When we think of “producing,” we often think “institution.” There is a wealth of producers working outside and alongside organizations big and small, and their work is a vital part of our national theatre ecology. In this series, two different Washington, DC-based producers reflect on their experiences, seeking to make their work visible, and bring reflection, analysis, and rigor to that independent, self-driven process.

Producing on your own can be a lonely road. There isn't a community for independent producers like there is for artists, theatres, and agents. The work we do is often less visible, and less easily understood. That's one of the reasons I'm writing this series with fellow producer Annalisa Dias—there are a lot of reflections, lessons, and challenges to highlight—and I hope we bring our community a little closer in the process.

When I started producing on my own a few years ago, I was amazed at the range of responses I received. One person tried to rescue me by offering me a job. Another told me, “Wow, that's brave.” Yet another thought I must've left town since I wasn't on the staff list at any local theatre. Many were excited, but just as many were confused as to what exactly I intended to do.

To be fair, “independent producer” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. I've seen it mean:

a. self-producing artist
b. independently wealthy pet project funder
c. persuasive gatherer-of-investors for commercial productions

I'd call myself option d. “the creative producer.” Like any artist, I’m generative, but I’m creating capacity and optimizing opportunity.

an actress on stage
Anu Yadav in her piece Meena's Dream, as performed at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. As Touring Producer, Ronee helped raise $16,000 supporting the making of a film and an album of the music from the production as well as offsetting future touring costs. Photo by Derek Rittenhouse.

On capacity: I aim to fill the gaps between a work's potential and its realization. Between an artist’s survival and their being sustained. In my day-to-day life, I'm a grant writer, agent, budget-master, friend-raiser, community organizer, accessibility coordinator, panel-maker, hand-holder, tear-drier, butt-kicker, and negotiator. I add whatever is needed to get from where we are now to where we need to go. But I think that great producing doesn’t end there. Filling gaps can only do so much.

On opportunity: Whenever possible, it’s important to create new possibilities rather than compete for existing ones. We grow as a field by making the pot bigger, and not by being really good at reserving a portion for yourself. Whether it’s identifying a new funding stream, audience member, or partnership, new opportunities are the space where art meets the world. I imagine a life for a piece of an artistic work the way an artist imagines what’s possible onstage.

In producing on my own, I had to immediately answer many questions for myself about my values, and what mattered to me; I was no longer serving an institution’s mission. These two pillars—creating capacity and optimizing opportunity for the art—are where I landed. They put me in service to the artist and their art. Otherwise, I have no firm job description, and I do whatever it takes to bring the project I believe in to life.

Creating opportunity can be challenging, however. It’s hard enough doing what you know will/could work, much less embracing and pursuing a brand new idea with energy and resources. In our industry, we’re proud to declare our affiliations with a theatre, with a service organization, with a network, with a show, and/or with someone we used to work with. However, the biggest opportunities for growth begin when we stop looking for faces we recognize and start looking at faces we don’t know that are turned toward us. Those faces are just beyond the comfort zone of those affiliations and networks. To make real strides that not only benefit us but everyone around us, sometimes we need to get uncomfortable, and convince someone else to get uncomfortable with us.

For me, creating opportunity can be many different things, and attain many different goals. For example:

  • Casting a non-white actor you don't know expands the pool of diverse actors in your area.
  •  Developing a new-to-theatre audience member rather than poaching one from another theatre, expands the pool of support for everyone.
  • Finding a new funding stream outside of the same ten grants everyone else is applying for means we’re creating funding rather than competing for it.
  • Getting an artist to a conference about the world's greatest challenges means we get to understand better how the arts can open up new ways of understanding.
  • A non-arts organization presenting a touring show because they believe that the work resonates with their mission means more opportunity for that artist and deeper resonance for the work.

These are wins where no one loses. Here there is more opportunity, funding, and audience overall—not more for me, less for you.

two women taking a selfie
Ronee and Anu before a production of Meena's Dream at Towson University, 2015. Photo courtesy of Ronee Penoi.

To me, this is the brave new world for our field—creating new connections and new value where there once was nothing. As artists are makers of things that weren't there before, this should be an area where our industry thrives. However, our imaginations have been more attuned to what's on the stage than off. These moves are risky and hard. There are some success stories, but not enough.

I love the challenge of taking this on every day. I enjoy filling the gaps and reaching out into the “what if” space beyond. I can experiment, and be nimble. It's this hard work—building something that wasn't there before—that I'm committed to.

And since undertaking this work two years ago, I've taken away quite a few lessons. Here are my top six:

1. You may be independent, but you can't go at it alone.

It takes a great network to compete and get audiences, funding, and resources for your artistic cause. But if you’re trying to find new springs of all three—you’ll need to hustle. You’ll need to talk to everyone, their friends, and their friends’ friends about what matters to them, what they care about, and understand what about your work may (and often may not) appeal to them.

2. Innovation takes longer than you think.

The less familiar you are with a person, institution, or process, the more degrees of time and energy you should budget for relationship building and communication.

3. Be humble. Be inquisitive. Be sincere. Be fierce.

It can be a difficult thing to embrace these qualities all at once. Producing is in many ways about bridging people and passions, which requires trust. Trust begins with people understanding that you confidently own both what you know and what you don’t know, that you have a vision, and that your door is always open.

4. You do need basic knowledge of every aspect of theatremaking.

In order to steer the ship well, you’ll need knowledge of production, development, marketing, community engagement/connectivity, and administration processes and challenges. Delegating is smart, but you won't always have that luxury. Comprehensive understanding means you can employ more of your creativity in problem solving.

5. Success doesn't happen all at once, but is the culmination of a long series of unglamorous, persistent actions.

In this case emails, or grant applications, or marketing blasts...

6. A good producer needs creativity more than anything else.

Before any budgets can be drafted or contracts signed, a producer needs to have a vision of success in their mind that marries the hopes of the artist with the realities of the world. How will it be paid for? Who should and will see it? What impact will it make? Bringing art to life is a bit of magic.

Every project I’ve worked on has looked a little different, and I’ve worked with artists and institutions in various ways. Even so, I’ve found my pillars to remain the same. Independent producers elsewhere: what are your values? How you do it, and what questions do you have? Hit the comments!