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.

One thought on “Just What Are the Responsibilities of a Producer…?

  1. Love this… so often the politics of letting everyone “pee on the project” can be daunting… learning how to get a client to just say what they want the audience to experience, but let the “creatives” figure out how to get there…is a battle of egos and prior knowledge…
    Have you watched the show “SMASH”… they are showing a lot of the tensions between the money people and the creatives… fun to watch…

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