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What Does It Take To Be A Theatre Producer?
Philippa Tatham discovers it means waking up terrified every day, ignoring the little voices, demons and notes of reason - and getting on with it
by Philippa Tatham
It starts like this. You are by some miracle introduced to the man who runs the only remaining Elizabethan theatre in the world. 'Come up with a proposal' he says, 'something by Christopher Marlowe that can be done with minimal light. Only an hour, because it gets too cold for the audience after that. And we'll put it on.' And you say – Sure. Which is where the nightmare begins. Because I’m an actor, not a producer.
But if you want to act, you often have to make it happen yourself. I had cosy images of a group of hardworking and dedicated friends developing a show organically through months of improvisation. This does not happen. In the theatrical world, we want firm government, a light and vision in a director’s eye. We crave dictatorships.
So, what does it take to be a producer? To put a show together? It takes everything. I have written budgets, applications, proposals, press releases; chased printers and artists; sewn costumes while running lines; organised auditions. And spent one lunch hour in the short skirt and high-heeled uniform of the glamorous receptionist (my part-time City job) rummaging through a skip looking for props, while my fag-break colleagues looked on. We have a budget of £400. Anything free is worth it.
Producing a show means writing a script. Christopher Marlowe in an hour is not the easiest thing - especially with an audience of Renaissance cognoscenti, many from The Globe Theatre next door. What a good idea it had seemed to stage his poem Hero And Leander. But Marlowe was stabbed before he finished it. So not only do you have to spend hours manipulating blessed-out paens to beautiful young boys into dramatically interesting text. You also have to write the ending.
And there’s the venue. William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) started his career in The Rose Theatre. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was writer-in-residence. The Financial Times wanted to built offices on the site in the 1980s - Peggy Ashcroft chained herself to the Houses of Parliament to save it. The remains of The Rose nestle in the dark cellars of an office block in Southwark. It is kept cold and dark to prevent algae growing on the pool’s surface. It’s under a pool of chemically-controlled preserving water and concrete at the bottom of a ditch, behind a rail. There’s a viewing platform and neon lights to mark its walls.
Producing a show means a lot of drinking. I have consumed vats of red wine and discussed Marlowe, sex and everything with a variety of distinguished men. I have drunk hot squash with musicians, coffee with designers and a great deal of whisky with actors threatening to walk out. I have tried not to drink too much free champagne at a function with Ian McKellen, a Rose patron, when I was trying to make a good impression.
Producing a show means relying on a million favours and expecting none. I have met with huge generosity and enthusiasm in the process; university lecturers handing over students; students wandering IKEA and gluing and painting for free. Tony Toller, the artistic director of The Rose Theatre. Passamezzo, a historical music group who will perform and write tunes for us although we pay them peanuts, because they love to do so. John, the Fringe Report editor who stayed up till 1am on a Friday night making my website.
You also have rejection. It is not only the reviewers who will not come and the businesses who won’t sponsor; it is the three or four casts that we ran through even before rehearsals. You tell actors that the play will be hard work for no money, but it does not seem to click until the week before curtain up, when they quit.
Producing a show means being bloody minded, and having a back-up plan for everything. It means cutting corners, skimming deadlines, accepting that you have no life and broken sleep for weeks. It means cold sweats, bad skin and horrendous weight fluctuations as days of being too busy and traumatised to eat are followed by chocolate binges at midnight, when everything has fallen to bits.
Producing a show means waking up terrified every day. It means ignoring the little voices, the demons and the notes of reason, and getting on with it. It means not getting ill or depressed but remaining friendly, approachable and hard as nails. It means sticking out your bottom lip and getting what you want, but knowing that you won’t get very much. Producing a show means that if everyone else dies and the scenery collapses, you will be stood on stage with a torch under your chin doing a one-woman show, and doing it well.
Being a producer means never going out without flyers in your pocket and a sales patter in your heart - you never know who you might meet. Being a producer means having a world of faith invested in you. It means not letting people down.
Being a producer means praying a lot. I have rediscovered religion, because you tend to need a lot of miracles and a bloody good PA.
Above all, producing means getting excited. It means laughing even as you tear you hair, because it might - maybe - not fail. And at the end you might get something a little bit wonderful.
(c) Philippa Tatham 2006
Philippa Tatham produces and acts in Streetwise Productions Live's Hero And Leander 23-25 March 06 at The Rose Theatre, Southwark, SE1 9DT, and 31 March 06 at St Nicholas Church, Deptford Green, SE8 3DQ.
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