This thing called producing…

Portrait of a woman with brown hair wearing a red and turquoise necklace
Emma Beverley

Unlimited asks artists applying for funds to work with a Producer – although we do fund some self-producing artists too; one of the questions we are most repeatedly asked is ‘so what does a Producer do?’ We asked Emma Beverley, Executive Producer for Eclipse Theatre, Independent Producer for Selina Thompson, Co-Programmer for Leeds2023, and founder of The Producer School, to tell us…

Hello, I’m Emma, and I’ve been asked by Unlimited to write a blog for you, about this thing called producing. Which is my ‘job’.

There are a few reasons why I use these quotation marks when I call this my ‘job’.

1. It’s pretty rare for descriptions of my ‘job’ to look the same from one collaboration to the next (that’s if we write it down).

2. I’ve never trained in it, I don’t have qualifications in it and I’m still learning as I go.

3. Sometimes I think people will clock on that I’m making this up as I go along, and then I’ll have to go back to working at Lush (not a bad thing, I smelt great when I worked there).

The hope in writing this was to remove some of the mystery around this ‘job’ – but I doubt my description would be the same as my independent peers, that guy who made Wicked, or those who produce in other artforms.

So I thought I’d read up about it and ask other people how they describe what they do, and why they do it, and what’s the point?

There’s a lot of tension around the word Producer. It’s historical, and I’m not sure I’m the person to take that on. Mainly because I get it – the implication is so strong that the Producer is the deliverer – the person who makes it happen. As one person put on a Facebook thread:

‘Because if we didn’t [do this job] the work probably wouldn’t happen on the same scale.’

Hm. I dunno. I’ll be honest, I work with the artists that I work with because they are dreamy, ambitious and blow my mind with the scale at which they can think and work. I am not a miracle manager. I am not an arts savior.

So what different roles do I undertake as a producer? I could copy and paste some of the usual suspects from contracts: partnership development, funding, finance and budget management, project management, production management, strategic thinking and/or business planning, tour booker, tour manager, copy writer, social media strategist, PR, HR, governance, law, roadside safety regulator, headphone operator, van driver, the person who says ‘alright then let’s give that a go’… But that’s boring. And if you want to see my contracts just email me (honestly, do – nothing is sacred).

So instead, I thought I’d give you some values. I’m not saying this is how all Producers work, but it’s how I aim to.

Care – for the artists you work with, the people you employ, the audiences you meet and the work you support. Care about the process by which you do things, you don’t need to mimic the same models as everyone else. Care about how much you’re paying people, whether the artists you’re collaborating with are paying themselves. You can care and do business at the same time – this isn’t The Apprentice, it’s not a competition. Care about your sector and the people who occupy it.

Talk about the money – all the time. Be transparent and clear. If there is no money, say that. If there is more money don’t hoard it. You can be realistic and ambitious at the same time but don’t bankrupt you or the artists you’re working with. Remember most often we’re dealing with public money, and as the keeper of that budget you carry a huge weight of responsibility with that.

Have a Dream Day – get out of your computer. Sit and dream with the people you work with and get rid of that bit of your brain that shouts ‘BUT THIS WILL BE SO MUCH HARD WORK’. It’s the process of doing the dreaming that’s important.

Make and hold space
– (now this is where a lot of people might disagree, but…) its not about you. It’s about the artist and the work and the people that might experience that work. Make sure the space they are all in is safe, supported and flexible. Be there and help to hold that space, don’t occupy it.

Say I don’t know – instead of nodding your head like someone who knows how to do everything everyone has ever done. This is hard, people look to you sometimes like you should know the answer. But if you don’t, then say. You’ll get wrapped up in all sorts of nonsense otherwise.

Then go and learn – ‘I don’t know but I’ll find out’ is the best place to start. Use your networks of knowledge, the people you know, the writing that’s already there and the experiences of others. Get an email thread going with people you trust and ask questions, share experiences. Don’t go it alone, that’s isolating and stressful.

Listen and think – you don’t need to say anything straight away. Ask for feedback and listen to it. Evaluate, reflect. Do it as often as possible otherwise you’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over.

Work with the people and on the projects that you love – we all need to make money, and pay the rent. But don’t forget that Producing can (and should) be a practice too.

It can be difficult to find someone who shares the same values as you, and if you’re looking to work with a producer for the first time there isn’t a step by step guide on how to find each other and work together.

All I would say is clarity is key – write down what you need from that relationship, anything that person should be aware of and any boundaries you need to set around how you work. And make sure you date! Don’t rush in to it. Do the small talk, ask questions of each other. Make sure they’ve seen and know your work.

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