‘In Depth: Working As A Producer’, Workshop with Fuel Theatre and the National Theatre, 19th May 2017

The first big thing to mention this week is that I’ve started my new job! When this goes up I will have spent a whole week as Metta Theatre’s administrator. It’s great, and I’m really enjoying it so far: stay tuned to hear more about what I’m doing in a few weeks!

As those of you who’ve been around for a while will know, I interned at Fuel Theatre last summer for three months, which was an amazing experience, which set me up to start working towards being a theatre producer some day. (You can read my weekly blogs about what I got up to while I was there here.) When I saw that they were running a workshop about producing, in conjunction with the National Theatre, I was very tempted, but I hesitated, I wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be aimed at people with more experience than me. I emailed Kate McGrath, the director of Fuel, who was running the day, and asked her if she thought it would be relevant to me. She sent me a planned schedule for the day, and it looked perfect, so I booked to go along, despite it being less than a week before my final exams, and I’m so glad I went.

The day was split into four in-depth sessions from various perspectives, using the National Theatre and Fuel’s co-production (along with West Yorkshire Playhouse, though WYP weren’t involved in the day) of the Barbershop Chronicles as a case-study in the earlier sessions. It was hugely useful in terms of learning about producing, and also upped my excitement about seeing the Barbershop Chronicles (on 5th June – watch out for my review in early July, when I tell you about theatre I enjoyed in June).

 

Session One: The Artist-Producer relationship

This was led by Kate and Inua Ellams, an artist Kate has been working with for 9 years. The focus was on how they had developed their relationship up to their current project, the Barbershop Chronicles at the National Theatre (which I saw on 5th June, btw, and it was fantastic, but more on that in a few weeks) and, drawing for how their relationship worked, how other producers might create relationships with artists and produce their work.

It was an incredible insight, and here are the biggest points I took away from it.

  • It takes time. Kate and Inua’s relationship has taken 9 years to develop to the stage it is at now, and that time was necessary. Kate explained this as being about trust. The artist-producer relationship depends on trust (trust that each will do what they need to do, trust that the work is good…) and trust takes time to build.
  • A group member pointed out in this conversation that, in order to trust an artist, the producer first needs to trust themselves; their taste and ability to pick something worthwhile to work on, their ability to be flexible and open to responding to ideas, and their ability to do all the administrative and financial tasks on their to-do list. (I think this is probably also true the other way round; artists need to trust in their own work before they entrust it to a producer…)
  • Different people need different things to begin a relationship (Kate specified that she needs to see the work in real life, and meet the artist for an in-person chat [or several], other people will need other things, from simply an idea they are insipired by to a detailed CV of successes or particular character traits for personalities to mesh…). No one comes in knowing exactly what they need to start building relationships, but it’s worth thinking about as your career develops, so as you do more, you can be clearer about what you need.

 

Session Two: Co-Producing

This was a panel discussion between Kate and Fran Miller, the National Theatre’s projects producer working on the Barbershop Chronicles.

It was a dynamic, fast-moving conversation, and explained how the co-producing relationship between Fuel and the National worked for the Barbershop Chronicles, which enables a bit of comparison of their roles as producers in a huge institution and theatre, and in a small company.

There are 25-30 shows per year at the National Theatre, and it is a staff-heavy business, with over 1000 staff members, which makes it a very different environment for producing that Fuel (10 staff members).

Co-production contracts are very complex and detailed, but very useful: they still go back to it regularly. It is negotiated by everyone involved (in the case of the Barbershop Chronicles, Fuel, the National Theatre, and West Yorkshire Playhouse). Kate and Fran suggested that, with such a complex document ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’, but do worry and discuss the necessary complexities until everyone is satisfied with them.

When working with a huge company like the NT different things come into play than working with smaller companies, because there are more people and more procedures involved than in smaller institutions, which don’t necessarily have policies for certain things. Kate and Fran gave two examples of how this affected the Barbershop Chronicles production process: the marketing was dictated by the NT’s marketing timeline, which was non-negotiable. The other, more amusing example, was Kate’s idea of getting food from the countries visited in the play for press night. In a small company, this might only have required one conversation, but with the NT, required eight conversations with eight different people, all of whom had input on how press night should function.

*Side note* There was a question during this conversation asking about contracts in general. This was the advice: Begin writing a contract with a standard contract originally and then edit it/make it bespoke to individual relationships/situations. *End side note*

 

Session Three: Detailed parts of producing.

After lunch, the first session in the afternoon was more detailed insight into producing. Four members of the Fuel team came in to give insights on their particular roles within Fuel as a producing company: Ed Errington, General Manager, Stuart Heyes, Head of Production, Emilie Wiseman, Head of Programme, and Sarah Wilson-White, Projects Producer​. The attendees of the workshop had half an hour with two members: I was in a group discussion with Ed about fundraising, and one with Sarah about pitching tours to venues.

Ed focused on fundraising for smaller projects and explained the importance of multiple sources of funding. He explained ACE small grants (<£15,000) and said to ask for what you needed, but to go up to the limit, not to feel that you’d be better off asking for £10,000, when you needed £15,000 from ACE, because you thought they might be more willing to give a smaller amount. ACE won’t cover all the costs of a project though; you need to get other funding sources: in-kind support is one (e.g. a venue offering you free rehearsal space). The other important ones covered were trusts and foundations and crowdfunding. Trusts give funding to projects which match their areas of interests: focus applications on the few to whom your project is relevant. Some do support non-charities (e.g. Jerwood), but it is usually easier to get support from trusts if you are a charity. Crowdfunding is a resource which is still being discussed: people are still working out how best to use it. The recommendation that came out of this discussion was to focus crowdfunding on something specific (e.g. please donate to help build the set) and giving appropriate rewards.

Sarah started by suggesting that you should give yourself a year to 18 months to pitch a tour, knowing that popular touring windows are school holidays for children’s shows, and Feb-May/Sept-Nov for adult shows. You should know how much each show costs before you pitch it to someone, and you should tell venues exactly what each show costs. The key information to put in a programmers pack is minimum stage space, target audiences, dates. Invite people to showings, arrange meetings in Edinburgh and develop relationships personally (preferably over phone rather than email). The objective is to find synergy with venues and aims. She also suggested the importance of budgeting to get photos/films from R&D periods (research and development) to send with programmers packs (but don’t send these if they don’t end up being good!).
Session Four: Different Producers’ perspectives

The final session was a panel discussion between four producers with different backgrounds: Kate, Nick Williams, an independent cross-scale producer who produces international tours; Henny Finch, a commercial producer for Headlong, who recently produced 1984 in the West End, which is currently on Broadway; and Kate Scanlan, currently working with Battersea on a new, localised cross-artform space.

Each gave an overview of the sort of work they do, and some advice. Start by getting to grips with how the landscape works where you want to create work, and make partnerships. Go make the relationships in person. In the relationship development stage, it is more about the meeting of minds of collaborators than about the show necessarily. If you can afford it, you can be in just one place, for just one week. Think about shows as ‘one suitcase’ or ‘two suitcase’ shows where you can. If you’re looking to make an adaptation and need to discuss rights: take your time with relationship building, it will be a series of delicate conversations. Remember that subsidised theatre can move to the commercial sector if it is popular enough.

They finished by giving a “top tip” each: the single piece of advice they thought would be most useful. These were:

  • Pick a good ‘Horse’ (artist) and back them to the end
  • Trust yourself: charm people, solve problems and trust yourself so you can be believed
  • It’s easy to get bogged down in stuff – just keep going!

My biggest conclusion was that producing is about relationships with people, and to take your time building these: I’ve got a long process of relationship building ahead of me, and I’m looking forwards to it immensely.

That’s all for this week, thank you as always for reading. If you have any particular insights that you can add to this conversation please leave them in the comments: it’d be great to hear them, and please like the post if you enjoyed it! I’ll be back next week with my “West End Wish list”: everything I want from a West End show, follow the blog if you haven’t already so you don’t miss it!

Emily xxx

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