Conductor, director, editor—I’ve always thought of these jobs as roughly analogous, though I’m only intimately familiar with the last of them. All are creative decision-makers, leaders who encourage, interpret, badger, cajole, shape, and/or otherwise oversee the efforts of a group of other creative workers, but don’t usually generate the raw (or refined) material at hand. As such they’re all folks about whom it is not uncommon to wonder: Well, what do they do, exactly? Other people are actually playing the instruments we hear, writing the words we read, performing the actions we see. Of course, anyone who’s ever played in a band, acted in a play, or written for a magazine knows precisely why such creative middle managers are needed. But there’s also a good reason why it’s a critical truism that the best direction doesn’t show its hand.
There’s another stratum of creative management that is even less widely appreciated or understood. The word “producer” can mean something very different depending on which area of endeavor you’re talking about: In the music recording business the producer is something closer to a director (or perhaps more accurately a sort of sonic set designer), while in television the word is essentially a synonym for writer. But in film and theatre, the producer is a kind of super-assistant and facilitator: the person who makes sure that the artists, including the directors, have what they need to make the art, whether that’s financial resources, space, time, feedback, or protection from feedback. There’s a lot of awed talk about “world building,” especially in genre narratives, and this crucial imaginative task is properly understood to be in the writer’s wheelhouse. But back here on planet Earth, producers are the ones who actually build the worlds in which these imaginative world-builders may freely operate; they create the safe and stable playgrounds in which artists can take risks, can fail and fail better until they succeed.
In the nonprofit resident theatre, the person on the administrative staff whose job is closest to that of the producer usually has the title of managing director, though the lines can blur—there are also “creative producers” in theatre, and “producing artistic directors,” the latter in part representing a variation on the seemingly default practice of promoting directors to be artistic directors. Job descriptions are not an exact science. Whatever you call them, I’ve met enough by now to recognize the type: the person in love with theatre who, rather than feeling compelled to seize the spotlight, wonders how that spotlight got there, who sees not so much the theatrical big picture as its frame, who ultimately derives their deepest satisfaction from helping other creative people realize their visions.
In this issue, we get down to brass tacks about the financial health of U.S. nonprofit theatres with our piece about TCG’s Theatre Facts report and with two nuts-and-bolts stories about how some companies have managed to grow without breaking apart. On the commercial theatre side, we have a must-read Q&A with producer-turned-director Harold Prince (who, apropos my earlier analogy, says, “I love the role of editor”). Bridging those worlds, we have a clarifying look at what producers on either side of the commercial/nonprofit divide can learn from each other.
So is producing in itself an art? Are producers artists? It’s probably enough to say that artists would have little art to show us without them.