Meet the fixers...

They're ambitious. They have an eye for a hit. And they will risk everything for a good piece of theatre - even if it means remortgaging the house. Veronica Lee tackles the young producers currently tearing up the West End
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The Independent Culture

You'll often hear people bemoaning the fact that young people are rarely seen in a theatre. But behind the scenes, it's another matter. Away from the West End, where fiftysomething impresarios such as Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber hold sway, there's a whole swathe of shows being staged by people in their twenties and thirties. And what's more, they're often risking their own money to do so.

You'll often hear people bemoaning the fact that young people are rarely seen in a theatre. But behind the scenes, it's another matter. Away from the West End, where fiftysomething impresarios such as Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber hold sway, there's a whole swathe of shows being staged by people in their twenties and thirties. And what's more, they're often risking their own money to do so.

But what exactly does a theatre producer do? Essentially, the producer is theatre's fixer, the person who finds the script, raises the money to stage the show, books the theatre, hires the director and designer, pays the writer and actors, and organises press and marketing. In addition, says Louise Chantal, a producer for the past three years, "the producer gets shouted at a lot and takes the blame when things go wrong."

When looking at the CVs of successful young producers, it's striking how important the Edinburgh Fringe has been to the development of their careers; they describe it as a place where they can learn the ropes while in shows that cost relatively minor amounts to stage. Typically, a show costs £7-10,000 to put on at the Festival; overheads are low and many actors work for subsistence only. When a producer tours a show or stages it off-West End, the costs shoot up. A three- or four-week run costs £40-60,000, with theatre rental, cast and crew wages, plus press and marketing campaigns to be paid for. Theatre rentals vary, but £8-12,000 a week in off-West End houses is average, and Equity rates for actors are about £300 a week. Most theatres take a percentage of the ticket sales (again negotiable, but typically the box-office split is 30/70 or 40/60).

After they have a few productions under their belt, most producers look to outside funding for their shows, either through corporate sponsorship, investors, or angels (people who gift money to a show). Profits, when they come, are usually ploughed back into the business. Producer Olivia Wingate says: "There's a pool of money that I aim to add to with each show, which then helps to capitalise the next."

Why anyone would want to risk all on the public's taste may be unfathomable, but all those interviewed here (a handful of a couple of dozen active young producers in the commercial sector) believe passionately in theatre and are willing to take great personal financial risk - at least in the early part of their careers - to back their judgment. Few make more than what they describe as "a comfortable living", but they all clearly love what they're doing and the risk element is simply part of the buzz.

West End producer Sonia Friedman attributes the burgeoning number of young producers to the fact that theatre has changed rapidly over the past few years, with the growth of new writing and a West End revitalised by Hollywood stars appearing there. "Theatre is an ever evolving industry and we are finding the kind of producers we have is changing along with it." It may seem strange to describe Friedman, who is in her late thirties, as a veteran, but she, too, started very young. Her first production job was at the National Theatre in 1990 and now, with her own company, Sonia Friedman Productions (a subsidiary of Ambassador Theatre Group), she has just opened her 55th West End production - Whose Life Is It Anyway?, with Kim Cattrall, at the Comedy Theatre.

Friedman points out that a producer such as David Babani (profiled right) couldn't haven't launched the Menier Chocolate Factory in London's trendy Bankside without a big investor behind him. Babani concurs, acknowledging the philanthropy of his building's owner, who could, he says, have made a fat profit by turning it into luxury apartments.

Unlike the film industry, where training schemes and placements for young producers are commonplace, there's little equivalent in British theatre. As Chantal says: "The film industry has made a real commitment to get new people producing. British theatre needs to follow suit." James Seabright, another young producer, adds: "Producers are undervalued. Even the Arts Council doesn't recognise their worth." Until recently, there was only one organisation that funded young producers, the Theatre Investment Fund (TIF, renamed Stage One late last year), which was established in 1976. It gives bursaries of up to £15,000 for subsistence, or to part-finance a show, and for many young producers it is a lifeline. All of the above-mentioned have benefited and last year Chantal was one of 10 recipients.

Last year also saw the inception of the Jerwood Young Producer bursary, which went to Fuel Theatre, a triumvirate of producers - Kate McGrath, 25, Louise Blackwell, 30, and Sarah Quelch, 31 - who will receive £50,000 over two years. As David Jubb, artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre (which oversees the Jerwood award) says: "When you're at that wobbly part of your career when you're going freelance as a producer, an award like this is vital. We're trying to create a ladder for the development of young producers and this is an essential part of it." Sonia Friedman believes the greater attention now being paid to young producers is a good thing and welcomes their increasing number. "We desperately need new blood," she says. "When you are a young producer you want to take more creative risks - and the best theatre is always dangerous theatre."

