What do you actually do?! Episode 4: John Tomlinson, Producer at York Theatre Royal

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? explores the role of working in the theatre sector. John Tomlinson is Producer at York Theatre Royal and he is also the Company Director of Stand and Be Counted

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Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!? My name is Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in the theatre sector.

K: So, John, what do you actually do?

J: It’s a great question, I ask myself that a lot. What I actually do is – the two kind of worlds I go between – so the producer role at York Theatre Royal means that I do a lot of logistics and planning and thinking about what shows are going on stage, who we’re gonna work with, the audience experience, how we connect with our local community and how we can inspire them. So whatever goes on our stages I’ve got an input into. And then the work I do with Stand and Be Counted – we’re an independent theatre company so there are three of us: myself, Rosie, who’s a writer and performer, and Hannah, who’s the theatre-maker and director. So between the three of us we’ve got different skills and under that kind of umbrella of that company name we often work in non-arts projects with the communities, which might be about creative skills for employment, for example, with families… but often we tour the work that we make across the country. So I work as a producer in-house at York Theatre Royal, and then independently at the other company.

K: Does that combination work well? To sort of have the regular income coming in from York Theatre Royal but, I guess there’s a structure around it, and as you said you’ve got to consider the local needs versus having that freedom and flexibility of your own work?

J: Yes, I kind of fell into that really in the sense of working for a venue four days a week so that’s kind of been built in the form of a career that I’ve been working towards. It does give stability in the sense of income, but also it means that I can have a real impact and a real say at a senior level in an arts organisation that I’m very fond of and I understand the big values and the big ethos of the York Theatre Royal. I absolutely buy into all of that. I feel like I’ve sort of worked for the community, so my job is about inspiring them to come to the theatre and say “welcome, come and join us, be involved, see what’s on our stages” but “can we engage with you? How else can we inspire you to be more involved in your community?” Then working still as part of an independent company, means that I understand it as part of an artist point of view, so I absolutely understand how challenging it can be but also how rewarding it is when you make something that can be really special with a group of people that you care about, and if you make a piece of art there’s huge rewards to that, in the sense of your output to the world.

K: So where did your passion and interest for the theatre sector come from?

J: The passion came from the first drama lesson I had in secondary school. I was never really interested in drama, it was always ever football. I’d still choose to be a footballer now if I could… But I was really inspired by a drama teacher like lots of people are… It was because it was a place for me to explore my creativity which wasn’t just singing or dancing or moving, it was kind of a collection of all those things – of ideas that you have and throwing all that together. And I love how you make something with a group of people. I’ve been always inspired by a group of people working together on something and then presenting it to an audience. I love the thrill of doing that. So initially it was always expected that I would go and be a performer in the industry, that’s kind of how it began – and went to sixth form college and university to study drama and media, but I was always very aware of the relationship to a career in theatre is based sometimes on luck, so I was always very aware that I should learn everything about theatre to be a better actor. I was always interested in why do people go to the theatre, and I think that’s the thing that I’ve always had, and I then realised that being a producer was a thing, and then I realised that that’s what drives me, and that’s what I’m probably better at than necessarily being on stage.

K: How did you work out that being a producer was a good thing for you, then? If you had it in your head that you’d be an actor, did you see someone else producing work and then realised that that was something you wanted to try..?

J: Yeah, I think it happened very organically like it happens to lots of producers. I was always the one at college or at university who would go out and speak to the person who’s venue we were going to hire, and I would always be the person who would go out and get props and get costumes, and enjoyed that kind of genuine connection to buying and making things from people. So I was always quite positive at just going at it, picking up the phone, and just asking people for what we needed to happen. And that kind of buzz of when it pays off – when you can get a really great venue that you didn’t expect you could get, and suddenly you’re now allowed to make anything in a beautiful venue. That always excited me, and then I thought maybe there are people who do that but on a bigger scale because who does it then… because it’s not the actors who put it all together, there’s obviously a much bigger team that work. So then I asked the right kind of questions at theatres, and got myself involved in lots of networks and skilled myself up in every area, I think. A big part of being a producer and what makes a good producer in my opinion, is their understanding of everyone else’s skills. So actually if it all works really well you wouldn’t necessarily know that I’ve done anything, but what I have done is I’ve got the right people in the right place at the right time, and they’ve made it all happen. It’s very much an understanding of – I don’t need to know exactly how to do what the sound designer does, but I do need to know enough to know that I’m getting the right person into a project.

K: It’s a really managerial role, then…

J: Absolutely

K: So what other skills or personal qualities would you say you need to have to be good at being a producer?

J: I think you need to be a very good communicator. You need to make sure that the right people know what they need to know at the right time. You need to be good with talking to an audience and championing in artistic projects, and getting people to come and see it. You’ve got to be confident in what you’re doing and why it’s important. Being the leader of that – if there’s an artistic project, you’ve got to be able to manage it in the right way to know that you can’t get a hundred thousand pounds for this project, but we can get ten, what can we do with that? So constantly understanding the different stages of a project which might be this – you start off with a big dream, and then you think about discovering what’s possible, where can we do it, how can we do it. And then designing it. So the main part of a project is: start with a dream, and then discover.

K: So it’s that combination of practical project management skills but that creative vision of what you want to get out of it and keeping that in mind so it’s not just “oh, we have to work to this budget”, it’s how you can stay true to the original idea.

J: Exactly.

K: So, what would say you really love about the role?

