Producer Joseph Smith: ‘On Broadway, I found my English accent wasn’t an advantage’
Having started out at the National’s education department, Joseph Smith went on to pursue a career as a producer in New York. Now also running Stage One, he tells Nick Smurthwaite how the charity offers investment and mentoring to encourage an increasingly diverse range of people to get shows on stages
Few people start out wanting to be producers. Unlike acting or writing, it is not a calling that comes from within. But like acting or writing, it can only be learned by doing it. So where do you train how to do it? One avenue is the charity Stage One, dedicated to giving would-be producers a leg up through bursaries, workshops and mentoring.
Its chief executive and poster boy for the past five years, Joseph Smith, is a firm believer in people going into producing with their eyes wide open. He says, “One of the most important things I want people to take away from our workshops is an awareness of the rigour and risk and commitment that it takes to be a successful producer.”
If anyone knows about the rigour and risk, it is 46-year-old Smith, a hard-working producer himself, who clearly thrives on juggling half a dozen professional hats at once.
“Every producer wants to be considered successful both creatively and financially,” he says, “but the real challenge in this business is to survive and to be able to reinvent yourself. The industry is changing all the time and you have to change with it, whether it’s about ways of selling tickets, new union regulations, or dreaming up new ways to raise money.”
Smith wasn’t always so hard-nosed about the business. Growing up in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, his introduction to live theatre was helping out at the Angles Theatre – a reputable amateur outfit that his mum ran with some other like-minded locals in the 1970s. “I liked being a jack of all trades: a bit of acting, a bit of scene-painting and doing the lights. Then my parents moved to Swaffham in Norfolk and my mum started to put on open-air Shakespeare on the Westacre estate until she was given permission to take over a disused Methodist chapel and turn it into a theatre.”
Having already decided against a career in acting, Smith wasn’t sure what to do after he left school. “Then I stumbled across a theatre degree at Leicester Polytechnic. It did a specialism in arts management, which scratched all the right itches. I got to dabble in performance as well as the all the management and admin stuff.”
Towards the end of his degree course, he managed to get a work placement in the education department at the National Theatre, then under Jenny Harris’ charismatic leadership. They not only produced work for the NT spaces but also toured around the UK. When he arrived in 1991, aged 20, he was assigned to the designated tour producer, Sonia Friedman, also in her 20s. Smith recalls: “Sonia was driven, ambitious, intense and it was clear she had outgrown the NT education department. We worked together years later as co-producers on Jerusalem and Clybourne Park.”
Between them, Harris and Friedman instilled in him a passion for producing.
Q&A: Joseph Smith
What was your first non-theatre job? Working down a mine shaft for my dad’s civil engineering company.
What was your first professional theatre job? Assistant administrator, education department, National Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I wish I’d known about Stage One because I would definitely have attended its workshops.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My mum, who opened my eyes to theatre and allowed me access to all areas; and Jenny Harris at the National.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t over-prepare, less is more. And don’t bring any props with you.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been? A sportsman – probably a hockey player.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always sit with the audience on the opening night.
When Friedman left to work with Max Stafford Clark at Out of Joint, Smith took over her role and remained at the National for the next 10 years, co-driving (with Mick Gordon) the mould-breaking Transformation season in 2002. It offered 13 shows in five months with a top ticket price of £18. “Trevor [Nunn] ripped up the rule book, reconfigured the Lyttelton and we brought in a lot of new artists and theatremakers,” he recalls.
Smith’s next career move was not so much a new direction as a 180-degree turn. From working at the sharp end of subsidised theatre, he crossed the Atlantic to become associate producer to Broadway’s Ron Kastner, diving headlong into commercial productions of Gypsy, Life Times Three and Talking Heads.
