It Must Have Been Easier for Joe Papp
You know how people often say, “The deeper into this I get, the less I know”? I'm having that sort of experience at the moment as it relates to the role of the producer in the process of new play development. As a director of a play in development, I am totally comfortable with my role. Equally so as a collaborator in devised works. But when my role is producer, I think I don't actually know where to stand. And I've been doing this for years! Where and how does the producer come into the creative process? When should I sit out? Is the “freedom to fail” of higher value than pulling out all stops for success? What part of a failure is on me as the producer in a new play process? Is the imbalance of power between the producer and the rest of the creative team inevitable or unavoidably corrupting? The more I do this, the less certainty I have about any of it. Four quick examples to set the context for my questions:
I’m sitting at the back of a dark theater watching a rehearsal of a piece that is on its way into production for its first run. The piece will be coming to the theater I work at later in the year. I am here to stay current with its development. So, in essence, I am the producer here. In reality, I only represent the producer. This is a devised work, built with a core ensemble, and with the addition of one performer, a director, a choreographer, and the designers. So there are already a lot of contributing collaborators and not all of them experienced with this company’s process. Nor am I. This is the first time I’ve worked with this particular ensemble. I have been lightly observing the development of this piece over a period of years now, well before most of the creative team joined the project, but I am not part of the company in process. The room is extremely collaborative, to the point of seeming almost like a buoyant free-for-all. Suggestions fly in from all directions. Designers are working independently, on the fly—now a new sound idea pops in, now a disco ball is added to the light plot. It’s loose, fun, funny, and egalitarian. I, however, hang back. I sit outside the free exchange of ideas, in the dark, watching, feeling vaguely like a lurker in a chat room. When, in a rare moment of self-consciousness and flagging confidence, the creative team closes the room to work through some difficulties, I pass the time on the sidewalk with the running crew. I am not part of the problem-solving team on this project. I am, in some real sense, part of the problem itself—the pressure of expectation from outside the rehearsal room that has invaded the space, taken over the sense of play, subtly reminding them that answers are needed and commitments have been made. I have had a hand in raising significant amounts of money for this project. I have been part of generating significant opportunities for the touring life of the show. I am part of the organization that is asking for things like bios and photo shoots and promo video. I am the producer in this mix. I am what comes after all of this time. My voice, I have decided, would startle and distract at this point. Though I have ample experience with this improvisational creative process and with the style of the piece being made, there are enough artists on the bus already, I think. I will collect my observations and save them for the appropriate time. My own uneasiness, as I while away the moments on the sidewalk, is whether that time will come soon enough for the creative team to make effective use of them. Am I making a mistake taking such a back seat in a process about which I know some things, in which I have some stake, and with which I have such a long history? Does “The Producer” belong in the conversation taking place right now? Am I helping by withholding, or am I missing the crucial moment where my observations to this point are the missing piece in the problem-solving conversation? The ensemble is more comfortable with my patience. Am I sacrificing crucially timed progress for the ease and comfort of the company in the moment? In making all this space for the artists at the center for this process, at this late juncture, am I doing my job or am I avoiding it?
But when my role is producer I think I don't actually know where to stand. And I've been doing this for years! Where and how does the producer come into the creative process?
I am in the audience for the premiere of a play that I have only read. I have, in fact, read several drafts of this play and it was under serious consideration for production at the theater where I work. The play has many exciting collaborators on board but it is at heart a traditional piece of music theater, with a playwright and composer driving the writing and an exciting young director at the helm. The production clearly has resources. It is a large cast for the size of the venue. It has elaborate designs from experienced designers. The piece is very ambitious in its expectations of theater—cataclysmic events, huge emotions, a lot of unfamiliar history distilled into two acts and bounced off present events. Even before the house lights dim, I am aware of a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The design elements as composed for this pre-show don’t seem to coalesce with each other and nothing points to the kind of pressured environment that the script calls for. “What happened?” I think to myself as we head into the black out to start the show. Sure enough, as the performance proceeds, the elements do battle with and undermine each other. The script—pretty strong in the draft I’d last read—seems meandering now and struggling to launch emotionally. The music, which had been a strong suit in the materials I’d received, seems under-rehearsed by a company of actors I know from experience have the chops to handle it. Everyone and everything on stage seems to be overwhelmed by the sum of the choices made here. I can’t find the ride I’m supposed to get on this night. All around me, people are walking out. And I find myself thinking, “Where was the producer on this project?” It felt to me like the producer had given the artists the keys to the space and left everyone to their own devices. Who knows if that’s at all what happened. But I’m left wondering: was it the producers’ job here? We talk so much about giving artists the room to fail. Was this helpful? Was it necessary?
