CHAPTER – in The Producers: Alchemists of the Impossible – published in UK
Confession time – December
When asked to make a contribution to this book I thought it best to share some kind of skill or wisdom or even alchemy… something that says I’m a good producer because I can do X. My mum is a good teacher because she has knowledge that she applies through the visible magic of capturing children’s imagination. My dad is a good engineer because he has knowledge of the optimum conditions for welding and an expert understanding of stress fractures in giant structures. What makes me a good producer? Yikes.
The following confession will probably mark the end of my producing career. It will either reveal a secret that is sacrosanct in producing circles and I (like Penn & Teller) will become reviled and outcast by other producers. Or, more likely, it will simply demonstrate that I have no discernible talent. My confession is that
I have no discernible talent. I make it up as I go along. My work is made up of a series of hunches, a strong desire to get on with people and a willingness to combine hunch and desire to make theatre. I have an ok level of understanding of theatre—making processes from devising new work to production, from budgeting to contracts, from marketing to fundraising. But I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in any. The on-going mystery of my working life is why someone doesn’t tap me on the shoulder and ask me to sit down.
‘Excuse me mate, you’re just making it up as you go along aren’t you?’ ‘Er, yes, sorry.’
In search of my own talent – January
I’d imagined that compiling this piece was going to be fun. I was asked to write it in November. It’s now January. I’m going to overshoot the deadline and I’m still looking for something to write about. The fact that all this time I’ve been trying to think of good things to say about myself is a bit of a worry. I can’t just write about being talentless. Can I?
I have a special talent – early February
I’ve found it. It’s talent. And it’s mine. It’s the thing that makes me a good producer and it was just sitting there all along. Looking at me. I found it by imagining somebody else doing all the things I do. Try it yourself. Don’t think about the things that you can imagine other people doing better than you, this quickly gets depressing. Find the things that you imagine yourself doing best, and a pattern begins to emerge. And soon, there it is, your very own talent. In the interests of dramatic suspense I have a brief story to tell you before revealing mine.
The road to producing – mid-February
My relationship with producing began with a school drama competition when l was seven. I remember the whole thing in detail. Bagging the best classroom to practice in… arguing about the best idea… casting the sketch… performing on a tricky raised stage… losing. Our piece was about a boy who got his head stuck in some railings. It was shunned by the judges. The audience thought it was hilarious.
Twenty years later I directed a show called Gasp! set inside a twenty-six foot inflatable jelly. It was a one-hour party with ﬁve in the cast and thirty in the audience. The giant jelly was created by my partner at the time. It was a beautiful thing. The idea was timely. The PR was a triumph. The cast was brilliant. The production was a dog. That’s not quite true: for twenty of the sixty performances our audience was on a high and the show stuck two ﬁngers up to the rest of theatre. But otherwise it ﬂagged horribly. The truth was I lacked directing ﬂair. It was also true I was happy to invest most of my time in making the production happen.
I should have worked with a director or collaborator. At the time that thought would have been unthinkable but for all my loathing of theatre the show was in desperate need of theatre craft. Hosting sixty parties did teach me a lot about audiences: the ones that listened; the ones that danced; the ones that came back again; the ones that didn’t come; the ones that came but left early. It was a crash course in understanding the value of context.
One of the memorable parts of the experience was that no one talked to me about the work, I mean really talked to me. For much of the time that was ﬁne. The show was personal and fragile and a bit weird and I’m sure I gave off ‘don’t talk to me about the show’ vibes. But it was also a frustrating and lonely experience. Why wouldn’t someone help me, tell me what they thought was interesting, what was ﬂawed, what needed developing? I wanted everyone to back off yet I needed someone to hold hands with. It’s this precise paradox that radiates from artists who develop work at BAC through our ‘Scratch’ programme.
I have an almost irresistible desire to tell you that the experience of making Gasp! set me on a life-long mission to support artists and be a producer. But that would be a lie, even though it makes a marginally better story. The truth was I repeated the experience at least twice more and have the scars to show. As the process of making of theatre became more conscious, I started to recognise that the good or bad producing choices I made had just as much impact as my good or bad directing choices. Also, by producing my own work I learnt a lot about budgets. You feel budget decisions from both sides: the ﬁnancial side and the artistic side. You quickly understand these are two sides of the same coin.
