Book extract: Why the writer-producer relationship is crucial
This exclusive extract from the acclaimed new book Being a Playwright explores one of the most central working relationships in theatre
The relationship between a writer and producer is a crucial one. Producers are the head honcho of any production - unless the artistic director of a venue or company is also involved, in which case the buck will ultimately stop with them. Even in this case, the designated producer usually runs the show on a day-to-day basis.
The producer helps develop the script and shape the creative vision of the project. They raise the funds, organise the venue, recruit the team to turn the script from abstract idea to concrete show, pay everyone's fees, oversee press and marketing, and keep an eye on a host of other matters. At least, if they're any good they do. A producer will do more than anyone else to determine whether your script becomes a successful play. They will also influence future opportunities; a single producer may well commission one playwright again and again, because a high-quality writer who can be trusted to deliver is a real find.
Lest such influence seem daunting and hierarchical, remember that producers of new writing are invariably passionate. Producers with a purely pragmatic bent tend not to dabble in new plays; with a few honourable exceptions, commercial theatre-makers stick to musicals and revivals. The days of world premieres opening straight into the West End are long gone. That means the producers you meet will seldom if ever be looking to make a profit; instead, they will probably rely on subsidy from grant-makers or donors to make a new play possible. They undertake this for their own creative satisfaction (and to earn a living, hopefully). They are motivated by the same passion as any artist, will expect a respectful and creative collaboration, and don't regard playwrights as simply providers of lucrative scripts.
A playwright's relationship with a producer will normally begin early in the process; it may even be the first collaboration. Producers tend to inaugurate productions, and often spend time developing a play before bringing others on board to take it to the stage. They give notes, discuss options for the creative team or appropriate venues, and set deadlines for drafts. It is in your interest to respect these contributions. Otherwise, how can they understand the project well enough to recruit the right team, allocate funding, and effectively promote it?
So, understand the producer as a creative figure, don't be afraid to be open about creative or personal issues, and above all do not buy into the cliché that they are at heart a cynical moneybags. A producer of a new play takes an enormous risk, and has to work hard to pull it off; if you don't collaborate effectively, you may compromise their ability to pull a show together.
'A producer should never seem out of reach; if they do, it's a sign the relationship needs more work'
Respecting the producer and meeting your responsibilities is therefore a given. In return, you have the right to expect that a producer be respectful, committed and receptive. If you aren't keen on a note, or are struggling on a draft, a producer should provide constructive advice and be willing to talk it through.
A producer should also be transparent. Before any collaboration begins, they should draw up a fair commissioning/production agreement to outline responsibilities, rights and expectations. They should thereafter keep you informed of the progress being made towards production. Don't be backward in enquiring about this, but don't be frustrated or sceptical if there's little to report. While a few producers relish keeping their cards close to their chest, most are open. It's just that sometimes a producer can do no more than wait on a response from a funder or venue.
Once a script has moved from development into rehearsals, a producer will probably fade into the background, now focused on marketing and project management, while you work more closely with director, designers and actors. Don't be disheartened at this shift; if anything crops up that requires the producer's attention, they should be involved immediately. Usually there will be regular chances to discuss progress, and you have the right to ask a producer for help inviting industry figures and for advice on how to exploit any success. A producer should never seem out of reach; if they do, it's a sign the relationship needs more work.
A collaboration with a producer is perhaps the trickiest that a playwright has to manage. Unlike other collaborators, who tend to be engaged for precise periods with clear remits, a producer -playwright collaboration can stretch for years, abruptly change dynamic as the producer's role turns from development to production, and then potentially revert back if new commissions or a transfer become likely. Navigating this long-term, shifting collaboration, especially as money is an element, is not easy. Operate with respect and care, and expect positive and creative contributions from the producer in return.
Being a Playwright: A Career Guide for Writers is published on 18 October, £12.99 paperback, by Nick Hern Books.
Chris Foxon and George Turvey are the team behind the multi-award-winning Papatango, one of the UK's leading new-writing companies.