#NWConnect: Interview with Ellie Keel

Over the next few weeks we will be introducing you to our North Wall Creative Associates: 10 individuals and companies with a special relationship to The North Wall, representing the best and brightest of UK theatre.

To kick us off, we spoke to Ellie Keel, Executive Producer of Ellie Keel Productions and Founder and Director of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting.

Could you tell us about your relationship to The North Wall?

In 2017 I co-founded The North Wall’s Alchymy Festival with Lucy Maycock (the venue’s former Artistic Director), Ria Parry and John Hoggarth. We created the festival because there was such a wealth of talent amongst the graduates of The North Wall’s ArtsLab programme and we wanted an opportunity to showcase their work. I’ve produced the festival on an annual basis since then – 2020 would have been our fourth Alchymy Festival.

After working as an independent producer, when and why did you decide to set up Ellie Keel Productions?

I set up EKP in May 2019 because I wanted to have the scope to commission, develop and produce ambitious new plays. We kicked off with a curated season of four new shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was a baptism of fire for me in terms of running a company, but it was a thrilling challenge and ultimately a success.

How do you define the role of a producer?

I think that the job description of a producer changes from project to project, although there are lots of common themes between, for example, producing a new play on the London fringe and producing a festival on behalf of a large organisation.

In many contexts, the role of a producer is to find great shows and strategise the best ways to get them on: the right time, venue, creative team, and so on. A huge part of this is the budget and how the money is raised and allocated. Then the producer’s job is to lead the team, liaise closely and constructively with the venue, facilitate communication between different creative departments, and by doing all this make the production greater than the sum of its parts. The producer also holds the reins of the marketing and PR strategy for a production, although I think it is always useful to have separate marketing and PR managers as it’s a very specific skill.

When it’s done well, producing is a great intellectual challenge. It’s about optimising – surveying the work, the people and the processes of making a play in advance, and thinking how can we make this great? And then, once it’s underway, the thought should be how can we make this better? Nobody else in the creative process has the same oversight as the producer, nor the authority to make big and swift decisions about how things should be altered to make a difference.

Ultimately a producer is an employer, and as with any good employer the producer has a ‘pastoral’ role in terms of looking after people. The team’s wellbeing and welfare is a huge part of the producer’s responsibility.

Can you tell us about The Women’s Prize for Playwriting and your reasons for launching the Prize?

I set up The Women’s Prize for Playwriting because I saw an urgent need for a new organisation to drive change. In 2018, only 26% of new plays produced on national stages in the UK were written by women – and yet everyone knows that women write brilliant plays! I felt that a way to highlight the severity of the problem and galvanise change would be the creation of a new prize, to put a spotlight on women’s writing and commit to producing the winning play on a national platform. I was very fortunate in gradually finding four female-led organisations who have partnered with EKP to make the Prize a reality: Paines Plough, 45North, Samuel French Ltd, and Sonia Friedman Productions. We received 1,170 submissions so there is clearly an appetite for the prize!

What show has brought you joy over the last few years?

I’m very fortunate because the vast majority of the shows I’ve produced have brought me huge joy, in different ways. And really that’s all to do with the people I’ve worked with. I loved making Callisto: a queer epic with Thomas Bailey, Hal Coase and Emma D’Arcy, because it was such a richly rewarding first show to produce in London. Collaborating with Breffni Holahan, Thomas Martin and Margaret Perry to produce Collapsible, from Vault Festival to the Edinburgh Fringe to Dublin and lastly to the Bush, was an incredible artistic challenge. I’m loving working with Jessica Lazar at the moment on Rafaella Marcus’ brilliant play ‘Sap’, which would have premiered in Paines Plough’s Roundabout at the Fringe this year. I also produce Mary Higgins and Ell Potter’s trilogy of HOTTER Project shows and never have less than a brilliant time working with them.

Which artists or pieces of work (any medium) are helping you through lockdown?

A great deal of my time during lockdown has been spent reading the submissions for The Women’s Prize for Playwriting so I haven’t absorbed much else in terms of plays or literature, although I did gobble down Girl, Woman, Other and hankered for the South Bank! I’ve been listening to music while I read – I’m a music nerd so my partner and housemates have endured a lot of Beethoven and Schumann. I love the grand drama of those composers. We recently got a Sky TV package which has a Harry Potter channel showing all 8 films on a loop, so I’ve watched all of them at least twice since March.

In addition to managing The Women’s Prize for Playwriting, EKP is spending lockdown working on several new play commissions (for both stage and audio) in partnership with other theatre companies, including Atticist and 45North. It is great to continue planning for the future in this fallow period.

What advice would you give to early-career producers?

That you will need to be quite tough. As in all careers, you will need your allies. Be nice to people and, as far as you possibly can, do what you said you would do. Focus on clear, unambiguous and empathetic communication. Listen properly and try not to be impatient, even when you are in a hurry. Help out other producers when you can.

If you are freelancing, choose your projects carefully. Read scripts attentively and work out what kind of work you are passionate about, because that will be the work you do best – and then more work will come! Be judicious and sound potential collaborators out thoroughly. Know your way around a contract, a spreadsheet, and a rig plan – in that order. Know what all the different jobs in a theatre are, from the Artistic Director to the Box Office Manager to the season brochure designer. One of the most difficult comments anyone’s made to me in my career so far was a stage manager saying to me ‘I feel you don’t really understand what I do’. If you don’t know, ask somebody to teach you.

Pay people on time and if you can’t, communicate with them about why that is the case, and when the money will be in their account.

Put £50 in the budget to buy a round of coffees during tech and a drink for the team after the first preview. These things are important!

Producing is often a largely self-taught art and while you are practising how to do it you will make ‘mistakes’, but you must remind yourself that they don’t matter as long as you learn from them. Be compassionate with yourself and others and try to cultivate stamina.

What are your hopes for the future?

In the short term, I hope that we will soon be able to go back to being able to safely make shows and go to the theatre.

In the longer term I think that theatre-makers must keep their fingers on the pulse in terms of keeping (or making) theatre relevant and exciting. That goes for its content but also its form, and the way it is consumed by audiences. I think that anybody who works in theatre has a role to play in terms of ensuring that it is accessible to lots of different people – both audiences and makers.

What makes you happy?

Stories, music, collaboration, love. Face-to-face meetings. First nights. A good review. Sold-out shows. Loud and sincere applause. A glass of wine when the work is done.

Find Out More:

www.elliekeelproductions.co.uk
www.womensprizeforplaywriting.co.uk

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