Freelance Producer James Quaife gave a Masterclass on all things Producing, covering everything from West End to Fringe.  

My Career

I’ve been producing for about 12 years, since 2009. I started as a director, so I went to college and University and I just did theatre. When I was at University, I put on my own shows and didn’t really focus on the course – which I think quite a few young creatives do! I directed, as I didn’t really know what a producer was. I’d heard of Cameron Mackintosh and Sonia Friedman, and that was probably it. I was very lucky that in my last year, I had an amazing lecturer called Jo Beddow (who was influential at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and has sadly passed away now), who introduced me to her friend David Pugh who introduced me to producing.

As I was still set on being a Director, I then went and did an MA in directing at St Mary’s, and I bought every book. At the end of the course, I decided to direct Orpheus as my final piece. I’m not quite sure why, I’m not necessarily a fan of Greek tragedy! But I attempted to direct the show. Then at the end of the course, when they gave me feedback on my year, they suggested I wasn’t the best director but I would probably make a good producer. I was more focused on what the poster looked like, what the set looked like, getting people into the theatre to buy tickets, spreadsheets, money, that sort of thing. I was far more interested in that than when I was in the room with actors – so it made sense.  

I lived near the Finborough theatre, which is where I started my producing career. It’s a great place, a 50 seat theatre in Earl’s court. I walked over and met Neil McPherson who ran the Finborough (and still does!), who said if I wanted to produce theatre, I should just go ahead and do it. So I ended up producing four shows there, beginning with David Lan’s Painting a Wall – which I hadn’t got round to reading the play until press night! It’s a great play – but the show lasts an hour, and I swiftly realised you could have painted the wall of the tiny room in 10 minutes – I learnt a lot on that production.

After these 4 plays, I met a director called Blanche McIntyre, who was on a placement with NT Studios and wanted to direct Moliere at the Finborough. I remember Michael Billington came to see the second preview, and the cast were annoyed they had such a major press on only the second performance – I had to speak to both sides but Billington was very gracious, we just couldn’t miss out on such a big review! The next day we woke up to a 4 star review, and the show sold out.  

At that time, I got involved with the 24 Hour Plays at the Old Vic, which was a great way of networking and meeting people. Once I'd done the plays, which were 7 plays in 24 hrs on the Old Vic stage (it launched the careers of some amazing people who are still working today), the boss Steve Winter asked me to come on board and become a project manager for OV New Voices. I was able to run 24hr plays for 2 years in 2010 & 2011, and did a big exchange with New York, taking 30 actors and 7 writers, directors and producers, and swapped with the team in New York. It was great, met loads of amazing people. During that time I got involved with Stage One, who ultimately started my career. They still continue to help me today. You must get to know them – they’re not the only way into the industry, but they’re a great way in.

They have a bursary of £15,000, a start-up fund, a paid apprenticeship, some really great schemes. I didn’t get the bursary the first few times I applied and I was quite annoyed that I didn’t get the money, but then when I did get it – it totally made sense. If I had got it in the first place,it wouldn’t have helped me as much. Don’t be put off if you don’t get it first time - It just wasn’t the right time.

I got the bursary to produce Step 9 of 12. A casting director told me to go and see it, I went to see it in a room above a pub and absolutely loved it. The writer Rob Hayes happened to be in a pub near Trafalgar Studios and I went to find him and said ‘I love your play, I want to bring it to Trafalgar Studio 2’. And I did! For those who aren’t sure – if you haven’t produced there, you might think it’s not a West End theatre, but it really is. We cast Blake Harrison from The Inbetweeners, we needed star casting as it was a commercial production, he was an incredible actor. Through the production & financial support from Stage One, I had to get some mentors. The way it works is not a fast process – you really have to think about who you want to partner with, who is going to look after and support you.  

I was mentored by Carole Winter & Michael Edwards from MJE productions during my 2-3 months doing Step 9. They were absolutely the best mentors I’ve ever had. It was at a time when there were four other producers going through Stage One. I really lucked out – the other mentors my fellow producers had were hard to get hold of, whereas mine would always be available for a weekly meeting and would look at contracts and help me through the production. I think it’s so important to know that you don’t have to do it on your own – find someone to help you work through it!

Carole invited me to the weekly team meetings where they would talk about what they have coming up, and what they want to develop. During this meeting, they mentioned Barking in Essex, Lee Evans was attached to be part of it and I read it and fell in love with it. I said I really wanted to co-produce it, and they invited me to come on board as Producer, by offering me a few options. One, I could come on as an associate, just (I say just! It’s a lot of money) to put in £50,000 investment and receive a credit. Two, to be a co-producer I had to raise £100,000. To have better terms should the show go into profit, I had to raise £100K and accept the contingency for any loss.  

Joe Smith lovingly persuaded me to take the third. I got £50k from Stage One from their start-up fund. I had only ever raised £10-£15k previously - and I don’t come from a wealthy background, I don’t have any savings. I really had to work out how to raise the £50k from scratch.
Luckily, I managed to have a link into the field of law, as my partner was a barrister. Therefore I got into those circles and could develop some relationships (for investment). I also approached more successful producers for money and managed to raise the full amount.

Barking in Essex got horrific reviews. One-star reviews. I was crushed – it was really tough. You work so hard for a show, whether people like it or not, it brought in a totally different audience that had never been to the West End before. I learnt a lot – I remember sitting with Carole – if it had sold amazing, I would have made a lot of money, instead it recouped 83%. But if it had worked out great, I would have been such an arse, I would have been so cocky. I learnt so much more from everything that went wrong!

It’s different with every show. I took on Good People starring Imelda Staunton – it got amazing reviews, but it didn’t sell amazingly well. You can have all the ingredients for a great show and sometimes it just doesn’t take off. A good lesson to learn is that you can never quite know what’s going to sell! I then did Next Fall at Southwark Playhouse. Unfortunately, the income from freelance producing just wasn’t enough to survive. I bumped into Rachel Tackley who ran English Touring Theatre and I ended up working for ETT, producing tours around the UK. It was amazing. The first show I did was Arcadia with ATG – it sold incredibly well, I thought ‘This is so easy!’. But it was always up and down, but I got to work around the UK with amazing people. I think it’s also important to learn that it is not all about London – you can definitely go outside of London and get a career in the theatre, and you’ll probably even get a better job!

At the end of last year, I had my last show with ETT, which was Equus, directed by the wonderful Ned Bennett – it was co-produced by Theatre Royal Stratford East, and it ended up being their highest selling drama for the year, transferring to the Trafalgar Studios. It felt like the perfect time to leave and go back to my own producing. As my time came to an end I went to see Shook at Papatango and decided to co-produce it – it should be running in the West End now. There’s still a poster outside the Trafalgar Studios now for it.  

I was also co-producer on Sweat last year, an incredible play. I didn’t really do much on that show – it was produced by the Donmar, but I came on board by raising some investment. I don’t think it’s fair when people claim to be an ‘Olivier-Award winning Producer’ when they’ve been only financially involved!

Are university producing courses helpful?

I would be careful here – I don’t think they are personally. I learnt everything hands on and I think that is the best way you can learn to be a producer. These courses are expensive – you could put that money into a show! I would be tempted to just give it a go and put that money into a show, if you have it. I know it’s hard - taking on your first few jobs is going to be stressful, it’s going to be upsetting at times, but I truly believe if you want to be producer you just have to go and be a producer.

That said, it doesn’t mean you have to go it alone - I think you’d do better being involved with Stage One and Masterclass, or asking if you can have a coffee with producers you admire – I’m always meeting upcoming producers and giving advice!

However, in terms of academic courses, if you’re more interested in just learning about producing (or maybe even writing a book!), then maybe it’s right for you.
Do you have any advice for someone from abroad who wants to produce musicals/plays in the UK?

I mean now is not the best time, but the thing about producing in the UK is that it is (relatively) affordable. Producing in America is very expensive, especially Broadway. Producing in the UK is actually quite cheap in comparison. For example, when I was starting out, I did 2 new plays in a week at the Finborough and I raised £500 to put them on – I mean none of us got paid (which is probably illegal) but we were just hungry to get a show on and get our work out there so we didn’t mind.

My advice would be to research and look up shows you thought were good, write to those producers, asking them to have a coffee with you. Speak to Stage One, speak to Masterclass, make sure you begin to network. If you are travelling to the UK to work, know what you want to achieve when you get here – which shows you are going to see, get some plans in for people you are going to meet. It’s so important to do your research so you know what you want to get out of your trip.  

How do you make the transition from producing Fringe theatre to producing West End theatre?

