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Year of the Producer: Defining & debating the 'creative' producer

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Producers Ben Monks and Will Young at independent company Supporting Wall were supported by a SOLT/TMA Stage One Bursary in 2009. This year they have been nominated for a second time for the OffWestEnd.Com Award for Best Producer. Upcoming shows include a return of 2011 hit Tender Napalm and the world premiere of Shallow Slumber at the Soho Theatre.

In September 2011, they also took over as Creative Producers of the Tristan Bates Theatre – and here, as part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series (in partnership with our Whatsonstage.com Awards adopted charity Stage One), they endeavour to figure out what that actually means...

In theatre, as in most industries, job titles are fairly benign, used as often to mollify egos as to clarify roles. But the increasingly popular moniker of Creative Producer has always rankled. Since taking over that role at the Tristan Bates Theatre last year, we’ve been wondering more and more about the addition of that ‘creative’ word.

The fashion for this appellation has led to several new Creative Producing masters degrees, notably at Central and Birkbeck. Their prospectuses offer no evidence of what creative edge their graduates have over old ‘producer’ producers. Birkbeck outlines the key areas as: taste, judgement, presentation, finance, contracts, rights, working with creative teams and relating to audiences. Any producer worth their salt has always needed these skills in abundance. Nothing new there.

The titular addition may seek to correct an impression that producers not only have few artistic credentials but are actually enemies of creativity. This attitude seemed to be behind the recent controversy when Hull Truck replaced their Artistic Director with new Chief Executive Andrew Smaje. Equity was outraged, decrying the idea that their artistic policy was ‘left solely in the hands of administration’.

Equity's spokesman was clearly unfamiliar with Smaje’s CV, including a decade of nationally acclaimed programmes (and a renovated space) at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio. But why should anyone think directors or writers have a unique claim to creative leadership? Certainly some are brilliant programmers and figureheads, but others are blind to the merits of their peers. In choosing scripts, assembling collaborative teams – and risking their own money – producers constantly rely on their own judgement.

Perhaps this comes back to the notion, described on Whatsonstage.com by John Manning, producer at Northampton's Royal & Derngate, of producers as ‘Scrooge-like creatures, sitting in their offices slavishly counting their pennies’. It’s understandable to want to fight such stereotypes, but anyone who believes them is misguided or malicious. The first clue that we’re not avaricious is that we’re theatre producers (Scrooge was a banker, as are many of our better-remunerated friends).

But does anyone need proof that the producer is an inherently creative being? Whether signposted or not, they’ve always been artistic entrepreneurs, from the great manager-patrons of Italian opera (better known as ‘impressarios’, an epithet we’d happily re-introduce) to the recent Michael Codrons (the great, passionate, and entirely commercial promoter of Harold Pinter) and David Babanis (whose Menier Chocolate Factory is the most innovative and successful modern proponent of Sondheim).

Rachel Tackley, current TMA President, thinks there may be a greater concern if the Creative Producer tag ‘creates a division – and encourages mutual patronisation – between producers in the commercial and subsidised sectors, at a time when the there is less and less difference between the two’. As it becomes less tenable to rely on public subsidy alone, we must all learn from each other to navigate through a new financial climate.

And why should we shy away from being proudly, nakedly, producers? More than any other team-member, we produce the work. We’re with it from the start, picking up a script or meeting a director, and we deal with the financial fall-out long after. The beauty of the job is its diversity, requiring at one moment the artist’s mindset, and at the other an accountant’s. Emphasising any one element reduces the whole.

So what of our own Creative Producing role at the Tristan Bates? If we removed the ‘Creative’, would people think us less capable of shaping a programme, too focused on bar takings to read proposals? Whether it’s there or when our own show Shallow Slumber opens this month at the Soho (and if this article has been interesting, perhaps you'll consider coming along...) – whatever the project – we as producers must be evaluated financially and logistically as well as creatively, and we must celebrate each element equally.

Supporting Wall’s latest show, Shallow Slumber, opens on the 24 January at the Soho Theatre. Written by award-winning playwright and social worker Chris Lee, it is directed by recent UK Film Council Breakthrough Brit Mary Nighy and stars 2010 Olivier Award nominee Alexandra Gilbreath.


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