David Babani

Babani, 27, has been active in the theatre since his school days. He read drama at Bristol, where he discovered that as well as directing and doing lighting design for plays, he was effectively producing, too, and that he had a talent for it.

While still a student in 1997, he produced Stephen Sondheim's Assassins for the New End Theatre in London, using his own money and - amazingly - made a small profit. His later productions were financed from money accumulated piecemeal from each successive production. "I've been extremely lucky," he says. "You have to be determined to have a long career in this business and I'm certainly that. I've lost money - show me a producer that hasn't - but it's about taking risks and being dynamic. If you're not prepared to take risks, then you shouldn't be a producer." Babani has two superlatives to his name: he became the youngest West End producer when Forbidden Broadway opened at the Albery in 1999, and he produced the highest-grossing show at the Edinburgh Fringe (The Donkey Show, a brilliant modern reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream as boulevard musical theatre) in 2000.

His most audacious project is the Menier Chocolate Factory, a 200-seat, flexible-space theatre with a restaurant and bar, which he co-founded with his business partner Danielle Tarento, 32, who is an actress by training. Within a few months of taking over the lease in December 2003, they produced Fully Committed by American playwright Becky Mode, which was an unexpected critical and box-office hit. "It was our intention to go slowly and learn about the whole process," says Babani, "but we became a full-time producing theatre practically overnight." Was putting on Fully Committed a gamble? "A premiere of an unknown play by an unknown playwright starring an unknown actor? Yes, a humungous gamble." But the gamble paid off; after an extended, sell-out run at the Chocolate Factory, Fully Committed transferred to the Arts theatre in the West End, where it is still running. On Friday, the Menier opens a Paines Plough season of new writing, This Other England, starting with Enda Walsh's Small Things, and continuing with works by Philip Ridley, David Greig and Douglas Maxwell.

Babani's artistic agenda as a producer is simple. "Every project I work on is different, but the underlying theme is that I'm interested in seeing it on stage and seeing if an audience does, too. I have to believe in something passionately, or else I don't bother." The theatre and restaurant are run as one business, so they can subsidise each other, but the Menier - again, amazingly - is not in debt, as the landlord is "a philanthropic arts lover who is extremely supportive of what we're doing. He knows we're in this long-term."

In what remains of his spare time, Babani is a poker player who goes by the sobriquet "Bad Boy". Does he see being a producer as another form of gambling? "Poker and producing are both a game of maths and bluffing. The difference is, the odds when you are producing are far, far worse."

Louise Chantal

The 36-year-old Oxford English graduate has been producing full-time for only three years, but has already made an impact, having introduced The Riot Group, one of the most exciting young American theatre companies, to the British stage.

Chantal started in student theatre, doing stage management and lighting for the OUDS and then producing The Oxford Revue on a national tour. She co-produced Sex III with fellow Oxford graduate Emily Woof at the 1992 Fringe, which later transferred to London. Then, she says, she was "seduced into being a publicity dolly" and spent much of the 1990s doing various PR and general management jobs.

When London's Soho Theatre opened in 1999, Chantal was its marketing manager and after a few years there she took stock. "I was having a vicarious existence. I thought of myself as a producer while I was doing all these other things, and then I realised I needed to do it properly or not at all." She remortgaged her flat to finance Roadmovie by Nick Whitfield and Wes Williams at the 2002 Fringe.

Chantal has done 16 Fringes in various capacities and ran the Pleasance press office for three years. In 2002, while at the Pleasance, she was simultaneously producing one of the Fringe's biggest hits in years, The Riot Group's Pugilist Specialist, which later went into the West End. This year she is programming and co-producing at the Assembly Rooms, and will produce The Riot Group's next work, Switch Triptych, at Edinburgh.

Chantal has lost money on a few productions, but looks on those as a learning experience. "It's not enough just being supportive to writers and directors. I have learnt that I need to voice my opinion earlier and louder in the process than I have done in the past." She, too, has received TIF help. "It has, single-handed, changed the access to theatre for young producers," she says. "They don't give massive amounts but what they give means that you can leave your job and risk being a producer for a few months."

Chantal says she is not in it for the money and the remortgage has been repaid and reborrowed several times. "I do it because I love theatre and I love what I do - whizzing round the world to see plays is not bad for a girl from a council estate in Bradford. I get a huge kick out of finding new writing. The Riot Group would have been a success regardless of who produced them, but to go from a 40-seat theatre to an extended run off-Broadway in two years is amazing. That doesn't happen unless you have someone pushing with commitment and belief. I always want to discover new talent." Chantal says she would risk everything for a show she really believed in - and jokes that she is worried about her bank manager reading this article - but has a pithy piece of advice for would-be producers: "Marry well."

