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?

a man smiling at the camera
David Dower. Photo by Mike Ritter.

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.

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David,so well put. I mean the Truth is in the fact that there is no right answer or solution to this conundrum of Process vs Product. Here at Cultural Development Corporation, we find that artists want mentorship, they want another strong eye to guide them, they want to ultimately produce a piece that works...but often they don't want to hear what we have to say during the process. or you never DO find that "right time" to share the feedback.

and then hindsight is 20/20, and our artists sit down post-partum and as say to Jenny Frederick, our producer, you were so right, and i didn't listen. and as executive producer, i say to jenny, how do we make them listen? but we can't, not really. or we are "the man" wielding our stick.And even when i am told, no one wants to fail, i know that it's just not that simple.

all i can come up with is the notion of more proactive communication PRIOR to going into production. set up the ground rules, roles, expectations and boundaries and perhaps even special words that act as a cue to really listen to one another, BEFORE the production process begins. and do this every time because every time the parameters may be different.

thanks again for sharing. you are always so thoughtful in your process.

Anne CorbettExecutive DirectorCultural Development Corporation

When Joe Papp produced my play Kate’s Diary, it had had a bunch of earlier lives, first as a reading at Sundance, then reincarnated as a short play at Home (then on Walker St. in Soho), then I rewrote it and rented a space in the East Village for a night and we performed it for friends there, then I rewrote it and Playwrights Horizons did it as a workshop, then the Public. So at least in that case—which probably wasn’t so common--there were a lot of stages. But actually, after Sundance it felt like I was going to lose the play because of so many cooks, with all the other venues I felt I’d taken it back. I acted in the earlier incarnations because I didn’t want distance or “objectivity.” I was driving its “development.” Joe was great. After I got a bad review in the Times he had me into his office and regaled me with stories of when he attacked critics, swore at them and kicked them out of his theatre.

The artistic directors I’ve loved have been advocates of the play I’ve written. That could mean sitting with me and giving me notes (usually that’s when the artistic director had been a literary person first), or doing inspired acts of diplomacy when things got tough in the collaboration with the director. I think it’s important to feel that the producer/artistic director is enthusiastic about the play, isn’t counting on big rewrites during the rehearsal of a production, because it just doesn’t always happen that way. And communication and good will is such a good thing. Sometimes the playwright and the director are really nervous, afraid that the other is going to stomp on her precious vision, and a mild and kind and level response of the producer (in this case I’m thinking of a dramaturge) will be just what the doctor ordered.

Collaboration is often fraught. I think sometimes we forget that’s okay. And it’s better to take notes from someone who is committed to the play, who is going to do it—however spare or fully realized the production is.

It’s usually been better, in my experience, to have stages of life of a play, because more can be said and found and corrected or evolved. I know that can flatten or homogenize or lose a play’s unique voice, but for me if I feel I’m in the driver’s seat it’s been good. That might be a series of readings or a workshop production, whether it’s at one theatre or several. But I usually rewrite a lot, I like that, the process of finding the play. It’s important to me to not feel a passive victim. Well, I guess that’s probably important for everyone.

Members of LMDA's New York City regional chapter have been meeting with professionals at area theatres over the past six months or so to talk about making theatre and the role of the dramaturg in various venues. This particular article provided our starting point, and our point of resolution, in a conversation Monday September 12 at the Lark Play Development Center with Suzy Fay, Associate Program Director. [some notes here:] Most of us had seen this essay and we kept circling back to its themes. My opinion: it is always appropriate to think about when, where, how one engages. Authority, permission, appropriateness, and respect to be considered. Yes.

David’s frank and moving discussion of the role of the producer made me want to flip the equation around to the artists’ perspective. My impression is that back in the days of Joe Papp, a theatre would generally collaborate with a writer on a play from commission/submission to opening night. Or maybe two theatres would be involved.

