Producing musical theatre

 17 January 2012

Anyone can be a producer – all you need is absolute determination to get a show on stage, a source of money to back you, a network of the best possible creative talent, access to a theatre, skills in budgeting and marketing, and the luck of being in the right place with the right show at the right time.

Most of the successful West End producers started small and have spent their lives deep in theatre.
Most of the successful West End producers started small and have spent their lives deep in theatre.

Producing is about risk, but it is about controlled risk.

You can think big – but don’t be afraid to start small. It’s worth knowing that most of the successful producers started small and have spent their lives deep in theatre.

Cameron Mackintosh trained as an actor, started sweeping the stage as an acting ASM, and had 75+ productions under his belt before he hit the real winner with 'CATS'.

Different types of producers

There are three types of producers to consider:

1) Those who work for themselves and use other people’s money.

These producers have a pool of 'business angels' willing to back their next crazy idea. The hope is that they’ll end up being part of a worldwide success, and get a return on their investment.

The unfortunate reality is usually a write-off of the angelic investment.

2) The few who choose to use their own money.

This is naturally a much higher risk, but also brings much higher rewards. An example is one long-time producer who, when she started, was given £100,000 by her father and told ‘that’s your inheritance, have it now when it’s most useful, but that’s it. There’s no more’.

She used it to create her own company and mount her first productions. This led to 25 years of successful producing. Over the years she made money, she lost money, but in the end she retired with enough to live on.

3) Those who work for other people

They may run a theatre for a local authority or trust, create productions for a backer, or line-produce shows for another producer.

These people don’t take personal risk (apart from losing their job), and they don’t get major financial gain. It’s a slightly safer world, although still a creative one.

Getting started in theatre production

How much money can you raise?

It starts with the money and the level of experience you can bring to the table. If you you have 20 friends who would each risk £200 on your theatrical venture, then your first show should be budgeted at £4,000.

If you have some skills selling advertising or raising sponsorship then maybe you can add £2,000 to the pot.

That will determine the scale of show you might attempt. For around £6000, you could expect to produce a short run of a small play in a local studio theatre.

Do your research

There are basic books on producing theatre (i.e. 'Producing Theatre' by Donald Farber).There are courses you can do at certain drama schools where you will get the chance to do it and listen to all those who have done it before.

There are fantastic books and courses available, but the best way to learn is to do it yourself

There are also short weekend courses to introduce you to West End producing.

But before going on a formal course, the best way to learn is to do it yourself. If you are at university or college then producing shows there is a great learning experience.

However, start small, and be careful on how much risk you take on yourself.

Start out with producing plays

If your ultimate goal is to produce musicals, then it’s a good idea to start with producing plays.

They are easier and cheaper and there tend to be fewer people involved in decision making.

Get work experience

If you want to develop your knowledge base of producing in theatre then there is nothing better than getting a job, placement, or opportunity to work shadow people who are doing it professionally.

Whether it’s making tea or attending rehearsals, you will see what goes into the making of a show.

Most people working in theatre are passionate about what they do, and are very happy to offer advice and guidance, or just talk about their world. You need to be there, helping out, and then get them into conversation.

Most theatre professionals are looking for the next bright spark they can get to do the donkey work for little reward. Be there. Be that donkey, and learn everything you can.

Core skills for producers

Increase your business acumen

You need to read up about unions, getting rights for a show, paying royalties, and what needs to go into a budget.

You should learn about marketing and publicity. You should understand about project management & time management.

Develop backstage skills

You need to be able to make and read a budget and understand a bit about business.

It helps if you know how to do many of the jobs in the theatre: understand basic lighting, sound, stage management, costume, box office, acting, dance.

You don’t need to be good, but you need to be able to understand when things start to go wrong, and what someone is telling you about fixing it.

Know how to read music

If you are planning to produce musical theatre then you should understand as much as possible about music.

Ideally this will involve reading a score, understanding the stresses on a musical director, a singer, and how the process of creation of a piece of musical theatre works.

Learn on the job

Producing major commercial musical theatre is a game of giant proportions. There are so many people involved.

Just look at a West End programme, or even better spend a few days in a theatre during the tech/dress process to understand.

It is a massive world of project management. It takes immense dedication and belief in the project you have set yourself.

The producers who are most admired tend to be those who care for the craft, understand the business, respect their team, and can lead everyone along a sometimes rocky path.

The role of a 'creative producer'

There is a recent term of 'Creative Producer' which focuses on the work which a producer might do in bringing a project from its early draft stage, or even from the simple point of a good idea, through to its first production and onwards to glory.

The Creative Producer is most interested in the nurturing and development stages of a new idea.

Some producers want to pick up an existing work, a known creative team, and get the show on right there.

The best Creative Producers have spent some time learning their craft by doing smaller simpler shows or getting a quick play up and running. This gives them practical understanding of some of the pitfalls which can stop a project being taken forward.

5 tips for theatre producers

1. Start networking

MTN:UK offers the chance for producers to meet and share ideas. Many work in larger producers’ offices supporting major productions whilst observing the tricks of the trade. Some run their own small businesses in other areas of the business.

If you are looking at the West End, then the Society of West End Theatre is essential. Most emerging producers partner with more experienced SOLT members for major shows, joining the club by association, being accepted by the big boys and understanding how it all works. 

SOLT welcomes new producers, and runs a very successful programme of courses and small investment for new projects. They are always looking for the next generation to help fill their theatres – however you do already need to be known to get the most benefit from SOLT.

2. Pay close attention to detail

When you have a piece in production, it’s vital to be one step ahead.

Pay close attention to detail: know how to fill seats on a wet Wednesday, how much effort to put into that promotion.

Understand how to gauge trends, to know whether that wet Wednesday was a one-off, or whether there is a wider problem that needs to be sorted.

3. Get a good team around you

Producing can be a lonely business – not least because successful producing is about following your own gut instincts and leading from the front.

However many producers gather around them a selection of the best in the business at certain crafts: a wonderful publicity advisor, a great casting director, a small team of really loyal staff directors and musical directors, or a fantastic money raiser.

This team supports rather than replaces you in these areas. It’s still your responsibility, but sharing wisdom is less lonely.

4. Make things happen

Having a good sense of timing is critical:

  • when a show will work best in a market place
  • when a script is ready to come out of development and onto the stage
  • when a young director deserves their first major project
  • when you have enough money pledged to start work
  • when it is wise to take it more slowly and prepare more.

A period of apprenticeship and small-scale producing is essential before aiming for the big time.

These things come with age and experience. They can’t be taught from a book or college. They must be experienced and understood on the ground.

5. Seek out new work

An emerging producer can learn a lot about the craft by helping to manage and produce a showcase of new work.

Although the whole experience may be over in one or two showings, every element of producing is there:

  • budgeting
  • planning
  • creative team gathering
  • casting
  • rehearsals
  • theatre and technical preparation
  • marketing (albeit usually with free tickets & guests)
  • welcoming and front-of-house
  • the get-out and returns
  • assessing the budget
  • saying thank you
  • post mortems
  • deciding the next stage for the work.

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