Just What Are the Responsibilities of a Producer…?

Years ago, during a production meeting with one of my bigger clients – an iconic, Western University – in response to a production suggestion by one of the higher-ranking members of “the committee,” my Production Manager took a breath of consideration as everyone at the table looked over to him…

“You know;” he said, “there are a lot of bad ideas…better than that!”

The group cracked up, and the point was made.

That point is that the Customer is not always “right;” especially in show, theatrical and experience production.

This is a nuanced balance, a delicate path one must walk. On the one hand; the client has contracted or engaged the Producer to deliver a property or concept, to realize a vision…often, the vision of the client; sometimes a vision in which the client has invested. Either way, the client is paying the producer to deliver what is wanted.

But, who is the arbiter of what is wanted?

The hard truth is that the client isn’t always (and by that, I mean rarely) the best judge of how to realize a given vision or concept. If that were the case, actually, the client would be the producer. The Producer is paid and responsible for seeing to it that the project happens, adhere’s to the budget and gives the audience what the client wants the audience to get, to appreciate.

Let’s step back for a minute and lay out some of the major, different kinds of Producers.

  • There is the Executive Producer; the one with the Money and who often holds primary interest in filling the seats.
  • There is the Producer Producer; the one who knows how to put all the pieces together and protect the Director and the Creatives from the Money People and Other Realities while they develop the vision.
  • There is the Managing Producer; who’s all about the nuts and bolts and scheduling and budgets and not so much about the content or look of the show, itself.
  • There’s the Creative Producer; often collaborating with the Director or even doing the Directing, handing off the nuts and bolts of logistical management to a Production Manager or Co-Producer.
  • Then, there is often the Carnal Producer; the boyfriend or girlfriend of the Executive Producer or Star of the Show who wants a credit and something to do.

There are plenty more Producers of varying degrees of nuance and scope; but those (excluding the last one) are a basic set.

Now, that being said; seldom is anyone wearing just one of those hats. More often than not, responsibilities are juxtaposed, distributed and apportioned in different ways for different projects, depending on who brought in the property, who owns the theatre, who was there, first…

Ultimately, though – and back to the original point – between the Producer and the Director lies the Mysterious Realm of Creative Realization and Protection. It is between these two that the nurturing and evolution of the Audience Experience lies.

Audience (and client) expectation is limited by what they know is possible. It is our job, our responsibility, as Creators of Experience to exceed audience expectation through what we know is possible, what we know is right, what we know will work the best. Our job is to protect what the client wants the audience response to be, not accede to every suggestion, edit or demand of the client at the risk of the actual Experience.

And, this is where it can get dicey.

In most of my work, I generally act as Creative Producer or Creative Director and, depending on magnitude and complexity, do the Directing or collaborate with a specialized Director for unique media or contexts. When I am fortunate to partner with a Producer who gets the creative process and can support the creative side while protecting the logistical and budget, that is when I have been able to deliver some of the most compelling experiences of my career.

The nuance is this: while what the client wants is of paramount importance; what the Producer and Creatives know about what makes theatre or Experience resonant and compelling supercedes – or should supercede – any contributions of the client that are detrimental to the ultimate, overall experience. …and, those contributions call for being identified and set aside as they are offered.

This, as one might imagine, is where diplomacy enters the picture.

While, “…there are a lot of bad ideas, better than that…” may not be the most diplomatic of responses; there are other ways of conveying and convincing a client to relinquish these ideas. While each client-suggested idea or approach may well be fantastic as stand-alone concepts or components; very often the overall effect of acceding to client demands can result in an experience that is disjointed, too long, suffers from depletion of energy or simply fails to maintain a connection and realize the original vision.

As Producer (or Director) we’ve gotta stand up for the concept, trusting that we are there to protect that very thing.

I once worked with a Producer who could not say “no” to the client. I mean, virtually, at all. As a result, in successive increments of two-, three- and four-minutes, the show grew and grew in length until the additional time came to just under an hour.

An HOUR. Due to all the little adjustments and additions the client wanted. When the show was over and the reviews in, the universal complaint was length and concomitant energy drain. The client was angry at how the show was received and blamed the Producer.

