creative producer blog
The Creative Theatre Producers Club
The space for theatre makers.
Posted 5 weeks ago
Learn to recognise theatrical success.
White, working-class kids take note. Dream Big - or else!
This will be one of the stranger blogs you might read about success. But let’s face it - the arts is a strange business.
And, with the Creative Producers Club (www.CreativeProducers.Club) and our new Theatre Training initiative coming next year, I’ve been thinking about how important it is that you are as prepared as you possibly can be for the challenge. And, now, as old and bruised by this beautiful business as I am, I want to make sure you don’t make the cock-ups I made.
Because I now know I had massive success with my first ever play - Henry V - Lion of England. But at the time I had no idea. And I let everything slip through my fingers!
It might be worth qualifying this. Because I also now know the reason I didn’t recognise success was due to my background. As a working-class kid born and bought up on a council estate, theatre was not on our radar. I’m sure things would have been different if it was, perhaps. But that’s for another blog post!
Here’s what happened to me anyway, because whatever scale of theatre you are writing, directing or producing, I think you need to be aware of what success might look like. Especially if you’re a council estate kid like me.
So. It is to the Edinburgh Festival of 1992 I want to take you. Or actually, before that.
1. ‘Let’s face it’, I thought back in the late years of last century, ‘Shakespeare is incomprehensible shite’. I’d been to see “The Merry Wives” at the RSC because ‘Bergerac’ was in it. No idea what was going on. But I knew the world rated Shakespeare, so when I heard on BBC2 one Saturday afternoon that Henry V was on, I decided to give it one last shot. And it worked. It was Ken Branagh’s version. He gave much of the text a modern emotion. Frankly, I was relieved. But having been switched onto Shakespeare and having seen the film I thought there was another, more accessible way of telling the story. I decided to write it. For one person.
I wrote my version of ‘Henry V’ with no great ambition and after the pub when the TV finished (it did in those days) over a period of a few months. I figured I could probably perform it myself if my radio career crashed, even though I wasn’t ‘officially’ an actor. I was a radio presenter and producer on a freelance contract. Even in the days when pop radio was making documentaries and I won a Sony Award - like a radio Oscar - for the station, it was a bit like being a footballer, but with much less money. You know the gig is going to finish eventually.
2. I realised I probably needed an actor to get the show on its feet. I was right. First success. I got a mate, Rob Stanson, from amdram. He’d been to the Actors Centre in London for a year. In fact he was the only young male actor I knew. Then another pal from amdram, Trish, reminded me her artist partner, Robb, also wrote music. I ditched the band ‘Imagination’ (opening track, ‘Just an Illusion’!) and Robb wrote a superb score for Henry. More success.
3. I hired the small puppet theatre at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham for £50 for the first show. Plus technician.
4. It turns out actor Rob was casually matey with Jasper Carrot’s management, Starward. They came and saw the show at the mac and approached us in the bar afterwards. They offered to take us to the Edinburgh festival. Success! Why? I think they fancied Rob Stanson as a talent - but mainly they were impressed we’d had a standing ovation at the end of our show in Birmingham at the mac! I’d thought people were running for the bar!
We got to the festival. I’d never been to the Edinburgh Festival before either, so didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit peeved that Starward were not going to pay us a fee. Although it was not going to cost us anything! Like I say, I’d not been to the festival before..!
5. We had a five bedroom flat for the three of us, overlooking the Meadows. I started to think we might have done okay when I met other theatre companies who’d had to pay accommodation, venue fees, marketing, flyers and poster and a host of other things. One theatre company was sleeping on the dirt floor of a barn 12 miles outside Edinburgh. They were grovelingly grateful when we allowed them to sleep on our (carpeted) floor!
6. We were getting audiences of around 40. I was disappointed but now know that was even more success for an unknown new play. The average audience in Edinburgh was four!
7. In 1992 no reviews carried ‘stars’! Hard to imagine now, but true. But our reviews were all straight raves. They would have been mainly 5 star reviews. “Highly recommended.” “A theatrical tour de force’” And reviews from good publications. The Scotsman, The List, The Stage, etc. We used to joke that we’d got another “theatrical Tour-de-force”. I assumed that was normal. I know now it was another great success.
8. I had no real idea what we were to do after Edinburgh, because I’d never thought about it. This was a show I’d written for me to perform, remember? Although I was so blown away by the energy and democracy of the fringe, I was forming plans to try and do something similar in Birmingham. Maybe. So when we had approaches by many - dozens - of bookers and producers I didn’t really know what to do with them. I often referred them to Rob, the actor, for a chat! Even so, I still had a bunch of business cards from interested venues and organisation from around the world. More success!
