Producers, the “Alchemists” of the Performing Arts

Group of people posing for a group photo.
A man posing
Farooq Chaudhry, producer and co-founder, Akram Khan Company
A woman posing
Jude Kelly, British theatre director and producer

For the second consecutive year, the National Arts Centre (NAC) hosted the National Producer Gathering. Held from November 20 to 25, this gathering was an opportunity for the dozen participants to share their knowledge and find solutions to the issues they face. Despite the crucial role producers play in a company, their work remains relatively unfamiliar to the general public. 

“A producer has one eye on the art, one eye on the money, and one eye on the context in which the work will be presented. And to be the best in that role, they have to make sure all those elements are as cohesive as possible,” explains Farooq Chaudhry, producer and co-founder, Akram Khan Company, and a guest speaker at the Gathering. “Producers are alchemists. They’re the only ones in this whole ecosystem who speak and understand all the languages and all the jargon.” 

For British theatre director and producer Jude Kelly, another guest speaker, a producer has to translate in detail what the artist imagines. They have to make sure the idea can be realized, that it’s sustainable, and that it’s within the budget. Sometimes they have to interpret the artist’s vision and how the audience is likely to perceive it. But they’re also there to support the artist. 

“For an artist, creating is a very personal act, so they’re very vulnerable if something goes wrong. The producer, while personally involved, isn’t the one creating, so very often their role is also to support and reassure,” she points out. 

Guardians of dreams 

In some artistic fields, such as music or mainstream musicals, the producer is recognized as a key contributor. However, Farooq Chaudhry believes most producers work in experimental fields. “But we’re starting to get the same recognition internationally, because this role has been the missing link. It allows art to flourish and improves the audience experience, and it manages the money in a way that also satisfies the funders. The producer is a catalyst for the elevation of the artist.” 

“A producer is there not only to support an artist’s dream so that it can become a reality, but also to guard it,” says Jude Kelly, former artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London. “The better the producer can appreciate what an artist is trying to achieve and assess the support that’s needed, the better they can ensure on an ongoing basis that the artist doesn’t run out of steam, and thus also ensure the longevity of the work.” 

Getting together to share ideas 

Developed by the NAC’s National Creation Fund (NCF) in collaboration with Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), the National Producer Gathering is the result of two years of research and reflection. The team members are Sarah Conn, Acting Artistic Producer, NCF (NAC); Jean-Paul Courtemanche, Program Manager, Professional Development (NAC); Chris Dearlove, Managing Director, NCF (NAC); Sarah Garton Stanley, Vice-President of Programming, Arts Commons; and Owais Lightwala, Assistant Professor in the Creative School, TMU. 

For Farooq Chaudhry, this type of event is important for producers who, he says, work alone even though they collaborate with various players in the field. “They can share their wisdom, their knowledge, their problems and their solutions. It creates a solidarity that’s essential in such an isolated role. In fact, this type of gathering is becoming increasingly popular,” says Chaudhry, who attended a similar event in Taiwan in September. 

Jude Kelly agrees that the Gathering is an opportunity for producers to share experiences. “It makes them better and allows them to reconsider their work. It’s important to have such a robust sector in Canada, one that allows producers to be ambitious, to have dreams and make them come true.” 

Over the five days of the National Producer Gathering, participants took part in discussions led by several guest speakers, including Farooq Chaudhry, Jude Kelly, and Dr. Kristopher Alexander, Professor of Video Game Design – Media Production at The Creative School at Toronto Metropolitan University.  Participants also met with Lori Marchand, Managing Director of NAC Indigenous Theatre, Joyce Rosario, performing arts curator and facilitator, and Camilla Holland, Executive Director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. The Gathering concluded with a conversation with the producers and creators of Prison Dancer, which opened at the NAC on November 24. 

All the participants are affiliated with companies whose projects have received support from the National Creation Fund. Laurel Green, asses.masses (Vancouver); Dustin Harvey, Secret Theatre (Halifax); Marcie Januska, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop (Calgary); Debbie Patterson, Sick+Twisted Theatre (Winnipeg); Sarah Rogers, Animals of Distinction (Montreal); Shanae Sodhi, New Harlem Productions (Hamilton); Sheree Spencer, Canadian Opera Company (Toronto); Ryhna Thompson, Kid Koala (Montreal); Leslie Ting, Leslie Ting Productions (Toronto); Amy Wertz, Savage Production Society (Vancouver); Kevin Matthew Wong, Why Not Theatre (Toronto); and Michelle Yagi, Indigenous Theatre, National Arts Centre (Ottawa). 

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