Double, Double, Toil and Trouble….
(NOTE: this is the first in a series of posts discussing what various people in the theater actually do.)
September 16, 2011
Remember those Chinese jugglers who spin more and more plates on top of wavy sticks, rushing from the newest spinner to keep the first plate spinning?
Meet a producer.
Of course, just as with Chinese jugglers, some producers can keep more plates spinning than others. (Some producers can’t even get the first plate spinning.)
Now, when I talk about what a producer does, I’m talking about what the lead producer does. Money producers have a different set of tasks, and will be discussed in a later post.
Here’s what the lead producer does:
DECIDE TO DO THE PROJECT
The time to take counsel of your fears is before you make an important battle decision. That's the time to listen to every fear you can imagine! When you have collected all the facts and fears and made your decision, turn off all your fears and go ahead!...George S. Patton
Perhaps 75% of a project’s success results from the decision to do it (or not) in the first place. If a producer decides to do a one-man show starring Al Pacino, he’s sure to make a lot of money, unless a new world war breaks out.
If he decides to do an obscure Greek comedy with the actors speaking in Mongolian throughout, he’s sure to lose all his money, his reputation, and probably his sanity, which was obviously shaky to begin with.
Most decisions will fall between these extremes, but what and whether to produce a project is more important than anything a producer can do after that decision is made.
HIRE THE CREATIVE, BUSINESS AND MARKETING PEOPLE
In a way, I have to have a dictatorship. I can't be told that I'm wrong….It isn't to do with receiving criticism and responding to other views, it's who has that last decision….Trevor Nunn
In theory, the producer is the master of all he surveys; in practice, he will be master of the general manager, company manager, and those involved in the business end. And he’ll have considerable influence over the advertising agency, publicity firm, and those involved in marketing.
The creative side is a different story.
What a producer should want in his director is a strong general with a strong vision. Hiring someone weak – perhaps so the producer can be the de facto director – is inevitably ruinous to the production.
Only one artistic vision allowed per show: the director’s.
And it’s the producer’s job to either 1) back up the director at every turn; or 2) replace him.
I hope the necessity of this is obvious. If each designer, actor, and so forth, is working toward the fulfillment of his own personal vision, the show will be ratatouille. There are many famous stories of creative teams working on a show out of town and suddenly discovering that up until then they’d been seeing entirely different shows.
If a producer finds himself often disagreeing with the director’s vision, he can fire that director and hire a new one. That is, he can if it’s still early enough in the process: replacing a director in rehearsals is a desperation move that usually fails.
RAISE THE MONEY
I always thought the real violence in Hollywood isn’t what’s on the screen. It’s what you have to do to raise the money….David Mamet
Raising the money is what separates the boys/girls from the men/women.
Recently, several of the old-time producers have been unable to raise the money, and had to either abandon the project or hand it off to someone else. Needless to say, this is very hard on one’s reputation, especially with potential partners, theater-owners, and the like.
Money-raising is usually hard, grinding work, regardless of the show: the producer of CATS had a terrible time raising the money. I was asked at the last minute to take a multi-million dollar piece of PHANTOM/Los Angeles ( a five-year sit-down), even as it was next to impossible to get a ticket to the London or Broadway productions. Stupidly, I passed on it, but it shows that raising the money can be a chore even with the biggest hit shows.
These days, a lot of a show’s money is likely to come from “money producers”, whom I’ll discuss in a later post.
MAKE ALL IMPORTANT DECISIONS
And override anyone else’s decision if he doesn’t agree with it.
Again, though, the producer who starts ordering his director to make changes to his vision is playing with fire.
Decisions are often hard to make; the mark of a good producer is one who makes them within a reasonable time, sells them utterly to the others in the production, and never looks back.
LISTEN TO, AND DEAL WITH, ALL THE ADVICE HE’S GOING TO GET
No man would listen to you talk if he didn't know it was his turn next….Edgar Watson Howe
A producer’s going to get a lot of advice, daily, from the start to the close of the production.
If he’s smart, he’ll listen to everyone, considers it all, use the bits that make sense to him, and politely ignores the rest.
Famous story: ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY was flopping out of town. One of the show’s producers happened to say hello to a stagehand, who happened to say the show’s third act was the noisiest he’d ever experienced. The producer listened for himself, got the writer to put in a couple of quiet scenes so the audience would have a chance to rest from the noise, and suddenly the flop was a hit.
Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them….Henry David Thoreau
I tell my investors they don’t have to worry, because I do enough worrying for all of us.
You haven’t lived until you get a call in the middle of the night telling you one of the show’s leads is in jail, or – and this happened to Rodger Hess and me – have a tornado hit the next city on your tour.
Or closed a show, which is the worst thing a producer has to do. Giving up on, or closing out your dream; putting the company out of work; explaining to the investors why the show failed and it wasn’t your fault.
So that’s what a lead producer does to earn his living. Soon I’ll tell you about money producers, and how money is really raised, the inevitable and desirable conflict between producers and their creative teams, and much else.
So stay tuned….