The Tab Masterclass: Producing

We chat to Gaia Lambert about the most mysterious role in theatre.

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Gaia Lambert knows a thing or two about Cambridge theatre. You can’t actually find her on Camdram (possibly the system can’t take how much she’s done) but think of any big production in the last few years and she’s probably been involved in some capacity.

She came to producing somewhat unconventionally: she originally wanted to direct, but ended up having to produce at the same time when people weren’t quite up to the mark. In small shows, she says, this often occurs. However, she wouldn’t pigeonhole herself as purely a technical producer: she prefers to think of herself as more a “creative producer”, working collaboratively with the director.

What exactly is a producer?

“The director deals with the actors when they’re on stage: and the producer deals with everything else, including the director! I think it’s up to them to bridge the cast and crew divide, and they’re also in charge of finance.”

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Gaia with the director of The Plough and the Stars / photo: Johannes Hjorth

What would be her advice on getting into producing?

“Always look on Camdram- people are always desperate for a producer because no one really knows what they actually do. Often producers will do three to four shows a term, burn out and take the next term off – which then leaves a void for you to fill.”

Talking to people is also key – the ADC system works on applying with a director, so keeping an ear out for any projects people are working on is the best way to get ahead. It’s also best to work with people you know. “my best projects have always been when my friends are directing as you’re both passionate about what you’re doing.”

One thing to bear in mind, however, is the weird hours you’ll keep: “it’s the one job in theatre where you could do it entirely from home, so you’ll get texts at like, five in the morning.” Working from home isn’t something she’d recommend, however: the worst thing a producer can do is “to have a hands-off approach, because it means you don’t know what’s going on. The way I see it is: you need to be there for everyone and you can’t help people or understand that, say, they’re having a tough week if you’re not there.” Additionally, she likes to know how to do every aspect of the technical side of things, so if there’s a need she can always step in or “give people at least one night off.”

Once you’ve landed that coveted role, what’s the first thing to do?

“The very first thing I do is make a spreadsheet. I love spreadsheets. In fact, I wrote on an application the other day that I enjoy spreadsheets both professionally and personally. But they’re just great! The first spreadsheet has to have the budget, contact details for various people and a receipts tracker. It’s so important to keep track of the budget.”

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Apparently producers aren't fans of using doors normally. / photo: Johannes Hjorth

How does the process of creating a budget work?

“The first thing I think about is what are the priorities – what do we need to buy or find? What’s the aesthetic we’re going for? Some things are absolutely necessary, like rights, so that’s a big chunk of your budget gone straight away.”

How does she cope with directors with more elaborate budget dreams?

“I get the director to try and justify every one of their choices to me – if it's more of an art project then usually, even if the director wants something entirely stupid, that’s their choice and the producer’s job is to enable them and make that happen.”

Her top tip for budgeting?

“Always build contingency into your budget- people are always going to spend more than you let them.”

The next step, of course, is getting the funding for those complex plans. Gaia’s advice on pitching is to try and creatively justify your project: “there needs to be a point to it.” She’s also a fan of a Pinterest board to convey the aesthetic of the project to the various boards (aren’t we all). “In basic terms, when pitching as a producer/director team, the director’s telling them what will happen and the producer’s telling them how.”

Another piece of valuable advice for all thespians is that the opening night doesn’t matter, and anyone who tries to tell you to sell out on the first night is an idiot – word of mouth is important enough that, she says, one production was nearly empty on opening night and sold out by the end of the run due to an excellent review.

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Some of the cast of His Dark Materials at the Fitzwilliam Museum, one of Gaia's most challenging projects. / photo: Johannes Hjorth

What’s her favourite thing about producing?

“It sounds cheesy but it’s so rewarding to know that people’s vision has come to life because of you and that if you weren’t there it’d have turned out so differently. It’s also the best way to make friends – it’s honestly not all about networking.”

Ultimately, what she's learnt is that "it will always be alright. Even if you have to go on with minimal lights and no sound, you're still doing it and it'll be alright. As long as everyone's trying their hardest, I'm happy."

If any other incentive to get into the business was needed, Gaia is now the creative producer of her own theatre company, Helikon Theatre, currently working on a rewritten version of The Winter’s Tale, which will be playing in London in March and Brighton in May. Would she be able to be in the position she is now without working in Cambridge theatre? “No way. Absolutely no way – I wouldn't even know where to start. And the connections you make; my entire crew are people I met though Cambridge theatre and I wouldn’t be taking anyone else to tech a London show. I just know I can trust them.”

Her top two pieces of advice?

“Choose something you’re passionate about and don’t be afraid to ask for help- there is so much good advice in the huge cesspit that is Cambridge theatre.”

Cover image: Johannes Hjorth. Website