Say Thank You

Like most people, producers or otherwise, saying Thank You to someone who has done something for me is second nature. Like most people, I don’t tend to limit this habit to outside my working environment.

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The difference is that in show situations, this scales up so that ‘me’ encompasses everything that the production needs. This is not to suggest that a producer owns a project, but that the level of engagement that they have with the whole production means that they can best identify who is doing what – and appreciate it.

This industry is full of people who care enough about what they do to go the extra mile. In some cases the results are obvious and can be seen and congratulated by all. For others working in supportive roles such as stage management this can be hidden. Sometimes the purpose of the extra mile taken is for someone else, an actor or a director usually, to not have to think about it; these are roles which are built on invisible efficiency and acknowledgement of all they do could defeat the object of their doing it.

However, the one person who always has the broadest view of the workings of a production is the producer. They are the people who should see and acknowledge the invisible. There doesn’t have to be a song and dance about it, but a genuine, specific expression of gratitude for something that has been done makes a huge difference to morale and how valued the people you work with feel.

I only truly understood this after experiencing it from the other side. When working as a production manager for Supporting Wall there was rarely a phone call or email that didn’t finish with one or other of the producers thanking me, even if all I’d done was ask a question about planning. At a long get-in, I would find a cup of coffee at my elbow at the moment I I needed it most; I knew the hours that I put in were noticed and appreciated.

Similarly, at the Wirskworth Festival, where I worked with Jagged Fence, as I finished work each evening I would find myself with a gin & tonic in my hand and a warm hug from the producer. The knowledge that the work I was doing was noticed and appreciated always encouraged me to look that little bit harder for solutions or to spend that extra hour to make the shows as good as they could be.

This isn’t to suggest that the producer is the only one invested in the whole production, and so they thank people for creating it. Ideally everyone is invested from the start, but the producers are the ones who understand the value of each contribution. If they express that properly then it increases the chance that everyone else will be as invested in it as they are.

It’s simple, but it makes sense – if people know that they are valued then they will give more.

Daydream

Imagined successes can be almost as good as the real thing, and far less effort. Until recently I had a window by my desk, so I only needed to shift my head slightly to stare out of it and think of all the great productions I will produce.

There’s that original West End musical, that is both artistically and commercially successful. There are the international gigs for Morgan & West. The cabaret night inspired by Cabaret. The number one tour. The explosive new play about political issues closest to me. And that’s not even considering the life-changing TIE or the countless awards ceremonies it’ll be necessary to go to when the brilliance of these project is duly recognised.

DaydreamOne of the beauties of day dreaming, beyond it’s innate but questionable value as procrastination, is that a project can never be so successful as when it still exists only in the realms of good intentions. So long as you never actually do it, it can remain the perfect project. The ideal venue is available, your dream cast will confirm, the house will be packed every night and balance sheets remain firmly in the black. You can idly pick your ideal pull quotes from your favourite publications, and smile indulgently at the critic who has missed the point, but loved it all the same.

It can be an enjoyable way to pass the time, and I’ll often catch myself drifting into this world when I ought to be doing something riveting like cash-flow analysis. Although establishing exactly who I’d like to present the Olivier for Best New Musical to my show is unlikely to ever be a useful  thing to have done (I don’t think you get to choose) I’ve come to realise that there is value in some of this fantasy.

This sort of thinking about new ideas can help in a producer’s very nebulous artistic role. By dreaming up the casts and venues you can begin to get a sense of what you think your new project should feel like.

Why do I imagine Cumberbatch in that role not Stewart? Why do I keep placing it in the Cottesloe not the Lyttelton? How come there’s so much blue in all my imaginings? A clearer vision begins to emerge and, whilst they may not be the venues or performers that will wind up on the project, these dreams can influence the ideas of who and where and how blue the final product will be. I have begun to establish the shape of what I am trying to achieve, and this gives me a starting point.

Imagining the outcomes makes it easier to see the path to getting there – the more detailed the daydream, the more possible the previously thought impossible feels. By solving an imagined problem at the Noel Coward, I’m actually training for a real one at the Southwark Playhouse. Tracing routes from reality to fantasy shows how feasible a transition it could be.

Daydreaming can be a surprisingly productive pastime.

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Accept things as they are

There are ideals. Ways in which things should, in a well ordered world, turn out.

First nights should always be a triumph – as should last nights. Performers struggling with a part should have an epiphany (probably at the eleventh hour) that leads to brilliance. Actors in bad shows should band together and find a beautiful and fulfilling camaraderie.

The world of theatre is a pretty magical one, even if you don’t work with time-travelling Victorians, so it’s easy to fall for these idyllic visions. Stories of the seemingly impossible are heard each day, and achievements in theatre, usually made in the face of ridiculous odds, can frequently amaze.

Sometimes this belief makes people take ridiculous chances that pay off. When I was working with Metta Theatre, we were offered a slot with only 10 weeks lead time. We didn’t have a completed script, let alone money, cast or rehearsal space. Otieno, the production we mounted, is still one of the things that I am most proud of being involved with.

With stories like this, it’s not surprising we often believe in fairytale endings. If we weren’t a little bit under the spell of theatre then we’d probably all go and get proper jobs with stable incomes and regular hours.

That said, first nights can be an exercise in damage limitation – last nights in exhaustion. A struggling performer sometimes needs to be supported or hidden. And lifelong feuds can start backstage at a bad show.

A producer needs to to be able to take it in their stride and accept it all for what it is. Pragmatism is a key weapon in a producer’s arsenal, and one that’s needed to keep another vital tool in check – faith.

You’re usually trying to sell a product before it has been created. When you convince a venue to take it, design the marketing, start selling tickets, you are backing something that you believe in, rather than something that exists.

You have to trust that your product will live up to your faith, but with so many factors, most of which are out of your control, it’s impossible to be certain.

So in all this it’s important to maintain a realistic view. Theatre is an organic process and it’s unlikely that a final piece will fit exactly with the original aims. Once a concrete product exists you need to be able to see whether it matches up to what you’ve been selling, and if it doesn’t then to change something – fast.

Sometimes what you have may be brilliant in a way different to the way you were expecting. It might be accessible to an audience you hadn’t considered, or have links to news stories that hadn’t existed before. There’ll be something new to capitalise on, and, if things don’t go the way you’d hoped, something new to learn.

Every show is a journey, and it’s important to keep your eyes open. It can be surprising to see where you end up.

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The Edinburgh Fringe

It’s enormous. It’s chaotic. It’s where stars are made and hearts are broken. It’s the largest arts festival in the world, a place where every performer, producer and director in the country is likely to wind up at some point. It can only be the Edinburgh Fringe.

If you ask the performer on the Mile, the average fringe audience estimate ranges from three to eleven – depending on who you speak to, how their own sales are going and what kind of mood they’re in. I suspect, taking into consideration acts such as The Boy with Tape on his Face selling out 750 seats in Pleasance Grand, that the actual mean is a little higher. However, these pessimistic figures are continually quoted by those who return year on year, which show just how unintuitively addictive this festival can be.

The richness of entertainment and opportunity in Edinburgh in August is extraordinary – it’s what makes it the incredible experience it is. The Fringe this year has 2695 shows with over 41,000 performances in 279 venues. Then there are all the exhibitions, talks and countless street performances, both formal and informal. And that’s before we’ve begun to think about the other festivals going on at the same time.

The Fringe is now so huge that it is easy to feel lost, both professionally and personally. There are so many opportunities that you can never take advantage of them all, and it becomes all too easy to take advantage of nothing.

You could fill a month just reading all of the flyers, brochures and reviews to decide what to see. There are constant, and often free, networking events, masterclasses and workshops. And if you spend every hour of every day seeing shows, then the first must-see show that you’ll be asked about in September will still be the one you haven’t seen.

I’ve heard it described at the trade fair of our industry. The vast majority of people working in the arts seem to migrate for at least some of the summer. Edinburgh in August can be a tremendous chance to run into some of the most influential people in the arts, those who it would be virtually impossible to meet in their home town. Four years ago a workshop run by Musical Theatre Matters gave me the chance to ply Chris Grady with all my daftest questions about producing, his answers standing me in good stead for the coming years.

All this opportunity can band together to swamp you by the experience, making you feel as though you are always missing out. It’s important to remember that no one is capable of doing it all. Don’t put yourself under undue pressure to have seen everything and met everyone. Decide what you want to get out of it, look at how to realistically achieve that, and don’t worry about the rest.

Finally, make sure you leave time for the things you stumble across whilst you’re here – even if it’s just a particularly good baked potato shop.

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Find images, early

Oh, that initial production image.

Before the print or the press releases, before the readings and the rehearsals and before marketing has started in force, there’s often a need for a show image. It’s usually for a venue or  festival brochure, so the lead time is significantly longer than that for any show specific print. For example, the Edinburgh Fringe takes place in August, but need you to supply a brochure image in late February. Whilst six months is an extreme case, most venues will want something early in the day.

I was recently in a meeting with a theatre who are supporting a project I’m working on next winter. They’re putting our show in their winter brochure, and my heart skipped a beat as the meeting ended with the sentence

“Great, just get something to our designer by the end of next week.”

It’s so far in advance that projects aren’t going to be fully developed, scripts may not be written or casts cast. This means that no matter how much time you have, there’s always an element of leaping into the dark. You don’t yet have everything you need to be properly prepared for it, and by the time you do you’ll have missed the deadline.

You’re faced with several options. Should you use a place holder image from somewhere like Getty Images or iStockPhoto? Should you mock up an image that matches what you imagine the rest of branding will be like? Or should you go the whole hog and try and create the image for all of your print now?

Even if you have cast, and they’re available for being photographed, you need a setting and something for them to wear. London is very generous with locations, having many parks, paved areas and brick walls to provide suitably neutral backdrops – weather depending. Theatres are often generous with their space, and if all else fails there are way of disguising offices or even living rooms to find a blank space. What they should be wearing or with  tends to be a little harder. Costume and props won’t be ready for a good few months so something must be begged, borrowed or stolen that will suit the style and period of the show.

Each step of the way you have to keep making  a call on whether this will be your final image. If not, how much are you willing to spend on it? If so, how far is it being compromised by happening this early, and when could these things change? There’s always a pay off between consistency throughout your marketing, and getting the image out fast. To my mind the trick is to identify which factor (cast, costume, key props) has the biggest impact and work around that.

The best thing is the conversation it sparks between creatives as ideas and concepts take on specific forms. You find out what each person involved means by ‘dark and brooding’ and you begin to unite everyone’s vision. The questions force the milestones and aims  into sharp focus and it suddenly becomes more real.

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Read scripts

I adore reading scripts.

It gives me a delicious feeling of skiving off, underwritten by the knowledge that it’s a valuable thing to do. I’ll put my phone on silent, refill my coffee cup and curl up in comfortable chair to devote my mind to the script in my hands.

Reading scripts for work is a different experience to reading those I just want to have read. I won’t indulge my imagination in the same way, won’t let it run free with any image it chooses to conjure up. More of my brain is switched on, s0 rather than just enjoying the narrative ride, a dozen other considerations will be bubbling under the surface.

I’ll read with a pen in one hand and keep scribbling stream-of-consciousness notes on a pad. My mind will keep a subconscious tally of cast members, and be alert for effects that sound difficult or expensive. Stage directions or settings that could affect the venue, or just sound impossible will be noted down for a future chat with the writer or director.

As I read, the action will shift through a series of venues, from small to large, fringe to West End. By the end I can identify three or four productions of the script that could be made, ranging from intimate 40 seat black boxes to full blown arena tours. The latter may be a little beyond me at the moment, but imagining the large scale can often inform the smaller scale – and it’s never too early to be planning the transfer.

