AYT’s Artistic Director and freelance producer Jake Orr reflects on the lessons of 2016, ahead of a new year of theatre producing. 

Inspired by Sarah Wilson’s recent blogpost on Learning to be a Producer, I wanted to write something that took in the year end without writing ‘here were my best theatre producing moments of 2016’. Instead here is a list of things I’ve learnt as a producer in 2016. Most of them are obvious, but there is no harm in a refresher. There’s even some tips on taking a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and some thoughts of producing versus well being.

Venues are overworked, all the time

There can be a tendency as an independent theatre producer to shake your fist at the venues, gate keepers and funders for their decisions. If anyone follows me on Facebook you’ll know my frustration with a certain National Portfolio Organisation pushing the risk onto artists through box office splits. However frustrating this is I’ve learnt that it is also important to remember that venues are under increasing amounts of pressure to deliver bigger and better, often with diminishing funding and infrastructure. That’s not to say it isn’t good and healthy to ask challenging questions of how much funding is to support artists versus full time staff, but we need more conversations between artists and venues. Productive ones at that.

PRs and PMs

If there’s one thing I learnt from producing this year was how valuable a good press relation person/company is to support your work and how a production manager is worth their weight in gold. Hiring a PR might seem like an excessive expense (you’re looking at £1000-1700 depending on experience) but this becomes so valuable when you consider the profile raising, potential media attention, handling of reviewers and press nights and the general relationship building that takes place. A good PR you trust to deliver, and they will. The same is true with Production Managers. Whether it is logistics of vans, the in’s and out’s of a tech or just being able to get shit done, Production Managers (£500-650 week) are so valuable. We don’t champion them enough and I definitely didn’t budget enough for them in my work. Lesson learnt there, I’ll tell ‘ya.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

If you’re thinking of going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a show here are some top tips based on my experience of work there (this year I was producing Charlotte Josephine/Snuff Box Theatre’s BLUSH):

1. Why are you going? Is it for fun, touring opportunities, profile rising, or experience? Each is valid but you have to have this motive drive your decision for taking work to the Fringe. You’ve got to ask yourself and your colleagues the question; ‘what will you/we get out of this?’. Be realistic.
2. Street teams are worth it. Hiring a small team of advocates for your show, setting times to flyer, locations and key marketing messages is valuable. They’re the front line of your marketing and they will get people through the door.
3. If you want venues to see your work you should be getting in touch with them 6-8 weeks in advance. The sooner you get in their diaries the better.
4. Edinburgh is a bubble. It isn’t the be and end all, and by mid-September everyone has forgotten we’ve spent a month performing in cramped and damp venues.

Believe in your work and yourself

There is nothing wrong with a prep talk every now and again. It is bloody tough being a producer. You work alone most of the time, you have intense relationships during a show and suddenly you’re the only one left with a pile of receipts and a budget to reconcile. It isn’t easy. Trying to remain positive that the play you’ve been pitching to venues for a year that still are struggling to find a home for, or the artist you’re working with is throwing some shade your way, can often create a lack of faith in your work. You are a good producer. Repeat after me: You are a good producer.

Taking time off is important

You do not, and should not, be working all the time. As a producer it might feel like you are the one constantly pushing the boulder up the hill just to get the show on and therefore the whole thing will topple downhill if you took a day off. That’s ridiculous. Having a good work/life balance will make you a better producer. You’ve got to look after your mental and physical health, and working all the time won’t help. It is something I learnt from the hard way and my mental health has suffered because of it. Don’t fall into the trap of all work and no play.

Saying ‘No’ is difficult but important

You want the best production possible to hit the stage. You want to give your directors, designers and creative team as much as you can, but with this you’ve got to find balance between budget and creativity. Saying ‘no’ is difficult, but important. There is, of course, a right time for the word ‘no’, and it isn’t straight away. Knowing when to say yes is important too, but it is all a balance. You don’t want to upset the scales but you are the producer; decisions have to be made. There are definitely times in my producing this year where the balance of yes to no was perhaps not the best. You learn from it.

Asking for help

If there’s one thing 2016 has proved is how brilliant the producing community is. I’ve been running the UK Producers Facebook group since late 2015 and I have to say, this year the discussions, sharing of applications, tips and advice was brilliant. You should never feel like you can’t ask something about producing, however big or small. It will only make you a better producer and here is the biggest secret of them all; we are all making it up as we go along…!

So there we have it. A year’s worth of producing and there’s far more that I learnt but I’ll have to save that for another post or a drink down the pub. Working as an independent producer is tough work, but taking some time to look back over what I’ve produced, the audience figures and all those funding applications I’ve written definitely gives me a sense of ownership in what I’ve achieved. Right, time to start planning 2018 (yes, you did read that right).

This blog was first published on jakeorr.co.uk

Photo of Snuff Box Theatre’s BLUSH. Taken by The Other Richard