Ben Cooper is the executive director of OperaUpClose and Good Night Out Presents. As such, he has produced a range of shows, from new writing to revivals of old classics and operas across London, as well as being responsible for the running of The Cock Tavern and The Kings Head Theatre (now renamed The Little Opera House). The work he produces is critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and has even won an Olivier Award – Best New Opera for La Boheme, beating huge competition from ENO and Complicite at the ceremony last week. I spoke to Ben about his speedy rise to success, the responsibilities of running two theatres, and whether he’d advise a career as a young producer.
“Producing is where it’s at”, he told me. “More and more people are making their own work, and more and more creative avenues have to be taken for funding. There is a huge lack of talented young producers. Doors are open all over the place. You’ve just got to make your own work.” Ben comes across as taking an extremely practical, hands-on approach to producing. OperaUpClose is renowned for creating radical takes on classic operas, for example relocating The Barber of Seville to Salisbury, or Madame Butterfly to Bangkok. And for the most part, it works. La Boheme received rave reviews, and sold out its runs at the Cock Tavern (twice), The Soho Theatre (twice), and is still performed in rep at the Little Opera House. Meanwhile, the company has confirmed that they’ll return to Soho in August with a retelling of Don Giovanni. I asked Ben about the pressures of producing work in large, West End venues at the same time as managing smaller fringe theatres: “It’s both a burden and extremely important. Having a venue means that we never stop working and we don’t have to look for homes for our work.But running them is hard and time consuming.”
I was interested in how Ben got to be where he is today in such a short space of time. His career seems fast paced and varied, although there’s a clear, logical progression. He started at the Bristol Shakespeare Festival, where he “basically went from Production Assistant while at university to Assistant Producer to Producer over a couple of years”. From contacts he made there, he began to work freelance with Shakespeare’s Globe Touring, before moving to London and becoming Production Co-ordinator at the Finborough Theatre. He continues: “That was followed by a company tour manager job on a musical called Cloudcuckooland, which toured the UK and internationally. I then took some time out to work as a stand up comedy promoter, but I missed theatre, so took a job production managing a show at Riverside Studios for Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who was the artistic director of the Cock Tavern. He offered me a full time job as his Producer. And the rest is history.”
I’m sure there’s a lot more to come from Ben Cooper and his companies, which seem to be leading a bit of an artistic revolution in these uncertain times. I asked Ben what his advice would be for young producers hoping to follow a similar route: “Make your own work. Don’t hang about. You can put on a play for £500 so all you need is a credit card or an overdraft. A producer is an entrepreneur, first and foremost, so if you are entrepreneurial, take the risk. Be prepared to develop a very thick skin, and to open yourself up to criticism. And go to all the parties, meet as many people as you can, and work as hard as you can.”
Sounds like an alright lifestyle – going to parties, getting in debt, winning Olivier Awards. Ben is a success story of contemporary theatre for the simple reason that he took the risk and it paid off. It’s a similar story to Alan Lane, interviewed a fortnight ago, whose main advice for young directors was to get on with it. Both Ben and Alan are young, award-winning theatre makers, and they have themselves to thank for it. It’s a tricky industry to succeed in, but if you don’t take the plunge, someone else will first. So what are you waiting for? Get on with it. Don’t hang about. As Mike Bradwell would say, “Find a play. Squat a building. Steal a van. Now make a show.”