A Year of Producing: Five Funnies
At some stage last week, LinkedIn informed me that I was celebrating my one year anniversary as the founder (can/should be read as: producer) of Creative Blue Balls. This isn’t strictly true. In the eyes of both the law and the taxman, Creative Blue Balls has been an entity since October 2014.
My producing journey, however, commenced as far back as when I began to take my writing seriously and waaaaay before Creative Blue Balls’ existence. Though I’d not realised it at the time, in some shape or form I’ve always been producing, albeit uncredited.
Producing in the context of film/theatre is, essentially, taking it upon yourself to make sure that it — the film, the play, whatever — happens. That probably sounds vague… And so it should do. I believe in this day and age you almost have to adopt a do-it-yourself attitude; we have so many resources around us and nobody’s going to hand you an opportunity on a plate, as delightful as that would be.
All in all, LinkedIn was correct about one thing; a year ago I decided to officially take responsibility and really make things happen. I sat down with Abi (my co-producer) in the National Theatre and laid out my plans for Creative Blue Balls, hoping that she would be on board. Thankfully, she was.
I still find it weird to call myself a producer; I’m very much primarily a writer, who is producing more out of necessity than desire. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy producing; I do. And I’m so excited at the opportunities that producing allows me to give other talented people. So far, that has included actors and directors. Down the line, as part of my greater vision of Creative Blue Balls, those opportunities will extend to giving a huge push to talented writers. I’ve made no secret of my desire to use our platform to nurture and hone their craftsmanship, ultimately giving their words a platform and I’m so excited at what we have planned this year.
Acknowledging that it’s been one year and two events thus far, I’d like to reflect on a few of the funny things that have happened in my year as a producer. Most were not funny at the time, but it’s easy to look back on them fondly now. With pretty much all of them, they all evoked the same sentiment. They voice within me that feels like a fraud for referring to himself as a producer had shouting back at him: “You really are a producer.”
- You learn that you must fix everything.
Last year June, we had our first event. It was a showcase of three short plays, written by myself and we had factored in two days for auditions. For play 1 and 2 — which we, coincidentally, auditioned for in that order — we had great options and it wasn’t actually entirely easy to select our cast. For play 3, which we had allotted the most audition time as it was the most important piece of the showcase (it is an extract from a full-length play we plan to produce), it was the opposite. It wasn’t that we didn’t see good actors — we did — but with such a high from the casting of play 1 & 2, we felt we were doing ourselves a disservice. We couldn’t cast actors that we didn’t get this same high from if we didn’t entirely feel they fit the roles.
We had to do something.
Abi and I stayed back an additional three hours after auditions had ended racking our brains. We knocked heads together and started to think of actors we’d worked with in the past, actors we’d seen in things that we admired, talented actors we knew who might be able to recommend someone that could fit the role. By the end of that evening, we’d managed to reach out to and agreed an audition with 1) an actress Abi had worked with on a previous production, Nneka Okoye 2) an actress Abi and I had both seen on a Channel 4's drama Banana, Nikki Fagbemi. We auditioned them both within 48 hours and I can’t tell you how relieved I was that both actresses smashed their auditions out the park.
- You can call the shots, so be decisive and intentional.
I wrote a short play called How to Fix a Car Crash for the showcase. Abi will admit herself, that she absolutely hated the first draft of this play. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that Abi didn’t like this play until she saw it on stage. This play was inspired by a really funny play I watched in New York called This is Our Youth in 2014. I really wanted to create similar humour and dynamics between my two characters, and was confident in doing so. But I also really, really trust Abi’s judgement when it comes to my writing. On this occassion, I decided to be stubborn, dig my heels and insist we’d be going forward with this play.
Long story short, the director got it, loved it and made it sing with two incredibly talented actors (as well as credit to my dear friend Ruth, who reads most of the early drafts of my work, and really critiques the f out of them to raise them up a notch. More importantly, she showed me what my story really was/should be about, and — embedded within all the humour — I was able to tell a meaningful, relevant story).
Abi loved it in the end.
- You can’t do it all by yourself. So trust others.
This is actually something I credit myself at being pretty good at most of the time: delegating. I am very, very aware of my capabilities. I can write. I question my ability in pretty much everything else when it comes to film and theatre. For example, as much as I’m a ‘producer’, make no mistake about it — without Abi — there would be no Creative Blue Balls. I have often described the working relationship as I being the ‘visionary’ and Abi being the ‘executor.
That also means trusting Abi when she says that, regardless of us not having the budget at the time for set design, that we have to find an additional £400 for it or our production is going to look shit (and she was right, so we did and it looked dope). Trusting others when you’ve given them a position of responsibility and — sometimes — even when you haven’t, will save you a whole lot of time and stress. Trusting others helped us cast two incredible actors that would not have otherwise been on our radar (more on this later). Trusting others is the reason our branding has been complimented so often. Trusting others gives me more time. Trusting others opens up the possibilities to something so much more beautiful than what we are capable of as individuals.
