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So You Want to be a Theatre Producer?

So You Want to be a Theatre Producer?

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So You Want to be a Theatre Producer?

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Feb 11, 2013


A comprehensive guide to every aspect of producing a show, from raising the money to creating a hit.

This unique guide offers comprehensive, clear advice to anyone producing or selling a show, whatever the venue or scale. Packed full of insights and tricks of the trade, it will give you the inspiration and confidence you need – whether you are taking your first steps in the profession or simply want to know what it takes to get a show on the stage.

Drawing on his own experience as a producer of theatre productions at every level – from university, via the fringe, to the West End – James Seabright takes you through each stage of the process:

  • Having an idea for a show or getting the rights to an existing one
  • Planning your budget and raising the money
  • Booking your venue or a tour
  • Marketing and selling the show effectively
  • Getting the production designed, rehearsed and onto the stage

From the fundamental (dealing with contracts) to the frivolous (how to organise your first-night party), every aspect is explained with the help of illuminating examples. There is also a wide-ranging appendix and a companion website with downloadable contract templates, marketing packs and budget spreadsheets.

'At last, hundreds of students on arts management and administration courses have a comprehensive reference book. It provides a unique guide for anyone taking their first steps into the world of producing.' The Stage

'Essential reading for anyone contemplating a life in the theatre fast lane.' - Thelma Holt

Feb 11, 2013

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So You Want to be a Theatre Producer? - James Seabright



The Role of the Producer

The producer’s role can appear confusing and indefinable. The briefest of definitions would be that the producer is responsible for delivering a good show, on time and in budget. The producer also typically defines what is ‘on time’ and ‘in budget’ for the show, as well as raising the money required to fund the production.

This chapter makes a stab at expanding on that definition – but the starting point has to be a recognition that there are lots of different kinds of producer.

At one end of the scale is the ‘do-it-all’ producer who is involved in every aspect of a show: creatively, financially, administratively, technically and promotionally. At the other extreme is the producer who either specialises in a particular area for one production, or for all the work they produce.

Taking those five main areas of the ‘do-it-all’ producer’s job description one by one is a useful way of looking at things. Note that all of the areas summarised here are explored in more detail in later chapters.


The artistic figurehead of a production is its director, but that doesn’t mean the director is the creative force behind it. Often the concept for a show will come from someone else, and that person may well be the producer. Even in a scenario where the overall idea or energy for a show comes from the writer or director, the producer is often integral to the creative direction the show goes in, through the choice of cast and the creative team, an involvement in the design process, and being the person who determines the way the show is marketed to the public and pitched to the press.

For this reason I dislike the recent trend for some producers, particularly those working in the subsidised sector, to give themselves the moniker ‘Creative Producer’ or ‘Artistic Producer’. It is somewhat tautological for starters, like a cast member deciding they are to be known as a ‘Performing Actor’. But it also suggests that other aspects of the production are not their problem: if the show goes way over budget, doesn’t attract an audience, and makes the theatre burn down, presumably that’s not the concern of the Creative Producer – because those areas aren’t in their brief.

Clearly, the ‘Creative Producer’ moniker is designed to counteract the perception of producers being money-driven and uninterested in the artistic process, but for me it stems from a misunderstanding of the role. Admittedly in some productions which have multiple producers, one of them may have primary responsibility for creative areas over and above other concerns. But even then the person in question is still a producer, with a creative agenda in the context of constraints and possibilities with which they still engage.


Producers are often thought of as the ‘money people’ – they are portrayed as having prime responsibility for and chief interest in the raising of finance and the making of profit. For starters, anyone who gets into theatre producing to make money is in the wrong business. Sure, there are some millionaire producers out there, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Easier money can be made quicker and easier in almost any other industry you can mention. So, when a lucrative show does come along, the producer shouldn’t feel bad about that success – as long as they’ve dealt fairly with everyone involved in making the show. By contrast, in the subsidised sector – where shows rely on funding and donations rather than investment – there is no profit motive at play. The producer still has to raise the money in the first place, albeit from different sources.

Sometimes an individual will be credited as a producer in recognition of their having raised a chunk of money for a production, but they are unlikely to be the lead producer on the show. It is a particularly American trait to give people a producer credit just for raising money, but it increasingly has a place in big commercial shows here in the UK, given the desire to reduce risk through spreading it between more investors. One negative consequence of having so many producers can be that the money-raisers then expect to be involved in every major decision on the show, in the belief that it will enhance the production and protect their investment. Such producing by committee can lead to a ‘lowest common denominator’ outcome, which is rarely a sure-fire way to make a hit show.

In some ways, this issue of giving producer credits to people who raise money is less relevant to fringe and small-scale shows – although given that they normally have lower budgets, it increases the likelihood that one individual investor could afford to fund the entire project. This can present its own challenges in terms of being beholden to the whims of a third-party financier, even if they are not asking for producer status.

Aside from actually raising the funds for a production, the producer is responsible more generally for the budget: both setting it in the first place, and overseeing its management as the production goes ahead. Areas of this responsibility are often delegated to others in the team, but to coin a phrase: the buck always stops with the producer.


There is always a lot of paperwork to handle with any business matter, and putting on a show is no exception. Budgets, insurances, play licences, performer contracts, creative-team agreements, invoices, settlements and remittances all have to be handled and managed along the way, plus any number of other organisational tasks such as the booking of rehearsal rooms, the payment of expenses claims, and the drawing-up of schedules. For touring productions, all of this has to be replicated for each and every venue. With larger shows, particularly in the commercial sector, a producer will often delegate this area of their responsibility to a general manager; in the subsidised sector this person might be called an administrator or production coordinator instead. But whoever is doing the work, the producer is in charge of making sure the administration of a show hangs together, thus oiling the wheels of a production for smooth running.


Lighting, sound, set, props, costumes, health and safety, risk assessments... they all have their role to play in a show, and they are generally looked after by a dedicated team of stage managers, technical crew and designers that the producer recruits and manages. In better resourced shows, the technical side of things is headed up by a production manager on behalf of the producer – although they report to the general manager, when there is one. Production managers take day-to-day control of certain areas of the budget and work closely with the design team to ensure that the creative vision of the show can be delivered onstage through the smooth running of all things technical. With small-scale or low-budget shows, the producer may have to be their own production manager.


The business of finding an audience for a show through the astute management of both paid-for marketing and press coverage has to be a prime concern. To a large degree, a producer has to understand the mechanics of promotion to understand what the difference is between a good idea for a show and a bad one, at least in terms of the show having a hope of selling a ticket. Clearly, not all good shows are popular, and not all poor shows are unpopular, but to some extent any such reversals of fortune and fairness can be attributed to the success or failure of a production’s approach to marketing and PR (public relations).

In many ways, a good producer is someone who knows what an audience wants before they do – which places a canny sense of public demand at the centre of a producer’s skill set. Indeed, the very earliest decisions made when putting a show together – where and when to do it – are intrinsically linked with an understanding of the audience that a show is reaching out to, and how they are best reached.

Perhaps even more difficult is the vital producing skill of foreseeing the level of demand for a show, and choosing the right size of venue to match it: this is intrinsically linked with an understanding of how an audience will respond to a particular show. Almost every aspect of a production feeds from the decision of the scale at which it is being mounted, and a good producer understands that bigger isn’t always better. Particularly with shows that are trying to cultivate a new audience or a cult following, the decision to start small and aim to scale up to a big show is a sensible strategy to adopt.

Subsidised versus commercial

A few references have been made to the differences between working in the subsidised and commercial sectors already. A producer doesn’t necessarily have to ally themselves with one particular sector and always work in that area – a good show is a good show regardless of how it is financed, although of course the priorities and rationales vary quite a bit depending on the financing arrangement.

Many acclaimed shows come about through the collaboration between subsidised and commercial producers and organisations, such as the musical Spring Awakening having its UK premiere in 2009 under the auspices of the subsidised Lyric Hammersmith producing the show, with the publicly invisible support of commercial producers who then took up their option to transfer it into the West End (although unfortunately the show did not fare well commercially, despite strong reviews). Another example of collaboration ‘across the barrier’ are the arrangements that the National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse maintain with New York-based commercial producers, whereby a retainer secures first refusal to transfer productions from these subsidised London venues to commercial presentation in the USA.

If you are a new producer wondering whether you should start out in the subsidised or commercial sector, the answer probably lies in the sort of shows you would like to put on, and how they might be financed. Do you aspire to stage work more like that which you see in subsidised or commercial venues? Do you think that your dream project would be a show that could attract investors to risk money on it in the hope that it might turn a profit? These are the key questions to ask yourself when you’re starting out. Many producers experience both sectors during their career; certainly an understanding of one sector can provide useful background and contacts when working in the other.

I have always tended toward the commercial side of things, but have also got grants from both Arts Council England and other funders for individual projects, particularly at the development stage. Being a commercial producer doesn’t disbar you from seeking funding, and working in the subsidised world doesn’t make ‘profit’ a dirty word. Indeed, if you think about it, there is more in common between the two sectors than there are differences between them. If you accept that the majority of commercial productions lose money, then you can see that they too are effectively subsidised – by their investors.

However, the industry perception is generally that a commercial producer should pay more for the same services as a subsidised-sector producer. When it is considered that the majority of commercial productions do not recover their investment, whereas a subsidised show will almost always achieve its own version of ‘recoupment’ through a combination of funding and box-office receipts, this seems particularly strange. It is obviously evidence that the commercial sector has an image problem, but that’s only going to change if producers do a better job of demonstrating that they’re doing a fair deal, and ideally one that means everyone involved benefits when a show goes into profit.

Apprenticeship versus experience

The traditional way of training to become a theatre producer is to go and be an intern or assistant for a well-established producer. Eventually the apprentice either persuades their boss to let them take on their own projects, or they fly the nest and go independent. This approach reflects the reality that you can’t learn how to produce solely from reading a book like this, any more than you can teach yourself to drive a car by reading a manual. Certainly you need a manual to understand the framework, but producing is an instinctive business. Like learning how to drive a car, the theory of producing is important – but can only take you so far towards ‘passing your test’ by getting a show to first night.

As a producer starting out, you need to make a decision about whether to commit yourself to the apprenticeship approach, or just to start trying to produce and learning by your mistakes. As explained in the introduction, I took something closer to the latter path – but there is a different ‘right answer’ for each new producer.

One aspect of anyone’s development as a producer, regardless of their chosen career path, is the availability of mentors and advisers. I was fortunate to be mentored through my Stage One New Producer Bursary by the hugely experienced Nick Salmon. Along the way I have learnt a lot by asking Nick and other producers for help or advice, and cannot understate the importance of such practical support. Whether or not you are lucky enough to have such a structured form of expert advice land in your lap, don’t be afraid to call up or write to producers who you admire and respect, asking for advice. My experience is that the most successful people are often also the most ready to help out a newcomer.

The big picture

One really important part of a producer’s role is maintaining a view of the ‘big picture’ at all times in the production process. There is an endless stream of deadlines, details and hurdles to overcome in putting on even the simplest of shows, so it is easy for those involved with the show to get caught up with little things. Somebody has to be there to keep an eye on the production as a whole – is it heading in the right direction at the right pace? Do certain contentious details just distract from a bigger problem in need of urgent attention?

Being able to step back at any point and take a view is an essential producing skill. To achieve that, the producer needs to avoid getting caught up in the ‘tunnel vision’ that a close-knit production team can engender. Being able to spot the difference between ‘tunnel vision’ and the more desirable quality of having a focused and dedicated team is also an important skill. I often reflect that the amount of time a typical producer actually spends producing is quite small: so much of what a producer does, particularly on a small-scale show, is effectively general, production, or financial management. But being ready to put the spreadsheet to one side and make a creative call on something is vital.


Conceiving a Show

The basic idea is where a show begins, and will also ultimately determine when it ends – through the idea’s success or failure when developed into a production. This chapter explores the various potential sources of ideas for shows, and then looks at how they might be developed. I also explore the differences between putting on new writing and revivals.

Where do the ideas come from?


Sometimes wonderful ideas for shows appear seemingly from nowhere, or can be inspired by a personal response to another show, a book you’ve read, a work of art, or a piece of music. The difference between a writer having an idea in this way, and a producer being inspired thus, is that the producer then needs to find a creative team to help realise the idea.

Here’s an example from my own experience. I heard an excerpt of a book being read on BBC Radio 4, and was engaged by the insight offered by the material. My intrigue eventually led to the creation of the one-man show My Grandfather’s Great War, as a result of my making contact with the writer and reader, Cameron Stewart. He’d published his grandfather’s war diaries online, which led to media interest in the material, and the subsequent publication of them in book form. By happy coincidence Cameron is also an actor – and as he was interested by my suggestion that we create a solo show from the diaries, I then connected him with a regular collaborator of mine, David Benson. Together they adapted the text into a performance script and the production premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 and went on to tour successfully, generating further interest in the book itself which proved a popular item of merchandise at performances. It’s worth noting that even with the source material already in place, this one-man show took nine months to reach the stage. Inspiration doesn’t make it any quicker to produce a show.

Pitched ideas

Producers are often pitched ideas by writers, directors or other creatives. These can be in a variety of levels of development, from just the nub of an idea to a full script draft. Most commonly, if the producer is interested in an idea that is yet to be developed, they will request that a treatment be prepared, to flesh out the idea over a few pages that more fully explores how a production might grow from the idea. Asking for a treatment is considered the first stage of commissioning a script from a writer, and as such can require the payment of a treatment fee. Some writers will happily put a treatment together gratis if they are keen to make a project happen (but their agent is unlikely to agree with any such outbreak of philanthropy).

If there are underlying rights that need to be sought in order for the project to proceed (for example, the rights to adapt a novel for the stage), a treatment will be invaluable so that the rights holders can get a sense of the proposed usage before granting a licence. The process from treatment to having a script ready to go into production can be a long one. One recent example is a musical I co-commissioned, adapted from a novel, where the acquisition of rights took six months and the writers then spent a year creating a full draft of book, music and lyrics. Waiting for the delivery of a draft script is the ultimate lesson in not counting chickens until they’re hatched; it is more usual for a writing deadline to be missed than for it to be met, particularly when dealing with a commission that isn’t based around specific production dates. And before you ask, it isn’t worth asking agents for a penalty clause on account of late delivery: they won’t agree to it, and even if they do, it doesn’t pay in the long term to rush your writers. Anyway, returning to the musical adaptation example: only after the draft delivery was it possible to start meaningful talks with theatres about putting the show on, a process that continues at the time of writing. Sometimes the process can be much quicker than that, but ultimately you can’t hurry it along without endangering the quality of the end product.

Developing an existing show

Sometimes a producer will become involved with a show after it has been initially staged, possibly with a view to increasing the scale of the production. Where a good show has been put on in an artistically led way, maybe without a producer or by a theatre company that doesn’t have the means to up-scale the show, sometimes there is untapped commercial potential to draw out.

Finding an opportunity like this can just be a case of keeping an eye on shows that are appearing in small venues and going to see them, although sometimes the originators will make an effort to contact producers in search of help developing the work. This is tricky territory though, and it is important not to overstretch an idea in the pursuit of commercial gain – this is a judgement call that the producer needs to make.

An example of my scaling-up a show is the Cornish Theatre Collective’s adaptation of the cult Paulo Coelho book The Alchemist. CTC had managed to secure the rights to stage the book, which had previously been denied to better-established companies, because the author took a shine to their approach and felt it was in tune with the spirit of the novel. Their initial outing for the show was a rural tour which visited a few arts centres and finished with a London fringe run that got strong reviews from the national press. I put together a tour of small- to mid-scale venues for the show, and it was recreated by the original production team to fit into larger venues. It sold well on three UK tours between 2005 and 2007, as well as playing two farther successful London runs. What made the show work artistically, even in larger venues, was an approach to design and performance that engendered a strong connection between actors and audience. I think its commercial success was attributable to the enduring popularity of the book, which allowed us to attract an audience beyond just regular theatregoers. Reaching out to such audiences was greatly helped by eye-catching print that echoed the novel’s cover design.

Ripe for revival or revisiting

There are certain classic shows that keep on reappearing in new versions all the time, ranging from Greek tragedies, via Shakespeare to modern classics. These are often seen as ‘bankers’ in terms of their popular appeal, and it can be as simple as a producer or director coming along with an innovative idea for a revival and putting together a package that has a strong artistic and commercial appeal. Provided the rights are available (for works still in copyright), it can be a relatively straightforward way of getting a successful show up and running.

An alternative possibility in this strand is the reappraisal of a show that maybe didn’t fulfil its potential on the first outing, but might be more timely if put on again at a later date. The classic example is Blood Brothers, which was acclaimed in its London premiere production in 1983, but didn’t fare well at the box office despite excellent reviews and high-profile radio play of one of its songs. Six years later, the show returned to London and struck gold in a new production by Bill Kenwright, which continues to play almost two decades later.

A more recent example is Alan Bennett’s play Enjoy, which was a critical and popular flop when first staged in the 1980s, but found new life and acclaim in a 2008 production directed by Christopher Luscombe and designed by Janet Bird. It began life at Watford Palace Theatre before being toured in a revised version by Theatre Royal Bath Productions, who then produced it in the West End. This was a fortunate alignment of good casting, a director with an eye for a play ripe for revival, and a change of heart on the part of critics when they saw the show a second time around.

Revivals or reappraisals of shows still hold their own risk factor, such as whether the material would work for a contemporary audience, but they represent an important and generally successful strand in the theatrical ecology. That said, a new producer should certainly do some research about the length of time since a show was revived, and whether the concept behind the revival has already been tried by someone else previously. It is deeply embarrassing for a producer to make claims about a show breaking exciting new ground, only to discover that is not the case.

The Development Process

Wherever the idea for a show comes from, there is normally some amount of development work for a producer to do in order for a show concept to become a staged reality. This can be a particularly tough and frustrating area for a new producer, who is probably impatient to get a production on – but is less likely to have the finances available to develop an idea which may not come to fruition. Additionally, it can be a time-consuming process, particularly where it involves commissioning a new script. Whereas an established producer might have several projects at various stages of readiness at any one time, someone new to the business will not be able to juggle in that way at first.

All those caveats aside, development is an essential phase of producing of any show. A little time and money spent at this point in the process can pay huge dividends later down the line. If some development work leads you to the conclusion that an idea wasn’t all that good after all, it will probably have saved you the massive amount of time and money involved in putting a poor show into production.

Here are some typical features of a show’s development process:


Where you are starting from scratch on an idea, with the intention that it be a written rather than devised piece, one of the first stages may be to commission a writer to create a treatment, as mentioned above – and then potentially a full script. Commissioning is explored fully in Chapter Four.

Rehearsed reading

A really useful way of seeing how a play sounds. A director works with a cast and may spend anywhere between a few hours and a few days preparing a reading of the script. This could either be a ‘table read’ where the actors sit down and read the script, or it might be a ‘script in hand’ reading, involving some amount of blocking like a full production would do. The audience for a rehearsed reading could be very small – e.g. just the people directly involved – or it may be appropriate to get other interested parties along as well, such as potential theatres and investors. These can also be a good way of solidifying the interest of actors who you’d like to be in the final production. Even star names will sometimes agree to do a rehearsed reading; if they enjoy it then maybe they’ll sign up for the full show too.


This tends to be further along the process than a reading, but may not involve the whole of the show being performed. Showcases tend to be designed with a particular audience in mind, e.g. investors, host venues, potential co-producers, or a combination of these. For example, when preparing the West End production of Pete and Dud: Come Again (which explored the tumultuous relationship between the comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) we put together a lunchtime showcase event which lasted about thirty minutes. It involved short rehearsed extracts from the piece being performed by the cast we had in mind for the production, in the theatre we wanted to do the show in, and with an audience of interested investors, potential creative collaborators, and so on. It helped to generate some buzz around the show, as well as securing some investment on the strength of the reception the showcase received. In America, such events are often called ‘backers’ auditions’ as they are designed specifically to secure investment.


A very general term that can describe all sorts of different developmental try-outs. A workshop could be just one day spent with some actors, a playwright and a director, devising ideas around a concept or trying out parts of a script, without any coherent end product. At the other extreme, it could be a fully rehearsed and staged version of the show put together to see how the show would work when fully produced, and to help develop the script and other production elements. A workshop may or not involve a ‘presentation’ aspect where an invited audience see the results of the process. It is a very movable feast designed to fit the needs of the show being created. For a producer, it can also be helpful to determine the demands and potential of the show in terms of scale and budget.


This term normally describes the presentation of a version of the show which is smaller in scale or length of run than the eventual final production. Sometimes a producer will fund a production at the fringe level to see how material plays in front of an audience. This can also be a useful way of achieving rights qualification, e.g. where a producer has commissioned a play and needs to put it on for a certain number of performances in order to gain the performance rights on a longer-term basis. Occasionally, a commercial producer might arrange for a subsidised venue to stage a show with the producer’s involvement remaining hidden, but with the clear intent that the show will transfer to a commercial setting of the producer’s choosing if it is successful. A try-out run is the most expensive way of putting a show through its development paces, and it is often the case that the investment required to transfer the show to its intended commercial setting will start to be raised before the try-out goes ahead. In that sense the try-out may sometimes be a formality – the commercial producer is likely to transfer the show unless it is a complete disaster, taking the view that problems can be ironed out along the way. That isn’t always the case, of course. Even with a great show, which wins strong reviews, popular success is never guaranteed.

Script Reading

Getting a sense of how a play will work onstage just from reading it can be tricky. Good plays are written to be seen and heard rather than read, and so it is quite a different skill to read and understand a play than to read a novel, for example. This presents a challenge to every producer, but particularly those who are not familiar with reading plays.

It is a really important skill for a producer to be able to judge a script’s potential from reading it. It’s vital not just to understand what is happening in the play, but to get a sense of how well written it is, how well it tells its story, how sharply drawn the characters are, how moving or funny it is, what it might look and feel like onstage, and so on. As you get more productions under your belt you will be more quickly able to see the shades of grey as well; sometimes you’ll see a script that you sense is a draft or two away from being great, other times you’ll have an instinct about which actor would be perfect for a role, or what director would really make something of the material.

I remember that my main stumbling block at first was that I struggled to get the flow of more complicated scenes, particularly those featuring many characters. I had a tendency to read the lines but not to pay attention to who was speaking them, so whilst I got the sense of the play, I would often be somewhat lost as to who was who and how characters developed.

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