First big break
I had been production managing and general managing various shows, which are nice responsible jobs in the theatre – but it’s a big leap from there to producing. The director Thea Sharrock asked me if she could put me down notionally as producer if she entered the James Menzies Kitchen Award for young directors, and I said yes. Over a period of six months, she got through various rounds and won the award and so I produced her production of Top Girls at Battersea in June 2000, which ended up, via a national tour, at the Aldwych in the West End in January 2002. Soon after Top Girls at Battersea, I also took over producing a show that I was general managing, Another Country, in September 2000. That was the real leap of faith. There were six-figure sums involved and I just had to get on with it. And it did okay for a first show. Nobody has any idea of how to produce a play until you have to produce one. There’s an extra level involved: rather than administrate on someone else’s behalf, the buck stops with you, and you find the money and take responsibility for everything.
Career highlights to date
I’ve loved all of the shows I’ve produced. I enjoyed Another Country, because it was my first West End show, though if it wasn’t, I might have enjoyed it less. But I’ve also been massively proud of all the others I’ve done: Mother Clap's Molly House, This Is Our Youth, King Lear, Why the Whales Came, Journey's End and Hamlet. There have been some really magnificent performances across some of those shows.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I loved Shopping and Fucking and Our Country's Good, both of which I worked on for Out of Joint – I company managed and production managed both. It was great to have a broader production responsibility on them. I also loved working on Paul Rhys’s Hamlet. Those were all shows that were totally committed to what they were doing – the aesthetics were brilliantly conceptualised. We also did a lot of touring with all of them, and I love touring. They went around the world, and came to London, too. It was a real opportunity for me to grow up and understand everything. I also loved working with the Reduced Shakespeare Company. I worked on one tour for them and we did 107 get-ins in ten-and-a-half months, from Jerusalem to Kirkcaldy!
My favourite type of actor is the one who plays the play for the play, and I think great examples of that were Deborah Findlay in Mother Clap's Molly House and Timothy West in King Lear. They ate those roles alive, but for the sake of the play. There are a myriad of other actors I could name, too, but Jake Gyllenhaal (who starred in the original cast of This Is Our Youth) is probably the hottest young American actor around.
There are so many. I adore Max Stafford-Clark, because of what he can do with words and scripts. I’ve seen scripts before rehearsals begin, and then seen what happens to them five weeks later, and what he does is genius. Other directors of real vision are Nicholas Hytner, I love his programming, and Laurence Boswell, who has got the ability to get a whole picture in his head and create it. With all three of them, it’s about the pursuit of the whole, and theatre is about a total experience. David Grindley has created an amazing production for Journey's End, and we’re talking about other projects now.
There are obvious things to say like Shakespeare, but there’s an awful lot of him I don’t like, too. I could say the same of other playwrights. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Cloud Nine are genius bits of writing. I love Brian Friel’s The Faith Healer, Translations and Philadelphia, Here I Come - I even wrote a dissertation on him – and they’re all brilliant plays. I loved Arcadia and lots of other Tom Stoppard plays, but lots turn me right off. I like certain plays of Anouilh, Rattigan and Pinter. I want to create a diverse range of work, and it’s convenient that not every play by Mark Ravenhill, for example, is one I’d want to produce. But Shopping and Fucking and Mother Clap's Molly House are both fantastic plays!
How do you decide what to produce?
It’s all about the moment, really. You can’t just pick a play and say, “I want to do it”. The time has to be right to do it; the theatre has to be right; the actors have to be right; the creative team has to be right. I have a long list of plays I want to do. When all of the ingredients are right, I’ll do them. There are probably a good 20 factors all of which contribute, from the right creative environment being created and the right commercial environment being available, and at the moment that’s a really dubious thing to find. I don’t expect to sell our next production, Twelfth Night, for example, till the week it opens – it’s a slightly nerve-wracking thing. I’d love to produce a musical, but it has to be the right musical – and musicals are big things, so at the moment I’m concentrating on what I can get right. You need a slow build-up before you do one.
With hindsight, which of your productions might you not have done?
The play other people think I shouldn’t have done, and commercially they may have been right, was Mother Clap's Molly House. But I was so pleased that I did it, because you have to put that sort of theatre on in the West End. And it opened all sorts of doors for me. People thought I was brave, insane or both. There does have to be a little bit of insanity, your impulses have to be insane to be creative, but you have to follow it up with sound commercial sense. Theatre has got to be able to make money – no sane director of a company would enter into a project that was going to lose money unless it was a specific loss leader. For me, Mother Clap was a bit of a loss leader, in terms of making people listen to what I wanted to put on.
What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful
You need to be able to see the detail, whilst having an eye on the broader picture. You need to be able to home in on a creative note for an actor, director or designer; but also to get the contracts right and raise the funds and know about yield management – being able to get the audience in and make money. What I love about producing is that it’s a total mix of everything. Yesterday afternoon I was at a branding meeting, then a production meeting, then I came back to the office to sort out contracts and then I watched the end of the second performance of the new cast of Journey's End and met the director afterwards. You can’t get more diverse than that in six hours. You’ve also got to be a “people person” – this is about people coming in and loving doing their job! We’re not selling widgets!
