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Creative Producers Take Their Seat at the Table

“What you pay attention to grows.”
adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

The ongoing global pandemic is revealing the broken system of culture in the United States, bringing a painful new relevance to the phrase force majeure for the creative sector. Many livelihoods have been devastated by cancelled productions, revoked contracts, and lost income. However, the pandemic has also proved fertile ground for invention of new collaborations and the building of communities of resilience. Cracks in the system shed light on those who have long served, often unrecognized, behind the scenes. It is under these conditions that a group of producers banded together to advocate for the work they do in the field supporting the artists with whom they collaborate.

The Creative and Independent Producer Alliance (CIPA) began as a series of quarterly gatherings of like-minded producers in 2018. Primarily, and presciently, organized by Thomas O. Kriegsmann and Iyvon Edibiri (ArKtype), Miranda Wright and Ronee Penoi (Octopus Theatricals), Linda Brumbach and Alisa Regas (Pomegranate Arts), and Miranda Wright (Los Angeles Performance Practice), these meetings helped build a network of creative producers for the sector. In March of 2020 the need to mobilize grew urgent as productions were cancelled and producers found themselves and their projects on the brink of financial ruin. Word of mouth helped and membership grew with intention towards articulating the contributions and shared values of producers working in support of independent artists in contemporary performance.

With a growing membership, CIPA continues to develop under a decentralized leadership structure and works to be responsive to the experiences and needs of its members. We as curators of and contributors to this series each found our way to CIPA from different paths—which is indicative of the diverse nature of this remarkable gathering of creatives.

How Marianna Got Here

I’ve been involved in educational video production since 1999 with an eclectic background in theatre and bookbinding. When I went to my first opera in 2010, I immediately set a course to be a librettist because I wanted opera to have better story lines and better outcomes for women. My calling to be a creative producer emerged as written works piled up on my desk and composers began asking, “Ya gonna do anything with those?”

The year 2020 became the catalyst for me as CIPA member Beth Morrison, president of Beth Morrison Projects (BMP), launched the Producer Academy. It was the rigorous training I had been waiting for. Joining CIPA became a natural extension of the BMP program. I was introduced to a community of arts workers who were holding generative conversations in the middle of a global pandemic. Their collective energy filled the Zoom room with possibilities and solutions for a way forward. I produce programming for the independent opera company dell’Arte Opera Ensemble in New York City while building my practice as a librettist/creative producer in the national field. It is my aim to generate community, bringing CIPA values and mission to my work as a creative producer with an intent to transform how opera gets done. Curating this series is opening my eyes to the many different ways creative producers work and what we hold in common belief.

Two people talking in front of a bassist.

Jennifer Harrison Newman, Yale University student Calvin Kaleel, and creative director Dan Lawlor. Taken at Yale Schwarzman Center by Yuhan Zhang.

Jennifer's Journey to CIPA

I was introduced to the original idea of CIPA in 2019 at a session at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) entitled The Producers Roundtable and hosted by Mara Hoffman and Tommy Kriegsmann. Seated on the floor (because it was the only place I could find), I was thrilled to be in a room of people from all over the globe and from across sectors who were interested in coming together to discuss how we could better serve our projects and the artists who created them.

Having worked as an independent artist and producer, I know how isolating and lonesome the work can be. It was evident in the room that there was desire and need for a structure that brought independent producers together regularly to share best practices, resources, and mentorship. The harsh realities of the March 2020 shutdown underscored what we had discussed in that room at APAP. It was that spring that CIPA officially formed and I immediately joined in the calls to help build the community.

What is an Independent Creative Producer?

An independent and creative producer can be defined in many ways. The role has evolved over the last two decades to fill a gap left by institutions pivoting from producing original work with local artists to presenting completed and commercially-proven productions for their audiences. Because institutions are not in a position to confidently take the risk of presenting new works, independent and creative producers are now tasked with providing critical and reliable management, guidance, and support for artists across the country.

“Producers serve as creative collaborators and project managers, both caring for and serving as point on a project,” explains CIPA member Eric Oberstein. “Producers are a go-between for all parties involved in the development of new work, including artists, managers, agents, presenters, funders, donors, marketing, press, education and community engagement partners, and other stakeholders.”

