So for those of you who couldn’t catch our Instagram live on Friday, we’ve written up some essential notes from Alex Turner’s Coffee with Creatives.
Alex started with a little overview of his career, which has 4 main areas:
Theatre Administration & General Management
Interactive Theatre Making
Press & PR
He started in Press/PR, after doing a Drama Degree at Royal Holloway, University of London. He started with a Media Relations Internship at the Barbican, followed by working for the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year as their London Press & Marketing Assistant, focussing on a season of new work at Hampstead Theatre and Latitude Festival - including assisting on Twelfth Night starring Richard Wilson at Theatre Royal Haymarket. He later worked for Kate Morley PR, on leading on accounts for Regional, Off West End and West End clients, including shows such as Comedy About A Bank Robbery and for English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres.
Another strand of his interests was interactive theatre making, which he studied as part of his degree at Royal Holloway. He formed a company, non zero one, with university friends, which has just celebrated its ten year anniversary. They have created interactive theatre pieces for theatres including the Barbican and National Theatre, and devised the final show for the old Bush Theatre commissioned by Josie Rourke. Also also co-produced and administered this work, and lectured at Royal Holloway with the company, teaching interactive theatre making and devising.
As an administrator he has worked for Frantic Assembly, learning lots about the subsidised touring sector. Later, for Playful Productions, as Production and Development Assistant, on the general management for shows such as The Audience (starring Kristin Scott Thomas) the West End première of Kinky Boots, No Man’s Land (starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart), Don Juan in Soho (starring David Tennant) and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (starring Audra McDonald). He has also worked for TheatreCraft as the Project Manager in 2018, and co-produced Acting For Others inaugural West End Flea Market in 2019.
As a producer, his role has been twofold - both for venues (dropping in as Interim Producer for venues such as Bush Theatre and Sheffield Theatres) and independently (presenting shows at Southwark Playhouse, King’s Head, and two plays at Park 200 - Gently Down The Stream and Clybourne Park, which has recently been postponed due to Covid-19.)
So to start with the Questions!
How can producers be productive during quarantine?
Luckily, with technology like this (Instagram live), there's still opportunity for people to get together, meet, brainstorm and create - for example I’m hosting a play reading on Zoom soon. A director and I have got a group of actors together to read through a play I am interested in taking on.
Spend this time thinking of projects you’d like to get off the ground - reach out to those directors you'd like to work with, keep reading new plays, check out online courses, etc. There's also a huge amount of theatre going online - venues such as the National Theatre and Royal Court are putting their work online for free - watch the Royal Court’s Cyprus Avenue, it's brilliant!
Being a producer has many definitions, most recently the term 'creative producer' has come into play. Is there a difference between being a producer and a creative producer? What does being a producer mean to you?
Producing covers such a myriad of roles in the industry. It’s an administrative role, starting with a budget, conceiving a play with a director, right through to scheduling, planning for a production, through to the creative elements - coming up with marketing with the agency, coming up with an angle for the press team, and handling all the creative troubleshooting as problems come up across the show.
Producing covers everything from how to help the creative team create something within the confines of a budget, problem solving a deal, to trying to handle the roof of the Finborough Theatre falling in!
You are responsible for the whole production and overseeing work of all the different elements to pull the production together. I don't like the phrase ‘creative producer’, as all producers are creative, but I see how it has come into use. There are so many different job titles for different kinds of producer roles - you have admin producers, line producers, assistant producers, associate producers, co-producers - they are all very much related to what that person is doing within a certain structure, but they are all creative!
One of my favourite parts of my job (which probably comes from devising with non zero one) is that I really like to have a voice in the creative process. I really like being a sounding board for the creative team, responding to how their vision might be received by an audience. I aspire to make entertaining and life-changing nights out for people. I'm not a ‘money man’, I didn't approach theatre from a business perspective!
What are other avenues for raising your budget if you don't receive arts council funding?