I stuffed the business cards and contact details in an envelope. About week Three I then lost the envelope one night after a boozy session with the venue staff!
The one person I do remember whose card I had was the then head of arts for the new South African Government. I know because I saw him five years later in Stratford-upon-Avon - when he remembered me! He told me he was keen we should have toured South Africa. He couldn’t afford the RSC because much of his budget had been transferred into building new housing for the people of the townships, so we were the answer to his creative prayers. Had the writer/director not got a bit pissed and lost his details…!
This is not an exercise in navel gazing, or me telling you how great I am (obs I am!!) so much as a cautionary note.
It’s also inspired by a friend who has recently won a theatre award - and doesn’t really appreciate he has! This award was so out of reach, he’d not thought through what would happen IF the impossible happened and he actually did win!
So in 1992 I’d written a play. It was for me to perform if things went wrong at work. Perform it myself and earn the odd £50. Within just FOUR MONTHS of finishing the final draft of my first ever play, we’d gone from my front room in Birmingham, to the mac, to the Edinburgh Festival and we could have taken off around the world if I’d realise what I had to do.
I had and have no regrets, because I might have frightened myself to death if I’d realised what could happen. And as I’ve mentioned, I’d no theatrical ‘DNA’.
But in such a tough business I respectfully suggest you should insist to yourself that you must dream big. Then when it happens, as surprising as it will be, you’ll know how to maximise your success and not just be puzzled and amazed by it.
How to survive Edinburgh - 1.
This is the first newsletter for a while - basically, I’ve been a bit busy, which in this business is no bad thing.
But it’s August and as everyone in the real world rushes off on holiday, we enter the stress-pool that is the Edinburgh Festival!
Many of you will be Edinburgh veterans - but if you’re not, and even if you are, you should know - Edinburgh is tough! And when I say Edinburgh, I’m really talking about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is where most of us chase our field of dreams. My first Festival was 1992.
As you’ll know if you’ve been on our Creative Producers Workshop - we have to learn that Spreadsheet Are Our Friends. So you will have done your budget to death and be down a road that started with registration and brochure copy in the dark depths of the winter. And it might be too late for you now, with the festival almost done, but I just want to make the point that as producer, you need to take care of yourself. Edinburgh during festival is almost a 24 hour city. It’s exciting. There are new creatives to meet; productions to see and most of all your own show to succeed with.
But you need to be aware it’s the little things that can be very tough for a producer. Most performing companies tend to stay together in the same accommodation and it can be very hard sharing the toothpaste and food budget for a whole month with an actor you auditioned for an hour in June. If I had a pound for every company I know has split over the Festival, I could afford to fund a couple of shows every year!
And then there’s morale. If you are the producer, you know that the buck stops with you. Everyone else in the company can moan and groan and bitch and complain, but you are the final adjudicator, peace-maker, smoother and soother.
And that’s just dealing with the company. What about yourself? Did anyone tell you the average Edinburgh audience is 4? No, thought not. And great reviews are a possibility IF you can get the reviewers in to see your show in the first place. Which you probably won’t. Be ready for it. Even though most decent venues will do all they can to help, there’s a LOT of competition for reviewers. A friend of mine who is an Edinburgh veteran with an international reputation finally got his first review in week three of four! So manage expectations within the company. Miserable actors are a very miserable thing indeed.
Also, try and have at least a day a week off - or at least a couple of days off in the run. I know that might sound very counter-intuitive and radical on a fixed run, with potential lack of income, but you and everyone will be working at a pitch you would never do normally. Not just performing, but leafleting, (God, the flyering! Save me!) drinking, late nights or early mornings and bad diet; all will combine to wear you down. So try and make some ‘you time’. You probably won’t lose much financially with a few days off and it might just energise both yourself and the company.
If you are in Edinburgh, I hope it is all you expected. It is a glorious agony. If you are considering going next year, or if you know anyone who is, please forward this and tell them to sign up to our newsletter.
And as always if you have any comments or criticisms, I’d love to hear from you.
NEXT TIME - Reviews, good and bad - and how to deal with them.
COMING SOON - How not to blow your success in Edinburgh!
Creative Producers Club.
It’s been a while. But we’re more important than ever now.
It’s been a couple of months since I last posted here. But I’m trying to sort a script and music for our national tour of A Christmas Carol later in the year. I finally managed to get a group of international journalists together to come on the London Literary Pub Crawl, so we’re having our official opening 5 years after we started! I’m working on a TV script; I’m trying to negotiate with a National Trust garden to present a play in November and I no longer have my assistant, who has decided to travel the world. Although postcards have been promised. So spending time on this site is not really a priority.