J: I love the challenge that in Britain cultural organisations are going through at a particular point in their history which means that they have to connect to new audiences. That’s the way it is. For them to thrive they have to find a way to connect to new people. They have to find a way to connect to younger people and that challenge is really exciting because I know that if you put the right things in place and encourage them to come, they’ll come and they’ll stick with it forever. I think theatre’s biggest challenge is probably the way it talks about itself as an industry, but being part of that and influencing even just one organisation and having good practice and good models means that can potentially pass on.
So, I love working with new people all the time. I thrive on being parts of teams, so while some things I do very much on my own, actually it’s always for a team. I never do it for it, it’s always part of a team and part of a much bigger project. And, I love the variance of it, so one day the priority might be doing a funding application but the next day the priority might be schmoozing really interesting people, and the next day you might be in a rehearsal room and you might be making theatre yourself and having to think differently. So, constantly I’m just switching my brain between different things is what motivates me.

K: Is there anything you don’t like about the role?

J: It can be stressful, it can be pressurised because projects have to make money, or whatever the priority of that project is, it has to make money or it has to make good art. Sometimes when you’re working with people who care a lot it means that you know how hard they’re working, and if it’s not a success you feel the strain because of course you want it to be good, and if it’s not working out it can be difficult. So, there are challenges but all those challenges are outweighed by the good stuff.

K: You’ve touched a bit on it already but I’m thinking about what the challenges are for the future, for students who are thinking of maybe wanting to build a career in theatre. You’ve mentioned it’s an issue now for the industry to look at who its audiences are, spreading the message out wider so it’s less of a posh thing to do for rich people, but something anyone can engage with. Any other key challenges or things people should be thinking about if they want to break into the sector?

J: I think that’s the main one, definitely. I look at what the independent theatre scene is doing and I think that’s the most exciting thing. The future theatre makers are doing some brilliant things and actually they are teaching big organisations how it should be done. Often the university graduate company can come out and they’ve just made a hit show and suddenly they’re on to something, and that’s really exciting. And if we can get more of them into our buildings to just kind of regenerate energy, just get good energy by people making good stuff, that can really help that.
But I do think the biggest challenge to face us as a sector is about diversity. Getting more people in, but also getting more people who are from different communities and how you say, actually, “you’re welcome… you might not be about to buy a ticket for £40 on a Saturday night but what you can give to us is that you can be involved in something in a different way.” So I think that that’s a big challenge, to get more people in and to get the right people in who care, and to inspire people to say actually theatre is for everyone. All you need to make a piece of theatre, well you don’t need anything, you could just do a monologue now if it’s in your head and you speak it, that’s a piece of theatre as long as someone’s watching, that’s all you need. But I think, sport and football is very accessible because you can just go down to the park because it’s there and it’s free and all you need is a ball and two people and you’ve got a game. But in the same way theatre doesn’t necessarily feel as accessible as it should do, when actually when you work in it and when you explore it more and more, it can be even more accessible than that, but people need to know about it, so there’s a big message that we need to send out to the public to say, everyone’s welcome. And the more people who feel that, the better.

K: It sounds like it’s a really opportune time for young or new little theatre group startups to break into it because actually the industry wants to change so they’re bringing fresh ideas. Is there any other tips or advice you’d give to people who wanted to break into the sector? How would they actually get started in that?

J: I would definitely recommend asking their local theatre what they have, what opportunities, how can we get involved? At York Theatre Royal for example we’ve got takeover festival which is run by young people, we’ve got a huge youth theatre, we’ve got lots of opportunities for artists as they’re developing their craft to reach out locally first. Invite your theatre to come and see your work, because it’s our responsibility and our job to go and connect with students.

K: So if they were doing production, actually invite local theatre producers and companies?

J: Exactly

K: Wow, that’s a cool idea.

J: Yeah, get out there and make some stuff, because if you can start making stuff and making mistakes in a safe environment, then you’ll be better for when you go out and do it properly. But also it’s alright to make mistakes. You can go out there and not worry that this one particular show went badly because you’ll become a better artist for making mistakes. I’ve made tons of mistakes and I know that I’ve learned more from that than doing something well. I would say, reach out to people, look at other groups and peers and other companies that you like and ask them, and get involved in as much as you can. So get involved in lots of different schemes, training opportunities and skill up in every area. Again, if you want to be a producer you need to know everything about the whole picture because it’s your job to get a really inspiring team of people together to make something, but it’s also your job to get an audience, so you need to keep thinking about how you talk to the public.

K: And I guess, as you said at the start, your experience as a performer yourself, that I imagine makes it much easier for you as a producer to relate to and even communicate with the performers and understand where they’re coming from and vice versa.

J: Yeah, you have to understand where people are starting from, and if they’re a volunteer on a project and they’ve been at work all day, I have to know that they’re giving up their free time to work on a project with us. I need to give them energy and I need to get them on board with what we’re trying to do. Equally, for a professional artist, you might know that they’ve travelled from London that morning so you have to be just aware of people’s situations and how you can make things easier and better for them. So you’re constantly just thinking of everyone’s different angles and where they start from.

K: Amazing, well, thank you very much for that advice. Thank you for joining us today. We are going to put some links on our website where people can have a look at the work that you’re doing for both your companies and where students can find out more about breaking into the sector. Thanks again for joining us.

J: Thanks for having us. Thank you.

Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited by Raquel Bartra and produced by both of us.

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