Edinburgh Fringe People

The Producer: James Seabright

Published on Tuesday 31 July 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time, we are talking to producer James Seabright.

James has brought over 200 shows to the Fringe across two decades and is involved in ten shows appearing at the Festival just this year. Having launched his career as an independent producer in Edinburgh, he has since produced and general managed shows in London, across the UK, and beyond, while continuing to produce at the Fringe.

Along the way he has worked with the likes of Hardeep Singh Kohl, David Benson, Linda Marlow, Sarah-Louise Young, Simon Callow, the Reduced Shakespeare Company and the ‘Potted Potter’ shows. We spoke to James about what exactly a producer does and to get his tips for those producing at the Festival for the first time.

TW: When did you first produce shows at the Edinburgh Fringe?
JS: My first taste of Edinburgh producing was back in 1999 when I was still at university. I guess that makes this my twentieth Fringe overall! Two years later, I’d graduated and set up my own company, which brought its first show – an adaptation of ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’ – to the Fringe. For reasons that seemed sensible at the time, we played two different venues. This confused The Scotsman who reviewed the show in each venue. We got five stars – in total.

TW: What impact did that have on your career as a theatre producer?
JS: That first Edinburgh show as an independent producer in 2001 helped to solidify my determination to make a go of producing as a career rather than the extra-curricular hobby it had been at university. In many ways I’ve never looked back since, and here I am in my eighteenth year of professional producing in Edinburgh. Although I no longer design shows specifically to fit in a Fiat Cinquecento!

TW: What exactly does the producer of a Fringe show do?
JS: The role varies hugely depending on the show. Sometimes the producer is the creative force behind a production, other times they purely handle the business side of things, but more often than not the shows I work on sit somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

TW: How does producing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe compare to producing shows elsewhere?
JS: Given the fierce competition for audiences, there is an inevitably greater focus on marketing and PR for producers at the Fringe than when you’re on tour and can literally be the only show in town. Over the years I have been engaged as a consultant by various other producers specifically for my Edinburgh knowledge, because the Fringe does have its own specific way of doing things that seems quiet alien, even to incredibly experienced producers.

TW: How do you decide which shows to work on?
JS: My first and last rule, in Edinburgh and elsewhere, is that I only produce shows that I love. The hard work involved for all concerned just isn’t worth it if you don’t personally believe in the work on stage. Aside from that cardinal rule, the shows I work on are a mix of pieces that I have commissioned from scratch, productions which I have been asked to get involved with, and pieces which I have seen in their original version and then come on board to develop and grow as more commercial concerns.

TW: There is a lot of talk about how much money performers and producers lose at the Edinburgh Fringe. Is it all about building profile and showcasing work or can you actually make money staging shows at the Festival?
JS: Without wanting to tempt fate, all the Edinburgh shows I produced last year made money. Not all broke even at the Fringe itself, but as the purpose of launching a show in Edinburgh is to build its profile for a future life, we don’t generally expect new pieces to recover their costs in August.

Producers and artists have all sorts of different reasons for bringing work to Edinburgh, and I think the important thing for everyone is to understand the best and worst-case scenarios and to be at peace with the possibility that either could transpire. If you do lose all the money, would it still be worth doing? If the answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t come in the first place.

I think that there are probably too many cases of people bringing shows because they feel they should. There was one year recently where it only made sense for me to bring up a couple of shows and there was another Fringe when I was involved with producing 22 different productions. And I’ve done pretty much everything in between!

TW: How has the Fringe changed since you’ve been presenting shows here?
JS: The scale of it has ballooned: there are now four times as many shows as when I was starting out. Fortunately, ticket sales have followed suit, so it still makes sense to come to Edinburgh in August. The biggest challenge for everyone is the spiralling costs of the associated expenses of being at the Fringe.

As recently highlighted by the Fringe Society CEO, the cost of accommodation is the single most challenging piece of the jigsaw. We’re really lucky to have developed a loyal network of landlords who we rent from directly each year at a reasonable price, circumventing the model of booking through agencies that inevitably mark-up rent with their commission.

Still, it is great to hear that the Fringe Society is determined to address this in recognition of the huge benefits that artists bring to Edinburgh when they pitch up every year.

TW: What advice would you have for first time Fringe producers?
JS: I think it is impossible to understand how the Fringe works unless you’ve experienced it first-hand. I’d advise complete newcomers to just spend their first Fringe observing rather than producing. You’ll learn so much that way and be much better placed to give your first production its best possible chance. And the other key thing to remember is to ask lots of questions. If you don’t know the answer to something, then find someone who does and ask them. The Fringe is a hugely supportive community and, whilst it is also competitive, it is also cooperative in spirit.

