Last week, Paul Woolf, chief executive of Portsmouth’s Kings Theatre, announced to the media that his venue had “taken the step to no longer work with producers who ask for guarantees so massive they effectively bleed theatres dry”.
He offered other regional theatres the opportunity to get in touch with him for advice on how to address this issue. I sympathised and understood the frustration that resulted in his comments last week. However, I was also left concerned that even if it was unintentional, his words made a sweeping generalisation of the producing industry.
He didn’t name and shame producers, but Woolf’s remarks will inevitably send curious individuals to go and look at past Kings Theatre seasons and speculate to whom he may be referring.
The role of producer is frequently misunderstood. The problem is that it suffers from a lingering image of the cigar-chomping, money-grabbing, double-crossing impresario – Mel Brooks’ The Producers has a lot to answer for.
While we laugh at the antics of Max Bialystock, Brooks’ character creates a pastiche of the producer as being a crook ripping off both theatres and little old ladies. It feeds into an image of the profession that leaves producers feeling devalued and misunderstood. In reality, the role of the producer is multifaceted and requires artistry and skill that is often overlooked.
The role of producer is frequently misunderstood – the problem is that it suffers from a lingering image of the cigar-chomping, money-grabbing, double-crossing impresario
When a production is a success – runs the expression long applied to being a producer – it’s nothing to do with you, but when it’s a failure, it’s all your fault.
Woolf and his dedicated team at the Kings Theatre have been doing amazing things, which is why I was saddened to read of the challenges the theatre has apparently experienced with some producers.
It is difficult to comment further on Woolf’s pronouncements without knowing the full facts and hearing the other side of the story. Although his remarks are clearly heartfelt, their generalised nature is damaging to the producing profession. In them, for example, there is no breakdown of what the show had cost the producer to create and run, or any other contributing factors to the expenses.
Woolf is critical of the size of guarantees paid to some productions that have lost his theatre money. Yet is he also annoyed by the guarantee paid to a headline comedian where, even if the performance returned a high revenue, the theatre may have deserved a bigger cut? Does this also factor in any additional income solely afforded to a theatre from bar revenue or merchandise?
If a production did perform badly at the box office, could there be extenuating circumstances, or questions over the marketing strategy? And who was responsible: theatre, producer or both?
Woolf is right to raise concerns and questions over financial demands – as should any theatre. Equally, so should the producer regarding charges that may be levied on them by a theatre.
This is simply good business practice, and if the parties can’t reach a satisfactory conclusion, then they are under no obligation to either book the show or accept the engagement.
Over the past 29 years, working in both the management of theatres and as a producer, I have seen very few producers reaping the sort of returns from touring productions that has them feathering their nests.
In fact, more producers than ever are working with limited funding and struggling week to week. A lot of producers will put any money they earn themselves towards their next production – and that’s if there is any money left at the end of a run.
Producing is a fragile enough profession at the best of times and it’s unfair to lay total blame at the producer’s door, which Woolf’s comments appear to do.
What his remarks highlight is an urgent need for a combined industry review and better open dialogue between theatre and producer over the issues that both face and how they can work together to address them.
Crucially, both need to recognise and respect each other’s challenges and work out how touring can be made more affordable. For producers, pressures come in the form of demands made by some agents, increased advertising costs and barring clauses between touring venues. For theatres, issues include the escalating costs to run and maintain their buildings.
What cannot be allowed to happen is for an “us and them” mentality to develop between producers and theatres, which is why any generalisations are dangerous. The success and survival of producers and theatres is dependent on both working together.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan