So what does a theatre producer do? In a word, everything! Theatre would not exist without producers. And the image of a fat-cat smoking a cigar on their yacht in the Bahamas couldn’t be further from the truth. Most theatre producers usually have a core team of themselves and perhaps a brilliant assistant. They may initially be writers, (Nick Hennegan!) or stage managers (Cameron Macintosh, Sonia Friedman) and few producers actually start out meaning to be one. It’s also amazing how few people, even in the theatre biz, know what a theatre producer's role is. But in some part though, this is how it should be. If a theatre show has been well produced, the producer should have little profile once it is all up and running.
But BEFORE the show opens, the producer is God! This might sound a little overblown, but the reality is, in the beginning, there is nothing theatrical. Then God... sorry, the producer, sits at home late one night or watches a TV show or reads a book or sees a fringe show or reads a script and starts to think, "What if...?"
The producer comes up with the IDEA for a show. Even if the idea is prompted by seeing a script or reading a book or a small fringe show, the IDEA for the show includes the whole concept - where it should play, who should be in it and what it should look like. Should it tour? What size of venue? These are all big decisions and totally the responsibility of the producer.
Once the producer feels they have a play or musical they like, then the work really starts. And when I say like, I mean LOVE. Most producers beaver away unpaid, sometimes for years, to bring their baby to life. And if you don’t love your baby, the chances are you’ll soon tire of its constant demands for attention!
One of the glorious agonies of producing theatre is that the job is almost the same, regardless of scale. It could be an open-ended run at the London Palladium or a community panto for two nights at the local Scout hut. The principles are the same.
The first thing a producer has to do is dream a little. Where might the show start and end up? Who could be in it? Who would direct? What about design? After a short time dreaming, where hopefully you’ve convinced yourself that you LOVE the production, it’s time to get to work.
Crucial Step One. Performing Rights. Quite rightly (see what I did there?) you can’t trample on anyone’s copyright. If it’s an already written book or script you need to find out if it’s available for you to produce. Copyright usually lasts 100 years after the authors death. It’s not always that straightforward. My first production was called ‘Henry V - Lion of England’. I wrote a one-person version of Shakespeare’s classic, Henry V. No problem with the source material, because ol’ Billy S has been dead for hundreds of years. But I own the copyright of ‘Henry V - Lion of England’, because I created it in 1992. My composer, Robb Williams, owns the right to his original music.
So we need to make sure the rights for our new show are available. I might go into more detail in a later article, but if the rights are available, Crucial Step Two is…
The Budget! You’ve got to know what it’s going to cost right from the start. The size of the show makes no difference. You have to know how much your one actor playing a school hall is going to cost as much as you need to know the cost of your chorus-line at the Carnegie Hall. Then you know how much you’ve got to earn. How many tickets you’ve got to sell. This can take some time to put together. It also will include… Step Three…
The Venue! Where are you going to present your masterpiece? How many seats are there? Will you tour? Fixed or open-ended run? What is the financial deal with the venue? This will lead to Step Four…
Casting. This will depend on your show and of course, on your director. The first bit of casting a producer does is to find the right director. Again, a named director might help, but directors, like actors, will bring different skills to a production. Some productions are not casting sensitive, but if you are going into the West End or Broadway casting could be a big consideration. Actors and Directors usually have agents. Agents are fun! But if you can avoid the agent in the first place all the better. After the success of my ‘Henry V - Lion of England’ I re-wrote Hamlet. It was called ‘Hamlet - Horatio’s Tale’ and was to run for just a week at the mac, a small venue in Birmingham in the English Midlands. I desperately wanted Sir Derek Jacobi to be the voice of my Old Hamlet, so I wrote to him directly and he agreed! I doubt his agent would have seen this as a good career move for the great acting Knight and I doubt Sir Derek would even have heard about my offer had I not gone directly to him. Having said that, agents are generally a very good thing and they make sure all is clear and transparent between a producer and their clients.
So once all this is sorted, then comes the crucial Step Five. The Money! This is the point where things can get difficult for the new producer. Usually money comes from private investors - know as Theatre Angels. If you are an established producer you will have people queuing up to give you their money. If you are new, you will not. In the UK the Arts Council may help with your show if you are a not-for-profit, but you need to find some money from somewhere.
And when all that is sorted, you finally go into pre-production. Hire a production manager. Find a designer. Arranges everyones schedule. Sort all marketing, advertising and promotion. Deal with accounts. And insurance. Be a councillor, a confidant and occasionally crack the whip. Then it’s rehearsal, previews and on the opening night you throw a big party (budgeted for, of course!) and sit back and wait for the glowing reviews and profits to flow in! Unless the critics and public don't like the show. In which case it's back to the temp job and dreaming again.
And that's about it. If the show goes well, few people will notice you. It’s only when the art hits the fan that a producer will have to show their mettle during the run of a production. The writer Simon Grey wrote a brilliant book about what happens when a show goes wrong. He'd been in the theatre biz for years and still had little idea of what a producer did until a star went missing and a show collapsed. It's an account of West End show Cell Mates, when UK near national-treasure Stephen Fry became ill and disappeared suddenly. There were serious concerns for his safety. But the show must go on. And the producer made sure it did.
It has to be said though that most theatre producers dream of a break-through show and hope it arrives before they go bankrupt. My current production in London is a promenade performance that doesn’t use a theatre at all! But all production is valid if tough. As 'Annie' sang, it's a hard knock life! But I wouldn't have it any other way...