I get engrossed by a script I’ll be begin to identify the themes and ideas in the play, trying to establish where and how it fits into the current theatrical landscape.

Further in, a series of wider questions will start to run through my mind. Who would enjoy this? Why? How many of them are there? Where are they?  Who could this help? Are there charities or organisations who it could tie in with? Is there a family appeal? Is it educational? How might a local community get involved? Which local community? Who might fund it? And, above all, is this worth doing?

Of course, it’s not always an unalloyed pleasure – not every script has the ability to provoke a wild desire to stage it. Yet even the scripts that I know within a few pages that I don’t want to work on can change and inform the way I think about the next thing I read, the next project I undertake. Half-explored ideas about audience development might come to me whilst reading something I don’t pursue and may be useful for a later production.

Once the script is finished, it’s time to stretch out my legs and wash up my coffee cup whilst I focus more clearly on the thoughts I’ve had and try to make sense of my notes. I’ll leave the daydreams and the bubble of possibilities and start to think about what can happen off the page.

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See the whole picture

Whilst I accept that omnipotence is impossible, a producer needs to at least do a good impression of it.

A producer often winds up doing a hundred roles, but the only one they always have to do is making sure the others get done. This is only possible when you have a clear overview of a project and an appreciation of what every element entails. This holistic view is the best way to try and prevent things from falling through the cracks, and of rescuing things when they inevitable do.  It also helps make sure that all elements are working well in relation to each other – and to the budget.

Just as a director  has to not only identify what’s good but also what works for the project, a producer must be able to see how all parts of the show work together to form a coherent identity. The producer ensures that the press and the print accurately reflect the performances on stage. Sometimes this might mean jettisoning an idea that you’re fond of – a turn of phrase in your copy, a marketing concept or even a venue.  However, by keeping the bigger plans, the whole picture and the way the elements work together in mind you can usually feel what’s right for a project. There will always be another, better opportunity to use that idea. After all, a director can’t cast Claire Higgins in every play.

By always keeping in mind the original aims of a project a producer can reign ideas back to them. A lot of the value of a creative or performer comes from their intense absorption in their art and the detail and innovation this brings to the production. However, at the height of the creative process the people working day to day in a rehearsal room or design workshop can be too close to see their work in context.to them. It’s not necessary to stick doggedly to your starting points, but by making them a touchstone it’s possible to ensure that any changes are appropriate and consistent throughout the production.

I have seen rehearsal rooms downbeat because they don’t realise how brilliant what they have created is, and delighted by something which doesn’t fit with what else is going on. The producer shares their passion for the show, but hasn’t been involved in the daily process of getting it to where it is, so doesn’t have the same associations with it. They can provide a supportive and receptive set of eyes, and offer reassurance or feedback with a guaranteed understanding.

Of course, another important skill for a producer is tactfully explaining any concerns, appropriately rooting them in the context of the show, without causing offence or damaging the process. The aim is to help to bring the best of everything together and make it available to an audience.

If a producer has a clear and constant overview of the whole project, they can provide the support and structure for a production to flourish.

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Move office

I mentioned in my last proper post that I’m working in Australia.

As I’m out here for seven weeks I’ve maintained reduced but regular office hours in addition to the work out here. A hiatus of two months office work would mean a much longer hiatus further down the line. The wonders of the modern age mean that creating office in a different space isn’t a problem – take a laptop, find some Wi-fi, job done. Sort of.

I began my working life as a Stage Manager and I’m a victim of the stationery addiction* that comes with that profession. My working day involves multiple notepads, scrap paper, cardboard notelets and three different types of pen before I’ve even made it to the computer. Obviously, it was not going to be possible to recreate this wherever I went.

