Rethinking the Role of the Producer

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First National Producer Gathering to leverage the strength of a network 

Some 15 Canadian producers will gather at the National Arts Centre (NAC) from November 30 to December 3 to share their knowledge, reflect on the various issues they face, and envision the future. The result of two years of research, this first National Producer Gathering has been developed by the NAC’s National Creation Fund (NCF) in collaboration with Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).

“The idea is to build a network of producers and provide a space where they can collectively reflect on the vision of their craft in the future,” explains Sarah Conn, NCF Artistic Associate and program designer for the gathering.  

“It’s a rare opportunity to take a deep dive into what it is to produce, into the work producers do, which is so different for each of them,” adds Owais Lightwala, assistant professor at TMU and program designer for the gathering. “They’ll have a chance to network, to feed their inspiration, but also to be challenged on certain preconceptions.” 

While the pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the cultural sector, it has also triggered some reflection in the field. In particular, the NCF and TMU examined the role of performing arts producers in Canada, and identified the skills and training required for this profession, which is still largely learned on the job. 

The missing link 

When he started teaching at TMU, Owais realized that there were few opportunities for training available for early and mid-career producers in Canada. 

“I asked myself why we didn’t have training. And this pilot project is based in part on over 100 interviews I conducted with professionals in Canada and abroad, to learn more about programs for producers, and to find out how to train them and target their needs,” he said. 

In parallel with this research, which was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant, the NCF also found, through its investments in more than 70 projects to date, that companies did not always have producers to work with. 

“Yet most of the projects the NCF has supported are the largest that the companies have ever tackled,” says Sarah Conn, herself a producer. “And they inevitably require a significant increase in capacity and an experienced producer to coordinate the whole artistic vision.” 

While the NCF team was fulfilling its primary mission of supporting the creative process, it was also looking for a way to support the infrastructure needed to achieve that vision. 

A collaborative event 

The producers attending the gathering are all experienced professionals whose projects have been funded by the NCF. The organizers have also ensured that geographic, cultural and disciplinary diversity is represented. 

“There’s a really good cross-section of performing arts from across Canada,” reports Owais Lightwala, who was working with Toronto’s Why Not Theatre when its production Mahabharata received funding from the NCF in 2018. 

A team of three experienced facilitators — Katja Sonnemann, founder of the Akademie für Performing Arts Producer in Berlin and an independent producer; Heena Patel, founder and CEO of MELA Arts Connect in Asheville, North Carolina; and Pascale Joubert, artistic director and general manager of Théâtre À tour de rôle in Carleton-sur-Mer in Quebec’s Gaspé region — have also collaborated on developing the program and will be on hand to share their perspective. 

In the spirit of collaboration, the participants in this week’s gathering have also contributed to developing the program, which focuses on three main themes: What are all the ways we define and understand the role of producer? What are our values as producers? And how does that inform our work?

While the participants may not answer all of those questions during their time together this week, the gathering promises to be an important step in creating a stronger producing network and deeper appreciation for the unique role they play in bringing work to the stage.  

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