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"I see people stretched to the limits of their resources"

Imogen Gardam, winner of the 2018 Rose Byrne Scholarship for Emerging Female Leader in the Arts, on why she looks forward to "disappearing back into the shadows".

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Category: Conversation
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The Producer: the invisible artist

Date: 27 Feb 2019

I am a producer and at the moment, I am a producer who straddles two worlds.

By day I work for Bell Shakespeare as Artistic Administrator, which includes all manner of sins from casting and creative appointments to contracts and government relations. By night, I make my own work within the Australian independent sector under the banner of Montague Basement, a company I co-founded five years ago.

For Montague Basement, I have produced the 15 productions we have made since then, and covered all sorts of other jobs when needed like stage managing and front of house. In January of this year I had an indie show in season with Montague Basement, an adaptation of the 1922 silent film by FW Murnau, Nosferatu, and spent my days going from negotiating with agents and drawing up contracts at Bell to mixing fake blood and operating lights and sound at night in the converted ballroom that is the Old 505 Theatre in Newtown in Sydney.

For a lot of people making work in the Australian indie sector, it is an audition for professional work. It’s a great stepping stone, a place for proof of concept, and of craft. I’m quite fortunate in that it is not this for me – or at least it doesn’t have to be. It is for the people I work with, and a huge part of what I do is about launching and supporting them, but I am incredibly lucky to have a full time professional job in a major performing arts company – for as long as they’ll have me. So I’m not producing to get work. I’m producing to make work. I’m producing because I believe in the artists I work with, the stories they have to tell.

My model as an independent producer is low-fi in the extreme. Montague Basement is all about tiny budgets and big ideas. Our work has ranged from new Australian plays depicting the contemporary trans experience to a reworked Hamlet; from Sarah Kane’s Cleansed to a devised adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Our work has been pretty eclectic bunch but the unifying features for me have always been the ideas and the artists – the writers, directors, actors, designers – and creating a reasonably low-risk space for them and their ideas to grow. Our goal, production to production, is to break even, create work that we’re proud of, that stimulates our audience and that offers something creatively and hopefully financially to our collaborators, and have enough left over to make the next show.

We can’t compete with mainstage budgets so we don’t try. We don’t have to answer to a board of directors, subscribers, donors – and we try to make the most of that. As an independent producer I’m interested in ideas that transcend their financial restrictions, and ideas that make the most of being independent in nature, and not just independent in lack of funding.

As a result of a string of cuts to funding at a federal and state level in Sydney over the last few years, there is very little money available for – well, the arts more generally but in this context, independent projects.

The most recent round of funding administered by the state body Create NSW in August of last year saw just 2.7 per cent of projects submitted funded, instead of the usual 15-23 per cent. Which means instead of the usual $800,000 to $1 million, only $256,000 was awarded across just six applications. This is the lowest funding round on record. This is in an industry still recovering from the gutting of the federal funding body, the Australia Council, in 2016, when the number of grants to individual artists and projects decreased by 70 per cent from the 2013-14 round.

All this means a lot of artists have to self fund to get their work on stage. In addition to this, there are less and less venues simply available for hire and most independent venues are now programmed by companies who work from a submission process. So the barriers we face in putting stories on stage range from money, access to spaces, having enough work behind you to get programmed in a venue and or the headspace to cultivate a relationship with that venue and then competing for audiences once you are programmed.

When I first applied for the Rose Byrne Scholarship, I said “I want to work towards a resilient, robust arts industry”, and that I thought investing in emerging producers was one of the best ways to get there. For me, resilience and robustness is the ability to take the knocks and keep going. To make work, learn from the experience and still have the energy to do it again. To be able to engage critically because you’re not taking the blows personally. I think producers are critical to this.

In the independent sector, I see an enormous rate of burn-out, turnover and drop off.

