Ask ten people what a producer does and you will probably get ten different answers. Some will say they are the bad figure telling the creative that their idea isn’t viable, guardedly holding the purse strings. Others will say they are the problem-solver, always adapting so art can be achieved. Then there’s the power-hungry, cigar-chomping and little old lady-seducing stereotype. But ask any fringe theatre producer what they do and they’ll grossly protest against that image; it just seems outdated. Of course, by its job description, producing is about securing funding, being wary of budgets, organising vans, booking travel and accommodation, scheduling, drafting contracts and promoting a show strategically to make sure you get audiences in, but it’s also a lot about collaboration.
Forming a new collaborative relationship in the arts is a bit like dating. For starters, the producer must be attracted to the artist – and their art. You whizz past the fling stage, leap into respectful fidelity before producing a screaming child of a work that demands round-the-clock attention. The producer is the fried parent who carries the work for nine months and then has to unconditionally nurture and love it, so it blossoms over its lifetime.
Last June, I went to a producer-choreographer speed-dating event at The Place, where I met artist Lola Maury. I introduced myself as an independent “creative” producer – a term bandied around a lot. Sat opposite our relationship counsellor, dance dramaturg Peggy Olislaegers, I was asked to justify my title. How was I producing creatively – with colourful Excel spreadsheets and Gantt charts? What did I do differently to a non-creative producer? I couldn’t really answer.
The tension between creative and production work can be fraught. Working freelance, often my role is defined by the needs of the project and (more often than not) dictated by the artist with or for whom I’m working. There is regularly a distinction between “creative” and “admin-production” meetings. I’m often excluded from the former and the creative process as a whole.
But is that right? It’s my role, as producer, to represent the project, whether it’s writing copy, selecting images on behalf of the artist or verbally reeling off pitches to programmers. Being excluded from the creative process, a producer can’t truly represent or communicate an artist’s ideas without concepts becoming lost in translation.
Two to tune, in-tune
Lola and I were encouraged to agree a prenuptial for her piece, Two to tune. In the work, she’s trying to find a moment of complete raw and channelled perfection between the work’s two dancers. Taking inspiration from this, Peggy helped us design our desired producer-choreographer working relationship – one that also embodied the “in tune” nature of the work.
One thing we’ve tried is to engage the producer within the creative conversations from the beginning. In this case I’ve observed and joined in with discussions on and from the first day of rehearsals, when Lola showed the dancers her source materials for the piece.
The preparation began in July for the project to start in January, which is six months of collaboration between producer and choreographer to explore creative ideas as well as logistics … and they both go hand in hand. I was the one who put a call to find a costume designer and was present for all initial conversations. We embed creative meetings within the administration of the work and in that sense, we blur the line between producer and artist.
The key benefit is that we save time, skipping explanations for logistical requirements and making production more efficient. It’s opened opportunities when approaching venues in that it’s not just all about the artist’s career; it’s about nurturing a collaborative team and putting the professional development of the producer and choreographer on an even footing. Co-ownership of the work has given Lola confidence. With the producer’s role less defined it allows for a dialogue in creative consultation that improves the work.
Another thing we’ve done is to learn more about one another. Through lots of talking and listening, we’ve slowly learned about what the other half’s personalities are like. We’ve also had to anticipate what the other would do in certain situations.
Being there from the beginning – and not just occasionally helicoptering in for quick updates on how the “creative bit” is going – is vital. I’ve had direct access to discussions around how the work has developed, where it’s going and why it’s taking that route. It’s not a case of turning up after five weeks and asking: how’s it all going then?
But the artist must be open to that too. As Lola puts it: “Working with a producer is new for me. I suppose that’s an advantage. There isn’t a recipe for how to collaborate. We’re both trying to make the relationship we share as open and creative as possible. When some time has passed and I haven’t been in touch with Helen, I do feel the necessity to update her.”
We are reforming preconceived ideas of the producer-artist relationship, exploring a model that encourages openness and reflection on our practice. As a result we’re unlocking preconceived roles for each professional, which leads us towards practical, collaborative and artistic producing.