I’ve picked up other skills with various career trajectories: being a postman and a milkman (learning to get up early after staying up late); being a school teacher (learning to be organised and give every inch of your soul); being a lecturer (learning to analyse things, sound credible and bullshit). But the job that was most important in deﬁning my path to become a producer was running a small pub theatre. Two people at Central School (where I’d just done an MA) had enough faith in me in 1998 to give me a small budget and a space. Bingo. I’d found something truly lush: creating a programme and helping people get their ideas up and running. I remember a night when Kazuko Hohki’s Frank Chickens were performing to one hundred people illegally rammed in to the tiny theatre. It was like throwing the best party. I spent a very happy year at The Lion. Then I got a job at BAC in a new role called Development Producer. And for a year and a half I learnt an enormous amount from Tom Morris. Then I set up a producing company called me&him with Tim Nunn, working with Ridiculusmus, Kazuko Hohki, Toby Jones, Cartoon de Salvo and others. This company later become Your Imagination.
In 2004 I started work as Artistic Director of BAC, the ﬁrst properly paid job I’ve ever had in the arts, aged 34. I couldn’t have got there without the support of a dear friend. It’s sad because they’re no longer with us. I’d like to thank Unemployment Beneﬁt, the UK’s biggest ever arts funding system. In homage to my benefactor, I’d like to present my quick and dirty guide to producing. It includes my special talent.
The 5 point guide to producing – late February
- Making it up as you go along. If you set out with a ﬁxed path and ﬁxed destination you’ll probably get there efﬁciently. But you’re likely to think about and discover little else on the way. I reckon my most important quality as a producer is to create a ﬂexible space for play in which anything can happen and to keep that space open for long enough for something extraordinary to happen. That often means keeping the space open and keeping people’s conﬁdence in the space way beyond any rational position. It requires bags of chutzpah. Beware of rationalists. Including yourself. Logical sensible well-considered trains of thought are fantastically seductive, especially because they are often right: do the sensible thing; take the path to righteousness, you know it makes sense. At key moments this is exactly the opposite of what you should do.
- Looking after everyone. Great producing is like throwing a blissful party. The most important bit is looking after people and being generous with your time. I’m at my best when I’m helping someone else work something out. I’m at my worst when I’m in danger of taking someone for granted. The worst thing about the 21st Century is that we’re all trying to do too much. You stop looking after people and things get stretched. Ideas, time, money, care. A visionary funding system would be one that encouraged artists to do less and do it better.
- It’s all about artists. It just is. More than audiences, more than funders, producers, politicians, more than great sportsmen and women. Great artists put their mind, body, heart and soul on the line to discover new things. Great artists are like great scientists. Inventors of the human spirit. One of the most valuable things a producer can offer artists and their work is dramaturgical support. To be the special person that holds your hand while knowing just how much space you need. This is why people like Tom Morris and Kate McGrath are such great theatre producers.
- Trusting your instincts. Always, always, always trust your instincts. When something doesn’t work out it’s often because I’ve done something or accepted a decision (often gone with a rational position!) that every bone in my body has said NOOOO to. Your bones are almost always right.
- Find the story. At its best, producing is an art-form that has the potential to connect unconnected narrative threads. You introduce a lot of people to each other: artists, audiences, politicians, funders. In order to ﬁnd opportunities to make work it’s necessary to align a lot of different human desires. Find the story because it is the most powerful way to get something done… because it’s the way that most of us interpret the world around us.
Guessed which one it is yet?
A story about BAC – late March
It’s Tuesday night and Pay What You Can at BAC, always a great mix of people. It’s late. I’m on the train home. Have seen inspired show in the main house by a choreographer who’s come through BAC’s Freshly Scratched programme (for artists new to BAC). The show was savvy and funny, with bags of charm, and an occasional moment from nowhere that picked you up and punched you in the solar plexus, making no rational connection to anything that’d gone before, and you suddenly ﬁnd yourself sitting on an uncomfortable bench seat in a room that used to be a voting chamber in Battersea, next to someone you’ve never met, watching people you don’t know and crying your eyes out.