The Arts Council has a very specific remit - a huge social focus, as they are accountable to governmental purse-holders. Not all work fits into that portfolio. The work I do independently is usually supported by investment. I put together an investment pack including a budget (usually assuming we will recoup 60% of the box office) and I send it to people I have met over the years in the theatre who might have some cash to spare. The contents of the pack will depend on your circumstances. In commerical theatre, whether in the West End, on tour or Off West End, the profit is usually split between the investors and producer 60/40 in favour of the investor.
There are also trusts and foundations you can apply to, you can find these easily on a Google search. You need to make sure your project fulfills their aims to apply. Other funds such as Stage One exist for emerging commercial producers. It is an incredible resource and I can’t recommend doing their Workshop for new producers more highly. It is a brilliant whirlwind introduction to commercial theatre producing. They also support emerging producers through Apprenticeships, Bursaries and through an Off West End investment scheme, which I am really proud to be part of the panel for.
Other charities such as the Michael Grandage Company run an incredible bursary scheme, to which you can apply for funding to support a project or your development in any theatre role! It is for any theatre maker who wants to develop their career.
What is an Investment pack?
It is a portfolio for investment in your production, which summarises the creative team (such as who will be directing), actors you might have on board, the budget and the recoupment schedule (how long it will take to recoup the cost of putting the production on from box office income). It also includes the benefits for investors, such as an invitation to the opening night, updates from you, insight to the production process and anything else you are creative enough to offer! You can learn much more about this on the Stage One Workshop.
How do I approach venues for regional tours?
The venue you approach will depend on the scale of your production. Have a look at what venues programme work that is on a similar scale to what you are looking to tour, or where those shows have toured to. If you look at venue websites, they should detail their process for programming (i.e. two windows each year for submissions, for example). Put together a tour pack which includes a pitch for the show, links to videos of the show etc, and technical information if you have it (you may need a Production or Technical Manager’s help for this), then submit! If a theatre doesn’t give details online, call and ask who to send it to! You can also approach more experienced producers for advice, such as the amazing Tara Finney. They can advise you what scale you should go in at and theatres who might be interested.
What advice would you give to aspiring Producers?
Go and see as much theatre as you can - of all different scales, especially small things when you’re starting out. Go and see work at Edinburgh, interrogate what type of work you like and why. Keep in touch with your peers coming out of uni/drama school. Your network is your strongest thing!
Look to all the brilliant resources such as the Society of London Theatre, Masterclass Apprenticeships / Pitch Your Play schemes, and look for internships, production assistant roles & assistant roles. Lots of commercial companies don't advertise their roles - you’ll need to write into them about being an intern. You should also go to TheatreCraft - you can meet a huge number of creatives, talking about their job & hosting immersive workshops. Volunteer for things - I got into my career from volunteering with Masterclass!
Reach out and ask people for advice - write to production assistants and ask how they got into what they do. Go to free events - Mousetrap Theatre Projects run incredible group nights out to network with others and enjoy great theatre.
What’s your favourite play?
My favourite play was a groundbreaking piece called The Elephant Vanishes by Complicite, which I saw when I was at school. I remember it going up five minutes late - a Barbican usher came onstage to let us know there would be a delay due to a technical issue. Then people started heckling her, and she started responding and then kept talking to us. She then launched into a monologue about the demand for electricity and the effects, when it became clear she was a performer - and then the performance just exploded from there! At the very end the back screen slowly lifted to reveal hundreds of parcan lights glaring into the audience. The show just demolished the fourth wall. It was so inspiring and changed what I thought theatre was.
What effect have Mentors had on you?
I don't think I'd be where I am without mentorship. I’ve had both formal and informal mentorship, which started by reaching out to people to ask their advice. I met Jenny Topper, one of the former Artistic Directors of the Bush Theatre, for the non zero one show there and I asked if I could keep in touch. She's been informally mentoring me for the past eight years, and is someone I can ask advice on my career. I’m also really lucky to be on a mentorship programme with Stage One, with Joe Smith as my mentor. Stage One provides an amazing forum to troubleshoot my problems.
What's your biggest advice?
My biggest advice is: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. So much of what has developed my career as a producer has come from advice and mentorship. Producing can be really lonely - when I started it was as part of a company, or a building, but now I've been eight months out of a building it can get really lonely. Having a mentor and network you can check in with is invaluable. I mentor as part of the UK Theatre mentoring scheme - that is really worth looking into.