I believe the Producer must hold the line with the client.

I learned this lesson years ago, when holding the position of Producer and Director for a huge, international stadium spectacle show; my first. After six or seven months of working in a virtual, unobstructed vacuum, making my own decisions and collaborating with the Creative Team: building a pretty wonderful show arc and Spectacle Experience, “the committee” began to insert themselves into the process; second-guessing decisions that had long been made.

Things got tense; there were challenges; much was riding on this spectacle for all of us. As the heat turned up, I spent several dark nights of the soul, examining my position(s) and assessing the spiritual costs and experiential risks and professional exposure of holding the line on what I knew would play best versus acquiescing to the pressure from the committee.

We were, all of us, new to the level of visibility inherent in this project. A failure would be monumentally destructive, personally and professionally.

I finally came to this: were I to accede to the pressure and make the changes I believed were ill-advised and the show were to bomb, I would have nothing but a failure to my name. However, were I to hold the line and stick to the vision, keep my integrity with respect to what I believed in my heart of hearts was the right thing…and the show were to bomb, then I would know, at least, that I had been wrong.

I decided that I’d prefer to at least risk coming to learn that I was wrong than to make changes in which I didn’t believe. I would be happy with the lesson, were I to fail. That decision has served me for nearly two decades and served to give me confidence in my own judgement during a rough time.

Which is not to say that I am not a good deal more diplomatic, now, than I may have been, then. What I know is that I must believe in what I am doing and I must keep clear sight on the vision, or I cannot do it. This does not mean the original vision cannot evolve; it virtually always does, with what was originally envisioned becoming something often quite different than originally conceived and just as often far better.

Trust yourself, collaborate and communicate, and stay true to what you know. That, at least, is my advice…imho.

Oh, and the show was a hit.

What’s in This Picture…?

This photograph at the top of this page captures, as best might be accomplished with static media, another of the Moments of Which I am Most Proud in the personal history of Moments and Experiences I have been granted the opportunity of creating.

Question: What is one of our favorite parts of Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games? Seeing Team America enter the stadium in the Parade of Nations.

Another Question: What is one of our least favorite parts of the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games? That might be watching every single Team of the Parade of Nations enter the stadium.

It’s part of the program both highly anticipated while being almost as deeply dreaded: thousands of athletes parading into the stadium, one after the other, encircling the stadium  then taking their seats for the remainder of the Ceremonies.

Two hours? Two-and-a-half? More…?

For the 1994 Gay Games Opening Ceremonies in New York City (“Unity ’94”), we came up with the idea of, rather than having the procession encircle the field, having the Parade of Athletes March right down the center of Columbia University’s Wien Stadium, North to South. Then, as each arrived at the South goalposts, teams would alternate turning right or left, circling back to take their seats at the edge of the field.

Spectators got to see their team enter and parade down the field, then half the audience got a second, closer look as the athletes passed closer, and we got 12,000 athletes into the stadium and seated in a record 75 minutes. I think we were onto something, here…

Twelve years later, in 2006, we had the chance to do even better with the Opening Ceremonies in Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Worldwide, historically and inherently, these Olympic-style, sports stadium ceremonies have the potential to be magnificent, moving, powerful spectacle of the highest, most resonant and exhilarating order. On the other hand, they also have the propensity to be cumbersome, protracted, over-speeched and boring.

While we were intent on moving things along, we kept at the forefront of our minds the fact that these ceremonies are for and about the Athletes, and that the Athletes are both the focus and the stars of the event, as well as being entitled to fully enjoy their presence and participation in such a Ceremony.

So, our perspective was that the Procession of the Athletes had to take place as near to the very first Moment of the Ceremonies as possible.

How to do that and do it both efficiently and effectively without shortchanging the athletes, and to create an indelible Moment in the process?

Like this:

There was no rehearsal time. Virtually all of the athletes arrive in town the day before if not the day of Opening Ceremonies. This means anything done must be well-conceived, well-planned, fully thought-through and staffed for successful execution. We had an extremely tight budget with a small army of committed, intelligent volunteers and a darn good idea.

