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Producing Student Theatre

I'm really close to the university finish line now, and am feeling reluctantly nostalgic about my time here. So I thought I'd write a post about my main student activity at Cambridge, which was producing theatre. I'm hoping it might convince a few other uni students and future freshers to get involved in student theatre - and encourage the rest of us to go to the theatre when we can!

Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first show I produced.
How did I get into producing?
In second year, on a complete whim, I signed up to help assistant stage manage the Cambridge University Opera Society's Mainshow, Die Fledermaus (where I met A, actually!) As an 'ASM' I was essentially a company skivvy, hauling bits of set on and off stage, sourcing props, queuing them for the actors backstage. In one of my duties I ended up helping the producer a little with tasks such as exit flyering shows and coming up with publicity ideas. In the first term of third year I assistant stage managed another show (a fantastic musical called The Last Five Years). This convinced me that producing, not stage managing, was the route I wanted to go down. I just wanted to be the one bossing other people around - and be in charge of the money! The next term I worked on the Opera Mainshow again as assistant producer and publicist and then produced three other shows! It was a lot of work, but it meant I was able to learn really quickly. I went on to produce one show in exam term, and then two incredibly successful operas in the two terms that followed in fourth year - the most successful that the university had seen in a good two years. Here's a Tumblr post I wrote just before the opening night of my last show, Mozart's Don Giovanni.

A scene from Act One of The Magic Flute.
Erm...what does producing entail again?
Does the idea of producing immediately conjure up the musical The Producers, and Leo Bloom's (Matthew Broderick) song 'I Wanna Be A Producer'? It's not quite as glamorous as Leo imagined - unless you get to Cameron Mackintosh level of course! I did a short interview for The Cambridge Student about producing opera back in February, but in a nutshell, a producer does anything and everything that needs doing! For Don Giovanni, my most ambitious project, I controlled the show's finances (with a budget of roughly £12k), managed a company of 80 people, organised production team applications and interviews as well as casting, planned publicity and marketing to get tickets sold, liaised with professional production companies to sort our lighting and set, helped to paint and build said set, commissioned and oversaw the poster and programme designs, proofread and edited the programme content, organised a launch party for free and then ran the box office for five performances during show week. *catches breath* So...a fair amount. I felt during Don G that the role was actually more like a job than an extra-curricular, possibly tantamount to a part-time job in a theatre company. Of course, as a student, you can take on as much as you feel you are able to. Some producers are much more relaxed or spread the workload among several different producers. It's worth bearing in mind that my experience was a bit different (and stressful!) too, because the Oxbridge terms are very short and packed.

What types of shows did you most enjoy working on?
My favourites were always musicals and opera. I grew up playing classical instruments, and so it feels really familiar and natural to work with musical forms of theatre. I particularly loved opera because it feels like a really elevated art form, made for the Royal Opera House - and yet you can equally find it in the back of a pub, like the work A does with OperaUpClose at the King's Head. I also found that the singers we worked with were just stupendous - all with incredible performing histories, and I imagine I'll be seeing some of them on the West End or in Covent Garden one day. And then musicals are just undeniably fun. It takes so much talent to be able to act, sing and dance. I'm much more inclined to sit quietly behind the scenes, pulling the strings!

With the main production team of Don Giovanni at our launch party.
What are the benefits of producing or working in student theatre?
You get to make a lot of friends! Theatre is filled with a real range of people - directors, musicians in the pit band, stage managers who sort out everything during the performances, actors, technical wizards who make the lighting and sound happen. Then in terms of producing specifically, I'd say it helped to hone my admin skills hugely. I wasn't particularly organised before I got into producing. That is, I scraped by, but producing a giant show requires a slightly Draconian approach to self-administration. I've talked about just how many jobs I had to do during Don Giovanni, and it was a challenge to balance those with a full-time degree, especially in the term before finals! But when the project that you've essentially been running part-time comes to fruition, and the set and lights go up and the show opens, it feels fantastic. Even better if you get good reviews - Don Giovanni got five stars from The Tab! We also got lots of people coming up to us at the box office saying how much they'd enjoyed it after the show, Facebook posts and tweets. And that's really the best reward for all the work.

An incredibly blurred photo of me on stage for the final bows of Don Giovanni. (Thank you, proud father, for getting this snap on your iPhone!)
How should I go about starting out in student theatre?
There are usually tons of drama-related societies at university - get involved by checking out what yours has to offer at the freshers' fair or by asking around. I always regret not starting in first year! Once you're on the mailing lists you can start applying for roles. It doesn't matter what route you take as an in. Like I said, I started out as an assistant stage manager, and went into producing from there. Most people who are experienced will be happy to answer any questions you've got, so if you're interested, go for it! You'll never know if theatre is for you unless you try it :)

The company of The Magic Flute (November 2013).
I hope you found this post interesting! It's probably what I devoted the most time to while at Cambridge, and something I couldn't do this term (being on the brink of finals and all that). Once you know what goes on behind the scenes you can never go to the theatre and see shows in the same way again...!

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