“It was a huge culture shock,” he says “I went from a mothership where you could eat, work and hang out with the same group of people to working in a tiny office in Manhattan with three other people, far away from home, no support network, the year after 9/11. I felt lonely for six months, but I quickly learned about proving your worth and schmoozing investors. It probably took me a year to be accepted into the Broadway community. Strangely I didn’t find my English accent an advantage. It was more like, ‘Who are you to come over here telling us how to put on shows?’ ”
Never having worked in the commercial theatre before, the differences quickly became apparent to Smith. “As a creative in the subsidised theatre, you’re not involved in revenue or box office – you’re focused on delivering a show technically and artistically within a given budget. The big eye-opener in New York was getting to grips with it being all about the money.”
When he and Kastner transferred the Ben Whishaw Hamlet from London’s Old Vic to Broadway in 2010, Smith began a lasting association with Sally Greene, chief executive of the Old Vic and founder-director of Greene Light Productions, co-producers of Billy Elliot. “It was at the time when Billy Elliot was kicking off and Sally invited me to join her commercial production company as executive producer, which also meant being involved with the Old Vic,” he says.
Smith was in and out of the Old Vic in the early days of Kevin Spacey’s tenure, which were turbulent, to say the least. “After Resurrection, the Arthur Miller play, came off early due to poor box office there was a lot of rather gloomy talk about what was going to happen. But to his great credit, Kevin was always confident things would pick up and they did.”
Being closely involved with Billy Elliot, Smith got to know Elton John and David Furnish, who asked him if he would take on the stage projects of their multimedia company, Rocket Entertainment. He is currently developing two shows for Rocket: a new musical by Jake Shears (of Scissor Sisters) and John about the rise and fall of an TV evangelist couple in the US, which begin workshopping later this year, and a family show inspired by John’s back catalogue.
With his indie producer hat on, Smith has also just opened a new musical, Come from Away, on Broadway to widespread acclaim. The New York Times described it as “a big bear hug of a musical”. It takes place on 9/11 in the small Canadian air base where 38 planes were diverted from New York.
Back in London, Smith spends at least one day a week running Stage One, having taken over from Nick Salmon 10 years ago. Budding producers can apply to the charity for £20,000 investment, the only criterion being whether or not they can prove good commercial practice. “We try to be as impartial and non-judgemental as we can in awarding the bursaries,” he says.
Traditionally Stage One has focused on London but Smith, who did not grow up in London, is doing all he can to reach out to the regions. They will be holding their first ever regional workshop at the Birmingham Hippodrome on November 14, and a regional apprenticeship programme is in the pipeline.
Another area in urgent need of attention is diversity. “Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are seriously underrepresented in the producing arena,” says Smith. “It’s about getting out, creating more partnerships. We need more BAME role models. It’s all about being aspirational. Look at what’s happened with women producers. When I started at Stage One, it was a predominantly male domain. Now 60% of those coming to us for help are women.”
Luke Johnson, the former chairman of Stage One, says Smith has steered the charity with a practitioner’s eye, understanding as he does the triumphs and trials of producing in both London and New York. “On his watch, Stage One has expanded its activities across apprenticeships, workshops, bursaries and investment,” says Johnson.
The father of three small children (with producer Emily Dobbs), Smith seems resigned to his punishing schedule. “Across the board in this industry everyone diversifies in order to pay the bills, whether it’s general management, tour booking, or being in partnership with a theatre owner,” he says. “The great thing about the Stage One bursaries is that they enable people who would normally be earning money doing other things to focus on what they really want to do – produce. I wish I’d known about it when I started out.”
CV: Joseph Smith
Born: 1971, Wisbech
Trained: Leicester Polytechnic (1989 92)
Career highlights: National Theatre education department (1992 96), Producer, Transformation Season, NT (2002), Associate producer to Ron Kastner, Broadway (2002-06), Co-producer, Billy Elliot, Broadway (2008), Co-producer, West End transfers of Jerusalem and Clybourne Park (2010-11), Producer, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Broadway (2011), Chief executive, Stage One, (2012-present), Producer of Good People, West End (2014), Head of stage production, Rocket Entertainment (2017), Producer, Come from Away, Broadway (2017)