So, here’s how it played out…

A stage was built across the entire North End Zone of the Field; 40 yards wide. Across the broad, 100-yard expanse of the field, in the South End Zone, the unlit cauldron awaited the athletes, the ceremonies, the ultimate lighting…

The teams, rather than entering the stadium in columns to parade around the track, instead entered in shoulder-to-shoulder rows of up to that 40 yards each. Bursting through a slit-mylar curtain, each team was “revealed” to the audience in total, all at once. (Though there were some teams so large that they took several rows to fully enter).

At the moment of entry, the eyes of every person in the stadium were on that team; I dare say significantly more so than at any time after the first team enters in the traditional staging of the Parade of Nations. Each team had That Moment when all eyes were on them. The spotlight was all theirs.

Then, successively, each team moved forward, onto the field and continued to parade across toward the other end, waving and cheering; owning the field. As the teams reached the far end — or, as that filled, as near to it as they could get — they effectively filled the space, “Tetris”-style.

All the athletes knew in advance was that they were to be handed a light on a lanyard as they arrived on the field, and would be participating in a “light stunt” at the close of the Processional and the Administering of the Oath to the Athletes. They did not know what that stunt would be, nor did the audience have any inkling that there would even be a stunt.

The athletes were told to “light up” the moment the house went dark.

So, as they arrived at their positions, they were met by one of six teams of volunteers, each distributing a different-colored light. Organized in their own columns, each column had a specific color and was guided by barely-visible, hand-held rope barriers that unfurled as the athletes who were to mask their presence with their bodies gathered. This way, the lights were kept separate so as to read as panels when they were activated, on cue.

The Athletes Procession was complete in 47 minutes. (Yes, 11,000 athletes entered in Procession in 47 minutes; an “Olympic” record by at least half.) This is the World Record of which I spoke…

The Procession began before the sun began to set with the stadium lights already on so that darkness would be a surprise when those lights were extinguished, and this plan worked. They entered, gathered, were given their led’s, and were led in the Athlete’s Oath by sports icon, Dave Kopay. As the last words of the Athlete’s Oath were given voice…

“In these Games I have no rivals, only comrades in Unity…”

The House went dark, the lights came on and the audience went nuts as a football field-sized, electronic Pride Flag appeared before them, filling the floor of the stadium. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word.

The explosion of exhilaration and energy was almost overwhelming. The surprise of the audience as they saw what was before them elicited to-their-feet cheering. Then, as that first roar began to peak, the eyes of the athletes on the field could see via the iMag screens what they had created and went even wilder with that realization. This, quite literally, stopped the show.

As though that weren’t enough, as the athletes realized what they’d made, they began to swirl their lanyards. I wish that I could say that this had been envisioned, but the lanyards were part of planning for so many who’d be in sports gear and possibly pocketless.

When they began swirling the lights, it was breathtaking; as though the stadium were awash in living, liquid light. My production manager and I ran from the booth to the field in order to stand in it, walk through it, to cheer and hug other athletes and to immerse ourselves in the most immersive of spectacles I’d experienced.

In retrospect, these are excellent examples of some of the things I’ve been talking about;

  • Liberating Preconception and Comfortable Disorientation with the reconfiguring of the Procession
  • Successive Revelation of the Athletes as they entered, with the filling of the Field, and finally with the reveal of the flag to the audience, then to the athletes.

So Powerful, the Experience. So Proud to have been successful. So Grateful for that memory.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning

Overproduction – The Left Brain and What’s Right

The Perils of TMI

Tell ‘em everything, show ‘em everything, lay it all out and your audience will leave with less than you might otherwise have given them had the experience been better crafted to engage rather than, in a sense, spell-out.

Less truly is More … more often than not, and to articulate every moment, point and beat of a story does, I believe, a disservice to our audience.

In conversations with clients, it is not unusual to hear arguments in favor of spelling things out “…in case someone doesn’t get it…” Well, we can do that; but giving it all away like that, spelling it all out, makes it a Show, while offering a well-crafted, creative “Less” can elevate said Show into an Experience that is deeper and more resonant…and more personal.

