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Lyn Gardner: It’s not just performers – we need to invest in producers too

Inua Ellams' Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre – the playwright was supported by independent producer Fuel. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I have always thought the best place to trial universal basic income schemes would be in the arts community, because of the potential transformative impact not just for artists but for the wider community. But should funders think about paying producers a living wage over a one or two-year period to help them develop their careers and support more artists in turn? The idea comes from veteran producer and Artsadmin founder Judith Knight.

When Knight and Seonaid Stewart founded Artsadmin in 1979, most people’s idea of a theatre producer was Binkie Beaumont, the West End impresario who dominated commercial theatre in the 1950s. Artsadmin helped change that and recently celebrated its 40th birthday at east London’s Toynbee Studios.

Like all producers, Artsadmin has been one of British theatre’s great enablers, cherishing artists and supporting the careers of many working in experimental theatre from Forced Entertainment and DV8 to Bobby Baker, Station House Opera, Anne Bean, Amy Sharrocks, Nic Green, Ursula Martinez and Geraldine Pilgrim. It opened up national and international opportunities for these and others in partnership with festivals and venues across the world and in the UK. It would have liked to have supported more but lacked the capacity.

Knight, who retires later this year, admits that the name was hardly inspirational – suggesting that Artsadmin’s role was simply to do the budgets, a misunderstanding of the producer’s role that is still common today. Too many artists want a producer to raise the cash, do the sums, book the venues and travel but have little involvement in the art.

But Artsadmin has always done much more. It has guided many whose work simply don’t fit within most funders’ cycles, is deeply involved in the development of artists’ individual practices and has found a way of giving artists the best possible chance to make the best possible work.

At their very best, producers make the impossible possible. But in the early days, as Artsadmin begged, borrowed and juggled to keep itself and the artists afloat (the cash flow was written on the office wall showing when it was down to its last £20), it struggled to get the Arts Council to see the need for it.

Times change, and now we have other successful independent producers such as China Plate, Artichoke and Fuel, the latter about to embark on a West End adventure with Touching the Void.

China Plate Theatre co-director Paul Warwick asks: What can be done to keep mid-scale touring alive?

But why don’t we have more, and why is it still so hard for independent producers to develop a career? Many set up as indie producers – every Edinburgh fringe is full of bright, smart young things – but very few of them manage to sustain careers over the longer term, though they may well move into venues or the commercial sector.

Knight doubts that it would be possible to set up an organisation such as Artsadmin today simply because the costs and the risks are so much greater. When Artsadmin began, it was possible to live cheaply in London and other cities; nobody had student debt.

“We went five years before we got a bean from anyone,” Knight told me, and even then it was a one-off £5,000 from the Arts Council, which really had no grasp of the crucial role that producers play.

Sometimes I still think that funders such as ACE and Creative Scotland fail to appreciate that brilliant art needs brilliant producers. And while producers can learn a great deal on the job, they also need funded career-development opportunities as much as artists. China Plate and Fuel both offer such opportunities, the latter’s Producer Farm, a joint initiative with Bristol Old Vic, Coombe Farm Studios, Dance Umbrella and In Between Time, returns this year for the fourth time.

But there are other reasons why it is so much harder to sustain producing careers. It comes down to the fact there are fewer venues booking shows and they want to pay less for them. Fees have gone down even as the costs of making theatre have risen. Burrowing about in its archive, Artsadmin discovered that getting a £30,000 grant for a project in the mid-1980s was often easier than it is now.

“So many projects we do, we do by the skin of our teeth,” according to Knight. “Money equates to time and time means quality work.” That’s applies not just to individual projects but over a much longer term. One of the things Artsadmin has done is give artists the long-term support they need so they can fail on the way to success.

Think of the work of Station House Opera, whose Dominoes has toured all over the world – or Fuel’s investment over many years in Inua Ellams, whose Barber Shop Chronicles has become a worldwide hit. Artists need independent producers with the vision and ability to support them over the marathon not the sprint, and that means we must invest in producers too.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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