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Julius Green: What it takes to be a producer

Julius Green Julius Green
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A theatre producer is a self-employed creative entrepreneur, who has somehow got it into their head that if you put on a good show then enough people will buy tickets to cover its costs and even generate a profit; or at least is able to persuade a number of investors that this is the case. The role only exists in the commercial sector and should not be confused with that of administrator or chief executive in subsidised theatre companies.

If the job of producer was being advertised, then the person specification would include nerves of steel combined with an ability to focus on the big picture and not to sweat the small stuff (of which there is an extraordinary abundance in theatre). Add to that a generally optimistic ‘cup half-full’ approach, a talent for translating seemingly unending problems into opportunities and an extremely high tolerance level for people who in any other industry would be deemed to be as mad as a box of frogs.

This is not a comfortable occupation for control freaks

Producing is, perhaps surprisingly, not a comfortable occupation for control freaks. You need to be able to delegate successfully, while being aware of everything that’s going on and taking ultimate responsibility for the results. The producer’s job is to make the big decisions, and in order to keep a clear head for this they need to be relaxed about letting other people make the smaller ones. After all, it is the producer who ultimately has to be able to join the dots and see the wood for the trees.

I always find it odd that so few people, even those working in theatre, seem to have a proper understanding of what a producer does. I recently saw a magician on television lamenting the fact that so many of his colleagues were now giving away their tricks that it was becoming increasingly difficult to fool the audience. But no one can ever accuse producers of keeping the tricks of their trade to themselves. If there’s one thing we enjoy, it’s talking about what we do, and one of the great things about what we do is that the learning process is continuous. Every day brings new discoveries and a new set of unexpected challenges.

When I was starting out, I was extremely grateful for all the advice, encouragement and support I received from the ‘old guard’. These days, opinion is divided as to whether it is more beneficial to undertake some sort of training in the subject, or just to get on with it, grab what advice you can along the way, and learn from your mistakes.

For those who want to follow the training route, Stage One, a charity supported by the Society of London Theatre, nurtures the work of aspiring producers via short courses, work placements, professional mentoring and various investment schemes. It is a sign of old age when you get invited to one of their regular networking events as a dispenser rather than a seeker of advice.

Even the academic community is starting to cotton on, with MA degrees in theatre producing now being offered by at least one university and two drama schools – although the continued use of the phrase ‘creative producer’ in academic circles is discouragingly indicative that there is still some confusion about the nature of the role.

To my way of thinking, being a producer is by definition about as ‘creative’ as it gets; you are quite literally creating every aspect of a theatrical production from scratch. The phrase ‘creative producer’ is a tautology and seems to imply that there is such a thing as a non-creative producer. If these exist, then I have never met one.

And for those who still seek to clarify the difference between a producer and a director, I can only say that the clue is in the titles. To produce is to ‘create by physical or mental effort’. To direct is to ‘indicate the way’. Dictionary definitions, not mine. But it sounds as if between them, these two characters should be able to get the job done.

Assembling the multitude of individuals and interdependent artistic and financial elements that go into putting on a show is a far from linear process. It is a seemingly endless vortex of catch-22 situations, a veritable farmyard full of carts before horses and chickens before eggs.

For a producer, there is no one moment when a project can be considered ‘green lit’; although signing up the leading actors, booking the theatre or completing the raising of the finance (none of which is technically possible without the other two being in place) are all milestones.

In the producer’s world, the financial and the artistic elements of a production run parallel, yet are inextricably interlinked. Producers need to be equally at ease in a budgeting or marketing meeting as when discussing which translation of a Chekhov play to use or which lighting effect works best. Their artistic judgement needs to be as finely tuned as their financial acumen.

The producer, in short, needs to be a jack of all trades and a master of at least some of them. It is their voice that has to be heard over the hubbub; but it has to be a quietly credible and reassuring voice, not a didactic and strident voice.

Oddly, however, instead of being acknowledged as the creator of extraordinary opportunities for theatre practitioners to exercise their talents, producers often find themselves characterised by those whose work they facilitate as the capitalist exploiter of their alienated labour. This can be quite upsetting for a producer the first time they experience it but is best taken with a large pinch of salt.

One of David Hare’s characters asks: “What is theatre but a low drizzle of persistent complaint?” If you are going to maintain the optimism and dynamism that everyone else depends upon for their employment, then you have to develop techniques for blocking out that drizzle.

There is a misconception that theatre producing is a male-dominated profession – a game for city types who smoke big cigars and drive flashy cars. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the most successful and powerful producers are women, and the most adept producing students are more likely to be experienced in stage management than stocks and shares. Stage managers tend to be calm, well organised and to have a good knowledge of how a show is put together. If you fit this profile then training as a producer could well be a savvy move.

There certainly seems to be a gap in the market; I know plenty of theatre practitioners who are unemployed but I don’t know a single producer who isn’t overworked.

Julius Green is producing Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, previewing at the Apollo Theatre, London, from September 24. His book How to Produce a West End Show is published by Oberon, and HarperCollins will publish his Curtain Up: Agatha Christie – a Life in Theatre on September 10. This article features edited extracts from How to Produce a West End Show

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