Year of the Producer: The Donmar Warehouse’s Kate Pakenham on … Commercial vs subsidised

Kate Pakenham took over as the executive producer at the Donmar Warehouse in February 2012, to work alongside fellow new appointee, artistic director Josie Rourke, to lead the Covent Garden theatrical powerhouse in its post-Michael Grandage era.

Prior to the Donmar, Pakenham was at the Old Vic for 11 years. She began her theatrical career there as an associate producer to Sally Greene, founding Old Vic New Voices, the theatre’s programme to promote and nurture work from new talent, in 2001 and, in 2004, bringing over The 24 Hour Plays concept from New York.

After the Old Vic Theatre Company was founded in 2004, transforming the historic playhouse from a receiving house to a major producing under the artistic direction of Kevin Spacey, Pakenham was made an associate producer to the company and later producer, working hand and hand with Spacey and co-producer John Richardson on all aspects of programming.

As producer at the Old Vic, Pakenham’s credits include the 50th anniversary production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, All About My Mother, The Norman Conquests, The Bridge Project, The Real Thing, Cause Célèbre and most recently, The Playboy of the Western World.

Here, as part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series, Pakenham talks to about differences between commercial and subsidised producing, her “women on top” partnership with Josie Rourke and the Olympic timing of the Donmar’s latest production…

What’s the main difference with producing for the commercial versus the subsidised sector?

With any producer, the money’s coming from two places – the box office and your supporters, be they philanthropists or investors or corporates or the Arts Council – so you have to be able look at both of those income streams simultaneously. The Old Vic relies more on its box office than on philanthropists, whereas here at the Donmar, the relationship with our supporters and sponsors is very important in terms of balance. Managing those relationships is a big part of my role here.

While, unlike in a commercial production, they are not expecting a financial return, they are still investing – they’re investing in the art and supporting the art and what they get back is the feeling they have made something possible. That is very true at the Donmar. There are a group of philanthropists who actually make the work possible in a very real way. Without them, we could never afford to put on the work that we do – we literally wouldn’t be able to pay actors or have sets through box office alone.

Another key difference working in a subsidised, producing house is in our relationship with our audience and programming. There’s the question of a creating a balance of work across a season, creating a sense of the journey you’re taking your audience on with your programme. That’s very different than a producer in the West End where it’s all about that one moment and that one show.

Here, we’re thinking about how an audience member coming out of The Recruiting Officer will feel about Making Noise Quietly and The Physicists and now Philadelphia, Here I Come! and the next play and the next play. How do they sit next to each other? We’re always conscious of the pattern across a year.

And what was your thinking for programming Philadelphia, Here I Come! at this point in your first season?

Philadelphia, Here I Come! is a beautiful early play by the Irish playwright Brian Friel. It was first produced when Friel was 36 and was really the play that made him into a ‘success’. Amongst many things, it’s about leaving home and about youthful hope and ambition as seen through a 25-year-old boy on the eve of him leaving his home in Co. Donegal to move to Philadelphia and follow his ‘American Dream’.

The timing of the production was very conscious. With the Olympics now, we’re seeing a lot of young people, athletes, descending on London to try to fulfil their dreams so it feels very relevant. We watched Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final the other day. He’s only 25, and what was so devastating was to watch this young man’s hopes and ambitions raised and dashed right in front of us.

I produced Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic and really fell in love with Brian Friel’s work and with him as a man then. He’s extremely special, one of our leading living playwrights. I’m very excited to bring this play to the Donmar stage.

What’s the relationship between an executive producer and the artistic director of a subsidised theatre, such as the one between you and Josie Rourke at the Donmar?

Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham. Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning

It is a full partnership. With Josie, we’ve got so many different things to do, whether that’s looking after the show that’s onstage, looking after the show that’s in the rehearsal room, planning for what’s going to happen at Christmas or planning what’s going to happen for 18 months’ time. It’s real joy being able to look at the immediate term , the medium term and the long term together and trying to build up a picture of how that all fits together.

We have joint responsibility for programming and for all the big picture decisions we’re making. Of course, there is a division of labour on the nitty gritty, and she tends to be more in the rehearsal room while I’m more office based and will spend more time sitting crunching Excel spreadsheets than she will, but the strength of our partnership is that we look to each other and genuinely believe we’re in this together.

Josie started in January and I started in February so we really were starting a new era here together. We inherited an incredible, amazingly focused and well-knit team. It’s been a real privilege coming in to lead that team, that family, together. But in the end, you return to what that space is, the incredible vibrancy, intimacy and power of that performance space. We all feel it.

What are the immediate challenges in your job?

There’s a lot to do and there’s a lot we want to do – we’re very ambitious. And there’s Dryden Street, this amazing warehouse space that we’ll move into at the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014. It’s a rehearsal space, an office space and an education space and it represents a huge step for the Donmar because, for the first time, we as a company will all be in one building together.

So we’re doing a lot of thinking about that, about how that affects us culturally, how we develop our education work towards that opportunity and that dedicated space. It’s really exciting. The challenge is balancing the ‘nowness’ of being a theatre producer and what’s going onstage at the moment with what kind of company we’re going to be in 18 months’ time. It’s about balancing everything really, and giving things the right priority at the right time.

Do you have any advice for producers just starting out?

The absolute breakthrough for me was setting up Old Vic New Voices. It was through that that I created a network. I’d say, look around and identify your contemporaries who are as passionate as you are about theatre, then link up and make work with them. That was the ethos of Old Vic New Voices. We were saying to young people: don’t look to us, the Old Vic, to make you a theatre producer, director, actor or writer, do it for yourselves.

Me sitting here in this role is proof of just how effective that can be. Because that’s what I did when I was 25, that’s how I first met Josie Rourke and now here we both are. So my advice is, always look for your own contacts, build your network and just get on and do it. A director once told me, you just have to say you’re a producer and once you’ve said it enough times, you become it.

What do you consider the key qualities necessary to be a good producer?

Passion, perseverance, sense of humour, taste, and belief in your taste. Also, care for people. A lot of what I do is try to look after the family that we create in putting on plays. That sounds a bit sentimental, but it’s what drives me.

Much has been written about the fact that you and Josie are both women leading this flagship theatre. How significant do you feel your gender is?

In as much as it’s significant to other people, it’s significant. To me as an individual, being a woman isn’t significant because it’s just what I happen to be. Being here is an amazing opportunity for me personally, of course. And if the fact that I’m a woman and Josie is a woman is useful for other people, I’m happy about that. I’ve had people, especially younger women, tell me how inspiring it was to them when I got this job. I was surprised by that, but if they respond like that, that’s completely brilliant.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! opens on 1 August 2012 (previews from 26 July) at the Donmar Warehouse, where it continues until 22 September.