Each producer works differently and fills varying roles depending on the needs of the projects they work on. Currently there is no accepted industry standard for compensation of creative and independent producers. As a result, they are often the last to be paid and rarely at a level that correlates to the labor and expertise provided, leading to an increasingly vulnerable sector.

“In many ways, the better a producer’s work, the more invisible they are,” CIPA member Isabel Soffer points out. “And [in] this [past] year that was actually a big problem.”

As distinct individuals, creative producers connect with independent artists outside the traditional norms of institutional structure; they operate with nimbleness and a responsiveness to constantly shifting circumstances. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, each creative producer has navigated not just the normal challenges presented by creating new work, but also those of a global pandemic. Producers, along with their artists, have shared in tremendous economic loss. As essential workers, producers are surprisingly underfunded and left to self-subsidize their and their collaborators’ labor. Many grant application budget templates contain no line for them, yet without producers, productions don’t reliably happen.

“In many ways, the better a producer’s work, the more invisible they are,” CIPA member Isabel Soffer points out. “And [in] this [past] year that was actually a big problem.”

Prioritizing their artists’ visions, creative and independent producers align their labor in support of that vision while often not seeking or requiring visibility. Of the producers in CIPA, 90 percent of them are women or work for women-led organizations. Emphasis is generally put on building collective strength as opposed to individual gain. As a result, members of the alliance have brought many of our country’s most significant artists’ work to life over the past decade, totaling 150 new projects since 2010 that would quite possibly never have been produced otherwise.

A Collective Vision for the Future

What lies in the brokenness of the day is the opportunity for a great age of innovative thinking. Creative producers are starting new conversations and generating possibilities that could not have existed prior, causing action around the creation of original works for a new and yearning audience.

“While direct-to-artist funding was crucial [during the onset of the pandemic], the ingenuity and success/survival of these works were largely their own,” reflects CIPA member Meredith Boggia. “This ingenuity is a resource for the field and, I believe, ought to be centered as we look forward.”

As the world strives to reach beyond the restrictions of the global pandemic, independent and creative producers take our seat at the table by bringing more attention to our role in the development of new work and bringing our collective vision of the future with us. As producers, we create and hold space for dialogue and narratives that have yet to be told. CIPA is building on principles that place human connection and creative respect above old standards of top-down directives. While many of us have been operating from a progressive model for decades, CIPA demands it be the industry norm. Independent and creative producers are integral to the process of bringing a new work from concept to production. This must be recognized by both funders and presenters.

Amid uncertainty, CIPA formed from a desperate need for survival and community, building strength as we shared information and resources. Steadily over the past 18 months, this group has grown from a handful of colleagues to 130 human beings who self-identify as creative producers. We are committed to meeting regularly, sharing best practices, and developing a support network committed to advocacy and visibility.

Through robust dialogue about the role of the creative producer as an essential arts worker and keeper of our cultural well-being, we challenge long-held assumptions of the archetypal hard-boiled, cigar-chomping producer. CIPA establishes new ways of working and empowering others in our field and we believe this will give rise to a new paradigm.

As the world strives to reach beyond the restrictions of the global pandemic, independent and creative producers take our seat at the table by bringing more attention to our role in the development of new work and bringing our collective vision of the future with us.

 

Next Steps Forward

During one monthly cohort meeting, CIPA members discussed our seven core values and how they showed up in our day-to-day work. From that discussion, several members agreed to share their experiences with the field by contributing to this series: Carlos Diaz-Stoop, Rika Iino, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Miranda Wright, Ben Johnson, Sophie Blumberg, and Jonathan Secor. From good troublemaking, to innovative approaches, to civic policy, the forthcoming essays, conversations, and interviews will highlight the perspectives and experiences of a diverse field of working producers. The CIPA members who volunteered to contribute to this series are passionate leaders, dynamic thinkers, and committed creative partners who engage cross-country, intergenerational, and multi-constituent viewpoints.

This series underscores CIPA’s mission and values which are also our members’ collective vision for the future. At once an acknowledgement of our process, it is also an invitation to all independent and creative producers who desire community and advocacy for their work. We hope that theatremakers, across all disciplines, find resonance and inspiration in this series and should anyone want to engage with any of the ideas presented, we look forward to continuing the dialogue with them!

 

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