Let the audience do some of the work. (We’ve talked about this! <g>)

It sometimes seems that many producers and directors strive to eradicate any doubt in the minds of an audience as to what is intended or meant, what may be every thought of the main characters, the Why that motivates each action or word… This Leading of the audience, step-by-step, through a story may seem thorough and complete, in theory – and, in a sense, it is both thorough and complete; but such completeness isn’t necessarily a foundation for powerful storytelling.

Sometimes, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions based on their experience of what you presented can result in deeply-felt convictions as to motive and eventuality, differing widely from seat to seat in your theatre.

Harking back to earlier conversations around Subliminal Engagement and the Liberation of Preconception; filling-in all the blanks and wrapping it all in a pretty, no-loose-ends bow isn’t necessarily the most effective approach to an audience recalling and re-experiencing what was given them long after Curtain and often into the days and weeks that follow.

This relates to the theory and methodologies that apply to communication with an audience through the left and right lobes of the brain. This division of mental labor is, I think, often discussed or referenced yet not so often actually examined and applied in the context of creating event or ride experience, producing theatre, even making film and video for the occasional capital campaign.

As you likely know, the left brain leans toward the analytical while the right holds most of the feelings and emotions: the cerebral versus the visceral.

That being the general case (it’s more complicated than that; but for purposes of our discussion, today…), there are some general rules I tend to follow as much as possible when creating film or video or theatre in order to keep the left brain quiet (if not dormant) and the right brain engaged and active.

When making film, the banning of print or titles from the screen is worthy of exploration and adherence. A line must often be walked, especially when on-camera interviews are a part of the piece, with deciding how and when to identify a given speaker. If you can get away without identifying a person, then by all means do it!

Depending on one’s audience and familiarity with the speaker, identification may not even be necessary… Or, list speakers and faces at the end of the video, or at the beginning; however your storytelling can support it without obstruction.

Truly adept would be finding a way for a previous speaker to reference the next, or the light-handed use of a narrator from segment-to-segment. There isn’t always a way, though there very often is at least one…

Frankly, imho, there is rarely, rarely a situation where it serves the delivery of information to put data onscreen, anyway. More often than not, it is that very data that can “date” a video piece sooner than anything else. One can refer to data, fact and figure and send the audience to Google (if they haven’t already been there).

We did this for a non-profit capital campaign in Southern California a few years back; with Jane Seymour as the Ambassador, describing the experience, engaging the audience with her description of the programs, referencing the “…reams of facts and figures…” and sending ‘em to Google. Worked like a charm…

“Don’t worry,” she says to the camera, “I’m not going to show you all those facts and figures; that’s why we have Google! What I am going to do…”

Feel free to check it out on my YouTube Channel:

I have experienced another example of overproduction that, from my point of view, epitomizes the worst in what can happen when a writer or director or designer (or, yes, a producer) goes overboard in complicated articulation.

Some years back, a Famous Event Designer in a Huge Eastern City created as a component of one of his signature events some fantastic centerpieces composed entirely of red and yellow roses. He took apart one color of rose and, petal-by-petal, tucked those alternate colors into the contrasting bloom. It was very impressive; clearly a detailed, intricate, laborious and expensive augmentation of the evening.

My sense of this, though, is that that sort of thing ultimately distracts from unrestrained enjoyment of the experience through the senses of the right brain. Such overtly complex and complicated presentation can become a subject of conversation and, through that, ignite the left brain to further analyze the How’s of what is happening rather than simply becoming immersed in the Experience.

Once awakened, ‘tis difficult to put that rascally left brain back to sleep.

Truly. Keep presentation simple. Save the complexity for the timing; for reveals, for a Moment of Exhilaration, for a Finale or Shock or Surprise; but keep the experience simple to appreciate and enjoy.

Make sense?

Thanks for reading.

I’m replacing my Robert Browning quote with something more relevant to this particular post…

We can lead a horticulture but we can’t make her think…

(Perhaps we shouldn’t try…!)

Underproduction by Design



Restrained by budget,

Restrained by time,

Restrained by resource,

Restrained by design.

Nope. Not one of my Tenets; simply a feature of the Process, most of the time.


