How to Produce a Theatre Show
Getting started as a producer of your own work with Paines Plough & DryWrite producer Francesca Moody
Self-producing is a challenge: it requires spinning a lot of plates! To help you get started, we spoke to Francesca Moody, producer with Paines Plough on this year’s season, who also works regularly with DryWrite, not least on their runaway hit Fleabag, as well as having been Executive Producer for Undeb Theatre and Associate Producer at SEArED Productions and Look Left Look Right. Here are her insights into successfully producing your own work - especially if you’re considering a trip to the Fringe in 2018!
You just need to be logical, and a good communicator – you’re the connection between a lot of different things. You mainly need to be a good people person.
How did you end up in producing?
I went to Exeter and did a drama degree, then went to Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and trained there for a year in the post-grad. So, for a long time I thought I wanted to be an actor. When I left drama school, I felt disillusioned, basically. I had an agent, but I wasn’t really getting any work. I’d been coming to Edinburgh since I was 17 working on street teams, doing work experience with Assembly for a bit, managing front of house, etc. Edinburgh already felt like my stomping ground.
I met an actor when I was 17 who was dipping his toe into producing and asked me if I would be able to give him a hand. I gave him a hand on a little project, and I was doing that thing that all good actors do where they reach out to as many directors and things. There was another director I’d met in Edinburgh who didn’t need an actor right now but did need some help with producing. Suddenly, I was helping the actor take a show to Edinburgh. Within a year I was producing.
I started thinking that I should take myself more seriously, so I started working in a theatre company called Look Left Look Right. It was a bit of a baptism of fire. In the space of about 18-months to 2 years, I got a lot of experience really quickly. After that I was like, “Well, I’m clearly much better at this!” It satisfied everything that I wanted to get and couldn’t from being an actor – I could work at a theatre, and I’m a bit of a control freak, I love working with loads of different people. All of that.
I was just really fortunate after that, that a director I had worked with in university, Vicky Jones, called me up and asked me if I wanted to work with her on a show. After that we made the show called ‘Fleabag’, which obviously became very successful very quickly. Then I started working for Paines Plough.
What is the sort of work you’re most passionate about producing?
Something I really believe in – that feels like a bit of a cop out. But certainly, when I was freelance the most important thing to me was that, when I read a play, or somebody talked to me about a project, it got me in the heart. There’s a real reason for it to happen, to come to life. The same thing happens at Paines Plough. It’s work by writers who we think people should be seeing the work of.
Before PP, a lot of my work had been around very female-led work, certainly with working with DryWrite, very feminism-led. I think it just comes back to what you’re really passionate about, what you believe in. if you read something and it gets to you, you can be assured that at least some other people will get that as well.
Going from acting to producing must be tricky – quite different sets of skills! Would you say there’s anything in particular that makes for a good producer?
That’s true, but it’s not rocket science. Even the money stuff, you just need to know how to use Excel. You don’t really have to be good at maths! You just need to be logical, and a good communicator – you’re the connection between a lot of different things. You mainly need to be a good people person. You need to enjoy spinning all the plates. Otherwise it’s a bit tricky, as there are so many things to do.
…more often than not, I think being a producer is about problem solving, whether you’re doing that in advance or in the moment. I think the most important thing is to never see anything as a “problem” only see solutions.
Do you think a theatre producer has to be mostly capable at foreseeing problems, or problem solving on the fly?
If you can have foresight on problems, that’s amazing. But I’d say that more often than not, I think being a producer is about problem solving, whether you’re doing that in advance or in the moment. I think the most important thing is to never see anything as a “problem” only see solutions. I think that really streamlines the way you work as a producer.
More often than not you are dealing with problems whether you anticipated them or not. People can get so stressed out all the time, especially in the context of Edinburgh. You have to be so reactive as a producer, you have to go with it. You have to be that positive person, absorb that and go, “What can I do?” It’s about assessing after the fact too and saying, “What are the steps I could have taken prior to that happening, to make sure it doesn’t happen next time?”
Do you think there are common misconceptions about taking a show to Edinburgh specifically?
No one should be under the illusion that you’re going to make money in Edinburgh. It’s very very hard to do. I think you can always have an aspiration, but I think one thing I always tell people when they ask me about Edinburgh is to make sure you know why you’re going. You have to have a clear purpose.