I am on the phone with a very experienced producer whose work has been a constant source of inspiration and instruction for me in the role of the “producer as artist." To my mind, she’s done the bravest producing of anyone I know and achieved a consistently high level of producerial coherence over a wide range of work. She’s working on a new project, one in which she’s acting as both producer and director. This project is one she’s co-conceived with a playwright. Smack in the middle of the process, they find themselves at odds over roles. The playwright is asking to retreat from collaboration, wanting the time and space to write the text and then to hand it to her to direct for an upcoming workshop. This feels like a shocking anathema to the producer/director. But it makes sense to me. I have been in this role a number of times and in each process there has come a moment where the playwright (or writer/performer) has disappeared into their own private process to push out the text. It’s not at all the process of the first scene—where the team is going to turn ever more fully into the collaboration as the process goes along. In this case, there is a separation at the point of generating the draft, and then a working back toward each other once there’s a script on the table. But on this phone call we’re talking about roles and power plays and expectations in collaboration, and I can hear her questions resonating with mine: “If I sit out at this point, am I helping? Am I avoiding a confrontation? Will the moment for my contribution have passed in some way that dooms this project? If I insist on a role at this moment, is it just ego? Can I be in this moment of the process without tipping the power balance when I am also the producer?”
I am in a pre-production discussion with the writer and director of a play that will premiere at the theater I work at. I am listening to the director and the playwright talk about the work that they are hoping to see on the script before they go into rehearsal. An alarm bell goes off. I hear a disconnect over the tone of the play. The director is talking about grounding things in a kind of naturalism, the writer is talking about allegory and theatrical magic. There’s great love and respect between them, so they profess themselves to be in total agreement around the next steps in spite of the fact that they are heading in opposite directions. I speak up. I point out that they are not yet speaking in one voice about the style and tone of the play. “Let’s keep digging at this," I say. They spend a bit more time talking past each other. I ask questions, in the manner of the dramaturg, but they hear the voice of the producer. I start to hear the placating voices, offering general terms of agreement with what they perceive to be my own agenda for the voice of the play. I know better than to believe I'm being heard in this moment. I am being assuaged, which is different. I become very aware of my power here, and the limits of it. This dynamic persists throughout the production process. As we approach the finish line it heats up. The director is moving resolutely toward the naturalism he asked for at the outset. The playwright is holding on to the allegorical voice. And I’m finally coming in with a heavier hand, the unapologetic producer, and regretting I didn’t play this card at the outset when the disconnect was first visible beneath the love and respect and happy hope-filled talk. I am regretting how well I've performed the part of the assuaged producer in their process. The failure is not total, nor is it debilitating. Play, writer, and director all move on. But neither is it instructive. It is not a productive failure—the thing we hope will fill the space we're protecting when we're protecting the "room to fail." It is just unfulfilled, this promise we started out with. It feels vaguely embarrassing for everyone—the inevitable morning after—as we all wake up to the reality that our choices didn't set this play up for success.
So, you see what I mean? Though I’ve been producing new play development for nearly twenty years at this point, I find myself more curious than certain about the role of the producer in new play development in our current environment. I’m trying to hear the news from Outrageous Fortune. I’m trying to be mindful of Richard Nelson’s cri du coeur about not “fixing” plays. I’m trying to be sensitive to the bigger stick I carry at Arena than I did at The Z Space and talk as softly as I can while still making myself heard in time. Some days I feel twisted up like a pretzel! And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I'd love to hear your own experiences wrestling these questions. Even if they only offer more questions.