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In conversation: One Stage producers

Published August 13, 2014

The St James Theatre is soon to welcome through its doors everything from a new comedy about lesbians trying for a baby to revivals of a Chekhov classic and Emlyn Williams’s controversial play about a writer of scandalous novels.

You could hardly find three more different plays if you tried. Yet one thing unites the three pieces, they’re all playing as part of the forthcoming One Stage Season set up by theatrical charity Stage One to help provide support for emerging producers.

Cue Vicky Graham, Emily Dobbs and Nicola Seed, the three women in charge of bringing the productions to the Victoria venue. While each of them is working independently to ensure their own show prospers, they also possess a friendly camaraderie – evident in their talk of mammals’ gestation period and texts in the middle of the night – demonstrating that the trio is determined to make the season as a whole a sell-out success.

Graham kicks off the season on 3 September with Tamara Harvey’s production of Breeders, starring Tamzin Outhwaite, Angela Griffin, Nicholas Burns and Jemima Rooper. It will be followed by Anya Reiss’ new version of Uncle Vanya and Blanche McIntyre’s revisiting of Accolade, which are produced by Dobbs and Seed respectively.

We caught up with the producers as they battled their busy schedules to discover what drew them to the plays and what they see for the future of the theatre industry.

How are you feeling about the One Stage Season?

Graham: It’s been quite a weird process for me because I first heard from the writer [Ben Ockrent] around the same time as the applications were opened, so it wasn’t actually a proper commission until January or February this year and now it’s going on stage in September. That’s a really short process, which is both thrilling and quite nerve-racking.

Seed: Yours has taken as long as a baby to gestate.

Graham: That’s a blog, isn’t it? The nine months to Breeders.
Seed: My gestation is more of an elephant, isn’t it, because I first read that play four and a half years ago!

Dobbs: What’s really cool is all of us would have produced these shows regardless, which is a good thing. It’s amazing to be part of this because it enhances the whole process.

Seed: We’re all doing the process alone and producing our productions, but there is team work between the three of us because of the nature of the season which is nice and friendly. We can text each other at midnight asking for advice.

Graham: And we do.

Given you may have produced the shows anyway, what difference does One Stage make?

Graham: It massively raises the profile and means that it can be commercially viable. Breeders on one level is a four-hander and a fairly simple new play, so I absolutely could have done the Theatre503 or Finborough version of it, but if I had done that it would not have offered a step forward for me in my career. I think the story is bigger and deserves a wider audience than that, and doing it at the St James means there’s a financial imperative to sell more tickets, to work with a higher profile team and have higher production values. But it also means that a higher profile team wants to come to you because they’ve got an opportunity for exposure too.

All our shows are commercially viable, but made riskier to some people by the fact that we’re new producers. By putting the Stage One stamp on it, saying Society of London Theatre backs this and making the capitalisation a little lower, suddenly I can do it in a bigger and better way.

Seed: It’s good to know that people who completely know what they talk about at Stage One think that your show is good and worthy of their investment.

Does it bring with it added pressure?

Seed: I think the reason we’ve got so far with all our shows is because we care so much about them; we wake up in the middle of the night and write down random notes about things we’ve forgotten. Because we’re so passionate, because we have private investors investing in our shows as well as Stage One, there’s already so much at stake that you want your project to be as successful as possible.

What was it about your shows that made you want to produce them?

Seed: Blanche [McIntyre, director] and I were introduced by Neil McPherson of the Finborough Theatre. We read Michael Billington had said in State Of The Nation that someone must revive Accolade and Neil had a copy. I fell in love with the play then. It was fantastic to come across something that was beautiful and well written and so exciting. The themes of the play were relevant when I did it three and a half years ago, but they’re even more relevant now. Blanche and I fell in love with the play and wanted more people to see it because since 1950 only those 1,300 people that came to see it at the Finborough have seen it.

Dobbs: The history of me and Anya [Reiss, writer] and Russell [Bolam, director] is a big thing. Both our shows previously at the [Southwark] Playhouse have been really successful; there’s been a real thirst for it. Southwark is brilliant and I love it, it’s got such an edgy, dynamic feel to it, but because the stage is as it is there, there’s only so far you can go. What we’re doing with Uncle Vanya now is more vibrant and more vital, and that’s what the St James offers because of the facilities it has.

Graham: I’ve known Ben Ockrent for four years and I was told he had a new idea for a play that I had to hear. We met and I thought this could be really funny and really intelligent in the way that I think the best comedies are; they can access a really big question or a really sticky question through laughter. The story was very universal in that it’s about people trying to start families and making homes, but also really unique. I personally haven’t seen two lesbians trying to conceive a baby as told through theatre. It was something I wasn’t going to let anyone else get.

How important is it that you’re all women?

Dobbs: It’s a funny one, isn’t it? It is important because the ratio is still massively in favour of men in the industry, but I know Stage One didn’t choose us because we’re women.

Graham: I think it’s hugely important. I’m really excited that there’s a whole generation of brilliant women coming up, but there’s at least 10 years of brilliant women ahead of me doing it.

Dobbs: There’s still inequality. But that’s such a bigger question.

Seed: At least you’re not saying to two men and one female, ‘How do you feel that you’re the female?’

Where does your passion for producing come from?

Dobbs: My passion comes from finding a story or an idea and then seeing that through to the point of commissioning it or adapting it. I read a lot of books and I always visualise them for the stage. There’s so much out there in the world that makes you think ‘Oh my God that would be amazing on stage’. Producing is still seen as the raising money bit, which is probably the most important, but it’s the last thing you think of. If you think you’ve got the best idea to sell, you sell it, you hope. If it fails terribly then at least you were fighting for something you believed in.

Seed: I think all three of us are project driven. It’s about having a project that you’re really passionate about and want people to see.

Graham: I started out directing and while I loved it, I was not the artist. There are a lot of brilliant artists out there who I much preferred to go out there and shout about. I can only do that admin work and that slog if it was an idea that I was absolutely behind from the get go. If it wasn’t an idea that I conceived with a writer in a pub one night then it’s an idea I got behind at a very early stage. But the thing that I do really love and believe about producing is having the ability and the hope to maybe decide what goes on stage in the future. I think we’ve all got a bit of a job to protect theatre. It’s existed for a very long time, so I don’t believe it’s going to die out, but I believe it’s under threat. It’s up to us to decide what’s going to happen next and what stories we should be telling and how we should be telling them.

What would you like to see in the future of theatre?

Dobbs: There’s a shift at the moment. Audiences feel like they want more bravery. A braver theatre landscape is what I find really exciting. People feeling that the audiences can keep up with creative risks and that’s not going to affect figures. If you produce something that’s really brilliant and is exciting as an idea and concept then people will go and see it. It doesn’t have to be formulaic dot to dot.

Seed: A vibrant theatre landscape with a bit of everything. It’s just ensuring that we can be so lucky to have so many different things out there that we can see. We won’t be able to if the life blood of what makes future productions isn’t there. If it’s harder for people to put shows on, then what gets put on is less risky, less exciting and less new for audiences.

Graham: I think that’s just about us having better financial models and encouraging people to back development of work that has a commercial end result. But if everybody is going to tell us that the way forward is money from individuals, can they please help us and give individuals tax breaks to invest in theatre? Those individuals donate their money to charitable arts institutions where they can get tax breaks because it’s a charity. There’s no incentive for anyone to invest money in commercial productions, even if they love theatre. I really think there are enough artists and producers out there to do the work, I’m just worried about who’s going to give the money and how we’re going to do that work of persuading them.

Find out more and book tickets through the One Stage Season’s website.