I’m delighted that Roller Diner, a musical I was loosely involved in creating with writer and friend Stephen Jackson at the Billesley Pub in Birmingham years ago, has gone on to win the prestigious Verity Bargate Award and is now playing at the Soho Theatre. And like everyone, I’ve been moved by recent events in London and Manchester. I met a friend in the Soho bar who came to see Roller Diner.
“Thank god for this.” he said. “I felt like weeping most of the day, watching the constant TV news pictures of the burning flats. But life goes on. This has set me up for the week.”
And it made me think a bit about how important we are as creators of stories. In a mad, bad world, producers can create a balance and make a difference.
Looking for free set or props?
Just a quick note - a producer friend of mine in our Carnaby Street Stage One office was saying he’s just found props and set dressings for his new production - for no cost! The Curve Theatre in Leicester have a huge store and although you’ll have to pay a security deposit, hires are free! Good on you, Leicester!
To Tour, or not To Tour. That is the question...
The scale of a tour is judged by the number of seats of the venues your production is going to tour to. And we all normally start small. Partly through lack of confidence or cash and partly because we just need to work things out. The numbers are not set. The Arts Council used to have a guideline, but generally small scale is considered to be anything under around 200 seats. 200 - 500 seats is around what is called a middle-scale tour and anything over around 500 seats would be considered large scale, although some maintain that large scale starts at 600.
As a new theatre company, writer or actor touring for the first time the problem is not so much what size tour do I want as what size tour can I get? I produced a show for three weeks in the back room of the Billesley pub in Birmingham - capacity 80. After its three weeks in Brum, its fourth week was at the Tameside Hippodrome - capacity 1200. Same show. Same actors - apart from the talented John Marques who was already in demand. We had to add some panels to the set to make it fill the cavernous Hippodrome but we were only able to get in to the Hipp because we had built a reputation on the small scale. And through the small-scale I learnt one crucial, hard, torturous lesson. Anathema to an artist but you’ve got to understand it. It’s all down to… and I shudder even now… its all down to … the deal! There, I’ve said it. It’s The Deal that will make or break a show or tour.
Julius Green, someone I consider a friend, was the hard nosed, but wonderfully kind, producer of Bill Kenwright Ltd and he knows all about this. But more about Julius later.
First out you have to ask, why do I want to tour? And where? But mainly, why? Touring is notoriously expensive. Would you be better off finding a room locally and putting on the show yourself. That’s how I started.
Any questions or comments? Please feel free to ask.
Rehearsed readings. Good or bad?
Posted 42 weeks ago
Creative Producers in January. Yep.
I’ve been posting on Facebook. This was an answer to someone who trained as an actor and wasn’t sure what steps to take with his new theatre company. We’ve another ‘Introduction to Creative Producing’ workshop next month. And he wanted to know more. He couldn’t afford an MA. So this is what I wrote.
“Our course was the brainchild of my MA course tutor who pointed out my strange and unusual experience! (He appears on video!) I’ve done the Stage One workshop (twice actually) and it’s brilliant if you are looking to produce commercially or in the West End. I was very critical of the industry in the letters page of The Stage for having no training for producers but things are better now. This day probably won’t answer all your queries (although our alumni are BRILLIANT!) but it should absolutely show you where to go and what to do next!”
Edinburgh festivals: how they became the world’s biggest arts eventBy Kenneth Wardrop, Edinburgh Napier University and Anna Leask, Edinburgh Napier University
The Edinburgh Festival is upon us again, a three-week spectacular that turns the Scottish capital into the biggest arts destination on the planet. It is in fact a number of different festivals, with the leading Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe returning for a 70th year since their inception in 1947.
From thousands of options this year you could take in Hollywood actor Alan Cumming singing cabaret; the latest Broadway version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie; or Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós. Top comedians Alistair McGowan and Bridget Christie will be treading the boards, while those who like their Scottish experience clad in tartan will want to catch the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Also not to be missed are the Book Festival and Jazz & Blues Festival.
Far from being confined to August, Edinburgh now holds 12 independently organised festivals throughout the year covering everything from storytelling to science to films to the city’s world renowned Hogmanay celebrations for New Year’s Eve. The city’s success as a leading cultural tourism destination is closely tied to the festivals’ ongoing strength and their enduring appeal to global audiences. This is why Edinburgh likes to call itself “the world’s leading festival city”.
Most of Edinburgh’s festivals are still very much on an upward curve. Where the Fringe, which is considered the world’s largest multi-arts festival, sold 790,000 tickets in 1996 and 1.5 million in 2004, it sold 2.3 million in 2015. The Edinburgh International Festival has risen from 418,000 to 441,000 in the same period; while Book Festival audiences have rocketed from 63,000 in 1997, the first year it became an annual event, to 350,000 last year.