TW: You mentioned the spiralling costs. Do you have any top tips for keeping costs down?
JS: Especially when you work on theatre shows, it’s important to be realistic about what is possible in terms of production values at the Fringe. One of my early shows had a ridiculously cumbersome set, to the extent that I spent all of the contingency budget on gifts for the poor venue crew who had to carry it upstairs and back down again every day for a month. Audiences and critics alike understand the practicalities of the Fringe model, and if you have a good show on your hands you can always build the scale of its design as you move forward to the next stage of its development.

TW: How do you decide which venues to work with and how flexible are venues on terms?
JS: When I was starting out, the Pleasance were hugely supportive of my shows, and offered a deal that encouraged me to bring as many of my shows their way as I could in my first decade as a producer. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the Pleasance for that, and particularly to its founder Christopher Richardson for having faith in me when I was starting out.

When I discovered Dan and Jeff’s brilliant ‘Potted Potter’ at the Fringe back in 2006, my first step was to take it to the Pleasance’s London venue to develop the show. That made it all the better by the time it got back to Edinburgh the following year.

I still take lots of shows to Pleasance and I work regularly with Gilded Balloon – who have also co-produced with us – everything from Hardeep Singh Kohli to the Reduced Shakespeare Company – as well as hosting some of our productions on a standard rental basis.

My most recent venue love-in has been with EICC, who were crazy enough to open up a subterranean tunnel beneath their venue for our production of ‘Trainspotting’ last year, and for the first time in my Fringe career we turned an empty space into a fully functioning performance space.

It’s great to be back at EICC again with that show, and also with a unique new twist on David Benson and Jack Lane’s popular ‘Dad’s Army Radio Hour’ production, which this year is being staged in a bespoke 40s-style marquee where audiences can enjoy lunch, tea or dinner as well as seeing a pair of classic episodes recreated by two actors playing 25 characters between them!

As to the question of how flexible venues are on terms, the answer always depends on the show, and how excited the venue are about being the one that hosts it. And as the case of ‘Trainspotting’ has shown, if the right venue doesn’t exist for a show, then there’s always the option to build your own.

TW: With so many shows on offer at the Festival, what can you do to make sure your show stands out?
JS: It is vital to have a unique quality or ‘hook’ to a show which will help to encourage audiences to come your way. Sometimes it can be hard to understand how popular a given idea might be, but I always think that staging the show in the smallest venue you can afford to is the best approach whilst you work this out.

At the Fringe, with so many shows to choose from, an eye-catching title is essential. Whilst a strong image and marketing design is also important, that can’t counteract a weak title. If in doubt, ask around amongst fellow performers, producers and audience members before you commit to a title.

TW: Given the Fringe is at least part about building profile and showcasing work, who are the key influencers and decision makers a producer should be trying to reach? How do they reach them?
JS: The Fringe Office run a brilliant arts industry service which is there to help artists and industry to liaise with each other: think of it like a high-end dating service for shows. It’s really worth going to have a chat with them so your show is on their radar and they can give some advice on who you might want to invite.

With so many things to see, it is often hard to get the right industry people into your show early on: it is often better to wait until you have some good reviews behind you, which will reassure people that their time will not be wasted if they do come to your show. Of course, you should also be realistic about where to pitch your show: is someone booking a 1000-seat theatre really going to be interested in a show playing a studio in Edinburgh?

TW: What have been your personal Edinburgh Festival highs and lows?
JS: The lows stick out in the memory most readily for some reason! My second year of producing professionally was the toughest I’ve ever had: one of my shows just wasn’t good enough and I had to cancel quite a few performances because we’d sold literally no tickets. The other show that year was really great but also struggled to find an audience.

These things are sent to try us and I was back the following year having learnt many lessons. Some of the creative relationships that were born out of those difficult shows have been important to me ever since, so it is always worth looking to the positive when things aren’t going quite to plan.

As for the highs, well there’s nothing better than having a hit on your hands! So much becomes possible for the future of a show when it wows Edinburgh. As a producer it is a vindication of all the risk, stress and preparation. One recent example would be ‘Trumpageddon’, which I saw in 2016 having met its creator and star Simon Jay at a Fringe arts industry networking event. He was playing a 30-seat hotel conference room then.

Last year he sold out a room five times the size at Gilded Balloon, adding lots of extra shows too. He’s returning this year with an updated version of ‘Trumpageddon’ and a new show about the Twitter account @johnlewis, which I am producing as part of the Free Festival. Who knows how it will go, but that’s the point isn’t it?

Without taking risks on ideas that sound totally crazy, we wouldn’t be making any progress. And for me, the Fringe is all about celebrating new ideas and finding audiences for them. And that’s why I keep coming back. I’ve brought over 200 shows to the Fringe across two decades and only look forward to increasing that tally in the years to come.

You can find out more about the shows James is presented at this year’s festival here.

LINKS: seabright.org