The principles are the same - in terms of contracting, paying people, raising money, paying invoices, rehearsing, putting on a show, they are fundamentally the same. In terms of your jump from Fringe to West End – firstly, if you’ve only done a few off West End productions, you are simply not going to be able to get the West End jobs. You need to be member of SOLT, get some serious credits under your belt (work your way up in terms of venue size), and in all likelihood, unless you have a major star or a famous friend you can call in a favour with, you’re not going to get a West End gig.  

To make that transition, write to a West End producer who already has something in the works/in the pipeline that is coming up - ask if you raise some money, can you come along to marketing meetings, sit in on discussions and get involved etc. The thing is to make sure they’re letting you in the room, otherwise you’ll just get a credit without any experience.

The key thing in this industry is being a nice person, and trustworthy. It’s important to get a network so you can be ready – look to others on the same level as you are to build connections. So many producers are desperate to be in the West End, and get their name on the poster as a sole credit as a producer - I’ve seen it happen, and seen those producers go bankrupt. It’s much better to collaborate, co-produce, and get different people around a table so they can bring different things. I remember when we were in the room for Barking in Essex, with the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The TRH team, Nigel and Arnold, were ‘old school’ producers, Carole & Michael my mentors were in the middle, and then there was me, explaining what twitter is. Everyone can bring something different to the table, they come with different skills and approaches that are invaluable!  

How do you approach taking a show on tour?  

It’s going to be a little tricky now (once theatres re-open) – but the way you tour a show is, you have to work out the venues your show is right to go to. No point taking a really contemporary rock, all swearing pyrotechnic extravaganza to the Theatre Royal Bath. Their audience is just not the right fit – they won’t react in the same way as somewhere like Liverpool, or Manchester – you need to work out your production’s target audience, what venues have a similar audience, and therefore where you want to go to.

To start, create your tour pack – what the show is, who is involved, costs (how much is needed to pay everyone), who’s in it, where you want to go, whether you want the theatre to ‘buy in’ to the show or do a box office split, and you need to work out if your show is main space or studio space. Studio spaces are usually underused – they will probably need the work in there.

You could also contact the ETT – they’ll be able to offer advice. When you’re writing to theatres, at the beginning of your career they won’t know who you are – so don’t write to Artistic Director because in all likeliness, they won’t reply. Write to the Producer or Assistant Producer – they are probably more willing to take it on and take a chance on you!  

What tips do you have for dealing with, and producing effectively for, big personalities on your creative teams?

I’ve had that – I’ve worked with difficult people, and I’ve worked with people who are amazing to work with. Sometimes you just have to accept that people are hard work– normally because they’re a ‘star’ actor- you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it. It’s really, really difficult – as a producer I like to be hands on, I like the cast and creative team to know me. I’m as involved as they are – especially if I’ve ‘picked’ the show in the first place! You have to kind of become a therapist - a lot of the time it’s listening to people. With actors, the ‘bad behaviour’ is usually because they’re really scared. It’s often because they’ve lost confidence, either in the performance or the production, and it’s partly your job to re-build that confidence – it is tough because normally you’re on your own! That’s why I say it’s best to co-produce. I definitely found that on touring shows, it’s very exhausting and you feel like you’re on your own – it made me question if I do really still want to do this (I did!). That’s why it’s good to have a co-producer to support you. But, you also have to be strong yourself – approach those difficult people and have a conversation. Worst comes to worst you have to call their agent and address their difficult attitude – but it very rarely comes to that.

It took me a long time to accept that not everyone is going to like you. It’s a hard thing to accept, but you have to understand that they just might not like you, and that is okay! You’re bringing together a huge creative team and actors into a pressure cooker, it’s a tough environment, and a tough industry. Whenever I produce a show I live and breathe it - it becomes my child. When someone doesn’t like it, it does really hurt. But you need to have thick skin – you just have to suck it up!

What can producers be doing right now?  

I don’t know when theatres are going to open, but in terms of now, it’s the perfect time to contact people in the industry to have a zoom meeting with you, writing to people you want to work with, and reading all those plays you might want to produce, finding new ways of working! For example I had a show that was meant to be going up to the Edinburgh Fringe, and instead of putting it aside, we’re working out if we can do it online – whether that’s via youtube, streaming, speaking to tv companies, etc. There’s no point in sitting still – it’s all about planning ahead. You want to think about ‘what can I do to be prepared for when theatres reopen?’ – that means checking the rights of plays, writing to theatres about potential projects. Now is the time to have zoom meetings with those who might have been too busy for you in their ‘normal’ lives!

On the other hand, it’s hard to keep motivated and that’s absolutely fine – sometimes you work 10-6, sometimes you just won't. You have to re-work how you work, and how you communicate. Just try to keep going!

What is your advice on moving from assisting a producer to producing your own work?

I think it’s really great if you’re starting with assisting – and I think the next step depends on where you are. I’d look at Finborough or Southwark as a venue, with a piece of new writing – the thing you’ll find when you first start up is that you probably won’t be able to get the rights for those big plays. I started off with new writing, and I think that’s the best thing you can do as a new producer. Find a creative team you really want to work with. I worked with directors/designers/etc who were the same level as me, so we could help each other grow. It’s good to start with people who are on the same level so you can keep a handle on the process – for example I knew if I was going to employ someone like Stephen Daldry, I don’t think I would be able to control that process or keep hold of what I think the production would be. You want to discover the next Stoppard or Ella Hickson, and you’ll only achieve that by being hands on, so get out and just do it.

What advice do you have for a playwright approaching a producer?

It’s really important to address it properly – do not write Dear Sir/Madam. Take the time to write to that person personally. You need to write to producers you’re genuinely interested in; you’ve seen their work and feel there's a fit. Don’t do a blanket email out. Now is a good time – producers generally will have the time to read your play or have a discussion with you. In terms of finding producers, Stage One is a good place to look as they have a noticeboard. OV Connect is also a great twitter hashtag for creatives seeking other creatives. Find those new producers that are willing to take a risk on a new play!

Any advice for people who have just graduated and have produced small scale/fringe and want to develop?

Try and get a placement, or an apprenticeship via Stage One – you can also write to producers to ask for some experience. I don’t advocate working for free, but if you’re in a position to be able to do so, you can ask to come to marketing meetings, ask to sit in on discussions.  

What advice do you wish you had known before approaching your first investor to back you and your project?  

The first thing I raised money for was at the Finborough – and I probably didn’t communicate enough to my investors. I was a bit scared of saying I’d lost some of their money, but people who are investing know that they may not get their money back. I think the advice I would give would be to always be honest.

On Barking in Essex however I went overboard - I made loads of pie charts trying to track where it was going to go finance-wise, sharing all my predictions – and it didn’t work out like that.  
You have to treat investors respectfully – and don’t lie if the show is not going well. It’s particularly tough if things close early, but it’s better to be honest with how things are going. It’s especially tough at the moment - not every production that was due to take place is going to re-open, and lots of producers are going to have very tough conversations with people who are going to lose a lot of money.  

On the whole though, in terms of my approach to investors, my top tip is to build your relationship with them. Make sure to buy them a nice bottle of wine on Press Night, send them a Christmas card – be grateful for the support they’ve shown you and build that relationship!  

What do you look for from a writer you want to collaborate with?

I’m always looking for a writer who is willing to accept changes. Sometimes that can’t be helped – for instance, unfortunately Clive Exton (the writer on Barking in Essex) passed away before the play opened – so we couldn’t make any changes to the script if things weren’t working. But generally speaking, in an ideal world you want to work with a writer who can adapt and is flexible to changes as a production develops.  

If you’re commissioning a writer as a producer that is even better – you have a right to say if you want the play to go a certain way.  

Do producers have a say in the casting process?

Yes, I am normally involved after the second or third round of auditions. When we were casting for Next Fall, I know I didn’t have the best poker face when people weren’t right for the roles. So now I normally come into the room in the second or third rounds, once you are down to final decisions. It’s hard when it comes to star casting, when you’re having to say to a director ‘we need this name as it’s going to sell tickets’.

What’s one thing you would do differently if you could start your career again?

I suppose I’d probably have taken bigger risks – I’m a bit scared of taking on things that might not work, and I wish I'd jumped on some bigger projects. However, I really wanted to learn the craft of being a producer – driving the van, putting up posters – which I wouldn’t have had the chance to do if I’d have thrown myself onto the biggest projects. I do believe you have to work from the ground up.  

Where you still working as a freelancer during ETT?

No, not for the majority, not until the end of my final year, when I knew my time at ETT was coming to an end.  

Finally, some books on Producing that I want to share with you – read these if you can get your hands on a copy:

Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical – Barbara Isenberg
I Wanna Be a Producer– John Breglio
Putting It On - Michael Codron
Stage Blood – Michael Blakemore
Mr Broadway – Gerald Schoenfeld
Razzle Dazzle – Michael Riedel
Song of Spider-Man - The inside story of the most controversial musical in Broadway History - Glen Berger