Nowadays the act of producing has become diffused among many institutions. Theatre A commissions the work, and Theatre B does a developmental reading; next comes a workshop at Theatre C. Then maybe back to A, followed by a festival production mounted by D; there’s a second workshop, this time at E; readings at F and G, with an NNPN rolling world premiere at D, H, and J.

Of course each producer is different, and his or her actual involvement with the piece might range from deeply committed to cursory. But I wonder how artists, writers especially, view David’s dilemma from the perspective of having to negotiate these tricky power dynamics with not just one or two producers, or even three or four, but a whole collection of them on each piece. Does it put them in charge, or leave them at sea? And how do each producer’s choices, of the kind David so eloquently described, play out not just for the workshop or staging at hand, but for the overall life of the play?

It's an interesting conversation in terms of who is actually producing the work and to what end - and what 'stage' the artist and the theater consider the work to be at -- your 'world premiere' may be my 'chance to finally slog through Act 2' or 'my final tune up before Broadway' - and what is the role of the individual artist within a large (anything larger than their home office) organization?

Good start to the discussion - can't wait to see where it goes

David- a really clear and insightful view into some very recognizable moments of process...

it makes me think, this day as school starts up and i begin work with a new group of MFA Directors and writers,about the relationship between a producer and the work they support, and a teacher, and the voices/artists they support...

and about the different relationship both those relationships have to capital, and to time, and to what is at stake, and to responsibility...

a producer isn't a teacher, or even a mentor...but in the best sense of the role, they are supporting artists they believe in with a goal of yes, a return, but also putting something into the world they nurtured and will be proud of......?

also, as an artistic director who more and more oversees other artists in my company leading projects,my needs for the organization and our core stakeholders always lives in relation to my ensemble's journey as makers and individual artists...

and as an artist working frequently in community engaged contexts and processes, again, what is at stake, and how does authorship occur..? how does collaboration occur...? when a self-defined 'non arts based' individual or organization is a core partner, what role do they have in the conversation about the work...

thanks for the good entry into some always useful queries.

Exceptionally well put! Working in the development of new opera, the issues are much the same, and there simply is no "right" answer.

Being a producer means being somewhat of a chameleon, adapting to the situation in the moment as the situation (and environment) changes. Thank you for taking the time to articulate the challenges - a great post I will be sharing with our patrons and board!

I think the imbalance of power between a producer and artists is inevitable. Joe Papp seems to have owned that (and from what I've been told ran roughshod over people fairly regularly.) Not to say he didn't also do amazing work as a producer, but he was not purely benevolent.

The dynamic changes when the producer is in the room. I, for one, don't buy for a second that calling it an AD instead of Producer changes that at all. It's inevitable, but doesn't need to be corrupting.

The old "with great power comes great responsibility" holds especially true for producers. I often think of my role as a head coach/GM would be in sports. You have to inspire, critique, teach and be fully prepared to replace personnel at the same time.

It's a tricky balance, that is different from person to person and project to project. But ultimately no one is served by a producer who is too timid to step in when needed or too stern to step back when needed.

I think it is fitting that you don't know where to stand. A producer needs to be able to adapt and shift constantly in order to be the best producer possible.

Thank you so much for sharing this. As Co-Artistic Director of four year old actor based company producing new work, I, along with my partner, have really struggled to find the balance in our roles of producer/enabler and artist. Because we are actors first all looking to do other aspects of theater, guiding emerging writers, providing a safe haven and room to fail, and yet demanding/desiring quality and professionalism, have sometimes felt like contradictory missions. Especially when we only have the funds for one production a year along with several work-shopped readings.

I don't really have any answers, unfortunately. However, it is reassuring that someone with your experience and talent still faces the issues we are facing. Sometimes it's nice to hear that there is not one "right" answer when you keep trying different things.

We preach process, process, process, while what we really want is process that leads to artistic and hopefully some commercial success - so that we can continue the process.

For me, as both a director and a producer, this speaks to two or three different issues; almost all to do with the word relationship. In terms of role, I have to ask myself my relationship to the production, the artists, and the eventual outcome. All of these need to be balanced against one another.

