This story is part of "The Changing of the Guard," a special section on the leadership changes sweeping the American theatre. Read the rest of the stories here.
Creative producer. Associate producer. Line producer. Artistic producer. Special projects producer. Education programs producer. Assistant producer. Artistic programs producer.
See a pattern here?
These are just a few of the titles and job postings I’ve recently seen while searching the websites of various theatres across the country. I started to notice this phenomenon just before I entered graduate school at Yale, and I asked myself: What do these titles mean? What exactly is a producer?
It’s a job title we might associate with commercial projects—film, television, radio, Broadway—where the gig is to raise money and secure the rights and the talent. In recent years, though, the term has appeared more and more in nonprofit theatres. As a professional manager who is curious about organizational structures in theatre, I’ve pondered the way these titles have begun to creep into the lexicon of regional theatres. What is driving this trend? And are all these nonprofit producers bringing different skills and values to the work, especially when the imperative goes beyond making sure a production is commercially successful?
In the nonprofit world, money-raising and artistic programming are usually divided into separate departments. But now that more nonprofit theatre producers are becoming artistic directors, it seems the internal walls have come down.
“The producing function has typically been spread across many departments, but now we see the value in trying to concentrate that function into one position as a conduit to rest of the organization,” explains Jacob Padrón, the newly appointed artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre, who also runs the Sol Project. He worked previously as a line producer at New York’s Public Theater.
The producer in a regional theatre has to be many things to many people. Says Maria Manuela Goyanes, the new artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and former associate producer at the Public Theater, “Part of being a producer is having deep and difficult conversations with various stakeholders.” Some of these questions are about planning and budgeting resources—is a fight or an intimacy choreographer needed for a production, and can funds be found to hire them? But they can also be about the artistic goals of the creative team: What kind of conversation do you want to have with the audience and the community? What is your vision for the piece? Says Goyanes, “You have to help facilitate the creative process, when that process can be vulnerable. Building trust is key.”
You may have the impression, as I did, that producers are simply organizers or project managers. But that flattens the role’s dimensions. Producers carry not only the skills of effective organizers, but also the instincts of practicing artists. Stephanie Rolland, artistic line producer at the McCarter Theatre Center, talks about how her role in the rehearsal room can sometimes be “to ask questions with the knowledge that the artists have put their heart onstage. To say, ‘This is what you expressed to me during rehearsals, and here is what I’m seeing.’ In many ways, I’m the first member of the audience.”
Rolland also characterizes the producer as occupying “the nexus of art and capitalism.” Several others echoed this when trying to describe the role and the skills required. Says Padrón, “Art and commerce are inextricably linked. The art informs the business and the business informs the art. Bringing those two things together into one position creates an even more exciting ecology for the stakeholders in our organization and the field.”
Indeed, everyone interviewed for this story pointed to the growing complexity of artistic institutions, and the way that the art and the business are becoming more intrinsically linked. It’s no longer enough to create art for art’s sake. These days art must have an impact, both with audiences and also monetarily. A well-earning show can be the difference between a budget surplus or a deficit. This is where a producer can be essential—someone who can understand what an artist is trying to achieve, and help them realize it practically. A producer must be able to balance the big picture with the tactical day-to-day tasks at hand. They must be able to communicate effectively with not only artists, but also with patrons and donors. The ideal producer will be able to maximize monetary resources for artistic goals, so it stands to reason that a good producer is equally versed in the script and the balance sheet.
These skills can be acquired from a number of different professional experiences or from training programs. Padrón developed his producing skills in graduate school at Yale (where he still teaches artistic producing), and gathered more working as a producer for Steppenwolf in Chicago, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and at the Public. Goyanes got her B.A. in theatre from Brown, and started at the Public Theater in 2004 as an artistic associate, slowly working her way up over 14 years, until she eventually became the director of producing and artistic planning.
Along the way both developed a sense of the skills needed to navigate between the needs of artists and the capacity of institutions. “The values are in your budget,” says Goyanes. “How you spend money reflects who you are and the kind of work you want to do. Being able to understand how those resources are allocated and how to marshall those resources is another key aspect to the role.”
Says Lauren Keating, an associate producer at the Guthrie in Minneapolis who also directs all around the country, “You have to navigate multiple people and projects at one time, but the soft skills are just as important.” Those soft skills include generosity of spirit, calmness, and active listening.
One thing emerged clearly from all my conversations: If there is one skill a good producer must have, it is the ability to build relationships. “Great art comes out of great relationships,” Padrón says. “Prizing the relationship is essential to the creation of theatre.”
So are producers taking over the American theatre? Hires that exemplify this trend include the hiring of Stephanie Ybarra at Baltimore Center Stage and Johanna Pfaelzer at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, who follow such exemplars as producers-turned-artistic directors Michael Ritchie (Center Theatre Group), Andre Bishop (Lincoln Center Theater), Todd Haimes (Roundabout Theater Company), and Rick Dildine (Alabama Shakespeare Festival), among others.
According to Goyanes, producing is one way for people of color, women, and folks identifying with other historically marginalized groups to gain access to positional power in a way that had previously eluded them. It’s often said the theatres won’t truly diversify until not only the artists they employ but their leadership is more reflective of the nation’s varied demographics. The hope with the expansion of the producer’s role in nonprofit theatres, and the kinds of people who are claiming it, is that it will help to crack some assumptions about the way theatres can operate and who has the power to run them.
Padrón says he optimistic. The field is more open, he thinks, to people with both artistic and management brains, and as the concerns and complications of running theatres only multiply, there will be room for big thinkers from any background. “The field will make more room and allow people to wear as many hats as they want,” he says. “Get rid of the binary. We all have artistry and imagination.”
Al Heartley is currently managing director of the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern University.