With further audience growth expected this August, the city’s combined festival offering attracts a total of 4.5 million people a year. This is similar to the FIFA World Cup and only behind the Olympic Games – both of which take place every four years.
The Scottish economic impact of all these festivals has also gone up and up. Between 2010 and 2015, it rose from £253m to £313m as festival-goers spent money on everything from Edinburgh accommodation to visits to the Wallace Monument in Stirling. Then there are the harder to measure social and cultural impacts, with 89% of local festival attendees agreeing recently that the festivals increased their pride in the city and positively influenced their attendance at other cultural events the year round.
So what’s the secret? Apart from the benefits of being a beautiful historic city that is small enough to navigate easily, much can be put down to these separate festivals working together – with support from the city council and the Scottish development, tourism and arts agencies. They carried out the festivals’ first economic impact study in 2004 in recognition of the rise of competitors such as South by South West in Texas; and all the festivals at Quartier des Spectacles in Montreal.
Next came a £75m investment in the city’s arts infrastructure: refurbishing the Usher Hall, Assembly Rooms and Kings Theatre; an extension for the Festival Theatre and new stands and seating for the Tattoo on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Following a strategic review in 2006, the festivals then formed an umbrella organisation, Festivals Edinburgh, which has helped them collaborate in things like marketing and lobbying. This is one reason for the rise in air routes to and from the city. More traumatic has been the birth of the tram network, though one line has finally opened.
The August offering has also benefited from the Fringe’s ad-hoc approach to growth. The Fringe is not managed in a traditional sense but through an open-access ethos that allows anyone to register as a performer in its programme provided they can secure a suitable venue. It is a story of organic growth helping to create an iconic and trusted brand that has arguably become synonymous with the city itself. The name has even been adopted by other arts festivals like Adelaide, Vancouver and Dublin as a marker for alternative cutting-edge arts and open-access programming.
Edinburgh is also seen as a vital destination for countries looking to improve their own arts festivals. The Fringe World Congress held its inaugural meeting in the city in 2012 to bring together Fringe directors and organisers, while the British Council Edinburgh International Festivals Academy launched in the city this year to share best practice for festivals.
None of this is to say that everything has proceeded perfectly in Edinburgh, of course. The Film Festival encountered severe difficulties in 2011, for instance, while the Fringe had major issues with its box office system in 2008.
Numerous competitors are also growing strongly. For example the biennial Manchester International Festival in England, which has focused exclusively on new artists since it launched in 2007, saw a 5% rise in attendance figures in 2015. Manchester is also investing heavily in venues such as The Factory for the future. Venice’s Biennale festival is another event that is seeing strong growth.
Though these are much smaller and narrower than Edinburgh’s offering, the Scottish capital will undoubtedly continue to track them in its efforts to stay ahead. If it does this and the festivals keep working well as a group, Edinburgh will remain a world leader in staging international arts events.
This article was originally published on The Conversation
Yet another workshop! 😉
This new website, workshop and blog is a result of me (Nick) doing a Masters in Creative Theatre Producing in 2007. It was the first degree of its kind in the UK and created by the ever brilliant Birkbeck College at the University of London. The course director suggesting I do a workshop to raise a bit of money while I was studying. It was Andrew McKinnon’s idea, because he realised my experience was far broader than most. I’m very grateful to him, particular as what was supposed to be a one off at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, six years ago is now becoming a regular event. Last year there were two events - in 2016 there will have been (so far!) four events.
It’s great to know so many people are interested in producing theatre. The workshop and www.CreativeProducers.Club website have come about because of the complete lack of help and information - never mind training - for new theatre producers I experienced when I started out a few years ago.
It’s only right and fitting in the year that Birkbeck announce they are no longer running their boutique M.A. - they have a great MFA for directors still - that they should produce a brilliantly detailed list of all the rehearsal spaces available in London. As a regionalist myself - Birmingham was my manor - I know how hard and expensive is it is to find rehearsal space in the capital. That’s also why the list is on the open part of the website. Anyone can access it.
Our last workshop sold out and the very day I arrived back from Soho, I had two more requests for another. So we will, on Saturday 29th October. The idea of doing more is to keep the group sizes to around 5 or 6. And keep the price down too. The bigger annual groups were more like seminars than workshops and as with everything Maverick Theatre, access and intimacy is a big deal for me.
So I might see you in October. As one of the previous participants stated, it’s like dong “an M.A. in a day.” It’s not, of course, but it will give you a good overview of British Theatre.
And as always, please feel free to get in touch.