West End production manager Lee Batty: ‘You need thick skin, broad shoulders and patience’
Being a production manager for tours and West End hits wasn’t enough for Lee Batty, so he began associate-producing the Olivier Awards. Despite the workload he stands firm under pressure, as he tells Mark Shenton
Lee Batty, whose job is to steer a steady ship in the sometimes turbulent waters of top-level theatre production, says he does not do high drama away from the stage.
“Ours is an incredibly emotionally charged industry, but you need to be able to stand back and ask: ‘What is going on’, rather than being led by the emotive part of it.”
Batty is head of production at Bill Kenwright, one of the busiest and most prolific independent producing companies in the West End and across the regions. He is also associate producer of the Olivier Awards, and has overseen the production management of the annual event since 2011.
“There are always obstacles to overcome and personalities you have to juggle and manage and egos you have to massage,” he adds. “But there are also people you have to nurture. Sometimes you have to be all things to all men.”
You can sense the calm but also a little of the steely tenacity that has propelled him from Barnsley, where he began his career as a flyman at the city’s Civic Theatre at the age of 16, to the heart of the West End.
Now 43, he’s been in the business for more than a quarter of a century. “Sometimes I think I’d like to open a gastropub somewhere and not have the stress. But I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else now.”
Theatre has always been a passion. “I’m from a working-class Yorkshire background, but my nan – my mum’s mum – was a singer, and I guess that came through. I wanted to be a performer at one point, and I have done it, but we don’t talk about that anymore. I was obsessed with stand-up comics when I was growing up and that’s what I wanted to be.”
He learnt his trade the old-fashioned way: on the job. “My dad was a builder, and couldn’t afford to send me to drama school, but I’d gone to a very small college that was run like a stage school in Barnsley, and got my first job at the Civic Theatre while I was still there.”
Batty stayed in Barnsley for a few years before a stroke of luck. “I was working with a lovely lady who passed on my CV to a former boyfriend, who happened to be Kevin Eld, a production manager at Cameron Mackintosh,” he says.
Q&A: Lee Batty
What was your first non-theatre job? Working as a flyman at the Civic Theatre, Barnsley.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That I wouldn’t get as many holidays as I’d like.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My dad. I got my patience and my level-headedness from him. Those two things have helped me more than anything.
If you hadn’t been a production manager, what would you have been? I fancied being in the RAF as a kid, but I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else now.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I touch wood a lot, and I don’t whistle on stage – being a hemp flyman, I know where that comes from.
“I was offered an interview at Bedford Square in June 1995, when I was 21. They offered me an assistant stage management job on Phantom, Oliver! or Five Guys Named Moe. I chose Five Guys, because I’d seen it a couple of years before and it was my favourite musical. I learnt the job in the West End, and then took it out on tour for a year.”
After the tour, he returned to Barnsley and became resident stage manager at the Civic. But in 1998 the theatre closed down, “so I decided to have a crack at producing my own things. I did a pantomime and a couple of other things, but about 12 months later a call came to return to the West End on Stones in His Pockets as deputy stage manager, which I did on tour and took over as company manager.”
A company manager’s job is to be “the producer’s eyes and ears on the ground,” he notes, but soon he added to that role by accidentally becoming a production manager at the same time.
“I was doing a show called Shout! for Mark Goucher on tour, with the lovely Su Pollard and Claire Sweeney. We found ourselves without a production manager, and I said I’ll step in and do it, as I knew the show back to front.”
He continued as production manager in 2010 on an Edinburgh Fringe show for Phil McIntyre called Virtuous Burglar, starring McIntyre’s daughter Amy. Importantly, it was general-managed by Julian Stoneman. “I worked with him for a number of years,” Batty says, “including what was my real big break – transferring the Broadway version of Driving Miss Daisy with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones to the Wyndham’s in 2011, which really kicked things off for me.”
What does he think is the role of the production manager? “You are responsible for delivering the artistic vision. That includes health and safety, scheduling, budgeting, making things run smoothly and keeping the money and schedule in check.”
Since 2011, that has included working on the Olivier Awards ceremony, for which he is now an associate producer.
“This year will be my eighth. I joined when it went to Drury Lane, then continued at the Royal Opera House and now at the Royal Albert Hall. When I first started it was broadcast on BBC red button and Radio 2, but now we enjoy a really good relationship with ITV that has developed well.”
The job involves translating a live medium to a televisual one – and representing them well in a live show in front of an audience. “We decided when we went to Drury Lane that shipping enormous pieces across town was not a good idea, so now we use video a lot more.
“In the months before the awards, I visit every show with lighting designer Ben Cracknell to make sure we can represent them as well as we can. We’ve got good, strong relationships with all the producers and general management companies now.”
Top tips for an aspiring production manager
• Get as much experience as possible.
• Get out there and talk to people, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
• Be patient because it will come – don’t run before you can walk. Everyone’s time does come.
On the night of the Oliviers, there’s a lot of adrenaline. “I’ve probably not slept for about 30 hours. And the moment the show goes up, there’s a mixture of emotions – elation, achievement and tremendous fear are all rolled into one, so it becomes very intense. But by the same token, why wouldn’t you want to do it, to be a part of something that is so good?”
That may sound like a full-time job in itself, but Batty’s actual full-time job is at Bill Kenwright Ltd, which he joined in April 2016. “I take time off from Bill’s to do it – and he’s very supportive,” he says. “We have seven shows running, including The Exorcist in the West End, with The Best Man transferring there soon. We have another six or seven shows in development.”
He is particularly proud of two shows he’s worked on at the company: La Cage Aux Folles (2017) and the current touring hit Cilla the Musical, a bio-musical about Cilla Black. “I would like to think they were shows where we stepped it up a notch – everything fitted into place and worked,” he says.
There isn’t much time for a private life in the midst of all of this, though. “The vocational part of the job is that you end up living it. You have to learn to keep the plates spinning.”
So what do you need to do the job? “A thick skin, broad shoulders, and patience. You need to be able to sit back and weigh everything up.” Despite the pressures, Batty never makes a crisis out of working in drama. “That’s probably because I’m a Northerner,” he says, “and a lot of us are quite laid back.”
CV: Lee Batty
Born: 1974, Barnsley, Yorkshire
Training: “On the job”
Landmark productions: Driving Miss Daisy, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (2011), Urinetown, Apollo Theatre, London (2014), Olivier Awards (2011 to present), La Cage Aux Folles, on tour (2017), Cilla the Musical, on tour (2017)