“Producers are like unicorns. They are magic and they have the answers,” was one of the more colourful declarations at the ever-invigorating Devoted and Disgruntled event at Battersea Arts Centre earlier this month.
It raised a laugh in a session asking whether or not producers in the indie sector have the support they require: the support to develop the skills they need to do their jobs well, to further their careers, protect their health and ensure that at the end of the project they get paid at a rate that reflects the graft they put in.
Theatre has become better at talking about the mental health of artists, and the need to provide better support and prospects, as well as more recognition of the difficulties faced and the amount of unpaid work undertaken.
But artists are not alone among creatives in facing significant challenges as they try to develop and sustain their careers. Designer Grace Smart has written eloquently in The Stage about the over-work culture that designers face. In a theatre culture where self-exploitation has become normalised, it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t working unpaid hours to ensure a project’s success.
Independent producers are one group of people who are frequently under-supported, particularly in the early stages of their careers. In many projects, along with the director, they are first on board and often the last to get paid. They are the ones who forgo a fee if budgets don’t balance. So they are indeed rare and magical beasts and, not surprisingly, everyone wants one. Ask many artists what they would do if they had some extra cash and they’ll tell you they dream of having a producer.
Increasing numbers of artists self-produce, and many of them do it very successfully. That is a good thing. One thing that emerged from the 2007/08 Arts Council England funding debacle was just how few artists had a proper grasp of how the funding system works. Knowledge is power. But that doesn’t mean that artists don’t sometimes long just to concentrate on making the work and let somebody else look after the many other demands that getting a show on the road brings.
But just as many self-producing artists have learned on the hoof, many independent producers also learn on the job. They pick up skills and knowledge by doing, not studying.
This can be one of the best ways to learn, because while there are excellent postgraduate degrees in creative producing, not everyone has the money to access them. Getting a paid internship or an assistant-producing job in a building or an established company is a closed door to many.
As a result, many producers learn by doing, at first at college or university and then at festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe or London’s Vault. That ‘get up and go’ is essential, but it can also leave producers in the early stages of careers feeling over-burdened and lacking the support networks they feel they need – somewhere they can ask questions without feeling they are going to expose themselves as a fool and a fraud.
At a simple level it is about knowing how to deal with tricky details in a contract or knowing what is reasonable – or not – in the demands being made of you, or even what fee you should ask for a job. The setting up of Stage Directors UK has tackled some of those issues for directors. Maybe something similar would be of help for producers.
There are of course already some networks (including Producers’ Pool initiated by Chris Grady, and the UK Theatre Producers group on Facebook set up by Jake Orr). But opportunities such as Producer Farm, a week-long residency in Devon supported by Fuel, Bristol Ferment, In Between Time, Dance Umbrella and Coombe Studios, applications for which are currently being invited, are always oversubscribed and, in any case, are aimed at those with five to 10 years’ experience. Many producers would benefit from professional development at a much earlier stage in their career.
Perhaps surprisingly, I believe the commercial sector can be better at supporting early-career producers, perhaps because it has always recognised their importance. The independent sector sometimes still sees the producer as someone who raises the money and does the admin.
Of course, times are changing. The indie and commercial sectors are becoming increasingly entwined and many producers slip easily between the two, bringing the skills and expertise from one to the other. That, I suspect, is the future, but as Devoted and Disgruntled exposed, many young producers love what they do but feel it comes at a personal and professional cost.
This is important because if young producers feel they are facing burnout, it presents a crisis that theatre must face up to, because we need as many unicorns as possible.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner