COHORT REPORT: The Role of the Producer

Pictured: Vichet Chum, Amanda Collins, Alexis Bronkovic, Katie Grindeland, and Victorida Grace. Photo by Meghan Moore.

In this article we look at the role of the producer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT), followed by a Q&A with Peter Crewe, the Producer at MRT.

Since Sean Daniels became Artistic Director at MRT playbills have listed a “Producer” on the credits page and under “Who’s Who”. One obvious question is: Why is a producer needed now under Sean Daniels but wasn’t needed under Charles Towers? Another is: What does the Producer do?

Clearly, the comedy The Producers can’t be used as a reference for the role of Producer at MRT –– it’s about Broadway, not regional theater after all. So I checked some books and online. That was little help because the role of producer in different organizations is pretty varied. Apparently at one theater, even the artistic director and producer had different ideas about the responsibilities of the producer… So I asked Sean Daniels (Artistic Director), Bonnie Butkas (Executive Director), and Peter Crewe (Producer) how things work at MRT.

For the answer to the first question, it turns out that there was a producer under Charles Towers. Just not as a dedicated role. Another page in the MRT playbill lists the MRT Staff –– finding that page is a little like playing “Where’s Waldo”. Under Charles Towers, the “Director of Production” performed the roles of Producer and Production Manager. Under Sean Daniels, the roles of Producer and Production Manager are separated because, as Sean says, “we’re doing more now.” (We’ll look at what the Production Manager, Lee Viliesis, does some other time). Bonnie Butkas notes MRT is the first theater where she’s worked that has a full-time producer. She finds it helpful to have the work consolidated in this way.

For the answer to the second question, wherever you see the words “by special arrangement” or “under agreements between” or “courtesy of” or “used with permission” or something similar on the credits page of the MRT playbill, the producer was at work. But there’s more…

The life of single play at MRT, from selection to closing, is 2 or more years. There are seven plays at MRT per season, and under Sean Daniels, several workshops. The producer is involved in each and every production almost from the beginning, starting during play selection. The producer is also involved in workshops for new plays, which include staged readings. Many of these at the same time. As a result, Peter Crewe ends up being pretty much ubiquitous.

The “Nuts & Bolts”:
• Budgets (season, individual productions, workshops)
• Auditions and interviews
• Licenses and contracts (see also: budgets and auditions/interviews)
• Coordinating involvement in workshops (Middlesex Community College, UMASS Lowell)
• Communication (Stage Manager, House Manager, Company Manager & Artistic Administrator, production staff, Artistic Director, Executive Director, artists)
• Calendar and scheduling
• Facilitating cost-effective creative solutions (see also: everything above)

The Producer must excel at managing a budget and being creative: forecasting costs, finding savings, and handling shortfalls. Shortfalls can be due to additional work calls or decreased revenues. (Did you know by buying artwork displayed in the MRT lobby, you help the fund the plays?) Challenges for the producer so far this season: Native Gardens –– replacement actor needed two weeks before rehearsals; Murder for Two –– turntable for piano; and Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley –– elaborate scenic design.

Regarding the last, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is a large production (eight actors) with a large (fills the stage area) and elaborate (custom text wallpaper) set. The scenic design exceeded the production budget. Rather than scale back the design (because it’s amazing), Peter brought in additional support. Of which Bonnie Butkas said, “The Producer doesn’t normally do fundraising at MRT. We do really appreciate that Peter did that.” (Also, Peter has been very kind facilitating access for this MRT Cohort, and that is also very much appreciated).
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Q&A with Peter Crewe (PC), the Producer at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

Peter Crewe has been on the full-time staff at MRT since 2008, when Charles Towers was the Artistic Director. Peter first worked at MRT as a “Stage/Company Management Intern” in 2004. He earned his BFA in Stage Management from Salem State College that same year and went on to work at other theaters in the area. In 2008, he returned to MRT as the Company Manager, handling negotiations and contracts. He was also the Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) for every production, calling cues after opening night. Under Charles Towers, stage managers were part of the MRT staff. The ASM called cues during the run so the Production Stage Manager could begin work on the next play in repertory. Under Sean Daniels, Peter transitioned into the role of Producer.

Q: When Sean Daniels first became Artistic Director at MRT, he brought in Emily Ruddock as “Artistic Producer” and you became “Producer & Director of Company Management”. Can you describe your transition to becoming the only Producer on staff at MRT in terms of the changes in your responsibilities?

PC: This meant transitioning from Producing 3-4 shows per season, which had been the case the past two seasons, to producing all seven. As part of this transition we were able to hire one of my former apprentices, Alexis Garcia, as MRT’s new Company Manager. Bringing Alexis onboard meant less of my time had to be spent on the day-to-day management of the artistic company and allowed me to focus more on things like season planning, budgeting, working with our collegiate partners on play development.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of producing a play at MRT?

PC: MRT has built up a reputation over the years for our exceptional production values and as a place where artists from across the country want to come work. Maintaining that reputation, while we also try to expand the scope of our endeavors with our limited resources, is certainly the most challenging aspect for me.

Q: What has been your favorite play to produce so far and why?

PC: I would say the show I am most proud of producing is KNYUM, producing world premieres is always interesting but producing someone’s first premiere is a privilege.

[Ed.: KNYUM was written and performed by Vichet Chum, who plays Lord Arthur de Bourgh in the current production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Vichet Chum is also a member of the MRT Patriot Program.]

Q: What do you like most about the job of producer?

PC: Primarily that there are constantly new challenges and supporting an incredibly talented production team.

Q: Is there a creative solution that you found particularly interesting or gratifying?

PC: During my first season as a Producer for MRT, I was tasked with producing Tinker to Evers to Chance and Home of Brave. I suggested a Scenic Designer who had worked with MRT before to design both shows. In so doing he was able to recycle parts of one set into the next, bringing [down] the cost and making what otherwise might not have been achievable, affordable.

[Ed.: The Scenic Designer for Tinkers to Evers to Chance and Home of the Brave was Randal Parsons. He had previously designed Year Zero, Talley’s Folly, God of Carnage, and Half ’n Half ’n Half at MRT.]

Q: Sean Daniels has stated a goal for MRT to be a premiere location for new play production. What does that entail for you as the producer?

PC: For me that means building strong relationships with our collegiate partners as they have proven vital in expanding our play development efforts; as well as coming up with creative solutions to maximize our abilities to tackle multiple projects simultaneously.

[Ed.: MRT partners with UMASS Lowell and Middlesex Community College. New play workshops and staged readings are conducted in conjunction with those schools.]

Q: What are “Honorary Producers” at MRT and how do they interact with you?

PC: Our Honorary Producers are a fantastic group of theatre lovers who contribute generously to MRT. In appreciation of their support, Honorary Producers get exclusive behind the scenes access to productions as they develop and while they are in production. I serve as one of the primary liaisons between the Honorary Producers and production staff and visiting artists.

[Ed.: Peter also serves as one of the primary liaisons for the MRT Cohorts (thank you, Peter!)]

 

–Cynthia McLain, Cohort

 

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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs November 28 – December 23

mrt.org/missbennet

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