I’ll wager that we all encounter the first three of these, regularly. Budgets that are smaller than the vision of Client or Creative, clients who want a brilliant and fully fleshed-out concept squeezed immediately from some toothpaste tube of creativity, not enough money or floor space or ceiling height…

These restraints – constraints might be a term with more clarity – are the obstacles that challenge us to stretch our Creative Muscle; finding ways to surmount and ensure quality of the experience we are creating for our audiences. Interestingly, more times than not it seems – at least to me – these challenges tend to result in enhancing the experience through the process.

I view this restraint as another form of discipline as we navigate the channels of creativity and production, and it keeps things interesting.

Sometimes, though – taking Subliminal Engagement to a virtual extreme – one can achieve a powerfully compelling result through spare production by design. Underproduction, while maintaining finesse and elegance, can actually captivate and engage an audience; less is significantly if not substantially more…

Effectively realized; a huge, open, dark space, far larger than the audience it is meant to contain can become an immersive theatre, an experiential time machine of sorts. Lit with “islands” of light as performance spaces with a combination of physical expanse and visual darkness such that the distant, enclosing walls cannot even be perceived; this minimalist staging can support a fuller suspension of disbelief.

The audience is Comfortably Disoriented and the experience is Successively Revealed as sounds come out of the darkness, lights fade in to spotlight a moment of action or narrative, then fade out; leaving the audience Subliminally Engaged as they weave the connective thread of their own making through the experience(s) offered them.

Obviously, sight lines and acoustics must support the experience and more than some cinder blocks and flashlights are necessary to render the ignition of imagination. That being said; much can be accomplished – much experience communicated – by evoking with sound revealing bits and pieces with light.

I am lucky to have been able to see two like experiences created at the same venue, years apart and with essentially the same program format, and to witness the difference in audience response to the two, disparate approaches.

In the name of full disclosure, I produced and directed the one of the pair that I found most effective and compelling; though, I believe I am being objective in my assessment and comparison of the two. If not; well, the name of this site is “imho”…ergo, this is my opinion!

When asked to select from my body of work (so far) which of my productions am I most proud; one of the three is the CandleLight Ceremony for the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Lincoln Memorial in 1992. Twenty years later, this yet ranks as one of my finest accomplishments and, in retrospect, all of my tenets were applied to its creation; though, I had not given language or name to my methodologies at that time — it was all instinct.

Later, in 1996, ceremony for the Quilt was produced at the Lincoln Memorial by a different group. This latter production was what I would call a Standard Event Format; as the landings on the stairway were heavily populated with chairs for orchestra, performers and speakers; the stage was lined with rows of tents for talent and support, scaffolding and technical detritus was everywhere. (Is my disdain evident? Hey, this is imho…)

We had done it, differently.

Using what was there, we designed our lighting towers and screens such that views of the reflecting pool, the steps leading to the Memorial and the Memorial itself remained unobstructed. The Memorial was our stage, and my sense was that to augment would be to distract. So, no stage was built, all support, backstage and green room were completely out of view, and the memorial was lit only from towers hidden in the trees.

Well, that…and the glow from the candles held in the darkness by the 250,000 gathered marchers.

The program consisted of an august list of speakers and performers:

  • Melissa Errico
  • The late James Callan
  • Patti Austin
  • Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton
  • Cleve Jones – the founder of the Quilt
  • Liza Minnelli – as speaker rather than performer (Liberation of Preconception!), she offered the Spiritual Moment…an effectively unexpected use of pre-eminent talent; reflecting a philosophy to be covered in a later post.
  • Joel Grey – singing the finale.

The program went up at 8 and was to close at 8:45. I had no play in this schedule, as Representative Nancy Pelosi had arranged for a 5-minute window of no air traffic over the Potomac for my Final Effect (hang on, I’ll tell you…). So, that was that; no one gets to run past their scheduled times (techniques for that in an even later post!)

Backstory: going into this, I had developed a reputation for doing fireworks, indoors, at many of my ceremonies and productions in and around San Francisco. The casual joke among my friends and those who were familiar with my work was “…how are you going to write fireworks into this one, Kile…?” If anything, this came closest to a Memorial Service, and there was no appropriate place for celebratory fireworks…there was nothing to celebrate; hundreds of thousands of our friends had died and were still dying as the scourge of AIDS took them from us.

