Producing a festival is fun; it’s exciting, demanding, fulfilling and has a satisfying end point. It’s also exhausting, stressful, time consuming and involves a lot of emails (so many), a lot of compromises and even more negotiation. But at this point in my career I can’t imagine doing anything else.
As a non-artist in an artist’s world producing is my creative practice, it’s my way of expressing my point of view and contributing to an industry I love. I enjoy being able to help artists realise their creative ambitions and collaborate with them to produce something that seems impossible and make it completely achievable.
I wanted to be able to question artists, hear about their creative process and see the progression of their practice.
This is not a job or career path I actively chose, but looking back now it seems as if it was inevitable. At university I studied art history and curatorship and aspired to be a curator. I loved learning about art, interrogating ideas and examining the artist’s final outcome. It wasn’t until I did an internship with a contemporary art space that I realised what I loved more, and what made more sense to me, was working with artists to curate their work. I wanted to be able to question artists, hear about their creative process and see the progression of their practice. I wanted to work with artists who were creating work that was about now. Even further back than that, I remember as a child bullying my sister and our friends into creating theatre or puppet shows to present to our parents. I didn’t wanted to be in the shows, but I wanted to make them happen. For a shy kid I was pretty determined (read: pushy).
My first experience of working for an arts festival, or let’s be honest attending an arts festival was in 2011. It was the first year of You Are Here, a completely new festival created by David Finnigan and Yolande Norris as part of the Centenary of Canberra. It was a real defining moment for me. The festival exposed me to the art world beyond visual arts; it presented performance, music, dance, poetry and everything in between and outside of those categories. From the very beginning YAH was about experimental practice, it was about expressing creativity in all its forms and most importantly for me it was about having fun.
It was because of YAH I became a producer. Not overnight, it took four more years and many “real jobs” before I built up the courage to call myself a producer and commit fully to that career. Part of the reason was that I didn’t know what a producer was, I didn’t know that it was an option I could choose. There wasn’t a university degree (that I knew of) that told you how to be a producer so how could it exist? I was doing the job before I knew what the job was.
So what is a producer? What do they do? To be honest, I’m still not sure. The short answer is that producers do everything. Depending on the context (within a festival or arts organisation, independent) producers can be responsible for the artistic direction of a project, coming up with the framework for series of events, being advocates for artists, supporters, facilitators, grant writers, money wranglers, technical advisors, risk managers, venue getters, media advisors, counselors, drivers, marketing experts, but most of all – problem solvers.
…take what you do seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously…
Being a producer is about creatively solving problems, because there are always problems. Lots of them. One aspect of producing that is fundamentally important to me, the way I work and they way I want audiences to experience art is fun. I believe it is so important to incorporate fun and play into how I work, whether that is in the process of creation and how a team works together, or in the final outcome for an audience I believe that where possible its important to foster a sense of creativity and fun because it’s hard out there. The biggest thing I’ve ever learnt working in the arts is, take what you do seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously and remember to have fun!
We loved Vanessa’s article so much, that we couldn’t contain our questions (sorry not sorry Vanessa!)! Vanessa kindly chatted to us a bit more about her article.
KultureKid: As a producer, how do you measure fun as a successful outcome/experience of a show?
Vanessa: This is a really good question, in the arts generally I think it is really hard to measure the outcome or experience of show in terms of how people responded to it emotionally. You can measure ticket sales, media response etc but more difficult to get an accurate indication of how it felt. The way I’ve done this mostly in the past is through chatting to people who saw a show or hearing people’s responses, or simply being in the room and seeing people’s reactions to what they are seeing. You can use surveys as well but this takes a lot more work.
KultureKid: Have you been in any situations when a ‘fun’ approach hasn’t worked?
Vanessa: It is absolutely not the way to handle every event or project, it is important to understand when it is appropriate or not and sometimes this depends on the content or the artist you’re working with. Even if a show is serious and needs to be taken seriously I don’t think that is any reason for the process not to be enjoyable for people working on it. I can think of examples of events that as a producer I’ve loved and thought were hilarious and fun, but that an audience hasn’t responded to and it hasn’t been as fun for them. That’s often when the silliness is dependent on some kind of in joke, and that’s never a great way to engage audiences.
KultureKid: Sometimes people don’t reconcile “fun” with the art world – why is that?
Vanessa: I’m not sure exactly, but for a long time art and culture have had to fight for their place, fight for funding and fight to be taken seriously. As a result I think sometimes this means that there is an expectation that fun is frivolous and that the industry won’t be taken seriously if you’re producing work that isn’t serious. It’s also a privileged space to work in, it often seems frivolous to be an artist to people who work in more practical industries, people who don’t have the luxury to choose their career. I think there is space for both.
KultureKid: Do you find it hard to challenge that perception then?….What do you do when something isn’t fun/fulfilling anymore – is this even easy to identify when things aren’t fun anymore?
Vanessa: I think to challenge that perception you need to be confident in what you do as an artist or a producer and be really clear in your own mind about what you’re doing and why. People will always question you or disagree with you. Also, test everything. Test your ideas on peers and audiences and find out what they think, because not everything is going to work! It’s never as easy as you think it is to identify when something isn’t fun/fulfilling anymore. It’s always too far down the track. Definitely still working that one out! So far my answer is when you feel sick with panic about the idea of work then you need to reassess.
Vanessa, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us!