Last week, Lyn Gardner wrote about the support and encouragement needed for young producers. She is absolutely right, but it is important to recognise that producers at all stages of their careers need support.
The producer’s job is frequently misunderstood and, as a result, is not necessarily always given the respect it deserves – especially for those who work independently.
I have become concerned in recent years about how the position of producer has become devalued. That may be because the job title itself has been diluted.
Today in commercial theatre, investors are frequently given a producer credit, giving the impression that the job is one of just writing a big cheque. Meanwhile in the subsidised sector, roles including general manager, executive director and administrator seem to have morphed into being administrative producer, executive producer and managing producer.
When I started as a producer 21 years ago, the job was not as fashionable as it is today. For the most part, producers were once simply called just that – but its singular title can now feel to light for the all-encompassing role that it is.
In recent years, I have had to call myself an artistic or creative producer so others recognise the artistry that my job also involves. This stemmed from my attending an overseas theatre conference where the organisers told me that if I didn’t add that prefix, local artists and companies would not recognise the seniority of my position.
Changing titles can also lead to confusion. An executive director running a theatre may now retitle themselves executive producer, but they are still looking after the day-to-day running of the theatre. However, their job now sounds production-related and omits the building responsibilities.
What has also been lost with all of this is the important creative components of producing in a multifaceted art form. Producers’ success has always been based on their ability to work across sectors and different creative forms.
My inspiration and interest in being a producer stemmed as a 12-year old from reading Oscar Hammerstein II’s description of the job. I still consider it one of the best ever that successfully frames the job’s all-encompassing nature.
Hammerstein said: “I think only people in the theatre know what a producer is. The public does not know. It knows a writer writes, and an actor acts, and a director tells them what to do. A producer raises money. Well, he does, and in some cases that’s all he does. But the workers in the theatre know that this is not the real thing. A producer is a rare, paradoxical genius – hard-headed, soft-hearted, cautious, reckless, a hopeful innocent in fair weather, a stern pilot in stormy weather, a mathematician who prefers to ignore the laws of mathematics and trust intuition, an idealist, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, a stage-struck child. That’s a producer.”
In theatre, if a job title’s printed on a business card or headed paper, you can immediately become whoever you want to be. But this doesn’t mean you have acquired the necessary skills to back it up
Across today’s theatre industry, it’s become easy to assume a title at comparative speed. You would not come out of medical school and the next day say: “I am a brain surgeon.” But in theatre, if it’s printed on a business card or headed paper, you can immediately become whoever you want to be. However, this doesn’t mean you have acquired the necessary skills to back it up. When it comes down to the actual producing, with the many responsibilities that carries, this could lead to to catastrophic mistakes.
In producing, there is a need for greater support and understanding. When I started as a producer, I was very fortunate to be one of the first recipients of the Society of London Theatre/Stage One New Producers Bursary Awards. It contributed greatly to building my career through gaining the necessary knowledge understanding, support and encouragement that this afforded me.
As an industry we need more good producers. However, they must be given the core producing skills and understand that in showbusiness the business is as important as the show.
Those new to the business need to understand that this industry is all about communication, listening and exchange at every level of the experience – and this can only be achieved through collaboration and teamwork. If I had to pin down the key thing to be a producer, it is to be an optimist: even with all those other skills in your back pocket, only optimism will give you the courage to try. It will also help you back on the horse when, inevitably at some point, you fall off it.
The true test of the producer is when it’s going wrong and how the situation is handled and resolved. In such an unpredictable profession, it’s vital to recognise that fortunes can change on a penny. So it’s important to take time to learn and to keep learning.
Older producers are just as much in need of support as their younger counterparts, especially as it can be a lonely – even heartbreaking – profession. We need to look out for each other.
I am currently at the Adelaide Fringe and being inspired by the annual smorgasbord of works presented by artists and companies at all levels of experience. In meeting many of them, I’ve been intrigued by the regular refrain that they “need a producer”.
In her column, Gardner highlighted that many young artists dream of “affording a producer”, but after conversations with many of them, I’ve realised what they really need is a good administrator.
This is again reflective of how the producer title has become misunderstood. For a performer or company, it all comes down to a better understanding of what they need and what a producer could provide.
It also shows that a greater understanding of the job may better help everyone what roles a producer actually plays both in creativity and business, and how their leadership and passion can get the show on.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan