Playwright Fin Kennedy says for the arts sector to survive and thrive, it is time to leave it less up to fate, or accidents of birth, to determine where future generations of theatre leaders will come from
Producers are unsung heroes on every production. They are all-rounders who have to understand every aspect of the theatremaking process, with a wide-ranging set of contacts. An experienced producer is a powerful force who can move mountains behind the scenes. But there is no producing school and hardly any producing courses, so this skill set and work is almost entirely hidden. I challenge anyone not already experienced in the industry to name a single successful theatre producer, far less what a producer does in any detail. How can anyone learn, let alone access it for real themselves, when the craft and its practitioners are so hidden?
Five years ago, when I started as artistic director of Tamasha, a company with a remit to find, nurture and produce new theatremakers of colour, the company had a nascent emerging producers offer. We had funding at the time to offer bursaries for six-month placements to work with us and lead on certain strands.
But there was a problem. Even within this paid and accessible model, we just weren’t getting many applications for these opportunities. The few that we did get were from confident, middle-class, university educated and usually white 20-somethings. Their backgrounds didn’t really speak to the aims of the initiative, and they would probably have found a way to become producers anyway, without our support. If it was this difficult for a company like ours, how hard must other companies find it to source and nurture new theatre producers from diverse backgrounds?
Why does this matter? Quite simply, because if we are serious as a sector about diversifying what ends up on the nation’s stages, we have to put our efforts into two main areas: playwrights and producers. Playwrights, because they decide whose lives are worth putting on stage in the first place. And producers are the ones who champion their work and pull the strings to make it happen.
I learned how to produce on school productions at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s an excellent place to learn, but it’s also brutal – capitalism red in tooth and claw. Unless you can afford to raise (and almost certainly lose) tens of thousands of pounds, you simply can’t afford to go. Most are there either via a university drama society, or courtesy of the ‘bank of mum and dad’. The costs and risks naturally impose a filter – and it shows. This free-market model means that the Edinburgh Fringe is still not very diverse in its offerings at all.
Narrowness in the pool of staff backgrounds and life experience tends to filter through to the stage. If we’re to survive and thrive as a sector we need to meet the increasing audience demand for new work that truly reflects the thrilling diversity of 21st-century Britain. We need to cater for a new generation, one used to being globally connected, and for whom wholly white, middle-class worlds are a quaint anachronism.
There really isn’t any set career path as a way into producing. There are a few university courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. But these are all full-time degrees with a price tag to match, and all require related professional qualifications.
The National Theatre’s Step Change programme is an excellent alternative. It involves 12 days of training and a 40-day placement at a venue. But even this requires three years of professional experience ‘preferably within the arts’ and as such tends to appeal to mid-career performers or administrators seeking a career change.
Yet all of these opportunities lack one important element – a budget. Producing as theory alone can get you only so far. The truth is that you can’t really learn unless you have some actual money to spend, something that is nearly impossible to raise without contacts, know-how and confidence.
It was against this backdrop that Arts Council England announced a new strategic fund, Sustained Theatre, set up to address workforce diversification within the theatre industry. It was an open brief, with black, Asian, and minority ethnic-led organisations given the power to lead consortiums of larger venues in applying for whatever initiatives they felt were necessary.
Tamasha used the opportunity to reach out to several trusted venues to found Ignite, an associate producer training scheme. We structured it to create four full-time salaried roles within four host venues around the UK crucially with some production funds attached (though not all – raising the shortfall was part of their learning). We deliberately positioned ourselves in place of the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to support our emerging artists with everything they needed to learn producing in full. We included the costs of training, mentors, and a raft of regionally focused artist development initiatives and community outreach schemes, as well as funds to lead on their own full productions.
Our four Ignite associate producers, Anna Nguyen at Dukes Lancaster, Rafia Hussain at Derby Theatre, Dilek Latif at Mercury Colchester and Lian Wilkinson at Belgrade Coventry, have been everything we could have hoped for. Their four productions are a mixture of new commissions, revivals, studio and mid-scale. Taken together, they comprise a thrilling vision of what can be achieved when new producers from under-represented backgrounds are put in the creative driving seat; trusted and supported to lead on commissioning and producing work in their own vision.
This is what diversity looks like. Real grassroots led and owned diversity in which producers of colour are trusted to lead on wholly original projects, and in turn advocate for their venue among the diverse communities on their doorstep. As one of our Ignite producers said to me recently: “I’m the right face to do this. It makes them [new audiences and artists] feel safe because it’s me.”
The question we are considering now is how to preserve Sustained Theatre and all it has achieved. Our producers are coming to the end of their placements, with the Sustained Theatre fund itself officially winding up by the end of 2019. The Arts Council has said it does not intend to renew Sustain as a strategic fund. This would be a mistake, and a waste. We’re still in the process of evaluating, but already we’ve seen new work, new artists and new audiences coming through in their droves, and a sea change in how venues consider the importance of putting a commitment to diverse programming at the heart of their organisations.
Because the reality is that all this does cost money, and a free-market model alone does not raise what we need to continue this important work. A haphazard training pathway of essentially wealthy or wealthily backed amateurs cutting their teeth at the Edinburgh Fringe, at huge personal risk, is not only unfair – it is unsustainable.
The Sustained Theatre initiative has been an unqualified success and the impact on those it has touched will, I am sure, reverberate for many years. But it was still a pilot, and our scheme has been just a small step to correct years of oversight and neglect.
As a playwright, I’m fascinated by language and the etymology of words. ‘To produce’ has a Latin root – from ‘pro’ meaning forward and ‘ducere’ meaning to lead.
Let’s start looking forward together, and try to leave it less up to fate, or accidents of birth, to determine where our next generation of leaders will come from. Sustained Theatre should be just the beginning.
Fin Kennedy is artistic director of Tamasha