The Art of Producing
by Francesca Horsley
Producers – are they there to run your show or pick up your dry cleaning? The movie industry would never manage without them, likewise the theatre. But in the dance industry, especially in New Zealand, employing a producer is more-often seen as a luxury, something to aim for but not essential to mounting a dance work. Steadfastly adhering to the Kiwi ‘can do, No 8 fencing wire attitude’, the producing role is just added to the choreographer’s duty list, or distributed piecemeal among other helpers. The results, as anyone who has experienced this will tell you, creates at best a split personality, at worst - burn out.
Gradually this mindset is being seen as outmoded, and the considerable advantages of bringing a producer on board are being recognised. But old patterns are hard to change, and choreographers are sometimes unwilling to drop control of the reins, leaving many able producers under-utilised.
Probably the most famous dance producer of all time was Russian impresario Diaghilev. A highly creative genius, he drew together some of Europe’s most original and talented choreographers, dancers, composers and designers to create a fabulous array of modern ballets that transformed the art form forever.
Such flamboyant brilliance belongs to early 20th Century Paris for sure. However a century later, by employing talented producers and allowing them full scope, choreographers can fully realise their creative vision’s potential and reach and retain a substantial audience.
Matz Skoog, former artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the English National Ballet, now an independent ballet teacher and consultant, says that the role itself is somehow indefinable and depends to a large part on the relationship between the creative party and the producer.
He says “You can’t really write a job description for a producer. It can’t be a fixed, definitive position. It depends entirely on the circumstances. I know the responsibilities and functions that a producer can potentially fill, but there are a whole range of activities as I see it. It can be anything from an administrative flunky to someone with a very definitive, creative input into a new piece of work – the level to which that happens has entirely to do with the relationship between the two parties.”
He said the role also varies according to the situation and the genre of the work, but it is important first to define its various domains.
“If you want a producer to be an impresario, an adjunct to the creative process, you have to allow the producer certain control over the work because they are going to put up the funds perhaps, or set up the theatres, the touring circuits, identify the audience that they want to sell the product to. In this case the producer function is actually one that becomes more influential.”
“If you are looking at a typical Broadway/West End type producer you are talking about someone with a lot of influence and power. If a project is their initiative they will be looking for someone who can create the work they envisage and expect an extensive amount of input into that work. This is only fair if they are actually obtaining the funding, setting in place the infrastructure.”
Matz says that in arts institutions such as a ballet company, the infrastructure is set up as a production-enabling function and the producer’s role is well defined - often spread over different people. “It is partly administrative, marketing, production functions and so on. Each member of the team will be making their contribution towards enabling a new work or any work to be put on stage.”
“In these companies, the process of selecting work takes into consideration a broader function than the creative desires of one person; you have an established audience; a certain way of doing things that has to be followed.”
For small companies or independent choreographers, ballet or contemporary, these enabling structures are more often not in place, so self-producing becomes an option. Susan Jordan, manager of DANZ in Auckland, says that she definitely does not advocate self-producing. “On the other hand, you may have to if you have no money to pay anyone.”
Regardless, she says, it is important that all choreographers know what producing entails. In her career as a choreographer she never fully utilised producers. “When I engaged producers, I still kept control of so many things it must have frustrated them! I kept control of the money, all the decisions, rehearsal schedules. Now these seem like small things, but in fact if a producer can do them they feel more in control and contribute more. I never clarified the roles; basically all I really wanted was a publicist and a marketer. The producer role is far bigger than that. A producer needs to be empowered and if they are not, they are actually just becoming a gofer – do this, do that – do whatever.”
Susan sees the role of the producer for independent choreographers as clearly defined, and has devised a chart where she lists 15 direct responsibilities that a producer might fulfil. These include budgets and cash flows, sponsorship, rehearsal schedules, marketing through to front of house, tax and GST. She says if a project is the brain-child of a creative artist then they should choose a producer they feel is appropriate for their way of working. “If it proves to be a team that works well, it can become on-going.”
A key role, she says, is that they take the responsibility away from the creative artist. Doing both choreographing and producing, she says, is like splitting your mind; especially when it is a new work. They are not complimentary roles “You are in the creative process and your brain gets drained away to the producing side. This impacts greatly on your creative output; it is an inhibiting factor. You come into a very deep philosophical discussion – what is the nature of creativity. When you are in the process of creating, it is very right brain; you need to be in the zone where you can channel things.” She says after working creatively, if you then have to come out of that stage and turn your left brain on for the producing, it is draining. I think it is that deep.”
Susan believes that it is vital that the producer is brought in at the beginning; as soon as the choreographer’s idea moves from the creative book or mind to ‘yes I am going to make this a reality’. “I have never expected my producer to ever take the financial strain, but a lot of producers, especially if they are part of a company, are willing to that.”
How a producer functions also depends on a producer’s style of working. For Felicity Letcher, who successfully produced Michael Parmenter’s 2008 season TENT, it was the first time she had worked in the dance world. Coming from an experienced background producing in theatre, comedy, TV, film and commercials, she has developed her own approach and ethos to producing.
She works in a highly collaborative way. Her approach is to sit and talk for a long time with the director or choreographer and understand what they are trying to achieve. “With a dance work, it is a little different from working on a normal theatre piece where you have a script and you know what the work is in many ways. With dance you are actually developing something, possibly from the word go.”