I was invited to Rose Bruford College’s London International Arts Management Summer School as a guest speaker to share my experiences of producing and stage/production management as a young female Asian producer in London.
The students were from east Asia (mainly Taiwan and China) and I spoke to them in a bizarre combinations of English and Mandarin. Part of my brief was to give them my top 10 tips that I’ve picked up whilst working in the UK.
I split the tips into 5 practical ones and 5 more personal ones. The students asked me to put them online so they could refer to it in the future!
1) Support Network
When in doubt, who would you call? You need a support network of friends and mentors that you can call in different scenarios. Make a list of people that you can contact in any situation. Need help with marketing? Dealing with emotional creatives? Or just someone’s shoulder to bitch and cry on? Make sure you have someone in mind and reach out to them before you start the project so that they are aware of your situation and are prepared to help.
This is different from the above as your support network taps on your existing contacts. Networking means putting yourself out there and meeting new people. Go to networking events, try to get invited to opening nights and previews of shows, ask your friends for introductions to people they know. This industry is built on “who-you-know” and the more people you make yourself known to, sets you up for having the resources you need. Another part of networking is creating opportunities – opportunities come from identifying what you can offer and matching that to what people need. Many of co-producing partnerships have come up due to either producer being able to offer something that the other producer needs, and this applies to partnerships with venues as well.
3) Do your Research
An adaptation of the classic WWWWH questions (who, what, when, where, how) can be applied in this case:
Who – are your competitors? Or direct competition
What – are they doing? How are they doing it differently from you?
When & Where – are you approaching the same target market? Area distribution? Think about market saturation!
How – are they marketing it? Are they funding it?
Use every and any resource available, which may come from the most unexpected places. My technical and front-of-house friends always seem to have the latest gossip and reliable information of what’s hot or not in the industry.
4) Ask the Right Questions
Don’t be afraid to look stupid, but don’t waste time either. We make mistakes all the time. There is no manual or guidebook to producing. I learnt a lot from asking my mentors questions about their own experiences and taking what was relevant and useful to my own journey. That being said, asking the right questions means understanding the experiences of the person you’re asking (Back to point 3 – do your research on the person you’re asking!). For example, a commercial producer would be able to give you better advice about fundraising from private investors and donors than a producer that is resident in a portfolio organisation which receives annual funding. However, the resident producer would be able to give you more advice on writing grant applications and partnerships. So find the appropriate person and experience and ask the right questions!
Count once, twice, thrice and keep on counting… and always have a contingency! Make sure the numbers make sense to you. I created my own spreadsheet when budgeting for Piaf, but when i sent it to my co-producer, Jia Xuan, she couldn’t decipher my formulae and recreated her own spreadsheet so that it would make sense for her. We continued tracking and updating our own spreadsheets and making sure that our final numbers always tallied.
Now we get on to the tips about us as people. These are slightly harder for me to describe or explain as they are unique to my personal experience as a producer.
6) Know your Worth
I started working for free as an intern to get more experience – quite a common story. However, we can’t all stay interns forever. London is an expensive city and you need to find jobs and employers willing to pay you for your skills. There will always be someone willing to work for less money and more hours than you and employers willing to hire them, but your experience and expertise count! You don’t want to be known as the person who works hard for cheap for life, you want to set yourself up to be someone who gets paid what you think you are worth. Good companies will recognise your skill and talent and remunerate you accordingly!
7) Keep your Ego in Check
As a producer, you are at the top of the food chain, with the responsibility of the show ultimately resting on your shoulders. It isn’t too uncommon that you’ll find yourself wanting to use the phrase (especially when dealing with difficult people), “because I said so and I am the producer!” However, that’s probably the fastest way of getting backs up instead. It is your job to facilitate the production, not to make unnecessary executive decisions without consulting the team physically making things happen. Remember that a single unhappy crew member walking out could be the difference between a good show and a bad one.
8) Persistence and Determination
Believe in yourself. You’re got to be as hard as nails. This industry is tough, this business is tough, this job is tough. It is the survival of the fittest. You have to believe in yourself even when all sh*t hits the fan and you feel like giving up. You will have failures, but you have to pick yourself up and keep on trying and learning until you become a success. This may seem like a cliché, but take it to heart, because we’ve all been there, even the best of us!
9) Play the Game
The world of producing is an old boy’s club. Female producers have broke the mould and made a name for themselves, however, they are few and far between. (My personal heroes are Emma Brünjes and Sonia Friedman!)
Playing the game means knowing how the game works, from getting the best PR agency to posters on the tube, the right way to write a press release, which bars to drink at etc… My first experience of “playing the game” was realising that tea/smoke breaks as a techie (I’m a non-smoker!) were mini-meetings and it was vital to hang out even if you didn’t smoke because gossip was traded and deals were cut in the smoking area, and ditto the end of drinks at the pub. These are things I take for granted now, but it was something I had to learn when I first moved to London.
Playing the game also means keeping abreast of industry news and gossip. The transfer of Piaf to the Charing Cross Theatre was a stroke of luck by all accounts, but we were also in the right place at the right time and prepared to seize the opportunity. Steven Levy, the co-producer of Charing Cross Theatre had been invited to the opening night of Piaf by Isaac McCullough, our Musical Director. Dusty, which was playing at the Charing Cross Theatre, had just announced that they were closing and the venue was left without a main house show for their Christmas season. We had done our research and knew that they were looking for a show to fit into their theatre, so we pitched our show as a low maintenance, straight forward transfer, and we hustled hard and got it!
Last note though, knowing the rules of the game is only the beginning. Playing the game well = survival. My advice would be to break the rules and rewrite the rule book for future generations.
10) Have a Sense of Humour
I can’t count the number of times I would have cried if I didn’t burst into a fit of laughter instead. The industry is full of large personalities best taken with a pinch of salt. When the situation seems dire, and you have an angry producer on the other end of the phone threatening to pull out of the show over a trivial contract detail, it may not seem funny at the time. But in hindsight, it was a hilariously childish attempt at a power play and ego boost, only to be re-enacted by a gloriously camp director and laughed about.
We work in theatre. We have the ability to change lives, tell stories and make history, but we are not emergency room doctors and we don’t face life and death situations every day. There is always time to take a minute and have a laugh and a lot of fun. Just remember that it is always a privilege to work in theatre and live our passions.