I see people stretched to the limits of their resources, exhausting themselves trying to get shows up that run for two weeks and then disappear. It is a small percentage of people who have the energy, resources or sheer bloody mindedness to do it again, so it is a small percentage who get to learn from the experience and improve over time. Like I did. Like I still am. It can feel like a revolving door of companies and artists, work and shows, with very little sustainability and longevity. How can anyone have the chance to learn and develop as an artist if your last show burns you out so badly you can’t do it again? How do you make that jump from indie into a mainstage career if your indie one has completely depleted you?

Producers. Producers are the people with their eye on the big picture.

They are thinking about the next step, the next move, the next application, the next season. They find and create resources. They make space – breathing space, head space, thinking space, performing space. They do the work that allows the artists to do their work. They mediate and mitigate. They develop audiences. They develop artists.

Most importantly for me, producing is an antidote to the privileging of the stories we tell on our stages. Producing is a mechanism that puts artists’ work on stage without an artist having to turn to their own resources. When they do, and only they do, our stages become platforms for only those who can pay. It is a huge privilege to make art in Australia. In both senses of the word. Artmakers are lucky to be able to do it, and generally come from the sort of background that enables them to do it. Producers are different in that they use that privilege to support other artists.

With the funding challenges in the current Australian arts climate, the right to tell your story is being limited more and more to the independently wealthy, to those who can self fund, who can personally take a box office hit, who can carry the risk on their own credit card. I have all the respect in the world for writers, directors and actors who are willing to put their own money on the line for their work, but if the only stories we see are from those who can do this, we as an audience are missing out on theatre that reflects a fuller breadth of our world. Which is the theatre I want to see. And the people who are currently missing from our stages are those with marginalised stories – who struggle to pay their own bills week to week, let alone front the venue deposit for a play.

I don’t believe producers are gatekeepers. I think we open gates, because every producer I know is driven by some sort of artistic radar that means they are drawn to stories they think are worth telling. From a pure market analysis perspective producers tend to invest in stories that aren’t being told if only because they are more likely to appeal to new audiences. But we also don’t take on the mammoth job of getting a play on stage without thinking there’s something to it that’s worth the price of admission, the time out of your day. Producers are a line of defense against the homogenisation of our theatre because we look at the whole picture of what is on offer to audiences, and what’s missing – or who. We ask uncomfortable questions: like, who cares? We invest in other people’s stories, support them, find resources for them, nurture them into being.

Producing as a practice is also an antidote to the privilege of theatre, in that you can learn how to do it without undertaking prohibitively expensive study.

I was never formally trained in producing. Most producers I know and have spoken to also never formally trained. We learned by doing. If we studied, it was something ancillary or parallel to our producing practice. Producing degrees or training are just starting to be offered in Australian drama and technical schools. If this provides another pathway into producing or the arts for more people, fantastic.

For me however, one of the strengths of producing is its independence from tertiary monopolies, and the economic gatekeeping this does. In the Australian arts industry’s conversation around diversity, we are finally starting to recognise the role played by the training offered to actors, directors, designers and more in creating a barrier to those who cannot afford specialised postgraduate study.

A masters of directing at NIDA involves a fee of over $30,000 and long hours that preclude almost any other work to support yourself independently, but it also renders you ineligible for government support because that type of postgraduate study is not considered critical enough. And yet, most people in our industry acknowledge that in order to make headway as an actor, director, designer and more, you have to rely on the networks, pathways and stamp of validation provided by specialised postgrad. Once again, we are limiting the stories we tell to the people who can carry the cost – not even in this case the cost of staging the work, but the cost of an institution telling you that you can.

Producers are one of the solutions to both of these woes – other than more funding for the arts and reversing the commercialisation of tertiary study. Producing opens up the opportunities to make work – both in terms of the space producers make for artists, and the space for people within producing itself that doesn’t rely on a degree.

This is to say that: This is the imperative behind investing in producers.

I told Rose that I wanted to use the scholarship to investigate producing in new contexts and industries. I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to see what I could learn about producing by talking to people doing it in cities, industries and languages completely different to my own. And how I could use that to make my own work as a producer more sustainable.