This problem compounded was by the fact that we did not to ship our set over, but instead fitted it into our combined 60kg of hold luggage. This left us each with a Gladstone bag for final props and personal luggage. Gladstone bags are not particularly capacious. Even when going to a hot country there is a need for some clothing, so I arrived in Australia with an ancient laptop, my diary and three pens. One of which I promptly lost.

I was lucky that our flat has a desk in an alcove, so making a temporary office was easier than expected. The greatest challenge was going without stationery. After two days I cracked and bought Post-It notes. Less than a week later I exploded with frustration and stormed out to find a pad that was a decent size to scribble notes into.

It seems, despite my erratic lifestyle, that I am a creature of habit. I don’t function well without my usual systems for capturing and processing ideas. I had never understood how much I valued having something to scrawl on, an instant release for thoughts that wasn’t dependent on their fitting into neat documents on my computer.

Despite these two purchases, my lack of printer and coloured pens mean I’m still in stationary cold turkey. So I’m learning to deal with it. Unable to print out every document I want to I’m becoming more environmentally friendly, and spending less time procrastinating whilst ‘waiting for the printer’. My computer filing systems have become more complex.

I’m learning the joys of Dropbox and of keeping everything online, ordered and contained, rather than in piles spread over my office floor. Thanks to a loan from a friend, I’ve discovering the flexibility of the iPad in allowing me to sign contracts without even needing to print them off, saving time and paper. I hope to maintain this streamlined efficiency when I get back to the UK, if only to save myself a few pounds on stationery.

That said, I can’t wait to return to the full spectrum of Post It note colours.

*No Dad, that doesn’t mean I can’t stop standing still.
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Buy drugs for their performers

And other such necessary things when people are ill during shows.

This is not a proper post, just a brief explanation of why there hasn’t been a post this week. When everything is back on an even keel, I shall catch up.

Thank goodness for friendly Australian pharmacists.

Work abroad

I’m embarking on my first attempt at producing overseas, and the challenges it presents provides some food for thought.

The magic duo that I work with, Morgan & West, are appearing at the Adelaide fringe this month. Since Australia is a pretty hefty trek, we decided that it was worth programming a couple of dates around the fringe, just to see how they go down. The theory was sound.

The practice, it turned out, was a little more complicated. Producing in a country I’d never been to was less simple than you might suppose. In many ways it was like starting afresh.

The first dilemma was the venues. How could I establish which ones were appropriate, well run and had the right sort of audience? In London, even with venues I’ve never been to, I’ll have an idea of their work, their reputation and their programming. If I don’t, I’ll have heard of them and be able to find out more.

Added to this I didn’t know the cities. Where were the arts centres? Were these venues in locations to which people were likely to come? Who here will like magic?

It was time to don my deerstalker and do some detective work with everyone’s favourite sidekick Google. An afternoon spent trawling the internet and identifying venues with similar acts, gave me a shortlist. I shot out a few emails and waited. And waited. And continued waiting until I woke up the next morning.

Even then, I was still guessing on factors such as pricing, marketing and timing. I had no idea about local standard practices.This was the second issue. Like most freelancers, my working hours are erratic at the best of times, despite this I’m not usually working at the times that Australian venues are. I had to get into the habit of waking up to responses and allowing each of query to take a full 24 hours to get asked, answered and responded to. My other option, if I didn’t want to wait, was to adapt my sleep patterns for speedy responses.

Luckily, Australians are some of the nicest people in the world, and the support I’ve been offered from people I barely know has been overwhelming. Not only the venues, but friends of friends and even people who have just seen the show have all been brilliant in offering local knowledge.

In the end, as always, I had to trust my instincts. Producing anywhere involves risks and a certain amount of trusting fortune. Find those places and people you feel most comfortable with,  and take the plunge. Look at similar shows and pitch at a price and time which seem fair and reasonable. Then hope audiences agree with you.

We have yet to find out how it will work out, but we’ve made it to Australia and we’re here for the next six weeks. I’ll try to keep you posted on the lessons in international producing that I’m bound to learn.

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