Part of the success of BAC over the last twenty-ﬁve years is the space it occupies, Battersea’s Old Town Hall: who it attracts; what it’s like to work in; what’s wrong with it; why it’s not a ‘theatre’. Artists, producers and audiences have moved in, alien invaders in this municipal environment in which decorum and ostentation once ruled. Many of today’s most interesting UK theatre, ﬁlm and TV artists have emerged through BAC. If, over the last twenty-ﬁve years, there’d been a perfectly equipped studio theatre next to a tube station in the centre of town, would it have supported the same generation of genre-mashing, label-dodging, mind-expanding artists that BAC has bred on its strange bee-encrusted marble floors?
In various spaces BAC has tried to make the Town Hall its home. But the more we change it into an arts centre the less interesting it becomes. We plaster over the magic of the space like advertising hoardings on street corners, in danger of making everywhere look the same. In striving, with good hearts, to make the space welcoming and comfortable we’re in danger of making it welcoming and dull.
About eighteen months ago I had a hunch that we should offer the entire building to Punchdrunk, artists who peel back the rubbish to unlock the magic and mystery of architectural space. Fortunately, Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s Artistic Director, was as excited about the Town Hall as I was and ever since we’ve been planning to co-produce The Masque of the Red Death in Autumn 2007. It’s the ﬁrst of three Playground Projects at BAC that seek to unwrap the building for audiences, to trash the self-imposed divisions of space and recapture that feeling of being alien inside a world in which you don’t belong. Last year, BAC’s Chair Nick Starr introduced me to architect Steve Tompkins whose sublime ideas about what makes buildings an adventure, the Town Hall and about theatre will also feed these Playground Projects. Steve describes the likely process as ‘improvisatory architecture’. Sounds perfect to me.
There are uncharted challenges ahead for BAC and for me. The Playground Projects are the largest in BAC’s history, making the annual budget of the organisation look like that of a producing theatre. Reconﬁguring a twenty-five year old organisational layout is a complicated business that messes with people’s territory and perception. And as you unwrap the building you understand what it means to be one hundred and fourteen years old, and in a post-Lottery world, this is a scary discovery. You try to hold the jewels of BAC in one hand while punching down walls with your other to take the organisation forwards not backwards.
To add spice to the challenge, on 10th January 2007 BAC received a letter from Wandsworth Borough Council that explained that the Council was reducing BAC’s funding to zero and that rent and charges would be brought, a total of£370,000, with three months’ notice. Curtains for BAC. I think I’ve been asked about ﬁve times a day since that date how I’m feeling. I hear myself saying ‘ok, yes, not bad, we’re making good progress’. The truth is, I’m fuelled up on adrenalin and probably heading for an early grave. Though if I said this I might sound a little mad. The letter from Wandsworth was unexpected and unwelcome. But unexpected and unwelcome things can be interesting. It’s like that bit in a show that creeps up on you and smacks you. It either throws you off balance, or it can be the very thing that propels the experience to a new dimension. So all this Wandsworth stuff becomes part of the story, the story of what you’re trying to achieve. And because you treat it like a chapter in a story rather than an act of war, you soon ﬁnd out that the desires of the people that are cutting your funding are actually not far from your own, and because you’re working with a fantastic group of people, notably your Chair, you soon ﬁnd yourself more closely aligned with Wandsworth than ever before, your funding comes back and there’s a plan for the building that ties completely with your artistic plans for the programme.
So hopefully this story successfully reveals my special talent, or my special lack of talent? The Playground Projects set out on a mission to invent the future of theatre but with few ideas of what that future might look like. So while I’ve been planning, enjoying planning and talking about planning to lots of other people, even occasionally stroking my chin while planning to persuade some people that I’m good at planning, I’ve actually got no idea where I’m going. I’m making this up as I go along. It feels dangerous to even admit it. It’s like standing in front of an orchestra whose players have all got different scores. If you reach to carefully line up all the different manuscripts in front of you, it’ll be too late, they’ll all kick off and it will be a cacophony. Your only chance is to get stuck in.
Complete book available online
3 Sep 2007