As someone who came up through the Australian arts industry, and who hopes to keep working there, I was aware that my experience and understanding of what I do was entirely based in that context – which is idiosyncratic to say the least. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I just knew that I would be a better producer if my experience wasn’t limited to one city, one industry. And better producers have a ripple effect in the industry, because they create better systems for the artists they work with. I wanted to become a better producer.

Over the last year I met with producers in Sydney, Melbourne, London, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles and New York. So far I’ve met with 47 people. I’ve met with theatre producers, opera producers, musical producers, film producers, television producers. I met commercial producers, independent producers, subsidised producers. I’ve met people my own age and people twice my age, and one particularly fabulous producer well over three times my age.

I wanted to meet these people because they all work in very different parts of the industry. So my time with them tended to cover a couple of common points – how they got into producing, what it was about producing that appealed to them and kept them going, and how to role and the industry had changed over their time doing it. And then it went in totally different directions, because I am very curious and I want to understand how things work.

I asked the associate artistic producer at the Schaubuhne in Berlin about the day to day running of an ensemble model and how to manage logistical and artistic challenges this posed. I talked to the director general of the Comedie-Francaise in Paris about how you program an organisation formed in 1680.

I talked to the producer at the Globe about how you balance its identity as theatre with its identify as tourist site.

I talked to fellow Australian independent producers at my level about the resources they found most useful starting out and how to share those resources.

I talked to established producers many levels above me about how they choose projects and what drives their artistic radar.

I talked to film producers for whom the smallest budget with which they work is a cool $US1.25 million. I’ve talked to television producers about how they reach audiences in the new saturated streaming environment.

I talked to Broadway, off-Broadway and off off-Broadway producers in New York who are all dealing with the same problem, a shortage of spaces, on completely different scales.

I wanted to understand how producing changed from context to context, but also what stayed the same – to drill down to the core tenets of what I do and what my idols do. The common thread was always the bringing together of audience and artist around story. Which is great, because that’s the part that I love.

If this is what remains common, it means I have just as much to learn from a studio executive at Universal as I do from an emerging independent producer in Sydney. And I did.

One of the biggest lessons for me from this process has been about generosity. 

I have been struck, throughout this process, by the generosity of my industry, my elders, and my peers. This generosity comes into even sharper focus in the context of an ever more competitive arts climate. Competition for funding, for resources, for space, for audiences. Within the bubble of my independent producing, I have had to work hard not to see art making as a zero sum game – if you got that space, it means that I didn’t. If I was programmed, it means that you weren’t. It’s an incredibly unproductive way to make and to see art, but structurally it can feel that there’s never enough to go around. And quite often that’s because there isn’t. It can feel like your peers are your competitors. And more often than not they are. In the strictest sense of venues and funding, there is a finite amount and I often feel that we are fighting over crumbs.

But this scholarship has taught me that where those resources are limited, the experience and wisdom and insight of my peers and my elders are just as valuable, and by virtue of their generosity they are abundant. I have had an incredible response rate to cold contacting some very powerful, experienced and important people. I have had the opportunity to sit down with the producers that I looked up to and admired from afar and pick their brains.

It has made me a little more hopeful. Generosity is a resource that is available outside funding bodies, programming cycles, venue submissions. It has been easy to lose sight of it because it’s less tangible than them, but it is a framework for producing that puts people back at the centre of the equation – a non-finite wealth that alleviates the resource squeeze a little. It sounds quite naïve but if I feel that I am working in a zero-sum game that constantly pits me against my peers, generosity is the key to start changing that structure, to destabilise that competition. I am determined to replicate it in my own practice and to give as much as I have received over this process. This is my way of saying that I am now available for cold contacting, chats about producing, sharing what I have learned.

And speaking of generosity: I want to acknowledge the generosity of the Australian Theatre for Young People and Rose Byrne. This scholarship is an incredible statement of belief in a new generation of female artists and art leaders. It has been a game changer for me and I will continue to reap its benefits and pursue its opportunities for a long time to come. Rose has set an example that I can only hope to live up to.