The main problem I think is that people get swept up in the romanticism [of Edinburgh] – the amazing social engagements, the partying, the shows, etc. That’s all amazing and a big, important part of what makes this festival great. But if you don’t know specifically what you’re trying to achieve then you’re going to get swept up. It might just be as simple as “I want to get a new agent,” or “I want a theatre to give me development money for my next piece.” It might be several things. But be mindful, otherwise there’s not much point – you’re more than likely to not make money out of the experience, so there have to be other reasons.
Are there any key tips that you would have for those trying to get their heads around how things are programmed at the Fringe? What should people be aware of?
I think whatever you’re bringing to the festival, you need to ask yourself some questions: who is it for? Why am I doing it? What’s it going to be? Where am I going to do it? If you’ve been to the festival, you might already know and appreciate that venues each have their own personalities. That’s connected to who your audience are – some shows might feel way more Summerhall than Underbelly. Some shows might feel way more Assembly. Talk to people who have taken shows here before, ask them.
Investigate the physical space for the show as well if you can. Think: do I want to do it in a big cavernous echoing room, or in a 60-seater? Be realistic too about the audience size, especially when you’re bringing a show for the first time to the fringe.
Do you have any tips regarding the Roundabout specifically?
We try to be as clear as possible about the limitations, but also the liberations within that space. It’s a really beautiful space, and I’m not a director, but I think the best way to use it is when you don’t fight against it. It’s a very exposing space, so loads of props don’t really work. It’s in the round, it’s only 4.5m squared in diameter.
When it comes to visiting companies, we try to be as collaborative with them as we can be. We can have those really lovely bespoke conversations, build relationships with the companies that we programme. We also programme shows that we believe in and are passionate about – they have to be 10 really good things! Not that any venue would programme anything that they didn’t think was brilliant. It just gives us a bit more time and luxury to do that. To have those conversations, and feel like we can support them.
I would advise people to just be methodical and aware of what you need to tick off. Have a clear timeline for yourself, for when things need to be done.
Do you have any advice for negotiating the more serious legal stuff a producer does – like working with contracts?
Things like venue contracts are actually really simple: read through everything, make notes on anything you don’t understand - you’re more than entitled to go back and ask questions. You can always get qualification from the venue. If you want to, you can ask the advice of someone who has been to Edinburgh before, because a contract should be mutually beneficial.
I would advise people to just be methodical and aware of what you need to tick off. Have a clear timeline for yourself, for when things need to be done. Make notes of deadlines, fines, contras in any contract – that’s why it’s so important to read the contract basically, a lot of that stuff is in there. It often will answer a lot of questions that you might have later on. You need to read it thoroughly, read it a few times.
How negotiable do you think anything is in a contract you’re presented?
I think it’s a case of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. You should ask the question. I think it’s really important for people to feel empowered, whether it’s their first show or their tenth show that they’re bringing to Edinburgh. They are bringing something that the venue can make money from, and therefore they have a certain amount of leverage. It might be met with a no, and that is fine, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. I would say always go for your ‘dream’ ask, and work backwards from that. Start with the top and work backwards!
Any final advice on things that you’ve learned from in the past, that you’d advise others against or to be aware of?
I think my top mistakes have been around things like not planning enough in advance. Working in an organisation means I can be more methodical about this stuff – stuff like production timelines. By the time I was doing Fleabag, I was doing that sort of stuff. But when I started we were just sort of going for it, reacting to things. You don’t want to be reacting constantly though. A bit of advance planning, open communication between parties, is really important.
I haven’t had any really bad experiences with communication breakdowns, but in hindsight I would say be really clear with people you’re working with about who is responsible for what – if you’re making a show together, be clear on what your roles are. Of course, they can switch and change, but a gentle contract between people collaborating [is important]. Talk to people who have done it – most people are very willing to sit down and have a coffee to chat about it.
Thank you to Francesca and to Paines Plough. See their Fringe work on tour at the Orange Tree Theatre from 25 January – 3 March 2018 (including Out of Love by Elinor Cook, Black Mountain by Brad Birch and How To A Be Kid by Sarah McDonald-Hughes).