Invisibility: the Plight of every Producer

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‘Nobody knows what I do’ is a common five-word synopsis of the role of a Producer often found on your bog-standard ‘Meet the Team’ profile, a phenomenon that plagues the marketing of many Durham Student Theatre (DST) shows. However, regardless of the mystery that surrounds this role, producers are essential in the execution of every DST show.

Producers are responsible for making sure that the entire production runs smoothly and sells well. This involves keeping everything within budget and shamelessly plugging your show via social media and other platforms. In Durham, producing often involves taking on jobs last minute without protest in order to get them done. This can occasionally involve taking on responsibility, sometimes overwhelmingly, for costume, props and set design.

My experience of producing is relatively recent, having only started in the Easter Term of last year. However, I have been involved in a number of productions since, including, Home with Castle Theatre Company and Oklahoma! with Trevelyan College Music Society (my upcoming productions include Avenue Q and Ushers: The Front of House Musical, both with DULOG). Ultimately, a philosophy I try and work by is that if nobody notices the work I do, then I’m doing my job right. Fundamentally, it is the Producer’s job to make sure that the Director, as well as the Musical Director and choreographer as the case may be, need not worry about anything but the performance of the cast and that the show effortlessly falls into place, at least from everyone else’s perspective).

Regardless it seems fallacious of me to speak with such authority about producing when there are plenty of brilliant, more seasoned producers in Durham, who carry out their job impeccably and without fanfare.

Isabelle Culkin, who is co-producing upcoming shows such as Angels in America and Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) with Pitch Productions, describes the role of the Producer as being ‘essentially responsible for production managing’. She thinks of it as ‘a job that makes sure everything that needs to happen, does happen.

‘Makes sure everything that needs to happen does happen’ is a suitably broad summary of what a Producer does. As a role, producing is largely dependent on the specific production, with each show presenting new and unique challenges for the Producer. A personal producing highlight was when I had to source a saddle for Oklahoma! These unique challenges are immensely valuable and have taught me not to be afraid of just asking people for help. I rang up six stables on the outskirts of Durham and for the most part, people were very willing to help. A certain degree of fearlessness and having a thick skin is intrinsic to good producing.

who has produced shows such as The Thrill of Love with Front Room Productions and Ordinary Days with DULOG regards the role as being ‘flexible and [varying] so much, depending on the dynamic of the prod team’. This observation is particularly relevant. With a cohesive production team, the producer’s job is just as Culkin says, ‘production managing’. However, a divided production team may require the Producer to act more as a middleman to try and make sure everyone involved is on the same page and are communicating properly.

The danger with a relatively covert job such as producing is that while you know you’re doing your job correctly when people feel like the production is running smoothly, this can often lead to your work being underappreciated and misunderstood. I myself have been in situations where people have said things to the effect of ‘Well Producers don’t do that much reallyor ‘it’s not as hard as people make out though, is it…’ In fact, there are plenty of misconceptions regarding what producers actually do.

Suzy Hawes, who has produced plays such as Woman in Mind with First Theatre Company and Miss Julie with Pitch Productions, has heard people say Producers ‘just book rooms and stuff’, which is a huge oversimplification and something Hawes regards as being at the very least ‘slightly insulting’. However, an important clarification to make is the distinction between the Director and the Producer, an issue expressed by Hawes as follows:

‘A Producer shouldn’t be waiting to do things that the Director asks them to, but should be taking care of all the practicalities of a show so that the director can focus on rehearsing with their cast. In the real world of theatre the Producer is in charge of a production, while in Durham there is a huge tendency to treat the director as the one in charge.’

It is this distinction that often results in the efforts of the Producer going slightly underappreciated by the theatre community in general. This is particularly the case with Durham reviewers, who readily praise the creative efforts of the director and the performances of the cast. The work of theProducer, on the other hand, remains largely ignored and unmentioned. This is, of course, the nature of producing.

When I think about my motivations for getting involved with this aspect of theatre, they can hardly be regarded as being driven by a hunger for praise and the desire to be in the limelight. In fact, many Producers, myself included, find satisfaction in making sure that the talents of those you are working with are fully recognised.

There are a number of virtues that can elevate the quality of a Producer’s work. Firstly, a Producer must be organised. The job involves dealing with so many different aspects of the production, financial, practical and creative that a comprehensive overview of the show is required at all times. Some of the best Producers I have worked with are those that are lateral thinkers, solving problems in a creative and indirect way. Finally, Burns shrewdly points out that a good Producer must also possess good people skills; the ability to foster a positive atmosphere within the cast and the production team is essential, especially during the stress of show week.

Ultimately, to become a good Producer you just have to throw yourself into the role. Hawes accurately states that ‘the more shows you do, the better a Producer you will become’. There are plenty of Assistant Producer opportunities knocking around, so it’s not hard to get involved and learn from a more experienced producer. Producing is an immensely rewarding and varied position in theatre and a role I would thoroughly recommend.

Photograph: binpage

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