What’s the last thing that you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, because of the writing. It gave me a real insight into the author, and also was full of brilliant performances: the eight boys were an extraordinarily cohesive combination, and Frances de la Tour was on fire.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
British theatre is a bit sweeping, and I’m not overly qualified to talk about it. I can talk about the state of the West End, which is dire. It’s ugly – a lot of the work is not very good and is aimed at making a quick buck, because that’s all you can reasonably put on. Why would you want to take any more risk? But what needs to happen is that there needs to be an encouragement of young producers. It’s about incubating them and creating a nurturing and supportive environment, offering them a leg up to find the money but not necessarily about just giving it to them. It shouldn’t be about hand-outs. If you’re a commercial producer, you have to raise money to put a show on. If you’re simply given the money, that defeats the object – you’re a spoilt child.
The only way you can produce is by experience, and you can’t train a young producer. If someone sets up a young producers scheme, it will fail. They don’t work. You’ve just got to do it. And you’ve got to have lots of good people around you who will support you. But there is no supportive environment here. While there are some genius inventions like the Theatre Investment Fund which make the last £10,000 you have to raise for a show that much easier, there are some very arcane practices and no support and every chance of losing everything you have – which I came very close to doing with Mother Clap's Molly House. The environment needs to be created for the people who want to do it to be able to do it.
Would you recommend tax breaks?
Tax breaks are a red-herring. But there should be some means of support funding for young producers. That’s not necessarily for their first show. Anyone can do their first show, but the chances are it will lose money, and they need something to give them another chance. Some kind of development and supplementary help is needed for producers who’ve started to produce work to help them sustain the momentum.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who
would it be & why?
Sven Goran Eriksson, because I'd love to experience that kind of controversy, but only for a day.
Charles Dickens – you can pick any book - because of the characters. And Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure - you have to suffer several hundred pages of it before it knocks you out, but then it does just that.
Favourite holiday destinations
My great escape is to the Arran Islands on the West coast of Ireland. I have an extraordinary friend who runs a hostel on the island, and it’s treacherous and beautiful and you can think. Unfortunately, mobile phones do work there – and really well, better than they do in London! They’ve even got broadband now, too, so there’s no escape!
If you hadn’t become involved with theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I think I’d have been a barrister – because it’s the same thing! My mother qualified as one but never practised. I love the law, I spend a lot of time with lawyers now and I really enjoy it. I love the business and contractual side of what we do. And I love the idea of the debate of the courtroom, too.
What made you want to revive Journey's End?
The moment was right. Everything fell in place together. I talked to (director) David Grindley about what he wanted to do – it was on both of our lists - and the theme of war and how it is managed was relevant, and it’s a good play. As a coincidence, the play was approaching its 75th anniversary and we could open it then. The way the First World War is perceived is a bit too romanticised, but I looked at this play and saw that, if it was played straight, you could end up with something really powerful. And we did.
How did you decide the creative team & cast for the production?
I knew David and Jonathan Fensom (the designer) really well, and I was keen to do something with them. For the casting, we wanted a combination of established and young talent, to reflect both the sense of maturity and youthful optimism in the play. It’s about a group of people in the trenches and they have to be an ensemble – it’s not about star turns. So you don’t want a young dynamic soap star playing in it, because it becomes about him. Instead, we wanted actors who could do the roles, but who people recognised, respected and had confidence in. For re-casting, we have concentrated on putting in excellent actors who are there because they can play the parts. The spirit of the play has been kept the same, but the approaches the individual actors take are sometimes different.
Why are you producing Twelfth Night next?
We’ve produced two high-profile Shakespeares in the last 18 months already. Twelfth Night is a great play and Stephen Beresford has come up with a great idea for it that contextualises it for today and makes sense of it. In the crazy world of India today, you have mobile phones and broadband communication if you look left, but temples and saris and old dirt track roads if you look right. And there’s everything else in between. If you walked down a Shakespearean street, you wouldn’t have mobile phones, but other things would be similar.
What are your other plans for the future?
Journey's End is going to keep us busy for the foreseeable future in the West End and a national tour is going out now that will run to the end of May 2005. We’re just about to commission a new translation of Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal. Other than that, I’ve got a list, but the 20 things haven’t fallen into place yet that need to before we can do them!
- Phil Cameron was speaking to Mark Shenton
Journey's End is running at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre, where the third London cast – including Malcolm Sinclair as Osborne took over on 2 August 2004 (with a new press night on 12 August). It’s currently booking up to 2 April 2005. A separate tour opens at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 7 September 2004 before continuing to 11 further venues until 4 December (See News, 1 Jul 2004).
The Bollywood-style Twelfth Night opens at the West End’s Albery Theatre on 26 August 2004, following previews from 19 August.