MADDIE DUNNIGAN answers the question, “what does a producer actually do?” The answer: naked body painting.
The role of producer in a theatre production is unique: very few students have experience of it before they get to University. Many will have been exposed to the trials and tribulations of directing/designing/stage-managing positions. But, in a school environment, the financial pressures on a play are relieved by the educational institution that supports it, and so a producer’s role is often rendered obsolete. This makes the job difficult to define, and the role seem somewhat enigmatic. Generically deemed the ‘organiser’ of a play, very little light is shed on the specificities of the role.
On entering the theatre world of Cambridge, it might seem appropriate to ask what a producer actually does. This term I found out, as a first time producer for Corpus Playroom’s Week 2 main show, ‘The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?’ by Edward Albee.
The biggest surprise regarding my debut stint as a producer was the stress levels provoked by even the most mundane of tasks. The prospect of laminating posters or photocopying scripts gave me the shakes: clammy hands, dry throat – the works. It sounds silly, but finding the laminator, struggling to understand the manual, struggling further with an explanation from a more competent user, and ruining a number of posters in the process is remarkably stressful and time-consuming.
The endless list of menial tasks aside, there are big decisions to be made (mostly financial) that are vital to the show. Challenge number one – crucial but by no means simple: buying the rights to the show. I recently handed over four hundred pounds to be the proud owner of the rights to The Goat, which unhelpfully stipulate that the production must not be reviewed. So, for the last month, I’ve been poor and desperate, sweating over every possible publicity alternative to reviews. Shameless exploitation of the Cambridge media outlets, like articles around and inspired by the play, became, as you might have noticed, my favourite option (‘The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?’ Tuesday 29th January – Saturday 2nd February, 7pm, Corpus Playrooms)!
It is the stranger activities, however, that characterise the entertaining capacities of the role. A friend once told me of a perilous journey they made from Homebase, with large sacks of sand balanced (or not) on their bike in a bid to solve a sand-related dilemma at the centre of the production.
For my part, after our poster model flew off to New Zealand for the holidays, I stripped off and spent three hours having a goat painted onto my naked body. Due to our frustratingly restrictive rights (some would call them anal), there has been a greater need to find inventive publicity avenues. We made an hour-long drive to Peterborough to visit a petting zoo in sub-zero temperatures and a pig’s head was purchased for a full-scale fashion shoot. Despite our best efforts, the ticket-sales rate still seems painfully slow. I would know, I check them every half hour.
As the producer of a show, you’re the one that creates the paradigm for your role. The producers that work on truly successful shows are the ones who step out from behind the computer screen and get their hands dirty (with set building and painting, furniture lifting, or, in my case, ineffectual goat petting). It is not compulsory to be at every rehearsal, but if you want to be involved with the creative development of the show, it’s important to make the effort.
It might seem a turn off that you never get credited in reviews – but what is there to say, really? “Looks like the producer did a good job on buying those rights – because that show was performed”? The fact that producers are rarely discussed in reviews is really a reflection of the structure and purpose of ‘the review’ as a medium. There’s more room for vocalised appreciation from the directors and actors themselves, which, in the end, means more.
It seems to me that producing is the role that is most distorted when transferred to the amateur sphere. From a distance, it carries the illusion of glamour and power. In reality, most of the producer’s time is spent doing distinctly unglamorous activities. It is such activities, however, that are essential to the production. Working intensely for a relatively short period of time, it is a thrill to see a show develop into something worth seeing, knowing that you helped pull it all together.