On a personal basis, I always try to determine if my perception is based on my ego or what "I" would do with the piece if I had ownership. Am I truly trying to fulfill the playwright's intent? Or my own? Is this about developing the piece, or putting on the best production possible at this point in time?

On a practical basis, how deeply am I committed to the piece. The deeper I'm committed the more "right" and probably necessity that I speak my truth to it. If I am deeply involved and I don't speak my truth, I've let the other partners down.

As a director, I've often gotten some of my most important insights from people only tangentially connected to the creative process. I have to trust my own talent and filter to be able to hear all opinions and see if they resonate with my understanding of the piece.

This also goes back to William Goldman's question of who exactly is the "Muscle" on the piece. Finally, someone has to have creative control; the focusing lens for the project. If more than one or two people share this control, it usually turns out a mess. Normally this has been the director or producer.

I do believe collaboration has become somewhat more complex with the rise of powerful dramaturgs (many quite brilliant) over the last twenty or thirty years. Traditionally the director or producer or agent filled the dramaturgical role. The addition of another creative voice into the process (at least during development), works more like factoring rather than addition when adding voices, as this voice interacts with all parties, not just one.

All of this is further complicated by the power of institutional producing, rather than individual producing, so there is an institutional voice in the room that is interested in how the piece succeeds for the institutions mission and audience, rather than necessarily succeeding on its own terms.

With each new voice added, there are pluses and minuses. More potential for good ideas and people to catch the problems, but also more potential to distract from the artistic impulse and the ability to create a unified vision.

I would add one thing. Very few people create well with someone looking over their shoulder. The more people and voices and cooks and decision-makers in the room, the more pressure on everyone to make themselves "necessary" and the greater the possibility that the creative broth will be spoiled.

I replayed those situations, Roberta, with the "AD" switch, and I agree that the perception from the ensemble, directors, playwrights, and creative teams would possibly change. They may feel more at ease with the "artistic" title.

But from "David's" standpoint, I think I find that I have many of the same concerns, as an artistic director. As I've thought over and over about my "producerorial process" in my 8 years on the job, I still struggle to find that balance of allowing freedom to the artists I've invited into the company and the pressure of producing a successful (in whatever way you want to define that word) show. I want to have an environment at my company that allows for big risks by directors and artists who have a clear drive and passion for a project without me making them second guess their decisions. But I too, have sat in late dress rehearsals with thoughts of "I wonder if I could have steered this director in a different direction to make this production stronger if I had acted sooner?"

I suspect that there's an appropriate nature vs nurture, child-rearing metaphor that applies here too. "Should I let my child eat dirt and always wear knee pads or let them build up their immune system and learn from their mistakes?"

I think what you are describing is simply life. The messy beauty of just about all relationships, how incredibly complicated all of our inner lives are so figuring out how to work together in the world, in a rehearsal room, in a dark theatre is, by necessity, complicated, mysterious, occasionally connected and lovely, but boy oh boy, messy. After all collaborative processes in the theatre, I think, wow, puppet plays, my dear, or novels, but no more of THIS. And then I get lured in again by the beautiful mess.

I'm curious - some of the scenarios you describe could and do take place when any artistic director is in the room. When I substitute "AD'" for "producer" the issues seem clearer and more open for collaborative discussions.

Thank you, Mr. David Dower - you have just described my life!

I read your piece immediately after finishing up a day in which NONE of what I did in any of my roles seemed to move the project forward. So I'm not going to even attempt to answer your question in this wacko state of mind.

(And why is she responding, you may rightfully wonder?)

Because I love your questions! I love that you're acknowledging the tough stuff; I love that you don't have the answers; I love that you're acting as the catalyst for the conversation in order to gain insight. That's a lotta love that came at me on the perfect day. So thank you again. And I'll be back with (hopefully) something to share.

It's all in the timing, isn't it?