The final piece, though, was Mr. Grey singing, “Jonathan Wesley Oliver Junior;” a song sung by a man who has come to the Quilt to say “goodbye” to his boyhood buddy, whom “somebody told me you would be here…” If you are not familiar with it, this is a very poignant and sad song; one of loss and forgiveness, redemption and nostalgia for an innocent time.

The song speaks of when they were kids, just farm boys playing in the fields and sitting on bales of hay at night, talking and looking for shooting stars. The final line in the song is, “…tell me, Jonathan, up in Heaven, are there shooting stars…………….?”

The great George Zambelli had built for me one, single, giant, bright-white skyrocket that would explode silently…brilliance and absolute silence. As Joel Grey held his last note, the audience could see the tail of the rocket weaving upwards from behind the Memorial, then virtually fill the sky with shimmering brilliance.

And, all one could hear was the simultaneous, spontaneous, quietly personal gasp as 250,000 people had their breath caught in their throat.

Subl minal Eng gement

Inviting the audience to participate in the creation of their own experience.

Well executed, the constructing of the experience in such a way as to subliminally engage those immersed in it can make for an intimate and quite personal experience for each member of the audience, irrespective of theatre or audience size.

What is Subliminal Engagement?

Another way to put it is “to make the audience do some of the work.” Create an experience that is in some ways incomplete…leaving it to each audience member to “complete” for oneself. The set, a song, a word or conclusion…

Rather than hand it all to them, rather than to fully articulate each thing in any dimension, hint; lead them to something but don’t take them all the way… Allow for the journey or journeys to be completed in the imaginations of the audience members.

With finesse, something almost magical can happen. One can offer each person in the audience the discovery or rediscovery of something intensely personal. What ramps up the resonance, the intensity of the experience is that most every member of the audience can experience this personal epiphany at virtually the exact, same moment; offering a theatre-wide, palpable, almost physical rush that renders the experience exponentially more powerful.

The most universally-appreciated example of this would likely be Julie Taymor’s costume designs for “The Lion King.” These costumes evoke jungle animals rather than attempt to fully articulate them. Ergo, what happens in the mind of each audience member is the recognition of a hyena, a zebra, a gazelle… Not just any hyena or zebra is perceived, however, and not the same one, throughout the theatre; rather, each person recognizes a specific, individual personal experience of “zebra” – the animal that s/he knows or first saw or experienced.

It is a “shared, personal experience;” the power of which cannot be overstated despite the virtual nature of it. This experience is is borne of Subliminal Engagement.

Referencing the Stanford film that was shared in an earlier post; this is the primary purpose or goal of creating a film that was shot with two, adjacent cameras and projected on two, adjacent screens that were separated by about 15’ of stage. The separation of the screens was key to the vitality of the experience. When watched in situ, the imaginations of the audience pull those screens together, creating the single image that is being perceived…they are working to create their own experience, side-by-side with one another.

Stanford “Think Again” films #1: Back to the Farm – YouTube

There is a sublime exultation that effervesces within each of us as we watch, engage and create the vary experiences that we are appreciating and enjoying…in a sense, we are discovering.

The extreme of this – which is a theatrically traditional technique – is, as one may imagine, darkness; punctuated with light for the action, sounds and effects broadcast into darkness, bare stages with boxes and ladders and spartan sets… While that can work, care must be exercised in the avoidance of going too far in one direction, risking boredom or distraction by the very spareness that is meant to do the evoking.

I believe what gives this its power and effectiveness is the lushness or completeness of what is articulated, rendering what is missing that much more dissonant – and by that dissonance, that absence, calling forth more colorful and complete imagery and experience from the imagination.

There are myriad ways of creating experience that elicit Subliminal Engagement: observe, examine, invent, adopt…create.

Again, thank you for reading; I hope this helps or inspires.

If you have a moment to comment or offer feedback, below, please do; I appreciate that stuff!

And, with that, this concludes the introductory overview of my Five Tenets for the Creation of Compelling Experience. With next week’s post, I’ll begin exploring some of the science behind the methodologies and their anecdotal applications. Always brief and, imho, always int’restin’.


“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”
-Robert Browning