- Everybody’s on the same team. Even when they’re at odds with each other.
This is actually something I learnt from watching a brilliant documentary about QPR Football Club; The Four Year Plan. It follows the story of QPR’s owners’ ambitions to get the club promoted to the premiership within four years (they succeeded). During this, there was plenty of chaos and pandemonium. The fans, the players, the manager, the owners and whoever else counts as a stakeholder at the club were at odds with each other pulling in different directions. They all had one thing in common common: at the heart of their frustration towards each other was a unified desire for the club to be successful in this ambition. I think everybody who starts a business (or, even, participating in collaborative work) should watch this documentary. Any time there’s chaos, differences and what not, I always remind myself that each person wants the best for the project. It’s normal for emotions to run high when you feel that what you want is for the best and someone is standing in the way.
I hope that they won’t mind me sharing this anecdote (or, that neither of them will ever see this lol), but we had an incident where one of our directors was adamant that their play would not work without a pretty expensive prop/piece of furniture (credit to the director, who was so adamant on this that they actually paid for the prop), whilst Abi completely disagreed. What was worse, is that the situation became so tense that I spent the whole day (which was also my birthday) before our production trying to source this prop. All of this whilst getting calls left right and centre about other things that needed doing for the production (and, of course, birthday wishes). Abi (and, admittedly, I) couldn’t see why this was so important but at this point, I had to remind myselfof the lessons from the documentary.
As Abi and I both openly admit, the director was absolutely right; once we saw the play, neither of us could imagine the play without that prop. Just like myself and Abi, the director simply wanted the best for the production. Another lesson here is to choose your battles and, for the battles you do believe… Fight them vehemently, much like our director did.
- You learn that you must fix everything. Again.
I want to say ‘things were running too smoothly’ but that would be a lie. Six days before our opening night, though, our production of How to Fix a Car Crash encountered a car crash of its own; we had to get rid of one of the actors (something which was difficult in itself, because I actually quite liked this actor). More importantly, this meant we had to find a replacement.
With four and a half days to go. Gulp.
There’s a little bit of all of the above lessons in this anecdote. There was disharmony in the camp. This play had two actors; one was Michael Ajao (currently starring in The Gate Theatre’s 5* reviewed The Convert) a stellar professional, talented actor who takes the craft very seriously and his whole life is dedicated to acting… The other, well, let’s leave it there. In school, group work was always frustrating when you felt others were not giving as much as you were. This was no different in this scenario. As tales of lateness and non-attendance to rehearsals began to emerge (something which I blame ourselves for for not knowing sooner), we had to call the shot and decide that we’d get a new actor. But where and how were we going to get a new actor with six days to go, who would be able to master the script in time? Like I said, you have to trust others. Our young professional (who had, funnily enough, been a recommendation of an actor we cast in another play… And this actor was ALSO recommended by another actor friend of mine) highly recommended another young actor who he compared to himself, in that he was highly professional and a full-time working actor.
We didn’t know him, but we didn’t really have a choice but to trust here. Besides, like I said, everybody’s on the same team.
We reached out to the young man and he was fully on board. The next day, in his first rehearsal, I was informed that he was already off-script. When I attended their second rehearsal… I was absolutely blown away. The chemistry was a beauty to observe and not only that, they were improv-ing (I absolutely love and welcome improv in my work; I believe that when you know the script/character well enough, then why not take the liberty to go off script?)!
It’s funny how things work out. All of our actors were incredible in their own right, but this young man — who goes by the name of Jack Rowan — deserves a special mention when you take into account the conditions he had to whack out this incredible performance from. Many people went away talking about him on both nights and were further blown away when we shared the tale of his casting.
It came as no surprise to me in November, when I heard from Jack, and he informed me that he had been cast as the lead in a Channel 4 series called Born to Kill. Star in the making and I can’t wait to work with him again.
Patience is a virtue that one must let runneth for a lifetime when producing and I really could have gone on and on with the funnies, lessons learnt and entertaining little anecdotes. Maybe I’ll do another one of these at some stage. Hopefully it’ll be teemed with tales of producing the work of other writers, too.
For now, what I will say is that, without a shadow of doubt (well, that’s a lie, I do still doubt), I accept that I am definitely a producer. Maketh the man* and all that, right?
(* I have absolutely no idea if I’ve used that in the correct context.)
If you enjoy reading my blogs, I’d recommend you come and see one of my films or plays. They’re even better than the blogs, or so I’ve been told. To find out when next my writing will be on show, join the Creative Blue Balls mailing list, and follow us on Twitter/like us on Facebook.
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