What Producers Do

New York is where I am this week, for meetings and seeing plays.  Somehow I’ve managed to fit nine plays into seven days.  So far I’ve seen five, some so-so, a couple that were terrific.  As is always the case everywhere:  not every play and not every production is a home-run.  And there are always some whiffs.

When I’m here I see new work (as a working playwright I should be familiar with the scripts mine compete against) and classics.  Classics I’m seeing this week are Death of a Salesman, Richard III and Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo

Although many artists would just as soon overlook producing, I am keenly aware of it because I spent most of my own business career as a producer.  Being here in New York, seeing all these venues, marquees, artists and seats, reminds me what a humongous, critical role producers play.  Playwrights like to remind the world that without a script there would be none of those other things.  But it’s equally true that without producers those scripts would never be more than black scratches on paper.

Ken Davenport, New York stage producer and author of the “The Producer’s Perspective” blog, asked his producer colleagues to answer the question, “What does a Broadway producer do?”  He got back over 100 answers and published them on his blog.  It is uncanny how most answers mirror the responsibilities of entrepreneurs in every field, not just theatre and not just the arts.

The answers brought back both wonderful and traumatic memories from my 21 years as a producer.  The exercise also had the virtue of reaffirming the decision I made three years ago to leave producing and move playwriting to the center of my professional life.

Here are nine answers that resonated for me, some evoking memories and some addressing present interests.
• Producing is the art of saying yes judiciously and no politely.
• Producers inspire others to be as passionate about the project as they are.
• Create a collaborative, focused, dynamic and exciting team-working environment where everyone shares a common vision for the material.
• Find works and artists you feel passionate about and put them on the stage.
• Passionately advocate for the creator’s vision of the play and the investors’ right to recoup their investment. [DK note:  This assumes those two things always align.  They don’t.  And that’s when you face the really tough decisions.]
• A producer does whatever needs to be done, from A (finding the property) to Z (making sure the johns have enough toilet paper).
• Managing the collaborators of the most collaborative art form that exists.
• The three F’s:  FIND IT (the show), FUND IT, FILL THE SEATS (preferably with paying customers).
• The mother that nurtures the baby until it grows up.

Ken closed his post with this, written some years earlier:  “A producer is a rare, paradoxical genius: hard-headed, soft-hearted, cautious, reckless, a hopeful innocent in fair weather, a stern pilot in stormy weather, a mathematician who prefers to ignore the laws of mathematics and trust intuition, an idealist, a realist, a practical dreamer, a sophisticated gambler, a stage-struck child.  That’s a producer.”  The author?  Oscar Hammerstein II

(If you want to look at all 100 answers to Ken’s question, he posted them in his May 10, 2010 blog.)

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