I also want to acknowledge the generosity of Gill Perkins and Peter Evans at Bell Shakespeare, my long suffering employers, who have supported and encouraged me throughout this scholarship. There is never a good time to take off work in the arts and go gallivanting overseas pestering industry stalwarts about their careers and work, but they made the space for me to do that and they put up with the disruptions it caused. I feel deeply lucky every day I go to work and get to ask them just as many annoying questions.

As this scholarship is for an emerging female arts leader, which is a slightly terrifying epithet to live up to, it has also taught me that I get to choose the sort of leader I would like to be.

At one point I was lucky enough to have back-to-back meetings with two idols of mine, two very established female producers.

One came up through the boys’ club, through an industry dominated by men. We sat in her cozy office while she regaled me with stories and I got to listen to her taking calls and calling some very powerful people “darling”. Make no mistake, she got shit done, but she got it done her way.

I then met the producer who broke through that boys’ club. This is a woman who many female producers identified to me as the one who changed the game for them, cleared the way, made rooms full of men a little easier to walk into. She was incredibly efficient, business-like and professional. The first thing she said me when we met was that she hoped I knew what I wanted to get out of my time with her because not many people got the opportunity. I have never been more intimidated in my life.

There was no question that she got shit done. I have huge professional crushes on both of these women. To spend time with them taught me that there is no one way to work or to be as a producer, a revelation that felt like a genuine weight off my chest – particularly for a female producer, where we so often deal with gendered assumptions about how we should and should not manage people. These women taught me that I get to choose my own path, that I can aspire to my own style of leadership – one that makes space for good people to do good work, is based on trust and generosity and that allows for vulnerability, and that gets shit done. To walk away from those meetings and realise I didn’t have to subscribe to one way of being was genuinely liberating.

I am also reaching a cross road in my own career which is epitomised in the two worlds I straddle.

I work in a major performing arts company and I produce my own work independently. I could go on to work as a general manager or executive director, to run an organisation. I could go on to become a full-time producer and set up on my own. I am equally drawn down both of these roads. I thrive in a company dynamic and I love the organisation that I currently work for and the idea of running a similar organisation myself one day is very appealing. I also love making my own work and the relationship and proximity I have with it.

In my research I’ve talked to a lot of producers who also found themselves at this cross road. People who turned down general manager positions because they didn’t want to lose their connection to the work they make. People who felt that they would make the most impact within an organisation and wanted to grapple with the new challenges that brought them. I have learned two things about this that have changed the way I see my own future this year. I’ve learned that, for me, it’s really important to stay close and connected to the art. And I’ve learned that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Because of the diversity of people I’ve been able to meet through this scholarship, I’ve seen the ways people have been able to marry these two forces in their work. I talked to producers who have created huge commercial companies around what they do and still have control over their work. I’ve talked to executive directors who have created company cultures and organisational structures where they haven’t lost that connection to the rehearsal room, that investment in dramaturgical conversations. I am inspired to find my own way through this, rather than accept the idea that it has to be one or the other – that one path is safer that the other, or more valid artistically.

It seems strangely obvious but if we in the arts don’t have the imagination to conceive of ways of working outside of assumed structures and perceived oppositional binaries, that bring together art and business in ways that are satisfying for all involved, then who on earth can?

It feels strange to be reflecting on this scholarship already. I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the opportunities it affords. I have a list as long as my arm of people I still want to talk to and every conversation opens up another: new people to meet, new brains to pick, new questions to ask. This scholarship has been an incredible exercise in igniting my mind and in opening up the way I think about what I want to do and how it is already being done – and how it could be done in a new way.

Producing can be an invisible art: when it is done well, you barely notice it at all. I’m looking forward to disappearing back into the shadows once the formal part of this scholarship concludes. But I’m not quite done asking questions yet.

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