James Seabright

Twenty-five-year-old Seabright read Social and Political Science at Cambridge and his interest in theatre began almost immediately; in his second term he produced the musical Fame and by the time he graduated he had produced a Footlights tour in the UK and taken CAST, a student drama group he had founded, on a tour of the States.

His first professional production was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002, the critically acclaimed Swimming in the Shallows by Adam Bock. "I saw it at the Hen and Chickens [a pub theatre in north London]," Seabright says, "and thought it was so good that I offered to produce at the Fringe." He has taken a raft of theatre and comedy to Edinburgh each year since and in 2004 two of his shows - Gone by Glyn Cannon and The Elephant Woman by Population: 3 - went on to have West End runs.

Seabright's early shows were funded by money he had saved while working as a student, although none earned him a profit and on some he lost money. "I was learning how to make things work," he says. "I think it's important to make mistakes." Seabright comes from a middle-class family in Bournemouth and it's a point of principle that he would never ask his parents to fund a show. "I'm proud to say I've never gone to my parents. It goes back to their doubts about the longevity of my career when I was starting out and it's part of proving them wrong," he says, laughing.

Seabright has increasingly moved from investing his own money to investing others' "where possible". "I follow the Max Bialystock rule of not risking my own money," he says with an ironic laugh, "by using investors, supporters or grants, or money generated by other parts of my business, such as comedy." Seabright may now run a smaller personal risk, but says that he happily punts his own money on new writers. "But I wouldn't remortgage my house for anything - even if I had one to remortgage - because I know that too many things can go wrong." Seabright has eight productions on the go, including two nationwide tours - The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and David Benson's Haunted Stage.

Seabright has also been helped by a TIF bursary. "They're wonderful, but there's only so much they can do with limited resources. As for the Arts Council, I know they have to prioritise, but it seems to me they don't recognise the value of good producers." Seabright says he loves his job - "It's exciting and inspiring doing something from scratch. I'm a commercial producer but it's always about putting on stuff that I like. It's not about the money." He can't resist another Producers reference about his first experiences in the job. "As Max Bialystock says, there are an awful lot of old ladies out there. In my case, there were an awful lot of interest-free credit cards."

Olivia Wingate

Wingate, 31, did media studies at Sheffield and an MA in arts administration at New York University, and the five years she spent in the city has set the tone for her work as a producer. She focuses on upcoming playwrights and uses a network of mostly American backers.

Wingate's father, Roger, is a businessman with close ties to the arts who is chairman of Associated Capital Theatres (ACT), a major player in the West End. Is he a rival? "Oh no," she says, laughing. "We operate in completely different areas." Despite what some in the industry believe, Wingate's father has never bankrolled one of her productions - "I've done it on my own so far and always want to" - and the only way his money would capitalise one is through a co-production between their two companies. "It's not beyond the realms of possibility ... at some time in the future, maybe."

Her first job in the theatre was a holiday job at the Donmar Warehouse when she was 18. After graduating she had lots of backstage jobs, mostly in marketing and press, including a stint at the Bush, but over the years "got thoroughly sick of working on other people's shows, so I thought I ought to start working on my own." Her first production was in 2000, when she brought Please Everything Burst, by American performance artist Mike Albo, to the Soho Theatre, using mostly her own money with some corporate help. She has since forged a close relationship with the Soho, and her productions there of Tape by Stephen Belber and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People were both critical successes in 2003.

Wingate's niche, as she calls it, is finding young American playwrights. "I think new American writing is incredibly interesting, but there isn't the support network in the States of, say, the Royal Court or the Bush. Consequently loads of young American writers fall by the wayside and go into TV." She has also brought a slew of new American comics over to the UK, including David Cross and Patton Oswalt, who will be doing London shows later this year.

Her backers are mostly American, too - "Mostly people who earn a lot and want to do something fun with their money," she says. "There's more money there and they have a history of philanthropy. There's no awkwardness in the way there is in this country, where asking for money is terribly infra dig. I try to meet as many people as possible. The more successful shows you have, the more people want to talk to you." Wingate has lost money on a show - she prefers not to name it out of affection for the writer - but the experience served to focus her. "I think the most important thing is that you really believe in what you're doing, and that goes for all of my shows. And being a good producer is also about knowing the risks but taking them anyway. Having said that, I'm not a gambler. You won't find me in a casino placing all my money on one spin of the wheel."