A week ago, Breeders – a new comedy I’ve commissioned, developed and produced – had its first ever performance at the St. James Theatre. As the lights faded to black, writer Ben Ockrent, director Tamara Harvey, the creative team and I cowered at the back in fear. Seconds later, a paying audience of total strangers leapt to their feet to give it a standing ovation. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
That moment came at the end of a long, but incredibly rewarding journey. I’ve been producing plays (almost all of them new) for ten years. During a stint as Theatre503’s first in-house producer I was lucky enough to meet Ben Ockrent, and to produce his play Carrot at the Latitude Festival. Fast forward a few years, and we met for coffee to discuss an idea of his. Inspired by a real-life experience when a friend asked him to donate his sperm to her and her girlfriend, it was a pitch that instantly grabbed my attention: four fantastic characters (three of them women) wrestling with universal questions in a richly comedic situation.
Days later, Stage One (a charity to support new commercial producers) invited applications to its very first season of work at the St. James Theatre. I asked Ben’s permission to put his play forward, and he agreed. When we were shortlisted, we were overjoyed and just a little bit daunted. The play didn’t exist yet. There was only one thing for it: to take the news as a vote of confidence and commission the play right away.
Only a month and a couple of scenes later, I stood in front of a panel of industry professionals and pitched a commercial production of Breeders. When it was selected to open the One Stage season, Ben and I felt a dizzying mixture of elation and terror. We had just five months to write, develop and stage this thing. Time was so short that the directors we’d been talking to now weren’t even available. There began a pressured but immensely valuable process of “dates” with directors, leading us eventually to a coffee with Tamara Harvey –a director we both admired from afar. Tamara gave us two hours of her time in the Hampstead Theatre bar before technical rehearsals for her Simon Gray trilogy one morning. Sparks flew, and the deal was quickly sealed.
With that vital piece of the puzzle in place, my mind moved quickly to money. I needed to raise £75,000 in addition to the £25,000 investment provided by Stage One. That was three times more money than I had ever raised before, and time was ticking by. I turned straight to Tom O’Connell, a peer producer who I had met through Stage One, and who had had great success with Beautiful Thing at the Arts Theatre. He had experience in many of the things I didn’t: raising investment, marketing to LGBT audiences and generating extraordinary buzz. He joined me as an Associate Producer and, together with my mentor Tobias Round and the rest of the Stage One team, I was ready to shape a production.
May was when the fun really began. We did a week-long workshop of the play with four fabulous actors (including Jemima Rooper who plays Sharon in the show), assembled a dream creative and production team (including designer James Perkins, lighting designer Joshua Carr and sound designer Tom Gibbons) and began the job of casting. It was testament to casting director Annie Rowe’s determination, to Tamara’s faultless reputation and Ben’s brilliant script that not only Jemima, but also Nicholas Burns, Angela Griffin and Tamzin Outhwaite all said “yes”. An extraordinary thing had happened: a cast of four phenomenally talented actors with huge and hard-earned followings were going to take a punt on a new play. Our new play.
Four weeks of rehearsals flew by. Tamara and our extraordinary stage management team (Stevie Haighton and Jennie Quirk) kept a very happy rehearsal room, and the cast spent every spare moment passionately promoting the show. Even with a huge amount of money to raise, and an 11,000 tickets to sell, you still couldn’t keep me away. Asking anyone to do anything in August is hard, and asking them to invest money or book tickets was particularly so. Even if it was a white-knuckle ride, close contact with the show and the team gave me the quiet confidence I needed to continue selling it and promoting it with passion.
As production week edged closer, there were bigger obstacles ahead. Our production manager was unwell, and the scale and ambition of the show was really pushing at the limits of the budget and schedule. We got through it somehow – on adrenaline, belief in the project and a shared desire to make it the best it could be.
Monday’s press night was a terrifying thing. Of 312 seats at the St. James, 50 were filled with press who had turned out to give us their verdict on our baby. Add to that around 50 industry VIPs, some very famous friends of the cast, my own friends, family and investors, and the pressure was immense. I’d be lying if I said I was relaxed enough to enjoy it fully but I was immensely proud.
Two days on from press night, and the workload isn’t any lighter – just different. Now it’s days spent with spreadsheets, marketing meetings and press events, followed by the best bit: nights at the theatre. Moments like that first curtain call are rare, but they’re the moments that we live for in this business. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more rewarding than the belly laughs, tears and wolf-whistles of an audience totally transported by a show.
Breeders has been on an utterly bonkers but brilliant journey. I’m immensely proud of the show, and the team behind it. Do let me know if you’re coming to see it, and what you think of it. We made it for you.
Vicky Graham is the producer of Breeders, which is at the St James Theatre until 4 October. For more information and tickets, visit the St James Theatre’s website. Photo by Helen Maybanks.