How do I approach a Producer when I have a low starting Budget?
Look to your peers - if you are emerging, talk to your peers on a similar level, look to producers from drama schools, get in touch with Stage One message boards. Also, in terms of budget, it's the producer’s responsibility to get the money in, so your budget may be able to be scaled up in their opinion. Often people will meet you for a coffee to throw around parameters for a project - if you don't ask, you don’t get!
What are your thoughts on MA Courses for Producing?
I haven't done one, but I have been mentoring someone on a RADA course who has found it excellent. A friend of mine did the course at Central, which was great. If you're interested in a course, and if you can, absolutely do it. I wish that I had been taught more about producing at Royal Holloway - I was on an academic course. I got a huge amount out of the extra curricular activities there. You get some really good training on these courses - I've been making it up as I go along! For example, I started looking after the accounts at non zero one. I looked after the budget for our final year performance, into which we all put in £20… years later I was doing their annual accounts!
How do you choose your projects?
I will work with people who are lovely - and whose work falls into the vague ‘business plan’ in my head. A couple of my main concerns are; is the team nice? Does the piece excite me?
What was your most troublesome moment?
Every single show is the most stressful! The opening night of Homos Or Everyone in America at the Finborough was probably the most troublesome though. I can’t watch press nights - I’m usually across the road having pizza, or in the bar. On this occasion I was down in the bar. All the lights in the pub went out, so I legged it upstairs, and the show was still going on. There was a leak which flooded the pub’s power downstairs, but not the theatre upstairs! Once the press night had finished, we had to evacuate everyone. We spent two days trying to help the theatre arrange repairs - my co-producer and I were liable for the £25,000 production costs, as we had no cancellation insurance and therefore no way of making the money back for investors if we couldn’t perform. I had to figure out how on earth to help Finborough get up and running, organise companies to fix the roof, etc. The way I got through that was working quickly and working as part of a team!
What has been your favourite moment of your job?
My favourite part of my job is working with brilliant creatives and problem solving. I am most proud of my job on opening nights, when I see the reaction of the audience. I have also always loved working with lots of different creative people!
What should I keep in mind when I’m self producing?
Keep your website up to date! It's the first thing people do before meeting you - they google you and see what you do. So make sure all your credits etc. are on your website. Also, keep a little black book of all the people who've met - you never know when you might want to get in touch and ask a question.
What would you say to someone just starting out?
Ask questions, don't be scared! Don't hope that everything is going to happen at once - and don't rush. Careers are long, and often have very distinctive stages to them - you can't do everything at once. I know I’ve previously had too much to do when I’ve taken on too many projects, in trying to get them off the ground.
Do you think there is much crossover with other types of event management?
I have not worked in other areas so I don't really know but yes, definitely - the planning of events has a lot in common!
If you could do anything differently?
Give another career a go - be a doctor...! Producing does not pay very much money, especially when the theatres are shut! No, but seriously, it would be to not put so much pressure on myself.
Any advice for writers?
Anyone can self-produce, but you don’t have to do it alone! Go and find a like-minded producer/director, and get into touch with theatres - find and contact venues that would put on your scale of work, including venues like the Arcola, Finborough, etc. Oh, and go to TheatreCraft!
How do I put a budget together?
Check out more workshops like this! Go to workshops, see what you can find online - UK Theatre, Society of London Theatre and Independent Theatre Council have great resources - write to peers and ask advice. Check your budget against what other people have done and share the information once you have it!
Be confident - don't be afraid to ask a question, and don't be afraid to approach people for help.
Work hard and be nice. And If you're not nice, pretend to be nice!
You are never too important to make the tea. It’s one of my favourite parts of the job, and one of the most important times to get to know people - don’t swan into the room as a Producer, and just check in. Make sure you’re involved.
Be part of the team.
Don’t give up! I have met people in my life who told me they didn’t think I was cut out to be a freelance producer. Those people who put you down are there to weed out the people who aren’t passionate enough. If you want it, go and do it. You can do it.